We are at an exciting juncture in the classification of literature. We have already created the X-axis of this mapping zone, which is genre. Every piece of writing produced now has to fall within a specific genre: literary fiction, romance, mystery, drama, thriller, science fiction, etc. The Y-axis of this zone is the temporal space of the work: medieval, Victorian, post-colonial, contemporary (and its multitudinous divisions).
But could the assumption that there are only two axes on which a piece of literature can be mapped be too presumptuous, even if it is a result of the working of the publishing industry? In fact, these divisions may be too rigid, and set too much in hindsight, to be useful for a reader looking for fiction written in and about the present world. Therefore, we now need a Z-axis. And here is a candidate for it: the generation that consumes a particular book.
Now, more than ever, we lean on generational labels to define our identity, and to an extent, our literature: baby boomers, millennials, Gen Z. Each category has its own set of stereotypes and misconceptions, but the group that (currently) gets the most notoriety is the millennials. The stereotype is straightforward: The typical millennial has denounced everything that the previous generations valued, such as long-term capital (homes, diamonds), and is instead focused on temporary experiences that seemingly amount to little in the long run.
Naturally, writers like Bret Easton Ellis diss them for not being readers—even if research says just the opposite. Still, as the stereotype goes, millennials are interested neither in cultural statements like in The Great Gatsby, nor in the social commentary of novels like Animal Farm. They are, however, interested in 1984.
This stems from a desire to read what is temporarily “relatable” – which is why the surveillance world of 1984 makes the novel so attractive to the millennial. Animal Farm loses its audience in this generation for the same reason; nobody mass-consuming fictional allegories for pleasure is in the midst of a revolution, and there is currently no international relations-related conflict comparable to the Cold War.
Still, this is literature written decades ago. What does the millennial’s present-day fiction look like? Is millennial literature actually literature that’s been written by a millennial, or for a millennial audience, or both? What does it imply for cross-generational temporality? Most importantly (at least for future literary critics), what is the Great Millennial Novel about? Which brave author will step forth and release a novel that will define and immortalise millennial culture and identity for future literature majors to dissect and analyse?
Perhaps the emergence of such a novel is expecting too much from the generation, which, after all, runs across a broad spectrum. There cannot really be one particular book to define a generation that spans nearly two decades. Nor can there be one particular book to symbolise a globe-girding generation, with individual experiences varying so vastly that it feels almost inaccurate to give them all the same label.
Quite possibly the least understood flavour of the millennial is today’s emerging young adult, aged between 18 and 23, born around the turn of the millennium. Not quite old enough to have experienced the direct impact of the 2008 recession, but not young enough to have been born with technology in their little baby fists.
They occupy a strange liminal space, being neither young adults nor mature ones. If there were such a generational label such as “adults-in-training”, it would be most apt for this group. This is the demographic that is currently in college or has just recently graduated – and is, moreover, maturing during some sort of a turning point in the collective identity of their country, which has most likely seen a major sociopolitical shift in the past few years.
What does this millennial like to read? They read for pleasure, as a contrast to the rigours of their existence, but also for escape to worlds where they can imagine a life that leaves them less weary than in the real world. Does meeting this need require a new genre of literature to be created? Will we need another Mary Shelley to invent something not experienced so far?
Why Rupi Kaur matters
The most accessible reference points for such a literature would be the works of, among others, Rupi Kaur and Sally Rooney. To be sure, they themselves do not belong to this group of “adults-in-training,” but that doesn’t disqualify their writing. But what is the zeitgeist that they capture that makes them so attractive to read? After all, it isn’t as though people at college yearn to read books about other people at college, written by people at college.
Actually, that’s not the need that this fiction meets. In a world powered by social media, looking for people you can understand and empathise with is not a task so extraordinarily tricky that it can only be carried out with fictional characters. No, the philosophical hunger that it fulfils is that of desire; the desire to express the banalities of everyday life.
This is why Rupi Kaur is successful. Regardless of the objective quality of her writing, what matters is what she writes about. Her poetry is the expression of shared emotions and problems. She doesn’t write long epics about heroes and gods and mythical creatures; she doesn’t write about hell and heaven and her journey through purgatory; she doesn’t write about great wars.
No, Rupi Kaur writes about modern personal femininity; about her immigrant background; about individualistic emotions and conflicts. These aren’t things that will matter to the world decades from now, but these are things that matter to her readers now, in this very moment, suspended in this very temporal dimension.
In search of the mundane
It’s also the reason short stories and graphic novels seem to be gaining momentum among millennial readers. Persepolis is a prime example – even though it follows a protagonist in the middle of the Iranian Revolution, at its core it embodies the experience of a present-day millennial in the midst of regressive social change. For readers in Egypt, or Turkey, or Palestine, Marji is their salvation, their much-needed escape.
This is essential to understanding literature written for “adults-in-training” – they aren’t looking to transcend the expectations that the present places on their generation. Instead, they’re looking to find answers relating to their temporary, personal identities, with full cognisance of the fleetingness of that sentiment. This kind of literature caters to a desire from something they cannot have; not in a theatrical way, but rather, in the most mundane manner.
This is why Sally Rooney’s novels are so successful. The desire they fulfil vicariously is the one for regular, ordinary experiences set against a non-stressful backdrop. It’s why books like Emergency Contact by Mary Choi do so well – everything they explore is premised around basic things like romance, companionship, genuine emotional connection. That’s what this generation desires most but cannot have, either because they’re too busy trying to be successful and therefore not allowing themselves this human experience, or because they feel so restricted by the expectation of stoicism that they compartmentalise and shut themselves away from the part of the brain that craves raw emotions.
Far from mature narcissism
What makes this problem worse is the imposition of “seriousness” on fiction. The best novels aren’t allowed to be light-hearted stories of romance and friendship, because that isn’t what we expect good literature to be. Good literature is meant to make you feel what you don’t normally experience, not what you actively suppress.
Therefore, for generations older than these “adults-in-training,” the best literature is that which makes them feel like they matter; as though their lives are precious to the entire delicate balance of the world. From here stems the obsession with connecting small narratives to more significant, worldly problems. It’s a different sort of narcissism where one wants to feel as though their minor issues are contributing to a more substantial, common problem. The collective conscious is well and alive for these generations.
For “adults-in-training,” however, it is the complete opposite. What they want is to feel a deep, personal attachment, and that’s it. The existential dread of belonging to the world at large is their reality – their escape is this purely selfish desire to only care about their personal world for a while. “Good” literature thus holds no value for them – they don’t care about how the books they read can change the world. All they want is for the books they read to affect the way they look at their personal lives.
So, to be able to create a literary space for this generation, it’s time to finally allow for the selfish pursuit of emotional literature – the kind that makes you feel because you see yourself in it so vividly, not because you feel as though you should. But today’s “adults-in-training” will be replaced by a new set tomorrow, and the world will change too by then. So, the literature for this generation will necessarily be ever-changing. It is necessary now to acknowledge the need for literature written purely for the reader’s self-satisfaction, and, moreover, to consider it legitimate.