Thursday, January 15, 2015

Where is our Literary Culture Headed?

by Warren Adler @WarrenAdler

Where is our literary culture headed?
I have always regarded adult fiction as an indispensable endeavor that offers insight into the human condition, excites one intellectually and emotionally, and is truly worth the investment of time and concentration.

My generation read deeply of the works of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, O’Hara, and hundreds of others, as well as the glorious classics written by Dickens, Thackeray, Balzac, Flaubert, Mann, Twain, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Proust, and many, many others who form the canon of great works of literature. We weren’t necessarily academics or specialists in the study of these works. We largely read for pleasure and to inspire and absorb ideas that then helped us navigate the shoals of our complicated lives.

We graduated into these works from young adult fare that had set the stage for future appreciation of literature and formed a lifelong habit of reading as our principal mode of gaining insight. Thus, we learned to profit from those leisurely moments that are essential for a fulfilling life.

As a child, I did cut my teeth on comic strips and eagerly followed The Adventures of Smilin' Jack, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Gasoline Alley, Flash Gordon, and many others newspaper strips throughout the country. We called them "Funnies." Our Saturday movie fare consisted of comic book characters, like Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon, becoming real people in a continuing saga, dubbed “chapters,” which would always end in a cliffhanger to be continued at the next Saturday’s matinee.

Then came the comic book era.
Then came the comic book era, with Superman, Batman, and other superheroes rendered in colorful drawings with dialog balloons in staple-bound magazines.

Radio also held sway in those days and we kids couldn't get enough of the adventures of The Shadow, Omar the Tentmaker, and Inner Sanctum with its scary, creaky-door opening sound.

Then, I grew up.

I turned away from comic books and those wonderful serial books, over which I had haunted Stone Avenue Library in Brooklyn. I outgrew the excitement of the movie serials and limited the horror fare and Flash Gordon's adventures. I also outgrew some brief childhood flings with fantasy, horror, zombies, vampires, and other books that had radio and movie crossovers.

I must have been around fifteen years old at the time, but I began to upscale into semi-adult reading like Treasure Island, Albert Payson Terhune’s numerous books about dogs, and the enduring works of Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling. Who can forget David Copperfield and The Jungle Book?

But I was growing older, and so the comic books, book serials, and childhood flings no longer interested me. They were always around, of course, but did not seem to dominate the popular culture.

Now these genres attract hordes of fans.
Now these genres, including fantasy, horror, zombies, and vampires, are back with a vengeance, attracting vast hordes of fans—including, to my shock, people that are, outside the age of the young teenage demographic (which is still the golden target audience of these products).

So, my question to everyone is: Why the phenomenal upsurge? How come these genres are soaring back? Why are comic book characters, returning in new wrappers, attracting millions worldwide to graphic novels, television shows, movies, and even video games? Does it have something to do with wishful thinking about empowerment? Perhaps.

I do not understand the enormous fascination with zombies and vampires, including groups who are well beyond the genre’s target demographic. Indeed, I have a friend in his fifties, a top executive at a major computer company, who admits to being addicted to books about zombies.

Some say it is because real life is so fraught with problems and insecurity. They say that the doom and gloom retailed by the media and politicians turns us away from reality, and so we escape into fantasy, the unreal, anything that turns our attention away from the terrors of modern life. Others say it is merely our culture inventing new forms of communication, reinventing and embellishing old cultural trends through the transformative wonders of literature’s modern technology. Still, others say that this is a passing phenomenon.

I hate to think of it as a manifestation of our decline, which some have postulated, a kind of dumbing-down of American culture. I offer this later idea not as a flip or inflammatory insult to those thousands who flock to this kind of fare, but as a somewhat biased, informational observation. Admittedly, it could be evidence of stubborn literature elitism on my part. Believe me, I have no quarrel with folks who love and enjoy these categories. I did when I was a teenager. But why are adults gobbling them up? Why is purveying this material increasingly profitable? Will it last? Where is our culture heading? Is it good or bad?

There is a vast diversity of human interests and the slicing and dicing of categories of human endeavor. As they say, “different strokes for different folks.”

Was it always thus, or have I lost touch with what motivates Americans of upcoming generations? This is a possibility that I contemplate with very personal alarm.

But, please, don't condemn me for asking. I am open to explanations and enlightenment. 

Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments section below!



  1. I love <3 books.

  2. What a privilege. I love <3 books.

  3. I learned to read on those Funnies when I was 5! I think people read to escape. I know I do. When I pick up a book, I can leave my problems and the world's problems behind and get lost in whatever world my book populates. And I don't have a clue as to why books about zombies and vampires are so popular. :-)

  4. forgot to leave my email: pat at ptbradley dot com

  5. Great questions in this post. I love <3 books.

  6. A great post and one with which I completely agree. When I see adults whose favorite characters are cartoons, I have to wonder.

    I don't have an answer to the question of why. I'm not sure there is a concrete answer. But a major factor seems to be a loss of willingness to take the time to do things that might be difficult but are definitely worthwhile, like reading the classics. Most people want things fast and easy; painless and enjoyable. If that's your mindset, you won't be interested in Tolstoy or Dickens.

    By the way, this is a Western Civilization phenomenon. I don't believe for a minute that the cultures that have remained true to their traditions and cultural history are chasing after every trend, fad, and phantasm that passes by.

    There are also a lot of people looking for something they aren't even aware that they've lost. Ironically, they're looking in all the wrong places!

  7. Here's where STORY must be separated from MEDIUM. (Okay, we all read Marshall Mcluhan, too, right?)

    Just because a movie is presented in animated form doesn't make it dumbed-down. Look at movies like UP or TOY STORY to see the human condition examined from both sides. And shoot-em-up caped hero movies are epics of good-vs-evil, a little issue we seem to have tossed aside in our drive to prove that nothing is either good or evil. Yes, there is good and there is evil. Call me old fashioned.

    As for the zombies--my goodness! Don't you see the mindless media-addicted hordes in those stories? Nowadays it's fashionable to offer some science-y explanation for the zombies, vampires, and werewolves, but it's still an examination of What Makes Us Human?

    I have no defense to offer for paranormal romance other than to note that, in the real world, all barriers to love have been removed. In order to provide some conflict, writers have thoughtfully given us inter-species romance. Just ugh.

    But please, take a look at the STORIES. Don't make snap judgments based on the form of the art. In fact, if you look at the development of art itself (painting), and remember that most of the new styles were not accepted when they first appeared, you will see parallels with our "new" literature.

    Now that I think of it, much of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology involves interspecies romance. I didn't like it in the myths, either.