Midway through her strange screed against irony in today's New York Times Sunday Review, Christy Wampole reveals (inadvertently, I'm guessing) the heart of what's wrong with her whole argument. Wampole identifies herself as a tail-end Gen Xer -- she's 35 years old, an assistant professor of French at Princeton -- and mentions that for her peers to get through the 1990s, "we needed a self-defense mechanism, for every generation has one."
No, Professor Wampole, every generation does not have ONE self-defense mechanism. Every generation has thousands of such mechanisms, just as it has thousands of world views, habits, sensibilities, strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, and fears. Trying to label THE defense mechanism of Gen Xers -- "a kind of diligent apathy," according to Wampole -- is as strained as trying to characterize one reviled stereotype, the hipster, as somehow representative of all Millennials.
The generalizations are just too easy. Just as she slams her own generation as Prozac-chomping misanthropes slouching in plaid flannels, her complaints about Millennials center a lot on fashion and hobby choices (young men with mustaches, tiny shorts, fixed-gear bicycles, trombones), as though every twentysomething looks and acts the same way. And they hide their feelings behind the "primary" world view of irony, she writes, which is the real object of her derision. Irony, according to Wampole, allows a young person "to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise. To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge." And somehow it's irony that keeps people from talking to each other instead of their cellphone screens, giving each other thoughtful presents instead of kitsch, expressing serious feelings like humility or self-effacement or I guess love. "Somehow," she writes,"directness has become unbearable to us."
The attitude Wampole criticizes is one I recognize from the likes of Dave Eggers, one of the first writers, in his breakthrough A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, to make a habit of continually (and, often, hilariously) commenting on his own commentary. This is part of what Wampole views as quintessentially Millennial -- but Eggers, age 42, is most definitely Gen X.
The essay is one more example of what I'm starting to see in too many places: unfair generalizations about generations. Forcing entire generations into an easy stereotype leads, almost by definition, to statements that are too broad, too sweeping, and in the end misleading and not at all enlightening.
Besides, it might already be outdated. My most plugged-in source of youthy trends (that is, my older daughter) tells me that The New York Times is, as usual, reporting a style a couple of years after the fact. According to my daughter, sincerity is the new irony.