Publishers are ignoring America's young readers

BOOKS; THE ARGUMENT

No one should blame the under-30s' indifference to books on the kids -- they're being neglected.

August 22, 1999|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,Special to the Sun

On page 371 of his hyped-up media novel "Turn of the Century" (Random House, 659 pages, $24.95), Kurt Andersen describes a self-conscious, dispirited, middle-aged married couple glumly meeting on a cloudy afternoon. "[The wife] gives a minimal one-shouldered shrug, lighting her Marlboro and squinting down the street toward the bright disk of sun behind the clouds. In her twenties, [she] gave up reading short stories. Right now she remembers why. They all felt just like this moment." Readers of "literary" short stories, and "literary" novels for that matter, know exactly what kind of work Andersen is describing -- a subset of well-crafted fiction that dwells on moments of tiny defeat, spinning glum observations into sham epiphanies.

"Literary" magazines and college writing programs are jam-packed with this aesthetic; it's genre fiction, as easy to spot as any other genre, western or mystery or Scottish boarding school, and it in no way represents the gaudy spectrum of great American writing that is flourishing these days. But for a lot of young readers, all fiction is as punishing as the dull short stories Andersen indicts. Despite all the bookstore cafes, reading groups and hip designer jackets, the bottom has dropped out of the young-reader marketplace. And even if they do come back to books, it will be on their own terms, without even the faintest gesture in the direction of the last couple of generations' classics.

The figures are startling. After eight years of tracking the daily activities of 24,000 men and women between the ages of 18 and 99, a market research group in Illinois reported that people younger than 30 now are reading barely half as much as people over 50. And according to the Book Industry Study Group, which tracked the reading habits of 16,000 households, readers younger than 25 bought 20 percent fewer books last year than in the year before.

(This in the same year that MTV's ratings rose 36 percent and the network began adding more text and narrative to its programming, as many as a dozen sentences or sentence fragments scrolling beneath Korn, Britney Spears and Foxy Brown videos.)

The newest modes of cultural transmission -- niche TV, the Internet, direct-demographic magazines -- trump the old modes of cultural transmission -- newspapers, network TV, teachers -- in the minds of young readers. You could very well argue that the book marketplace is a last bastion of baby-boomer-and-older pop-cultural supremacy. But even the most established literary institutions know that they've got to get new blood.

Take the New Yorker. Its 1999 summer fiction issue is devoted to 20, ahem, "young" writers. It's a dense, often thrilling mix of stories by mostly well- established writers. Two of the writers I've never actually read before, Edwidge Danticat and Sherman Alexie, converted me right on the spot. And my two favorite writers in the mix, Matthew Klam and A.M. Homes, contributed stories that stand with their distinctive best.

Klam has the funniest story, an insanely upscale wedding, and Homes has done something utterly new: her story, "Raft in Water, Floating," is a piece of hallucinatory music that reminded me of a cross between Paul Bowles "The Little Prince" and some cheesy early-Eighties teen-age sex comedy. But, um, sheesh -- couldn't they have done something about the full-page ad that sits smack in the middle of this lunar-hip youthful story? Yes, I'm talking about the Viagra ad on page 115, the photograph of an older gentleman dancing "Bridges of Madison County" style with his lucky lady friend.

Regardless of the lame contextual irony, the ad tells you truly who's supposed to be reading the magazine.

In the three or so years that I taught creative writing to freshmen at Johns Hopkins, through 1997, I never had one student -- not one! -- who'd admit to having read a short story in the magazine. I'd photocopy them, pass them out -- usually "White Angel" by Michael Cunningham or "Push" by Sapphire. These were operatic stories with young protagonists, and they knocked my students out.

These were stories that I'd use like bribes so the kids would read the department-assigned James Joyce and Alice Munro stories that, whoa, I'm sorry, stopped class cold. Freshmen thought the stories were "depressing," thought the protagonists were "losers." They didn't mind tragedy, and God knows they loved the narratives of heroes; what they couldn't bear were the fictions that lingered in gray moments of indecision, that seemed to celebrate resignation -- the emotions were too contagious, so my young readers consciously shut them out.

It's not that they weren't smart enough; it's not that they weren't intuitive or discerning readers. It's just that the last thing they wanted was to be told that life was fair-to-middling and brownish-gray when all they had to do was look around them and see that it was far better than that for most of the time and, when it wasn't, it was far, far worse.

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