The MTV generation does, indeed, read

November 12, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

The cultural cacophony is getting louder these days, particularly for adherents of the latest cliche -- the MTV Generation. With a tantalizing potential market of 48 million Americans between 18 and 30 and with high-tech's various incarnations jockeying for more and more of their time, publishers are pondering the imponderable: Do they or don't they?

Random House publicity manager Peter Vertes, 30, who has spent the past six years trying to sell books to young people, concludes that the baby busters are not reading as much as their elders.

"The 20s is a post-literate generation," he says. "It's hopeless. Reading books is going to become like playing chess, a hobby that some people do. If I were a first novelist, I would change careers."

But many others among or around that generation disagree.

"I doubt that MTV and computer technology have made serious incursions into the amount that students would read," says novelist Michael Petracca, who teaches writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "The ones that are going to read are probably still reading and the ones that are being seduced by other things are still being seduced."

One book they do seem to be reading is Douglas Coupland's "Generation X," by far the single most popular novel describing the enervated life of that burned-out-on-yuppies generation. That witty first novel has sold 200,000 copies to 25,000 for Mark Leyner's surreal "My Cousin, Gastroenterologist," the other title tagged with a cultish following.

But Mr. Coupland cautions that the relative paucity of big-selling books specifically identified with that age group should not be interpreted as evidence of scant reading habits.

"When people talk about stuff like that, they're mourning the ability of Life magazine in 1963 to say, 'Everybody go read this book,' and everybody does, and you have the semblance of a cohesive culture," he says. "Now there are too many books and too many people."

Novelist and Mirabella media critic Walter Kirn says he detects "a great hunger to read in educated people under 30" -- they're just not necessarily reading what some publishers expect them to read.

"There's some weird Henry Miller-Jack Kerouac revival going on," Mr. Kirn says. "I don't know that any contemporary author has successfully made himself or herself the spokesperson for the generation. They seem to be going back to the spokespeople for the last few generations."

Indeed, while college bookstores commonly tag "Generation X" as a steady seller, students otherwise seem to be buying classics, science books and general best sellers. At the bookstore at the University of California, Los Angeles, for example, Milan Kundera's "The Incredible Lightness of Being" sells twice as much as "Generation X," says Richard MacBriar, a book buyer.

And as philosophies come full circle, Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" is cropping up on campuses populat

ed by students overdosed on '80s materialism. Bridget Fonda was reading it in the recent 20s' film "Singles." So is Rebecca Leung, 21, a UC Berkeley senior.

Some publishers are courting the less-than-30s by publishing books that reflect their lives and concerns -- growing up in broken families, with low financial expectations and a dim view of earlier generations' hedonism.

Random House, for example, is pushing the just-out "Kicking Tomorrow" by Daniel Richler, son of Mordecai, which was shepherded by his 26-year-old editor, Jennifer Ash. It's about an 18-year-old who is "bummed out and bored, cut adrift in the mid '70s -- he calls it the decade of the great hangover," says Ms. Ash.

Twenties' Lit also tends to be shorter, snappier and, some critics say, light on emotional content. And if publishers are smart, the titles debut in less-costly paperback. Pocket Books learned that the hard way when Mr. Coupland's latest novel, "Shampoo Planet," came out in hardcover in August to disappointing sales. The publisher moved up the paperback release.

But Mr. Kirn warns that generational typecasting can be risky.

"I think they want 'Wayne's World' in book form. 'Wayne's World' seems to me already as the mood ring of its time," he says. "I don't think publishers are going to break [that generation] down, classify its taste, assign books to fulfill those requirements and then be able to sell them. By the time they've done all that, it will be gone."

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