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Literary Brat Pack--Bright Lights, Big Advances

September 13, 1987|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Not since the '50s with the likes of Norman Mailer, James Jones, William Styron, John Updike and Philip Roth has a generation of first novelists garnered so much attention.

Vanity Fair calls them "the young and the wasted." Newsweek refers to them as the "divine decadents." They're a new wave of writers soaring to stardom in the '80s at startlingly young ages with innovative writing styles and hip subject matter.

But what really sets this new breed apart is their refusal to believe in the old romantic notions about the need for young authors to struggle. Instead, they are demanding to be published, promoted and paid well almost from the start of their careers, thereby changing the cherished rules of the writing game in distinctive and disturbing ways.

'All Different Writers'

Known informally as the Literary Brat Pack, the group stars Jay McInerney ("Bright Lights, Big City"), Bret Easton Ellis ("Less Than Zero"), David Leavitt ("Family Dancing") and Tama Janowitz ("Slaves of New York").

"They're all very different writers," points out Adam Moss, deputy editor at Esquire. "The only thing they have in common is they all had the good fortune to have written first books that caught the public imagination at a time when publishers and media were very eager to give young people a chance."

What they also have in common is that their second books all bombed, at least in the eyes of the critics.

This month, the release of Ellis' second novel, "The Rules of Attraction," and Janowitz' "A Cannibal in Manhattan" were met with more jeers than cheers. Reviews were decidedly mixed, even insultingly negative in some instances, like Vanity Fair, which complained "the stream of consciousness in these novels snakes along the gutters, strictly urine." (Janowitz actually has written three books, but no one seems to count her first novel, the dud "American Dad.")

The fact that McInerney's and Leavitt's second books--"Ransom" and "The Lost Language of Cranes," respectively--met with a similar fate points up the difficulty of the "second-book syndrome" in which writers who produce best-selling first books never fulfill the critics' expectations with their second efforts.

Gary Fisketjon, editorial director at Atlantic Monthly Press and McInerney's editor, sees it this way: "It's all sour grapes. Jay could have written the St. James Bible and people would have panned it."

Still, despite their glaring lack of critical acclaim, Leavitt's and McInerney's second books sold extremely well. And expectations are high that Ellis' and Janowitz' newest novels may fare even better.

Current Brat Pack thinking seems to be that bad reviews actually help sales. "If I get people really screaming about the book," says Janowitz, "it's more to my advantage than a boring review saying, 'Oh, this is just lovely.' That would make me want to puke. So my bottom line is I don't care what people say. I just want them to buy the book."

Bona-Fide Celebrities

The Literary Brat Pack share other similarities as well. They all live in New York and hang out, sometimes even together, at the same nightspots like Nell's. They get invited to the hottest parties and placed on the most pompous literary panels. They write slim volumes or short stories, the perfect medium for an MTV-nurtured generation with a short attention span. They sell their books to Hollywood in lucrative option deals. They pontificate about life, love and writing for trend-tracking magazines like Esquire, Rolling Stone and Interview. They get offers to hawk Scotch and other products for advertisers.

In short, they are in demand, transformed from mere writers to bona-fide celebrities.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the publishing industry itself. According to editors at several major houses based here, young writers--under 30 years old and sometimes under 20--are now getting agents and publishers with an ease never before seen and at the same time approaching the whole business with a savvy way beyond their years.

"They understand that success can be had through sheer manipulation," marvels one editor at Alfred A. Knopf. "In other words, you get yourself a powerful agent, get your publisher to throw a lot of promotion money behind your book and get Interview magazine to make-up your face, style your hair and photograph you."

Banking on these writers' ability to get their peers into the bookstores and expecting to reap large rewards, many publishers are handing out large advances to young authors who are eager to turn their manuscripts into gold. One editor claims "there's a preoccupation with making money among this new generation of writers. They all approach writing in some ways like baby stockbrokers."

But some see this outbreak of avarice as long overdue. "Why should writers be held to a different standard in terms of wanting to make money than any other profession in America?" asks Moss. "Why should they starve?

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