Onstage at the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn on Monday night, Ethan Hawke said that for many years he felt “angry” whenever he was asked about Gen X.
Mr. Hawke, the actor, director and novelist, became a reluctant face of his generation when he starred in “Reality Bites,” a zeitgeist-capturing 1994 film about disillusioned, creative young people. Of course, any face of Gen X would have to be reluctant. Like many in his cohort (those born in America from 1965-80), Mr. Hawke thought the term and the sensibility that went along with it — a kind of fashionable apathy — were marketing tools.
But time has a way of loosening cultural knots, or at least tying new and more urgent ones. And Mr. Hawke, now 52, has softened, even if his face (still handsome, just weathered) has not. On Monday, he said he had recently come to feel something different about his role in the Gen X moment, a kind of “wistful pleasure about it.”
“I liked Kurt Cobain, I liked Doug Coupland and I liked Richard Linklater,” Mr. Hawke said, referring to the Nirvana frontman, the Canadian (baby boomer) novelist who coined the term Gen X, and the director of “Slacker,” a 1990 Gen X classic. “Everyone hates their prom, but you still want to have one.”
Mr. Hawke shared the stage with Rachel Kushner (born 1968), the celebrated novelist, and Christopher Beha (born 1979), the editor of Harper’s Magazine, the September issue of which is devoted to the question, “Whatever Happened to Gen X?” In a cover essay, billed as an “elegy for a generation,” the writer Justin E.H. Smith identifies “authenticity-mongering” and “irony” as the “twin pillars of Gen X identity.”
The three panelists were trying to answer the same question, and they had drawn a packed crowd of nearly 200, some of whom remembered a time when authenticity and irony were considered cultural virtues, and some of whom were just politely curious.
Raed Gilliam, a 23-year-old writer and filmmaker who recently moved to New York, said he had come to the talk for a few reasons: He had studied Ms. Kushner’s novel “The Flamethrowers” in college, he thought it was cool that Mr. Hawke was a “multi-hyphenate” like him, and he wanted to get a better sense of what this generation was all about — in part to better understand his father’s take on Gen X, which Mr. Gilliam found “cynical.”
“He thinks they didn’t live up to their potential,” Mr. Gilliam said.
Marybeth Diss, 44, had come to do a little armchair anthropology. Born in 1979, Ms. Diss had always considered herself a “Xennial”: too old for the millennials and too young for the Gen Xers. Ms. Diss watched “Reality Bites” years ago and hated it, as well as the generation it was supposed to capture.
“They seemed so dark and into scary drugs,” she said of Gen Xers. Now in her 40s, Ms. Diss felt ready to try to understand the slightly older kids on the playground. “I’m just learning,” she said.
Ms. Diss had brought with her a Gen X friend, Lynette Wilson, a journalist who — in high Gen X style — was suspicious of the crowd.
“There are too many millennials here,” Ms. Wilson said. She thought it was to Gen X’s credit that unlike subsequent generations, it wasn’t addicted to the spotlight. Ms. Wilson attributed this to growing up without the internet.
“We’re behind the scenes,” she said. “We’re low-key. We’re not influencing anyone.”
Alberto De La Rosa, a 27-year-old screenwriter, was curious about what had happened to a certain kind of Gen X archetype embodied by people like Mr. Cobain — the young white male artist, struggling to define himself as an individual in an unfeeling world. He had recently read Mr. Hawke’s debut novel from 1996, “The Hottest State,” about a young actor in New York, and found it to be a “very white, American book.”
“It made me think of ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’” he said.
Mr. De La Rosa was onto something. Mr. Hawke said that as a young man, he had memorized long passages from that book, J.D. Salinger’s classic of adolescent angst, in part to impress girls. More recently, he said, he had realized how much Troy Dyer, the slacker dreamboat from “Reality Bites,” shares a cynical sensibility with Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of the 1951 novel.
Refusing to participate earnestly in a world of phonies, refusing to sell out: This was an antique generation’s lost notion of moral dignity, which Mr. Hawke and Ms. Kushner gamely attempted to conjure for the crowd.
“To be a bohemian was to take art so seriously that you wouldn’t do something so loserish as to try to have a career,” Ms. Kushner said. “The idea that everything is a gesture. My friend went to mortuary school as a form of irony, and she went bankrupt doing it. She filed for bankruptcy as an artistic gesture.”
“I love her,” said Mr. Hawke.
At the end of the talk, Enuma Okoro, 50, a columnist for the Financial Times who was sitting in the front row, politely challenged Mr. Hawke and Ms. Kushner to imagine what a hypothetical nonwhite Gen X panelist might say about Gen X. If the generation had indeed been a marketing category, it had been marketed with certain faces, and without certain others.
Mr. Hawke responded with a story. During the filming of “Training Day,” his co-star, Denzel Washington, asked him about his clothing, which he compared to a homeless person’s.
“I said: ‘Denzel, have you ever heard of Nirvana? Do you know about grunge at all? I’m the poster boy for Gen X. This is the way I dress, it’s cool.’”
According to Mr. Hawke, Mr. Washington said that it wasn’t cool, and that it appeared that he didn’t respect himself.
“It was clear we were from different Americas,” Mr. Hawke said.