Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | July 2018 | 11 minutes (2,918 words)
The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.
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I spent most of the ‘90s smoking and being a poseur, but in between packs of Gauloises I also read a lot, so long as it wasn’t the books that my teachers and professors assigned. My literature of choice was all about the same thing: cool contemporary adults wigging out about their relationships, a genre that would soon fall under the terms “chick lit” (see: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, 1996) and its somewhat lesser-known counterpart, “dick lit” (see: Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, 1995).
Bridget Jones was acid-tongued but also prone to disastrous pratfalls, just like me! And High Fidelity’s Rob Fleming was unambitious and antisocial, just like me! I loved these protagonists so much, in fact, that when I stood in front of a chagrined Hornby at a signing in New York and thrust out my dog-eared copy of his book, I proclaimed that it had “helped me through some very difficult times,” and then I smoked a cigarette indoors, and everyone seemed pleased, especially me. In revisiting these tomes of my youth as an aging poseur, I’ve had both a not-insubstantial craving for nicotine and a series of horrifying revelations. Namely, these books — despite their cool Gen-X setting, cool Gen-X props (cigarettes), and cool Gen-X openness about failure — are some inveterate Baby Boomer bullshit.
Reader, if you think I’m aiming to incite a Quarrel of the Ancients and the Even More Ancients, you are correct. These cool Gen-X novels, written by people born in 1958 (Fielding) and 1957 (Hornby), are basically different iterations of a familiar Boomer trope. It’s the same romantic wish fulfillment — the uncomplicated, largely imaginary, white-bourgeois heterosexual sort — you find in the offensive and pre-antiquated self-help bestsellers of the same decade, namely The Rules (Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, 1995) and Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (John Gray, 1992).
Whereas the Gen-X motto of whatever encapsulated the extent of our desire to mitigate other people’s love lives and often our own, our elders — unencumbered by slackitude; seemingly aghast at our normalization of casual sex — saw in us a deep and aching need for what the Germans call das Happyend. Romantic fatalists of the ‘90s needn’t worry, you guys! For every (white, bourgeois, heterosexual) romantic problem that appeared in our midst and on our bestseller lists, there was a corresponding solution straight outta Levittown.