© 2018 by J. Eric Thompson

The Fault in Our Adults

On the train I sit between two middle-aged women, both engrossed. To my left, a mother ignores her child’s questions and flicks at her phone, which displays what looks like a psychedelic version of Tetris that my thirteen-year-old self would have sold his Schwinn to play, and to my right, a young lady in her early thirties, staring into the glow of her Kindle at a page-slider of a novel titled The Fault in Our Stars, the latest in a spate of young-adult fiction being voraciously consumed by old-adults. Regular-aged-adults, anyway.

16-bit video games and teen-lit? Where have all the grown-ups gone?

Young-adults, according to the American Library Association, are readers between the ages of twelve and eighteen, although many authors of YAF proclaim that young-adult category includes readers up to the age of twenty-five, no doubt to widen their audience to those whom the authors are no doubt pleasantly surprised to find purchasing their children’s book.

 

A good story is a good story is a good story, no matter if it’s told through eloquent language and character development or a cave painting. But just as CGI blockbusters have overtaken the box office in lieu of the Hollywood heyday of The Godfather and Gone With the Wind being the top draws and Oscar winners, The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter have given today’s adult readers (i.e. book purchasers) the OK to zone out and let the story come to them – to hell with the language – as long as it moves quickly and every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. Today’s reader doesn’t want to have to work to get the story, mimicking as close as possible the passivity of watching TV with active participation needed to read a book. The same adults who read YAF are the same viewers who gave up on the show Lost during it’s fourth season, where math and science and philosophy were relied on heavily in order to not only advance the story but to make it more complex and immersive, if you were willing to do the work to make the connections. Unfortunately for Lost, the series finale gave the show back to the televisionites, eschewing all the science and philosophy connections for a purgatorial church and a golden stopper at the bottom of a cave. Go figure. It tried (and failed) in its last moments to please everyone.

Paradoxically, I’m not sure who is more loathsome: the adults who read children’s books because they think it counts as reading (which it does, technically, as does looking at road signs or a McDonald’s menus), or those who hear that the latest YA book is being made into an inevitable blockbuster, but they don’t in fact, read the book, because they don’t want to spoil the movie. Is reading something written for children better than not reading at all?

Of course. But only if you’re a child. 

A Song of Ice and Fire (“Game of Thrones” to the televisionites) isn’t necessarily excluded from that list. It is not written for young-adults. But it did, in fact, have to be introduced via television to the American public before it became a national book sensation. The only thing that bumps it out of the YA category, however, is the unending stream of sex, violence, and violent sex. It is by no means a masterpiece in the literary sense (although admittedly the story and characters are masterfully concocted), as can be seen by the phrases like “full in the face” repeatedly finding their way into the manuscript (“the sword caught him full in the face,” or, “and with his lobstered fist smashed him full in the face”) which is enough to make any decent reader – and every English major ever – cringe more than any detailed depictions of head-popping or finger-peeling.

If good stories and relatable characters, then, can break through redundant and childish language, why nuance the language at all? If books written for fifteen-year-olds are selling like hotcakes and being turned into Hollywood blockbusters while nobody has even heard of The Known World or Tinkers or George Saunders or Christopher Priest, what is the incentive for writers – at least those who desire to make a hugely successful career as authors – to write a book for its literary merit? To impress the NY Times? To win a Pulitzer? Unfortunately, writers are inadvertently hauled into the spiraling vortex of America’s increasingly blatant dumbing-down, and therefore are forced to perpetuate it by writing how their audience wants to read, as opposed to how they want to write, if they intend on making any money. 

Nor are the children themselves safe. What happens when a child sees his parents engrossed and praising a novel written for teenagers? A complacence in a low reading level will become the norm, and anyone who does appreciate and comprehend intelligent language and complex structure will be considered a snob at best and a freak at worst. And shame on any people that view intelligence as elitism or ambition as arrogance; such is the precursor to Newspeak and Big Brother (those are references to a novel you should have read, by a writer so brilliant that he could actually write a novel about talking animals which could only be fully understood by adults). If nothing more than in a literary sense, it is indeed getting harder and harder to tell the people from the pigs.

As when your father’s fashion sense stopped evolving at age 50 and he began sporting a t-shirt tucked into his sweatpants every day of his life, so will our reading comprehension cease to evolve if our adults display to our children that there’s no point in learning anything past middle school, that you shouldn’t have to put work into a story to get something out of it, that books…oh please no…are just like TV. Will learning to read be delayed, then? Or will the learning process simply slow down, since at age 15 our comprehension will already be where it needs to be? Will the alphabet be taught in fifth grade? Will The Cat In the Hat be summer reading in junior high? Are Dick and Jane growing up? We shouldn’t give shit about seeing her get boobs and him a driver’s license, we should be infinitely more concerned with seeing Dick and Jane read.