When I Was a Child, I Made Fun of Childish Things

Getting defensive over a sneering op-ed about what Adults should be reading

It’s entirely possible that Joel Stein is being sarcastic.

Maybe he got the request from The New York Times to participate in a discussion about adults reading young adult fiction, and his reaction was: “Seriously? After 15 years of Harry Potter book releases, the Twilight franchise, and The Hunger Games being on the NYT best seller list for eighty-four weeks, you’re going back to that well again?” So to protest, he responded with a completely over-the-top caricature of the Pretentious Insecure Twat that would be too implausibly asinine for anyone to possibly take seriously.

Or maybe he was just bored and wanted to see how many people he could piss off on Facebook, to promote sales for his new book. Maybe he’s trying to establish himself as the edgy guy who tells it like it is. Whatever the case: screw that. Irony and sarcasm are old news; sincerity is the big thing now.

And reading that article made me feel defensive. Not for enjoying books, comics, games, movies, and TV shows for a younger audience. I’m feeling defensive for always acting like there’s a problem with that in the first place.

I’ve realized that every time I write about an animated series, or a comic book, or a young adult book, I’m careful to qualify it in my description. So I’ll write 600-1000 words about a comic book convention, or a video game, or a cartoon, but I’ll make sure that everybody knows that I’m not taking it seriously or anything. All these years I’ve been as guilty of contributing to the perpetuation of douchebaggery as pieces like Stein’s, with the only difference being that I’ve been doing it without realizing it.

The problem isn’t one of substance, because there’s no substance in Stein’s piece. Instead of talking about the merits of any adult fiction past “I’m in the target demographic,” he talks about scoffing at people he sees reading inappropriate material in public.

The problem isn’t substance, but relevance. Stein’s opinions are so outdated that he might as well be wearing a straw hat and singing to us about the dangers of pool. Almost 25 years after the publication of Watchmen and decades of resulting discussions of comics as literature, in an environment where the video game industry is bigger than the film industry, and where Pulitzer Prize-winning authors hold panels with comic book authors about the dissolution of the idea of “genre fiction” in literature, Stein’s blanket dismissal just makes him seem like a relic. Someone so clueless as to use Donkey Kong as his go-to example of a video game.

And for that matter: for someone so concerned with being taken seriously, Stein should probably be aware that claiming not to know anything about The Hunger Games apart from “games you play when hungry” doesn’t make him look as literate as he believes. It makes him look like an idiot, completely unaware of his surroundings. I have even less interest in reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close than I do in reading Twilight or, for that matter, Freedom. But I could at least tell you what each is about.

Nature’s provided us with ways to quickly and easily identify things that will be toxic or dangerous. Brown spots on a piece of fruit indicate it’s unsafe to eat. Millions of pain receptors in our skin warn us when we’ve touched a hot surface. And whenever someone responds to a reference with the comment, “I don’t own a television,” it’s a clear signal to excuse yourself from the conversation and make as much distance as possible before they attempt to name-check Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.

Because that is the real problem. Raging against legions of Twilight-reading moms not living up to their full intellectual potential is arguing against a straw man, all the while insisting that you’ve shared some sort of insight. It’s the pseudo-intellectual equivalent of complaining about airplane food, unaware that it’s been years since airlines regularly served food. The people reading “young adult” books to the complete exclusion of “adult” ones are reading them because they get something out of them, something they’re unlikely to get from material that someone else tells them is more appropriate.

Besides, they’re mostly imaginary in the first place. Just the most cursory survey of reviews on Goodreads shows that most readers are better off than Stein (and for that matter, me), because they’ll read whatever they can get their hands on. I’ve seen plenty of readers who’ll happily jump from The Hunger Games to a Sookie Stackhouse novel to a Kazuo Ishiguro novel. Suggesting that they’re wasting their time on junk food does nothing to expand their intellectual horizons, but only reveals yourself to be an ass showing impotent disdain.

And I’ve never actually encountered one of these Twilight moms, who’ll read nothing but Harry Potter and the occasional Harlequin romance. But I’ve encountered plenty of people who make gut responses to a book, or a movie, or any piece of media, based solely on its genre or its target demographic. It’s easier (and lazier) to claim that that’s a case of being discriminating. Or to claim that it’s encouraging people to challenge themselves, instead of just reassuring themselves that it’s okay to enjoy stuff that has no intellectual content. It’s bullshit.

And that’s where I’m complicit in it. I read The Hunger Games, but instead of just appreciating its masterful pacing and pointing out its clever spin on the traditional love triangle in an age of constant media exposure and awareness, I felt the need to explain that I knew it was just a kids’ book. I loved the technical artistry and economy of silent, expressive storytelling in Wall-E and Up, but still felt weird for being a 40-year-old man watching a kids’ movie. I’ve enjoyed the pulp-adventure storytelling and amazing concept design in The Clone Wars series, but I try to keep it on the down-low since it’s on Cartoon Network.

This could potentially be an amazing time to be an artist. The walls between genres and even media are dissolving, and we’re seeing cross-cultural mash-ups, literary re-interpretations of pulp material, and young adult mash-ups of mythology and social satire. One of the best books I’ve read recently was about comic books, and another was a post-apocalyptic novel. With this kind of media saturation, the whole notion of limiting yourself — I only have so much time to read all the world’s great literature! — is an overly sentimental and ultimately silly anachronism. If you haven’t read Moby Dick by now, then you probably won’t. And really, that’s fine, since it’s made its way through culture enough that its themes have been re-interpreted and reincorporated dozens of times over.

When I was growing up, I developed a real sense of the stuff I read and watched for fun as opposed to the stuff that was supposed to be “good for me.” And it’s hard to let that go. But it’s completely irrelevant nowadays. Thousands and thousands of people have something to share, and they finally have the means to share it. You can choose to take part in it, or you can get left behind.

10 thoughts on “When I Was a Child, I Made Fun of Childish Things”

  1. Great article. I am one of those people that jumps around from YA books to “serious business” nonfiction books and dabbles around in fiction of all genres. What I look for most in a good book is a good story, I could care less what age it’s written for.

  2. As a mom (and an adult) I would guess that the majority of moms (and adults) probably give a fig what Joel Stein thinks. In the last month; I’ve read the Hunger Games and Salvage the Bones (a National Book Award Winner), eaten at McDonald’s and The Buckeye Roadhouse and watched both Bolt and The Artist. When someone offers to pay me to be a full time “intellectual” I’ll consider skimming the dross. Until then I will read/eat/watch (enjoy!) what I want and feel not a smidgy bit guilty about it. Furthermore, intellectual enrichment isn’t the only need a person has to be fulfilled. A Pynchon novel will hardly put a dent in my need to blow off steam at the end of stressful day and a bulgar wheat casserole will hardly take care of the urge for an ice-cream sundae.

  3. Preach it! I’m definitely not suggesting that we all have to start defending our tastes to people like Stein, just copping to the realization that I’m not helping whenever I try to make excuses for reading, say, a comic book instead of any of the 10 “classics” in my to-read queue.

    And also to point out how complaints about adults reading YA stuff are just completely misdirected. The people who do read YA to the exclusion of all else are unlikely to get a lot out of reading the Heartfelt Character Study of Thirtysomethings in Modern Society of the moment. And the people who read both — who are the majority — have no problem bouncing back and forth and finding merit in whatever they read or watch.

    When so many people (particularly in the GOP) are pushing anti-intellectualism disguised as populism, it doesn’t help to see so many people (typically on the left) pushing pretentious elitism disguised as anti-anti-intellectualism.

  4. So: Stein is a sneering jerk. And there’s no need to be defensive about anything you read. But it isn’t sneering to say that Pynchon and Wallace are attempting to do something different from Collins. (And it should be possible to talk about what’s great about them, or Heartfelt Character, etc. without it being seen as name dropping). The best short story I’ve read in the last couple of years (“Memory Wall,” by Anthony Doerr) is straight-up scifi. But it attempts and succeeds to say something about the human condition that, say, Neal Stephenson never goes for in thousands of pages (and I’ve read every page). Because Stephenson is writing what I would call pulp, which is to say a plot-driven work that doesn’t attempt to do anything more than tell a story. (That is a very quick and provisional definition and if it seems to be sneering I don’t mean it to be). There’s nothing wrong with pulp! And I don’t feel like reading Stephenson (or Collins) is a guilty pleasure–it’s a pleasure. But there is a difference in the goal of that kind of work, and you don’t have to rank one higher than the other to see that difference. That is different from saying one thing is “good for you” and one isn’t. Your tone seems to me to be a little sneering about Pynchon and Wallace (neither of whom has never written, for example, the Heartfelt Character Study of Thirtysomethings in Modern Society of the moment).

    Also, it seems to me that the applying the pigeonhole principle to sales figures pretty clearly demonstrates that those people who read *only* pulp do exist. It can and should be suggested that those people might enjoy works with different goals on occasion; it should be possible to do this by praising the good, not shaming people. For instance, have I mentioned that “Memory Wall” is fucking fantastic? Or “The Zero Meter Diving Team,” Jim Shepard’s story about Chernobyl? Because I would personally love it if works like that were part of the culture the way “The Hunger Games” is.

  5. I don’t see how this could come across as sneering at Pynchon and Wallace; I don’t know enough about Gravity’s Rainbow to even know what it’s about, much less to dismiss it. And Wallace wrote one of the most brilliant essays I’ve ever read, so I couldn’t possible be sneering at any of his work. What I will do, though — gleefully — is sneer at anyone who name drops them in a shallow attempt to appear superior. While referencing them isn’t always name-dropping, in Stein’s case it clearly is.

    And the quality of Wallace’s writing doesn’t change the fact that he’s been the Flavor of the Moment off and on at various points, especially whenever it’s convenient for someone to bemoan the state of adult literacy in the US. My opinion of Wallace is roughly equivalent to Gandhi’s often-quoted opinion of Jesus. (And I name-dropped Michael Chabon twice, and he was no less the Flavor of the Moment for a while there).

    The fact remains that I’m going to get a lot more out of a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel than I’m likely to get out of a Jonathan Franzen novel. And I’ll insist that Pratchett speaks no less to the human condition than any NYT book critic-approved “serious” author, the key difference being that he does it in a way that speaks to me.

    You seem to be reacting to my claim that “grown-up” literature needs to be as plot-driven as pulp if they expect people to read it. But I’m not making that claim. If anything, I’m saying the opposite: people should be reading anything they can get their hands on, regardless of how it’s labeled or categorized.

    And more important than that: I wish that people would more often make note of what pulp does well instead of just saying “they’re doing different things” and leaving it at that. People talk as if accessibility invariably equates to shallowness. But at the same time, a more “serious” work of literature can be praised as an experiment in form or style and still be considered valuable. So why do so many people, including those of us who have no problem with reading “pulp,” still dismiss it as the intellectual equivalent of junk food? Why not acknowledge what it does well, on its own merits, regardless of anything else?

    More specifically: The Hunger Games has sold so astoundingly well because it’s so well paced. It’s difficult not to read it within a day or two. Instead of being an ass like Stein, and equating it to Horton Hears a Who, why not acknowledge its pacing and accessibility as a quality? If I were working on my great American novel about the life experiences of a pudgy guy in video game development, I could either look at the ridiculous sales of Hunger Games and say “sure, dumb it down and people will read it,” or I could say, “how did Collins achieve something so eminently readable, and how can I apply her technique to my own writing?” It’s almost impossible that I’d ever achieve the same level of success, but it’d be less arrogant than just assuming that every step towards accessibility is a sacrifice of something meaningful.

    And as a side note to that: I don’t think you can conclude much of anything from the sales figures of pulp novels other than the obvious, which is that accessible novels are accessible. I’m not saying that the so-called Twilight Moms don’t exist at all; I’m saying that they’re not the overwhelming cultural phenomenon that pretentious types make them out to be. If anything, the fact that they’re so accessible makes it even less likely that that’s all people are reading — if it’s less of an investment, then it leaves more time to read other stuff. For the ones that do exist, sure, I’d encourage them to join book clubs and get recommendations of other works that would interest them. It’d just be a mistake to assume that they get nothing more than entertainment from reading “pulp,” or that they would of course be more enlightened after reading something more “literary.” Books speak to people in different ways for different reasons.

  6. And reading back over all this, I think there’s a much simpler counter-argument that I may have been missing: it could sound like I’m advocating Cliff’s Notes culture. Saying that “high art”/”low art” or “adult”/”young adult” or “literature”/”pulp” are all equivalent, so watching the “Mobius Dick” episode of Futurama is the same as reading Moby Dick.

    I’m not, of course, mostly since that’d be such a specious argument I can’t imagine anybody taking it seriously. The idea I’m trying to get across is that instead of drawing a hard line between art that’s “good for you” and pure entertainment, we should acknowledge how entertainment isn’t always just empty calories.

    1. Yeah, I guess I had the general impression that was what you were saying (didn’t you say something similar in earlier blog posts, about not buying the division between high art and low art, or am I misremembering that?)

      I am in the opposite position as you, having read Franzen but not Pratchett (and I’m not in love with Franzen). But surely at some level what you get out of a book is more dependent on what’s there to get than who you are. Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, right?

      1. Possibly. I’ve never read Tolstoy and as far as I’m aware don’t have any Zulu blood, so the context could be completely different. I do happen to think context shouldn’t be dismissed on the grounds that “real art is timeless,” since I do insist that art is about communication, and relevance is a huge part of communication. Even if, say, Anna Karennina really does have more complex things to say about the human condition than say, Small Gods, the Discworld book is more likely to resonate with me since I’m more tuned to comedy fantasy worlds than 19th century Russia.

        Undoubtedly there’s some notion of an objective level of “literary value” in a book — several of the Discworld books, for instance, are simply parodies — so I’m not at all suggesting that all literary works are interchangeably complex and valuable. I’m saying that it’s more of a Schrodinger’s Cat situation: my interpretation of the work has the potential to kill any complex ideas contained inside. The division between high art and low art that I’m talking about is how far you go to make those ideas accessible: is it enough simply to translate it from Russian to English, or do you have to add robots?

        I’m not saying that “high art” and “low art” are always interchangeable, I’m saying that the distinction is unnecessarily dismissive and limiting of “low art.” I read The Unvanquished by William Faulkner around the same time that I read Watership Down by Richard Adams. (Not exactly “low art,” but often described as a “children’s book.”) I can’t remember a damn thing about The Unvanquished except it had something to do with the Civil War. But I can still remember tons of details about Watership Down.

        Now, I can remember tons of details from The Far Side comics that I read at the same time, too, but that doesn’t mean they’re great literature. But Watership Down, despite being just a “children’s book,” had ideas about religion, belief, suffering, and inevitability that stuck with me and have subtly altered how I’ve thought about things in the almost 30 years since I read it. So which one is more valuable?

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