Terence Smyre and Joel Puchalla form the dyad that is the editorial wing of the University of Nebraska Press’s journals department. Their offices, and hearts, share a common wall—though not a physical coronary septum, which would be weird. They envision these discussions as being a quarterly—duh, journals—look into their workplace discussions.
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TS: Joel, a high priest of our nerd order made some interesting comments recently, suggesting—by way of Baudrillard—that as a society we’ve become “infantilised” through a combination of insidious and unspecified “dominant forces” and our own penchants to occupy ourselves through comforting distractions (i.e., everything nerds like you and me love). As you might imagine this fired up warning claxons throughout some genre watering holes, all the more because those comments came from the likes of zombie-fighting, starship-saving Simon Pegg. This played out in a number of my feeds, but the source that really secured my attention was the /Film article here. Did you happen to see it?
JP: Eh, I always thought of myself more as a geek, or maybe a dweeb. I didn’t even watch the original Star Wars trilogy until the 1990s theatrical re-release. And maybe that’s why I don’t really have a problem with what Pegg said. My initial reaction is that it is an interesting hypothesis, though it is clearly more nuanced than Pegg’s initial claim that everything after Star Wars sacrificed substance for spectacle. There are movies that support his hypothesis (paging Michael Bay), but I can think of others that certainly don’t. In fact, many of the movies that I can think of with political/social commentary undertones are the same superhero movies that are supposed to be infantilizing us. Though, when you look at the highest grossing films in history, more seem to support Pegg’s claim than not. Perhaps there is some credence to his statements. Lately I’ve been thinking about the rise in popularity of young adult (YA) fiction among adults. Now, I’m not disparaging YA fiction. I think the genre has produced some great books in the last ten to fifteen years. Certainly, much of what is labeled YA is often so labeled because the protagonist is a young adult. Yet, it still seems jarring that 55 percent of YA readers are over eighteen. Beyond statistics, it’s something I’ve observed when discussing books with friends and family, too: many seem to really like or even primarily read YA fiction.
TS: Word to the wise, friend: don’t admit you haven’t read the Harry Potter books. Nothing good comes of it. Not having read YA myself I may be speaking out of turn, but from my incidental contact it’s clear that not only the market for them has grown substantially but that many of the works consider more mature themes in fairly nuanced ways than what was available to me (in the dark ages before the dawn of the Tweens). Think Bunnicula against The Fault in Our Stars. But still, it’s curious that so many outside the expected target group tend to flock to those materials so regularly. Is that a “dominant force” at work, or is it simply the market’s response to public demand (to feel young again)? I don’t know. I’m not sure it even matters. But it’s annoying to watch the nonfiction and “General Literature” sections of local stores get sacrificed for shelves of “Teen Supernatural Fiction” and action figures from recent Marvel movies or computer games. Maybe those shelves are lined with pure gold, but why aren’t other more challenging materials being consumed at levels enough to sustain their shelf space? And by challenging I don’t simply mean content only suitable for adults, but material that requires critical engagement and intellectual reflection. Are we simply so scared of actual matters of the day (communicable disease, climate change) that we need the constructs of the fantastical (zombies, frozen zombies) to obliquely engage with and discuss them? And if so, why are we pushing that burden onto the next generation so enthusiastically? Or should I trip over the obvious and launch into a tirade about cell phones and dwindling attention spans, etc. Help me out. You’ve read Infinite Jest. You know stuff now.
JP: Oh boy, Infinite Jest and The Fault in Our Stars. I’m actually glad you brought both of those up. I haven’t read TFIOS, but my wife has and found it enjoyable. Though I am aware of one early scene in which the male protagonist espouses his reason for holding unlit cigarettes between his lips: “‘They don’t kill you unless you light them. . . . And I’ve never lit one. It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.'” Now that’s an eye roller if I’ve ever heard one, and I may have audibly laughed when I first heard it in the trailer for the movie, but it’s also a spot-on depiction of a seventeen-year-old who is both thoughtful and inexperienced in the world (cancer or no). David Foster Wallace once said “fiction’s about what it is to be a [expletive] human being.” That scene from TFIOS is what it is to be a seventeen-year-old human being. That’s why it’s good; I’d venture that’s why the entire book is so loved. Speaking of DFW, in his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” he wrote
The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.
Does that sound like YA fiction a little to you? Risking the accusations of sentimentality and melodrama, because that is what it is to be young in America? Yet also in the same essay he wrote of television: “Television’s biggest minute-by-minute appeal is that it engages without demanding. One can rest while undergoing stimulation. Receive without giving.” I’m not willing to say all or even most YA fiction fits that description, but you can see in his thoughts the defense for a difficult book like Infinite Jest. Which, for our purposes here, serves as sort of the opposite of infantilized entertainment. It is a book that asks much of the reader. It is not a text that will allow the reader to receive without giving. Which I think is okay and even good from time to time. I got lots of puzzled responses to my quest to finish IJ, from a wide variety of people, including heavy readers, and friends with various levels of English degrees. And it’s anecdotal, but nobody questioned my wife reading TFIOS, even though she was outside the target audience.
TS: Wait, are you suggesting that Wallace anticipated the rise of YA fiction or that what we (mis)label as YA fiction is instead nothing more than an expression of the next cultural movement, post-postmodern, where the onus of difficulty isn’t so much in its consumption or construction than with grappling with how to reconcile its unambiguous messages with existing constructs? I’m not convinced that’s what you’re saying, but I’m enamored with the idea now. What would that movement’s tenets be? And what would we call it? Supernatural optimism? Infinite crisis? Effervescent ennui?
JP: I don’t know if I’m honestly suggesting such things, but it’s fun to think about. We could call such a school Post-Marioism, in a head nod to DFW’s character Mario Incandenza from IJ―who is, in part due to his disabilities, completely unjaded and eternally earnest and sincere. But we’re digressing from our friend Shaun Riley. . . err, new Scotty. . . err, Simon Pegg. Here’s my problem with the reaction to Pegg’s comments: it’s possible for someone to express an opinion and for society to have an intelligent discussion about said opinion without the opinion being perfectly correct or completely incorrect. Or at least it should be possible. There is probably some truth to Baudrillard-by-way-of-Pegg’s theory. That’s okay. Perhaps that’s just the nature of popular culture. Circling back to quote from DFW’s “E Unibus Pluram” again: “Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be really similar in their vulgar and prurient and stupid interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests.” That seems pretty fair. Movies are big business. Therefore lowest common denominator wins.
TS: Okay, so we scratch The Real Housewives and Honey Boo-Boo (not literally!) and accept the market influences that govern the world of cinema—though as you suggested earlier and which we talk about often, there is compelling subtext running through the veins of many movies you wouldn’t expect that level of complexity or informed commentary from, say Batman and Captain America. But I’m not sure we’ve adequately answered your question about the proliferation of YA among adults in the face of dwindling enthusiasm for material that isn’t marketed as “popular.”
JP: Well, I think the misstep in Pegg’s reasoning is making the assumption that the entertainment we choose is the only signifier of how infantilized we are as a population. Life is complicated. Take all the things in Average Person X’s life: aging parents, young children, work, commute, friends, family, home maintenance, financial burdens, etc. Now give them a chance to sit down with a book that not only mirrors the difficulties of their lives but also asks them to bring intellectual rigor to their reading. I can see why people are looking for something that is “relaxing.” I liked depressing movies much more when I was seventeen than I do now. Why? Because life is pretty depressing sometimes, so I don’t like my movies to amplify the condition. While I tend to choose books differently than the person I just sketched out above, that doesn’t mean there aren’t nights when I don’t want to pick up a difficult book out of sheer exhaustion, both mental and physical. The other side of that argument is that sometimes the reward for the difficult read is much greater, and can even help you deal with the real life difficulties the book is mirroring. That’s why I don’t exclusively choose “easy” reads.