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On Snobbery and Books for Grown-Ups

April 3rd, 2012 · 25 Comments

Joel Stein is being roundly booed as a snob for opining in a recent Times roundtable that “Adults Should Read Adult Books” and steer clear of young adult fare. Maybe out of pure contrariness, I’m inclined to offer a qualified defense. It has to be qualified because, let’s face it, I’m a 33-year-old man with an extensive comic book library.  I even read all the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books, and I can’t see why that’s any worse a light entertainment than watching an action movie—which takes about as long. Nor—since he mentions the shame of seeing an adult crack one of these tomes on an airplane—are they appreciably less sophisticated or intellectually challenging than any number of spy thrillers, conspiracy yarns, and other airport bookshop staples. None of them contain prose as clunky or appalling as nominal “adult” author Dan Brown churns out. They even provide a broad form of common culture, an easy source of metaphors, because many more of us have time to blow through one of them on a lazy Sunday than can commit to tackling Ulysses or Infinite Jest—which means it’s hard to believe there’s some kind of one-to-one displacement effect.

All that said, while there’s often a surprising amount of thematic sophistication to mine in literature aimed at kids and teens, let’s not kid ourselves that it’s equivalent to what you’ll find in the best literary fiction. Well-rounded adults  need their share of that too, and some of the most rewarding of it can be hard going. Infinite Jest is an enormously fun book in many ways, but nobody’s going to honestly call it an easy read. Serious literature is too enjoyable to take an eat-your-lima beans approach, but like most really worthwhile things, it can be difficult, and there probably is some danger of getting so accustomed to a diet of effortless page-turners that we lose our ability to digest richer food.

Most of us, let’s admit, are fundamentally lazy: After working hard all day, who wants to work in their spare time? Even if we’d be glad we did it at the end, it can be hard to motivate ourselves to pick up Joyce when Rowling beckons, promising fewer demands. So in the same way that a little bit of physical vanity can be healthy, if that’s what it ultimately takes to get you out to the gym or the yoga studio a few times a week, maybe a dollop of snobbery is beneficial in the long run if that’s what pushes us to bear the initial mental strain of reading challenging fiction. Sure, ideally we wouldn’t need it: The intrinsic long-run rewards of the activity would be motivation enough. Ideally everyone would behave decently because it’s the right thing to do, and not out of fear of public shaming or legal penalties.

But realistically, we all need and employ all sorts of social commitment mechanisms to help us overcome akrasia and short term bias—to do what we reflectively know is better for us in the long term, rather than always and only what’s immediately pleasurable. (Of course, once we’re in the habit of working the relevant muscles, we get more immediate pleasure out of the “difficult” activity too.)  That is, ultimately, a huge part of what it means to grow up, to be an adult: Taking the long view rather than acting on your immediate desires and impulses—but the internal fortitude to do this develops through, and is sustained by, all sorts of external sanctions. Perhaps more so when it comes to our fictional diets, because it’s hard not to notice that you’re developing a paunch and getting winded climbing stairs after a few years of subsisting on junk food and skipping the gym—whereas the way our thinking and personalities are flattened when they’re starved of nutritious fiction can be hard to notice until you get back in the habit and realize what you’ve been missing.

So I’ll go ahead and say I think we’d probably be worse off in a world completely bereft of this kind of cultural snobbery. It’s hard to resist poking fun at the pretentious undergrad lugging some William Gaddis doorstop to the local café so everyone can see what they’re reading—but I’m not sure I’d prefer a world where grown men and women didn’t feel slightly sheepish about settling in with teen lit day after day instead. This probably isn’t an issue for the sort of wordsmith public intellectuals who felt inclined to comment on Stein’s squib: Of course they’re going to read plenty of adult fiction, and of course they’re right to bristle at anyone who’d sneer at them for throwing something a bit lighter into the mix. But that’s not a given for most adults, and a little nagging voice in the back of the head that says “Hey, you’re a grown-ass man/lady, shouldn’t you challenge yourself a bit?” is probably a net cultural asset.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Language and Literature


       

 

25 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ryan Cooper (@RyanLouisCooper) // Apr 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    I think you’re on to something in harnessing our baser instincts to get tough, but rewarding, things done. But I prefer to harness vanity rather than valorize snobbery. I think one should take pride in having read something “great,” both in that one feels smarter and more accomplished, and that one can brag about it later, but I don’t think reading kid books (or listening to Katy Perry, etc) should be a source of shame.

    Look up to people who read great works, don’t look down at people who don’t.

  • 2 K. Chen // Apr 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    I hate to be that guy who does nothing but quote famous authors, but I’m going to anyway.

    ‘Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

    And, to add something at least slightly original to that, the snobs are no small part of the incentives that divide talented authors into “serious/unserious” fiction. In a world with considerably less snobishness, all groupings of books might be better off, except perhaps literary fiction, which will lose its monopoly on auteur authors.

  • 3 K. Chen // Apr 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    That of course was C.S. Lewis, as I forgot to write.

  • 4 Fueled By Scotch // Apr 3, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    [...] is, however, a snob that Mr. Sanchez would like to stick up for. Sanchez is naturally more reasonable about it–like me, he has read Harry Potter and The [...]

  • 5 On Joel Stein and Literary Snobbery « Fueled By Scotch // Apr 3, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    [...] is, however, a snob that Mr. Sanchez would like to stick up for. Sanchez is naturally more reasonable about it–like me, he has read Harry Potter and The [...]

  • 6 Lindsay Lennox // Apr 4, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    I dunno. I’ve been defending both Harry Potter and Twilight for years now (why do I feel compelled to add here that I read an awful lot of grownup fiction too?) to adults who have the exact same scornful tone as Stein: “Let’s have the decency to let tween girls have their own little world of vampires and child wizards and games you play when hungry.” This doesn’t sound, to me, like a complaint that the books are insufficiently edifying for grownups. To me it sounds much more like a complaint from adults who DO NOT like re-engaging with the immature, (pre-)adolescent parts of themselves that might still respond to those books, dredging up years of teenage/preteen misery and insecurity that most would prefer be left dead and buried. Which is fair enough I guess, but seems to me like a private issue best addressed with one’s own analyst than a genuine aesthetic judgment about the books.

  • 7 Joe // Apr 5, 2012 at 10:05 am

    You’ve created a false dichotomy between Infinite Jest and The Hunger Games. Something like “The Corrections” or “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” would fit between the two: both much easier reads than Infinite Jest and both more adult than The Hunger Games.

  • 8 That Fuzzy Bastard // Apr 5, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I’ve often thought that part of What’s Wrong With The World Today is the loss of aspirational cultural consumption. Once, people listened to Leonard Bernstein’s classical music lectures, read big important doorstop books (of varying quality), or looked frowningly at Jackson Pollack pictures because there was an understanding that in order to be a grown-up, to be taken seriously, to be a fully paid-up member of society, you had to stretch yourself, you had to try things you didn’t immediately get, you had to try to see what the great minds saw in these abstruse works. But post-… I dunno, Pauline Kael?—enjoyment became all, and it was regarded as snobbish for a work to demand some work. Which is how we end up in a world where adults read children’s books, and don’t see what the problem is.

  • 9 Garrett // Apr 5, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    This whole debate smacks a lot of gender bias. I think we can’t ignore that The Hunger Games was a book written by a woman, with a female protagonist. (In fact, the three biggest targets in debates like this seem to be the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games, and Twilight, all written by women and all criticized for distracting supposedly otherwise “discerning” readers from more “substantial” literature. Yet, I remember that the Lemony Snicket books were praised for having deep literary allusions and being “difficult” enough for adults to “enjoy.”)

    Would people like Stein and Sanchez make the same critiques of people for reading “Lord of the Flies”?

  • 10 Nemo_N // Apr 5, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    “Most of us, let’s admit, are fundamentally lazy: After working hard all day, who wants to work in their spare time?”

    If you work hard all day, you are not lazy.

    Also, how come the fiction one reads has become a signal of maturity? It’s childish and creepy.

  • 11 That Fuzzy Bastard // Apr 5, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    @ Garret: Women are pretty prominent in both literary and YA fiction. Reading Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, or Jennifer Egan will make you smarter. Reading Potter/Twilight/Hunger will… Well, I won’t say “make you stupider”, but certainly give your brain less exercise.

    @ Nemo_N: It’s not about “signalling”—Sanchez talks about that at the very top of the essay. It’s about how much work your brain has to do to process the prose and events of the book. Make your brain work, and it will get used to work. Give it only easy tasks, and it will expect tasks to be easy, and rebel when things are hard.

  • 12 Julian Sanchez // Apr 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    Garrett-
    Well, again, I’m in no position to criticize people for reading some kidlit, but yes, I’d say an educated adult who ONLY reads stuff on the level of “Lord of the Flies” probably ought to stretch a bit. Nor do I think the argument changes all that much if we swap in C.S. Lewis and Margaret Atwood.

  • 13 Books & Literature | Pearltrees // Apr 6, 2012 at 8:06 am

    [...] On Snobbery and Books for Grown-Ups Joel Stein is being roundly booed as a snob for opining in a recent Times roundtable that “ Adults Should Read Adult Books ” and steer clear of young adult fare. Maybe out of pure contrariness, I’m inclined to offer a qualified defense. It has to be qualified because, let’s face it, I’m a 33-year-old man with an extensive comic book library. [...]

  • 14 James Kabala // Apr 6, 2012 at 8:38 am

    I am actually curious as to what qualifies a book as “adult” or “difficult” in your mind. Golding, Atwood, and Lewis (outside the Narnia books) certainly thought of themselves as writing for adults, even though they might not have had difficult prose styles.

  • 15 Barry // Apr 6, 2012 at 8:39 am

    Julian: “Nor—since he mentions the shame of seeing an adult crack one of these tomes on an airplane—are they appreciably less sophisticated or intellectually challenging than any number of spy thrillers, conspiracy yarns, and other airport bookshop staples.”

    Those are brain-stretching Works of Great Literature compared to the fluffy BS found in airport ‘business’ books.

  • 16 Mark // Apr 6, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    The only thing dumber than looking down on adults who read ‘young adult’ literature is taking the time to write an article about it.

  • 17 Julian Sanchez // Apr 6, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    James-
    Right, I was alluding to Atwood as an “adult” author, and with Lewis only meant the Narnia books. Obviously these aren’t particularly firm categories for purposes other than publishers’ marketing strategies, and “difficult” naturally varies greatly from person to person. Mostly I go by the Potter Stewart test.

  • 18 James Kabala // Apr 6, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    Sorry – I think I misinterpreted the comment.

  • 19 Cocktail Talk « Infinite Regress // Apr 6, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    [...] Julian Sanchez on reading snobbery. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Cocktail Talk blog, Cocktail Talk, News, Politics, Thoughts, Weekend ← A Song for Friday [...]

  • 20 Belle Waring // Apr 7, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    “It’s hard to resist poking fun at the pretentious undergrad lugging some William Gaddis doorstop to the local café so everyone can see what they’re reading”
    We should just keep on doing this because while Gaddis does not reach the oxygen-free heights of misogynist 20th cent fiction like Updike or something, he’s still at the ‘can barely breathe’ level (i.e. is a dick) and is, himself, pointlessly pretentious. So, go hand that poor undergrad student a copy of the Hunger Games or whatever so she can enjoy life a little.

  • 21 William Burns // Apr 8, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Maybe you can read an entire Harry Potter novel in the time it takes to watch an action movie, but you should not attribute your superhuman reading speed to the population at large.

  • 22 In Defense of Children’s Lit « Notes from a Small Place // Apr 9, 2012 at 10:10 am

    [...] Sanchez offers a well-reasoned but guarded defense of Stein. I think we’d probably be worse off in a world completely bereft of this kind of [...]

  • 23 Tom Richards // Apr 23, 2012 at 11:00 am

    It seems to me that we’re tangling rather a lot of notions into a single scale in a manner that’s rather confusing and serves no purpose I understand. In some cases, there may be correlations between these attributes, but I believe they are importantly distinct from one another, and that the correlations are far from perfect. Moreover, I think it’s plausible that some the correlations are contingent, harmful and reinforced by discussion along these mistaken lines.

    Perhaps we could talk about:

    1. Age of primary target readership
    2. Quality of prose
    3. Complexity of prose
    4. Merit on the level of ideas
    5. Quality of plotting

    Now, the above is not an exhaustive list of the qualities of a novel, nor does it preclude the possibility of other attributes less relevant to our current discussion (quality of characterization, for example, might be an important element of both 4. and 5.)

    I should probably also elucidate what I mean by each attribute, perhaps with the aid of examples.

    Proust’s prose is complex and good, while Capote’s or Orwell’s is simple and good. Brown’s is very bad and relatively simple, while Rowling’s is relatively bad and very simple. Published examples of complex, bad prose are rare, because for the most part no one would buy it and therefore no publisher will print it. Anyone who has ever encountered the literary efforts of Oxford undergraduates, however, will know what it looks like, and I’m sure the denizens of other such institutions produce similar tripe.

    Quality of ideas is of course a rather nebulous notion, but we could perhaps regard it is a book’s propensity to provoke worthwhile thought, be it about the vagaries of love, the nature of personal identity, the experience of daily life in 19th Century urban slums, the economics of hypothetical future societies or anything else. This is heavily intertwined with 3 and 5, since clearly ideas can be communicated either through the events described (as aspects of the partially specified possible worlds in which the action of the novel takes place) in a comparatively straightforward, descriptive manner, or in a more poetic fashion that is integrally bound up in the precise words chosen (as is largely the case with the likes of Proust). 5, however, encompasses a great deal that is irrelevant to 4: compulsive plotting need not be terribly thought-provoking, and it is folly to deny that compulsive plotting is a positive attribute in a book.

    Hopefully, it’s by now somewhat clear what I’m talking about. It should also be fairly clear that I regard 1 (as I’m sure you do) as an absolute red herring. You are supporting the case that adults (and presumably intelligent teenagers) should reasonably often read books which are in some sense substantial.

    What I’m less clear on is which sense. Is your case broadly that adults ought to read books which will lead them to think in new ways about important or interesting questions? If so, it seems prima facie possible that some young adult books could potentially qualify, even if most in fact do not (His Dark Materials, perhaps?). It certainly seems that extremely readable novels such as 1984, Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Pride and Prejudice would make the grade. Perhaps your contention is that the difficulty of reading works written in a dense, complex style is a virtue in itself – a workout for the brain, if you like – and that as such even comparatively bad complex stylists (Rand?) are in some important sense more to be valued than good simple ones, while compulsive plotting is, also in some important sense, actively a bad thing (perhaps Iain M. Banks’ Zakalwe novels don’t make us think as hard as they should about personal identity precisely because the plots are so rapid and exciting, while Othello would really be a much better play if a deal less happened in it).

    In sum, I think you have followed many others in assuming that it’s reasonably clear what we mean by “grown-upness” or “worthwhileness”, even if there are some borderline cases, whereas those concepts are in fact very far from primitive and possibly decidedly unhelpful.

    Particularly if, like me, what you really crave is fine ideas expressed through the media of elegant prose and a rip-roaring plot packed with murder, intrigue, romance and if at all possible battle scenes. The trouble these days is that nearly anyone with half a brain and a gift for expression has been brainwashed into sneering at battle scenes.

  • 24 Tom Richards // Apr 23, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Lovecraft! Lovecraft is an execrable stylist with a frequently convoluted style who is published and widely read.

    I knew there had to be one somewhere.

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