What Makes for a Boomer Lit Masterpiece?

Boomer Lit has two big selling points: 

(1) the size of its market, a point recently made in the Huffington Post by Author Dianne Harman who notes that "any time there's a potential audience of 76-79 million people, and you have to think a lot of them read, that is just huge!" So her advice is: "if you want to write the next blockbuster book or series, write in the genre of boomer lit!"

(2)  the quality of the books it offers.

I have often blogged about both points, most recently here. This time I'd like to consider the second point - the quality of boomer reads - from a different angle. I just finished an remarkable book, Therapy by David Lodge, recounting the sad-and-funny experiences of a successful fifty-something TV sitcom writer whose wife of many years suddenly abandons him. His life falls apart, he is assailed by an inexplicable mid-life angst and a puzzling knee pain that no amount of acupuncture, aromatherapy, physiotherapy, you-name-it-therapy is able to cure. The book is a classic  quest for lost happiness, taking us on an unexpected and unforgettable pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain before resolution is found.

David Lodge is one of my favorite authors and along with Malcolm Bradbury, who was his closest writer friend - they're both major exponents of the campus novel genre - he is surely one of the top satirical writers of the 20th century (no, he's not dead yet - look for more masterpieces from him!)

You know what is the most surprising thing about this book? It was first published in 1995! Yes, that's some  fifteen years before we started talking earnestly about Boomer Lit, with the creation of a Goodreads Group to discuss Boomer Lit. Yet Therapy is quintessential Boomer Lit. It hits on all the major points that make for a top Boomer Lit read:
- a mature adult protagonist facing a major life transition as his marriage and job unravel;
- a range of challenges that are typically those boomers are facing today;
- coping mechanisms and complex characters that are the result of a lifetime of experience.
The plot and characters are not simple, only a mature writer could have written this with the necessary depth of experience and nuances in sensibilities.

Add to this David Lodge's writing talent and you have a masterpiece, rich with unforgettable character descriptions, surprising twists and turns in the plot and a whole array of thoughtful observations. From a technical point of view, Lodge shows his virtuosity with masterful changes in points of views, each written with a different "voice" to reflect each character.

Some of the reviews on Amazon mention that this is a book about a "mid-life crisis". 

But this is not a mere mid-life crisis, it is much more!  

Consider the main character, Tubby Passmore (I love the name!). Once he has solved his problems, can he go back to the way everything was before the crisis began? Because that is what the term "mid-life crisis" implies: that you can return to what you were before. The answer is he cannot. Things change in Tubby's life in such a radical way that he is forced to embark on the "Third Act" in his life. And learn to live differently. This is where David Lodge's Therapy is similar to Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: they both throw their main characters on a harrowing quest to find a new self, in short, a picaresque pilgrimage - across England for Harold Fry, to Spain for Tubby Passmore (after he's gone through Tenerife and Copenhagen, yes, I told you, expect some surprising turns!).

This is the fundamental question at the heart of Boomer Lit: who are we? After a lifetime of work, of living with a partner/lover, what is left of oneself when everything that has defined our lives disappears? 

The parallel with YA Lit is intriguing, after all, the central question is the same. But the person seeking the answer is at a different stage in life, at the beginning rather than the end...

The question that remains still unanswered is why Boomer Lit, if it started so long ago, has not been recognized as a genre sooner. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it began to gain solid recognition in 2008 among the Big Publishers (Hachette, Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins) and then it stopped. Why? I am not sure but I suspect the digital revolution had something to do with it: it would appear that the first wave of e-books that sold offered the kind of commercial narratives that appealed to a younger, romantic and/or more techie audience. Obviously, if people love romance à la Jane Austen, YA vampires à la Stephanie Meyers and New Adult erotica à la 50 Shades of Grey, they are not going to be reading Boomer Lit. But with time and the spread of the e-book market, this could change.

What is your opinion? Do you feel ready to dive into Boomer Lit? Try David Lodge, if you haven't read him yet. Here's one of the passages most often highlighted by Amazon readers, it is a reflection made by Tubby Passmore as he fights his bouts of melancholy:

"One of the depressing things about depression is knowing that there are lots of people in the world with far more reason to feel depressed than you have, and finding that, so far from making you snap out of your depression, it only makes you despise yourself more and thus feel more depressed."

Insightful! Tubby Passmore is an unforgettable character...Of course David Lodge has written more books in this vein since - in particular Deaf Sentence published in 2008, reviewed here in the New York Times. But that will be for another blog post!

Cover of Cover of Deaf Sentence


Related articles
Enhanced by Zemanta