I recently noticed that Amazon has added a new category to its books section: The Beat Generation. You might well ask why there wasn’t already a Beat Generation category, but not all movements are given such an honour. Previously, all Beat and Beat Studies books were filed under “20th-century literature.”
Amazon’s categorisation has always been a bit silly. Books sometimes appear in the most random places and publishers often deliberately choose non-competitive categories in order to make their books appear more successful than they actually are.
So does it really matter that there is now a Beat Generation category?
I see this as another mark of legitimacy for the Beats and more importantly for Beat Studies. The work of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and their Beat peers has found a wide readership for almost seventy years now but it has always faced certain prejudices. They were undisciplined, loutish, obscene hooligans in the eyes of the academy for many years and now they are problematic cis white males to modern critics. In other words, for all they have their fans, they’ve had powerful (and bitchy) enemies.
Beat Studies has come on in leaps and bounds over the past two decades, which has been massively helpful in legitimising these writers. (You can read about that in The Beats and the Academy: A Renegotiation, recently reviewed in Beatdom #23.) The work of Beat scholars has helped sceptics realise the significance of Beat literature – that it was not breaking rules for a lack of understanding; it was not a bunch of “angry young men”; it was not mindless celebration of degeneracy; it was not the same as the beatnik fad. The Beats were talented, innovative artists responding to the world around them in ways so challenging that it took decades for them to be taken seriously, yet leaving an artistic legacy of staggering proportions.
Now look at this list of literary movements provided by Amazon:
There is no Lost Generation. There is no New Journalism. There is no Imagism.
Until recently, books about the Beats needed to be filed as “20th-century literature” along with these other movements. Now the Beats are up there with the classics. They are one of only ten literary movements chosen for inclusion in this new system of categorisation.
Of course, this is just Amazon. It is just a big (and rather unpleasant) corporation. But still, I feel this is a positive step for Beat Studies. It is a sign of the acceptance of the Beats as a serious and important literary movement and of the validity of Beat Studies. It is a signal to millions of potential readers that the Beat Generation is worthy of consideration alongside other major literary movements. They are not just a minor part of history (which is what many a textbook or anthology would tell you).
So go check it out. You’ll find a number of our titles there (with more hopefully coming in the future) and many other great works of Beat Studies.