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The Gen X Novel

The Gen X Novel

Reading Zadie Smith’s 'The Fraud' as Gen X literature

Reviewing Zadie Smith’s The Fraud for the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine, Adam Kirsch takes stock of Generation X as a literary phenomenon. He finds “Gen X lit” to be composed of two distinct waves, between which Smith is caught. The younger wave, including writers Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, Sheila Heti, and Tao Lin, has formed its ideas about art, culture, and society partly in opposition to predecessors like David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Wurtzel, and Dave Eggers—who claimed a great moral power for art—and partly in response to the younger millennials, who question whether art has any value at all. Kirsch is joined in this episode by Harper’s deputy editor Jon Baskin to discuss how Smith’s historical fiction operates within this literary lineage, why autofiction came to succeed the confessional memoirs of the Nineties, and what the novel form can do for us.

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  • “Come as You Are” Adam Kirsch’s review in the September issue of Harper’s

  • “My Generation” Justin E. H. Smith’s essay in the September issue of Harper’s

  • 6:01: “Instead of rushing up to the reader and giving them a bear hug and saying, ‘This is who I am, please love me,’ which I think is a sense that I often get from David Foster Wallace, these younger writers are a lot more complex and ironic and elusive.”

  • 8:46: “Autofiction makes it possible to emphasize the moral ambiguities that memoir has to apologize for or hide.”

  • 14:21: “Smith is writing about things that have come up in her fiction since the beginning—things like: Is it my job to be politically virtuous as a writer? Or am I supposed to be telling some other kind of truth? Is there some sort of artistic mission that is somehow removed from political virtue?”

  • 18:44: “If you step back and make it an alternative reality—in this case, something in the past—you can make more of an effort to see all the way around the subject. And that’s something that Smith does very well in The Fraud.”

  • 31:06: “So much of it is about this sort of solidness and resistance to getting involved in things … As we get older and assume different roles in life, something of that remains, the desire to be a sort of Bartleby and say no rather than yes—maybe that’s what Gen X will be remembered for.”

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The Harper’s Podcast
Since 1850, Harper’s Magazine has provided its readers with a unique perspective on the issues that drive our national conversation, featuring writing from some of the most promising to most distinguished names in literature–from Barbara Ehrenreich to Rachel Kushner. Every week, host Violet Lucca joins her colleagues and contributing writers to provide listeners with a deep dive into these topics and the craft of long-form narrative journalism.
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