Generational angst as humorously told

Jen Lancaster is known for her writing that chides society and an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. She also poses Barbies.
Jen Lancaster is known for her writing that chides society and an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. She also poses Barbies.
Posted: May 03, 2012

Jen Lancaster is up on her high horse again. Fans of the witty memoirist are delighted to see her back in the saddle.

Her just-published book, Jeneration X (NAL, $25.95) is a plea for her contemporaries to stand apart from the willfully infantile generations that bracket them -- the boomers and the millenials -- by acting like adults.

“We’re differentiating ourselves by becoming the only grownups in the room,” says Lancaster. “We’re tired of seeing all these baby boomers running around talking about their feelings and these Gen Y kids that you have to constantly coddle or they’ll have a meltdown.“

Each chapter chronicles one of Lancaster’s seemingly sensible efforts at maturity, capped with a rueful “Reluctant Adult Lesson Learned”.

The best-selling author is probably the last person in the world who should be lecturing you on putting your big girl pants on, as even her best friend (and frequent accomplice) Stacey Ballis will admit.

“I think if Jen really wanted deep down to be the leader of the ‘grow the hell up’ movement among our peers, she sort of would have needed to be somewhat more successful at it. Makes for a very funny book to watch her attempt (and often fail) at the adult aspects of life,” writes Ballis in an e-mail. “But if Jen wants to really take up the charge to lead our generation...she is going to have to stop giving herself food poisoning every eleven days with old bananas and leftover frosting.”

The quixotic crusade is a familiar format for Lancaster. Such a Pretty Fat recounted her struggles with dieting and body image. My Fair Lazy was an anguished attempt to set her cultural sights above their usual vista: reality TV.

Her first book, Bitter is the New Black in 2006 -- that was just pure bile, swirled on the page with a wicked sense of humor.

It grew out of her first ugly brushes with adult existence. Born in northern New Jersey and raised in rural Indiana, Lancaster spent nearly a decade as an undergraduate at Purdue University. (Hello, Paula Pan.) She met her husband John Fletcher there and they both stumbled into lucrative executive-level positions in Chicago upon graduation, jobs that vanished when the dot-com bubble burst a decade ago.

Newlyweds, meet ditch. “My husband and I went from making all this money to being evicted and having our car repossessed,” she says. “We were a week away from moving back in with my parents, we were so broke.”

Until then, Lancaster’s writing experience consisted primarily of a successful one-woman term paper service she ran at Purdue. (“I got $1 a page and guaranteed an A,” she boasts.)

She noticed the success that Karyn Bosnak had had with her blog, savekaryn.com, in which she asked readers to pay off the $20,000 in credit card debt she had run up. Bosnak not only got solvent, she got a book deal.

“My hate for her prompted me to write,” says Lancaster, who later became friends with Bosnak. “I thought, ‘If they’re giving idiots book deals, then I want one, too.’ ”

Lancaster, 44, began documenting her disenchantment with how her life was turning out on her own blog, jennsylvania.com. “You’ve never seen anybody more delighted to be self-righteously angry about things,” she says.

Using initiative and self-promotion, she landed a New York literary agent and a publishing contract.

Perhaps because she had to work so hard for her success, Lancaster is especially withering to an aspiring young novelist who sends around a form letter to established authors. Jen’s responses make up one of Jeneration X’s funniest chapters:

10. How do I go about getting an agent? Where do I look for one?

Obviously you look for one by asking me. (I keep them in my guest room.)

11. How do I know which agent is best for me?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this probably won’t be an issue.

That air of entitlement -- show me the shortcuts so I don’t have to do the actual work -- is what annoys Lancaster most about younger people.

“One of my friends is a VP at a public relations firm,” she says. “He’s gone through training for how to deal with millenials. You have to treat them differently, repeatedly let them know that they’re valued and that they’re doing a good job. I don’t understand why fear is not a motivator anymore.”

Readers of jennsylvania.com may find it ironic to hear Lancaster chiding others for being childish. One of the most popular features on her blog consists of her posing Barbie figures from the Twilight movies and Mad Men TV series and creating little narratives for them.

Yes, Mattel actually has very meticulous and pricey Twilight Saga and Mad Men Collections.

One of the distinctive attributes of Lancaster’s writing is her encyclopedic ability to revisit the cheesier precincts of pop culture.

“No matter how tuned in you consider yourself, I guarantee she knows more,” says Lancastser’s editor, Tracy Bernstein. “Many people are aware of her affinity for reality TV and John Hughes’ movies, but her scholarship goes way beyond that. Put her on Pop Culture Jeopardy! and she will run the board. Hair metal? Celebrity feuds? The historical significance of HGTV? Make it a true Daily Double, Alex!”

As she works on her second novel, Here I Go Again, due out next year, she has steeped herself in music most of us would rather forget.

“It’s about a high school mean girl who goes back in time to fix everything,” she says. “There’s a lot about Whitesnake in it. There’s a heavy metal element in it that is so much fun to write. My husband would poke his head in my office and say, ‘Are you listening to Poison?’ ”

But it’s the ever-growing doll collection that may yet get her in trouble.

Recently, her alma mater declared its intent to bestow upon her the esteemed title of Old Master.

Lancaster’s husband, whom she always refers to in print as Fletch, has mused that her inclusion may pose a problem for previous inductees like astronaut Neil Armstrong who did far more to distinguish themselves.

Fletch imagined Armstrong thinking, “Look at this idiot reenacting scenes from Mad Men with Barbie Dolls. I went to the moon. Get me a drink!”

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv. Read his blog, “Dave on Demand,” at www.philly.com/dod.

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