So, there’s this series of children’s books about this kid wizard. You’d think that wasn’t special. And, in some ways it isn’t. A lot of popular books these days are teen fiction, or children’s lit. Popular books often spawn popular sequels. Popular books often become popular movies. And the wizard is a staple of fiction. As a long term thrower of the polyhedral dice I can safely say, “I love wizards.” But these books are different. I like my wizards throwing fireballs, telling people not to pass or melting people’s brains—not fixing eyeglasses or taking magic trains that operate in the same way as regular trains. Anyway, I don’t hide my disdain for the Harry Potter series. That being said, sometimes I don’t advertise this fact because it is apparently a great crime to not like these books and as soon as you say you don’t like them someone invariably wants you to qualify your opinion. Or, at least they think they do. Once that conversation begins and you say, in my case ad nauseum, why you don’t like them the listener almost immediately wants you to stop talking. Their response is usually, “Well, I love them” or “Well, they’re for children.”[i] It reminds me of all those Christmas movies that involve kidnapping someone who doesn’t love Christmas more than anything and strapping them down like that scene in Clockwork until they come to the conclusion that not loving Christmas is like hating life. My declaration of not liking Harry Potter means something to its fans that is, it seems, beyond my grasp. Sometime I might put to paper why I don’t like the content of these particular books but not today. Anyway, it is the “for children” label that continues to fascinate me. Textually, they might be for children. The protagonists are kids. The language is fairly simple. The vocabulary is accessible. But these books reach a much wider audience. Now, some might point to the series’ universal appeal. While that may be true, and perhaps shouldn’t be taken for granted as a necessarily positive quality, it doesn’t change the fact that on a fundamental level adults are reading children’s books. Or books for teenagers. Or young adult fiction. Adults don’t just read books about kid wizards. Adults read books about kid vampires. Adults read books about a kid archer. Adults read books about kids on polar bears. And if I read more children’s books I would have more examples.
Reading is almost universally lauded. Reading a book is supposed to be good. Everyone has heard, “it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you read.” And people seem to actually believe this. I’ll go out on a limb here—I don’t think that reading any book is a great thing. Ignoring the tautological logic, the reading of books is lauded for teaching people to read. Wait, I can’t ignore it—of course it does—by definition. Punching lemmings teaches one how to be a great lemming puncher. This doesn’t mean that you should punch anything. Anyway, one of the tacit assumptions of those that triumph reading as a good unto itself relies on another assumption—namely, that reading one book will lead to the reading of a more challenging book. Marvin K. Mooney leads to The Hardy Boys leads to Naked Lunch leads to Gravity’s Rainbow. Or something like that. Most people, I think, have an idea of different reading levels. And not just in terms of narrative content, e.g. that stories about wizards are for kids and stories about the people Anaïs Nin had sex with are for adults, but that, for instance, the use of allusion or metaphor takes a certain level of thought and/or knowledge to understand and, say, chewable books are appreciated on more of a “surface level.”[ii] Now, ideas of reading levels have been critiqued in their rigidity and use in policing certain ideas and who should have access to information. I’m not saying these things aren’t worthy of debate. Young-adult might mean anyone twelve to eighteen or it might mean something else. However, I am certain that it does not refer to someone who is forty-seven. I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow and admit that I constantly felt that there were themes and meanings outside my understanding. As a child, I remember being encouraged to read “above my reading level.” In other words, I felt encouraged to read material that was, for whatever literacy level I had, challenging. And I tried. Some of those stories I enjoyed reading. But even the ones I remember enjoying certainly contained things that went above my head, maybe even considerably. Now, what are the effects of adults consistently reading at a children’s level? It’s better than nothing. And that is probably true. Yet, I still think we take for granted the almost axiomatic declaration that reading anything is awesome. Some books are crap. Some books are good. But I just can’t get behind triumphing the positive cultural influence of the third Twilight book.[iii] And there might be other effects on so many adults who consistently read at a primary school level.
It often it feels like the literary world we live in consists of people reading a children’s series of books, waiting for the next one to be released while they reread a different children’s book from another series. I remember being made instantly aware the day that either a kid wizard or kid vampire book was released because you would see people carting copies everywhere that day as if this was some of sort of sign that they belonged to the Freemasons or Illuminati. In fact, I remember being in the airport the day the third last Harry Potter book was released and seeing a sea of the dust jackets as dozens of people waiting to go somewhere read that book. Put another way, it seems like a handful of series—again, intended for children or young-adults— have the same type of media oligopoly you see everywhere else. And this shouldn’t be surprising when you think about the centralizing of media amongst a handful of oligopolies you see everywhere else. While the Beatles may have been great, a consensus I prescribe to, the monopoly they had on ears in the 1960s also had an impact on lesser known artists remaining, well, lesser known. In a society that ostensibly values pluralism, like the one I live in, the dominance of such a small group of literary works, regardless of their quality, doesn’t seem like a positive thing. I don’t think anything should be that popular because it also means we are closer to thinking and feeling the same way as each other. And I like difference. I like dialogue. I think one of the reasons that the Harry Potter fans I meet are often unable to articulate their love of these books is that they are so rarely challenged. They haven’t had to think about it. Debate isn’t just a process of changing opinions, it can also strengthen and affirm the things were already think and feel. The power of popular opinion is that its own popularity becomes its justification. But, anyway, the question I keep thinking about is: What are the effects of adults consuming so much culture aimed at children?
I remember when people thought Huey Lewis was cool. [iv] The surprising thing about this fact isn’t that people thought Huey Lewis was cool, but that anyone listened to records recorded by someone in their mid-thirties who wasn’t already looking back at a twenty year career. And that really young Canadian spreading fever is just one of an increasing number of celebrities who look like they should be playing with Easy Bake Ovens, worrying about their parents’ reaction to their grass stains and saving the marshmallows in their cereal for the end because they are the best part.[v] When I was younger people were older. Reading level aside, what does it mean when the majority of culture watched, read, and listened to, is made for children? Looking back at my experience growing up, at least as far as I have grown up, I don’t think I was at a loss for images of adults, both positive and negative. Movies were about adults. TV shows were about adults. Even G.J. Joes looked old. Look at Dr. Mindbender and tell me that guy isn’t 52. Or Shipwreck’s surely disposition?[vi] That guy is at least 46. Anyway, musicians were older. Fictional characters seemed old enough to possess the careers they possess. The police on television actually looked old enough to be police. That’s why 21 Jumpstreet worked. Because not every fictional police already looked like they were twenty. How will the film remake work, out in theatres soon, when police already look so young? Jonah Hill, the film’s star, is the same age as Sarah Jones, the lead police[vii] in Alcatraz. In the 1980s teen comedy was a sub-genre. Now, all comedies are teen comedies. People just used to be older. Even the people on Thirtysomething looked fortysomething.
Some of reasons behind our Lost Boys culture are clear to me.[viii] Parents viewing habits are determined to a large extent by what their children watch. Going to see a movie is expensive. Companies don’t like to make R-rated movies anymore because making a movie for an undifferentiated audience means selling more tickets. Despite some of the ideals of say, rock or punk, specific to youth, musicians often used to be older, even if only in their twenties, because learning how to perform musical instruments takes time and practise and many contemporary musicians aren’t musicians in the sense that they know how to read music and hit drums, keys, or strings. I wonder if someday the 27 Club might be replaced by the 17 Club. I understand the desire to feel young in the sense that it would be nice if it were easier to shed some weight or not feeling so tired all the time or not wanting quite so many responsibilities. But I don’t really understand the need for adults to find Edward so dreamy.
People worry about the effect on young people watching sexualized images of youth, but what of the effects of adults watching the latest slightly-talented, well-marketed, underage songstress shaking her everything? Who are they bringing with those milkshakes? The common consensus seems to be that “kids these days grow up so fast.” But what about our adults? One of the ways we mature is by watching how the people older than us interact and behave. So, how does one grow up, constantly bombarded by images of children? Sometimes it seems that at the same rate children are maturing, adults are being infantilized. One of the loftier purposes of culture is advancing new ideas and the sharing of as-of-yet unpopular opinion. But what does a fifteen year old really have to say let alone one of T&T’s toddlers? And this only touches upon the visibility of the elderly in my culture, people I haven’t seen since J.B. was solving crimes all up in Cabot Cove and those four ladies in wicker furniture were making me laugh.[ix] Not to say that we can’t learn something from people younger than us but it should not be at the expense of learning from people who have been alive longer than we have.
[i] For whatever reason, they always begin with “well.”
[ii] Because you chew the surface.
[iii] BTW, this is totally the best one.
[iv] Technically, he was hip.
[v] They are the best part.
[vi] One of my favourite things about G.J. Joe is that Shipwreck is clearly Buddusky, Jack Nicholson’s character in Ashby’s The Last Detail.
[vii] In fact, her character is already a homicide detective.
[viii] I’m also aware of the fact that it is often adults that are producing this children’s culture. The people writing these books aren’t teenagers, although that dragon kid was fifteen when he started writing. Record producers and publishers are older too.
[ix] Ignoring all the Betty Davis stuff these days, The Golden Girls is actually still funny.