I’ve always wanted to know how academics come to a decision about their research topic? I can only presume their topic has to be something that interests them enough to want to dedicate several months, or even years, to working on. So, what interested me? What would keep me entertained for the next year when undertaking my own 10,000 word creative thesis?
My topic had to revolve around any form of literature (to align with my postgraduate writing and literature degree) so I scanned the book spines on my shelf and pulled out a few that I had remembered intrigued me upon reading them. After umming and ahing between a selection of five texts, I cut them down to two final novels, Goethe’s Faust (1829) and Ellis’s Less Than Zero (1985). Feeling up for a wild challenge, I decided to stick with Ellis’s text and delve into drugs, sex, and violence – theoretically that is.
Writer, Tama Janowitz and Andy Warhol at the Slaves of New York Book Party at Petaluma, 1986. PHOTO: ©PATRICK McMULLAN.
The genre Less Than Zero is known as 'blank generation fiction’ – a term that I discovered upon reading James Annesley’s Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture, and the Contemporary American Novel. Blank fiction was written by the literary 'brat pack’ that came out of the 1980s. As Annesley explained, these books primarily focused on middle-class American youth and captured their blank, atonal perspectives on sex, death and subversion, as well as focusing on a relationship between the individual and consumer culture set within urban locations.
Having an idea of the infamous texts that spanned throughout the 80s and 90s, the more iconic being Fight Club (1996), Less Than Zero (1985) and American Psycho (1991), I finally had completed the first part to unlocking my research question. That is, I had a field of study to work within – 1980s Blank Fiction.
Over the next few weeks, sitting at my desk by the window, I found it difficult to focus on the blank word doc before me, I was transfixed on the flashing headlights that dashed across the highway, and the sullen faces of exhausted nine to five workers. I felt an uncanny connection to that of Norman Bates as he glared down at passersby, or perhaps a Patrick Bateman in his New York penthouse questioning whether he should change up his own skin care routine. Either way, it was clear I needed more coffee. These long nights staring at the computer, waiting for that lightbulb moment, did little to help me construct a question that would ultimately shape my thesis.
More research was required, and so I switched my study to early mornings in hope it would improve my concentration. I needed to figure out what scholarship had already been written to establish what I was going to contribute to this area. Fortunately, blank fiction was a subject overlooked. People seem to have a love/hate relationship with the genre, which can be understandable, after a hard days work, do you really want to come home to read a story about a young girl shooting up in an alleyway? The subject matter has caused major controversy over the years, particularly the publication of Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), which continues to trigger feminist debate in response to the barbaric violence depicted towards women. Was this novel really a satirical take on society of the time or shock for the sake of shock?
I began to see a pattern form within the theses I were reading – they revolved around male authors. I was familiar with Ellis, McInerney and Cooper, but what about the female authors who wrote about such taboo subjects? Who were they and why has their writing not received as much attention? To my surprise, there were quite a few female authors of blank fiction during the 1980s – Tama Janowitz, Mary Gaitskill, Kathy Acker, Catherine Texier, and Lynne Tillman, to name a few. Thus, I had inched my way closer to a research question. I now had a focus on 1980s blank fiction by female authors.
I decided to put Less Than Zero away and focus on Slaves of New York (1986) by Tama Janowitz and Bad Behaviour (1988) by Mary Gaitskill. However, these texts didn’t just leap right off the shelf. My course advisor recommended Slaves of New York, and after shifting through a LOT of academic papers, the same title, Bad Behaviour continued to make an appearance amongst theorist debates.
The eighties was a giant unsolvable Rubik’s cube mixed with identity crises, cultural shifts, political conservatism, and popular culture – no consistent pattern seemed to prevail. Beyond the big hair, rounds of Pac-Man, and quirky pop music, was an America obsessed with consumer-culture. Where ordinary youth dreamt of becoming a Yuppie Wall-Streeter who drove around in BMWs and wore pinstripe suits. Where the rise of postfeminism contradicted the paths to equality made by earlier second-wave feminists, igniting an identity tug-o-war amongst women. And the art world shifted into a format that exceeded the logical thinking of modernism, and embraced the irrational thinking of minimal prose and parody.
I'm enjoying this thesis journey and sharing it with you readers, hopefully I can channel a more specific direction the next time I write something for this blog. Till then, I’ll leave you with a quote from Slaves of New York:
“I don’t know what my greatest fear is; maybe just that I’ll be caught and discovered, accused of being a child in an adult’s body.”