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 Stein’s opinions are so outdated that he might as well be wearing a straw hat and singing to us about the dangers of pool.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.