A couple months ago, journalist Jeff Gordinier and I were at Franceschi Park, admiring the crisp winter view after a lunch of chicken mole, adobado tacos, and horchata from a Milpas Street diner. Suddenly, a tattooed, tank top-wearing man approached us from out of nowhere, asking for a cigarette as he held a bloody tissue to his nose. We didn’t have any, but the man began talking about his old drug days and how he’d recently done time for a possession charge that wasn’t his fault. I was keeping quiet, happy to let the strange, vaguely threatening soul keep moving. But Gordinier’s reporter reflex kicked in, and he inquired, “So how’d that turn out for ya?”
Such willingness to ask questions when the answers might not be pleasant are the hallmark of any intrepid reporter like Gordinier, who’s spent the last 15 years as a staff writer for Entertainment Weekly (from 1994 to 2002) and editor-at-large for Details (since 2002). Gordinier began covering pop culture as a music writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press in the early ’90s, spreading news about the likes of Creature Feature, Popsicko, Spencer the Gardener, and Toad the Wet Sprocket in a column called “Exile on State Street.” Nearly two decades later, Gordinier’s pop culture expertise is coming full circle with the release of his debut book, X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking, which comes out this week and will be feted with a reading at Chaucer’s on Monday, April 7.
The book is the answer to one of the bigger questions 41-year-old Gordinier has ever asked: What happened to Generation X, those post-baby boom folks born in the ’60s and ’70s and made famous by novelist Douglas Coupland in his angst-ridden 1991 book of the same name? The question was actually asked by Gordinier’s editor at Details, Dan Peres, and not posited during the fairest of times.
“The genesis myth of the book is that when my son was born in January 2006, I was on leave for a couple weeks at home,” explained Gordinier. “You’re just exhausted when you have a kid-you don’t get any sleep, you can’t think straight.” Though he wasn’t supposed to be doing anything other than changing diapers, Peres called him with a proposition to “explore the state of Gen X and what Gen X had accomplished.” The topic was intriguing to Gordinier, even though he admitted, “Any Gen Xer is sort of resistant to writing about Gen X at all. It’s sort of a generational kick we have. We’re really skeptical and detached, and it doesn’t always seem cool to write about it.”
Nevertheless, he gave it a go, and wrote something that he didn’t think was printable. “The first draft of the essay was just scattershot and also periodically psychedelic,” remembered Gordinier. “It was coming out of me at four in the morning, blurting out of my muddled subconscious. They ended up running it, almost verbatim. It was weird, and it got a big response. It was all kind of accidental.” Gordinier thinks maybe because he was so tired and so under pressure, what came out was more pure. “Sometimes it helps to just bang it out and not over-think it,” he explained.
Gordinier was encouraged to expand the essay into a book, so he mined his old reporting, including 12 old notepads from Woodstock 1994. “I had all this marginalia in my notepads, philosophical and cultural observations, and I never used them in the EW piece,” said Gordinier. “I found I could use them now. They were much sharper insights than I expected.”
Drawing on old experiences at EW and Details, Gordinier found that Gen Xers were doing pretty special stuff, from filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Spike Jonze to the people behind the Poetry Bus, Meetup.com, and Architecture for Humanity to the founders of Amazon, Google, and YouTube. “These are Gen X innovations,” said Gordinier. “We don’t get a lot of credit for them. We’re not necessarily credit hogs, but it’s pretty interesting to point out.”
With those observations and some original reporting thrown in, the 179-page book makes for an enlightening, fast read. Its titular argument is well proven, though it’s not an overly serious academic treatise either-it’s meant to be fun, easy, and “full of pop culture candy,” as the author says, so people like him who are busy with kids and work can read it on a plane.
But beware if you’re a Boomer or a Millennial, because X Saves the World is a scathing indictment of those generations that bookend Xers. Gordinier has a special contempt for Boomers, explaining, “[They] endlessly talk about Woodstock : but what did Woodstock accomplish? It was just a party. What did they change? I’d love for someone to tell me. They fetishize it so much.” So is he worried about Boomer Backlash? “I’m not worried about it; I expect it,” said Gordinier. “Boomers take their kitsch really seriously. It’s no game. One does not question their legacy. For a bunch of ex-hippies, they’re strangely sort of pompous and self-serious about things.”
What about the Millennials, who get hit in the book as unquestioning addicts to mainstream media? “I’m not sure they can read,” joked Gordinier. But he explained, “Here’s the thing: Do I really hate Boomers? Do I really hate Millennials? Of course not : Gen X is identified as more a sensibility than a demographic. It’s an alternative way of thinking, and ingrained skepticism.”
Amid the pop culture, music, film, and business tales, Gordinier devotes quite a few pages to Gen Xers who are working truly for the good of the planet without wanting any credit. It’s an inspiring message, but Gordinier is scared of being an inspiration. “That’s such a perilous topic,” he explained. “I hear the word ‘inspiration’ and I cringe. It’s my generational reflex and my own personal reflex. : So whenever there was nostalgia in the book, I undercut it with snark. If there was inspiration, I tried to undercut it as well with skepticism or bitterness. : Nevertheless, I just hope if you’re an Xer, it may make you feel a little better about your generational state of affairs. My people, they gave us Google. That’s kind of cool.”
Even cooler is the laundry list of authors already praising the book, from Nick Hornby to Neal Pollack. But don’t get your hopes up for another pop culture tome from Gordinier. “This book, in a way, is me saying goodbye to pop culture, saying goodbye to all the stuff I’ve written about for 20 years,” explained Gordinier. “I’m 41 years old. It’s getting a little embarrassing to be at rock shows. I think I want to be a science writer. : I’m sure my agent wants me to continue with the Gen X spokesman thing, but that’s absurd, and any Gen Xer would agree with that. I’ll have my moment of exploring, and then I’m going back to the wilderness.”
Jeff Gordinier will read and sign copies of X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking at Chaucer’s Bookstore on Monday, April 7, at 7 p.m. Call 682-6787 or see jeffgordinier.com.