The book the world doesn’t need right now
A piece on CNN.com the other day titled “The novel America needs right now” managed to conflate two wildly separate phenomena that I thought deserved separating back out. Mark Bauerlein writes that:
Adolescence used to be a condition you escaped as soon as you could, but these 20-somethings want to prolong it.
We need to counteract them, to restore embarrassment to adolescent habits, and books are a key weapon.
(go ahead and read the whole article, it’s at least interesting)
The trouble is, these two things have almost nothing to do with one another. It’s all very well bemoaning the endless YA fiction that’s stolen the literary limelight, but saying that its popularity is all down to “pre-adults” seems wilfully blinkered. Books like Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey have been seized on not just by twenty-somethings but by their parents and by the newspapers and other cultural outlets that guide their reading choices. You could buy Harry Potter hardcovers with “grown-up-looking” dust jackets so that your fellow commuters on the train wouldn’t know you were reading a kids’ book, for Christ’s sake.
Now there’s a perfectly good discussion to be had about why so many people are reading YA fiction at the moment (in my case I mostly blame boingboing) but it’s clearly not just down to the “Twixters” (awful word that makes it sound like 20-somethings are all sitting on the sofa stuffing ourselves with Twixes). I’ve grown pretty tired of YA stuff myself (The Hunger Games was the last straw) and gone back to reading Stendhal for a bit.
Bauerlein’s wider point, though, about the idea that “pre-adulthood” needs to be “exploded”, its “creep” halted, its “trendy pose” “taken down”, is pretty unfounded. Who’s to say that it’s a bad thing that people are living with their friends, trying out different jobs and relationships, and (horror of horrors) playing video games well into their 20s?
After all, what’s the alternative? Settle down into the late 20th century paradigm of a marriage that’ll most likely end in divorce supported by a job that’s whatever someone told you about that sounded just about bearable at a careers evening in your last term at school?
There doesn’t seem to be any recognition on the part of the pre-adulthood bemoaners that times have changed since the 1950s, when “most people completed their translation to adulthood – finishing school, finding their first job, marrying and having children ‘by age 21 or so’”. Apart from anything, life expectancy has gone up about 10 years in that time. Women’s lives have changed beyond recognition. I don’t know any women my age who would have been anything other than horrified to be pregnant at age 21. I don’t know many people who have a job now that they’d want to be doing until they’re into their 70s either (that is, if any of the jobs that are around now still exist when my generation hits 70). In the cold light of what’s actually happening in the world rather than patchily-remembered 1950s fantasies of the good life, the idea that indulging in a bit of pre-adulthood is anything other than a reasonable response to how the world is looks a bit laughable to me.
Let’s not forget – the people complaining are the people who’ve made the world this way. They’re the ones who sat back while Western economies gambled themselves off a cliff, leaving us to pick over the unsatisfying bones for gainful employment, who made Friends the defining cultural phenomenon of our childhood and early adolescence, and who struggled for the freedom to not be a kitchen-bound housewife that women are now enjoying.
So three cheers for pre-adulthood, long may it continue. But I’m all in favour of someone sending up the Twilights and the Hunger Games of this world. There’s plenty of puffed up mediocrity out there posing as culture that needs deflating. Sharpen your pens, people.