Writers beware: Marketing categories can be destiny. Few people in America know this better than the handful of writers gathered under the banner of the “Brat Pack.” The membership is now middle age and frankly a little testy about still having to deal with the label. “That whole ‘brat pack’ thing—Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis and whoever else was supposed to be a part of it—was a myth,” Ellis told The Paris Review in 2010. “It never existed.”
There has always been a whiff of fable about the notion of a “community” of writers. The Bloomsbury set, the Algonquin Round Table, the Paris expatriates, the New York intellectuals: Each of these is a generational frame that is often posthumously applied and even more frequently disputed. We make these contemporaries into cohorts because there’s something alluring about the notion of writers conferring over coffee, brawling over drinks, or—in the Brat Pack’s case—trading lines of cocaine. It suits a certain view of the creative life and the creative process. Artists are made not only by their art; they are also made by their friends, their idols, and their enemies.
Drenching literature in social context also fits with a certain view of what the novel ought to do. A novel can offer us some kind of report from the milieu that produced it. Comedies of manners and social novels can make claims about the zeitgeist, the spirit of a particular time. Mood, after all, is the advantage that a novelist can have over the historian or sociologist. Recite all the facts and statistical figures you want; they will never quite get you to the point of what it felt like to be somewhere.
Perhaps because the pursuit of mood was at the very center of the Brat Pack’s early fiction, the idea that they also constitute something of a generation stuck. They shared a time and place in common: a certain striving iteration of New York in the 1980s—or, in Ellis’s case, a certain striving iteration of Los Angeles. The feelings they tried to capture in their early work—McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, Ellis’s Less Than Zero, Janowitz’s Slaves of New York—were also commonly shared and distinctive to their milieu: What they were after was not really feelings at all, but a lack of them. As one of Janowitz’s “slaves” complains in her 1986 short-story collection, “I had a hunger for things I knew realistically I didn’t actually care for.” Or as an Ellis character muses in Less Than Zero, “I think we’ve all lost some sort of feeling.”
In our own time, this pose of alienation—especially by debut novelists—has become so familiar that even quotes like these can sound like clichés. But in the boom years of the 1980s, the Brat Pack seemed to be offering something new. The thought that young people might no longer be looking at the American dream through Horatio Alger’s rose-colored glasses appeared bold, even radical. The Brat Packers were living in an age in which the idea of prosperity appeared to be a given, sold to the populace along with Reaganomics and junk bonds. What on earth, adults thought, could these kids be complaining about? Things couldn’t be better.