Paris Review parties have always had a satyric quality to them--jowly novelists well into their third marriages and fifth drinks, the latest batch of overripe lit chicks off the bus from Oberlin, George Plimpton glissading through the throng, urging everyone on to greater gin-and-tonic consumption. One half expects a Brueghel painting to break out. (For complete verisimilitude, one would have to paint James Atlas in the corner not having fun.) When I had just arrived on the New York literary/media scene--which, as are all such scenes, is made up of about 1 percent literati and 99 percent pseudos--I began going to these parties with some regularity and learned the essential art of talking to novelists whose books one hadn't read. I also met my wife there, and so will always have fond feelings toward the place.
I went back tonight and found virtually the entire late-'80s crowd gone. No Jay. No Bret. No Tama. And as if to confirm that times had really changed, the young novelist being honored bounded up to me and said, "Hey, you're the only person left here I haven't met." Plimpton was still there, of course, and he continues to be an object of wonder. No younger person could ever pull off his brand of élan, his ability to greet someone whose name he can't remember, or possibly never knew, with a magisterial, "Ah, there you are." People just don't live life grand cru anymore, though there are a surprising number in the younger generation who play at being baby Plimptons. It doesn't quite work. For one, Plimpton actually wrote a lot of books and continues to produce on a regular basis. The new literati have more or less ditched the achievement part--a few bylines for branding purposes--and focused entirely on the lifestyle part. As the Times Magazine put it in a fashion spread awhile back that spotlit some of the hot, young littérateurs, "Today's New Beats favor Prada and the Gap" (or something like that). I decided things had become completely silly when I received a mailing for one of those "spoken word" evenings in the East Village. It was for a reading by a sporadically published young freelance writer. He would be sharing with the crowd his "selected works."
I am sad to say that our generation's main gift to the culture may turn out to be self-promotion. We have precious little to promote, but we do it with ferocious ingenuity. I blame Prozac. And Freud. Atlas may have been on to something with his end-of-fun piece in TheNew Yorker. People were just less over-therapized and -drugged 20 and 30 years ago. (I know the golden age of psychotherapy was after the war, but just as more people had cheap sex in the '70s, even though the golden age of cheap sex was the '60s, I maintain that seeing the shrink only became something everybody did as a matter of course in the last 10 or 15 years.) Deeply fucked-up people are, by definition, more interesting people. And most young people I know are way, way too in touch with their feelings, and as a result go through life affecting a kind of world-weary resignation or a bland, narcotized contentment. No fun, I say.
Michael Hirschorn is the former executive editor of New York magazine.