Thursday, March 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Why I'm not worried about the Generation of the Book

This post was first published 24 April 2012 in a slightly different version.

The other day, I was wandering aimlessly through the campus of Pacific Lutheran University (these things happen) so of course, I stopped and wandered into their bookstore.

As I walked in, I noticed that a longstanding prediction of mine was coming true: All of the displays were YA books. Every last one of them. Down the aisles, they were selling required reading and textbooks, but the endcaps and the tables were piled with books that are generally considered "Young Adult" titles.

It hit me: The Harry Potter Generation has taken over.

(Cue instant graying of hair.)

My generation, "Generation X" has many names. We're GenX, the MTV Generation,the 13th Generation, and my favorite from France: "Génération Bof". (Bof means "Whatever".) Whatever you call us, we are the children who cut our teeth on Sesame Street and the Electric Company. Our childhoods brought us Star Wars, ET, Indiana Jones, and MTV. We sent MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice up the pop charts and turned around a few years later and supplanted them with Pearl Jam and Nirvana. And we have been told that we're the last generation to learn cursive script and the last to learn to type on a typewriter.

We are a disparate lot. We read, sure, but it wasn't a Thing with us. And I certainly don't recall us riding into college on a wave of our own literary tastes. In fact, we arrived and smacked into a wall of our parents' literary tastes and were ordered to climb it.

This seems better to me somehow.

And although the generational naming thing is more a product of news headlines than science, after us came what is often called "Generation Y" who are most noted for growing up never having known a world without an internet. These are the so-called "digital natives" the culture of the electronic. Yet I am inclined to think they might more properly be known as the generation that put their foot down and demanded their own literary canon.

For all the pissing and moaning about a generation that doesn't recognize originality, or is addicted to plagiarism, the Millenials (as we're calling them at the moment, apparently) are carving original niches out of every genre. It is a generation that breathed life into Tumblr and Youtube, and gave backbone to Steampunk.

Is it a mashup culture? Certainly, but culture has always been about the mashup. The Lord of the Rings is a mashup of Arthurian Legend, Norse Sagas and the Bible. I mentioned this in my post about SOPA: Our society's conversations have always been awash with quotes from Rhett Butler not giving a damn to Indiana Jones making it up as he went along. Heck, Harold Bloom reckons (and not entirely without merit) that most of what we consider to be modern and cosmopolitan ideas including most of what we know of humor and humanity were cribbed directly from William Shakespeare.

Do that sort of thing these days, and you would be hearing from Master Shakespeare's solicitor.

But this is not -- as is often alleged -- just a culture of the cribnote. It is also a creative culture, and dare I say, a literary culture all its own. The digital natives are restless and they are reinventing the world around them, and no matter how many fingers the RIAA and the MPAA summon to shore up the dam, they are pulling it down and revealing the rusted scaffolding beneath.

They have taken up the means of production, bypassed the gatekeepers, and flooded the world in an ocean of content. A vast, raging sea of unorganized, unedited, undisciplined content. It's raw, and unfettered, and as like to shock you as it is to enlighten you. And much of it that is good will be lost by the sheer size of the pile that you have to shift through in hopes of finding anything.

But it has always been that way, hasn't it? The chaff falls away under the millstones of the market and we find the wheat... eventually.

I hope that is still so. I really do. Because most of what we know of literature grew up within those protective walls that we've been so steadily tearing down. And wouldn't it be the cruelest trick of all if a generation of books manages to accidentally kill them as a medium by making it impossible for their creators to survive on their proceeds?

Too cynical? Yes. Yes indeed, Scott, too cynical by far.

At least I have reason to hope so.

Books will survive. Of course they will. As an object, as a symbol, as a medium for storytelling, as a bundle of bytes and bits, they have a devoted following among even the youngest readers. The average book blogger on Tumblr is in their mid twenties and more are arriving all the time. There is a whole world of young people moving up through the ranks, struggling to find their voice, to tell their tales. The formats change and evolve and storytelling trundles ever onward, reinvented, rehashed, retold by each succeeding generation.

Want proof that literature and books in general will survive? Walk into any bookstore (assuming you can find one) and ask the booksellers how large the Young Adult section was ten years ago. Then go look at how big it is now.

And this is not just shelf after shelf of trifling teenage Drama, Harry Potter ripoffs, and vampires. Some of the most exciting and innovative writers currently operating are shelved there: David Levithan, M.T. Anderson, Marcus Zusak, Maureen Johnson, Neil Gaiman, Laurie Halse Anderson, Dave Eggers, and John Green to name just a few. And their fans are motivated, engaged, fired-up... about books. Don't believe me? Let me Google that for you. Truly, an amazing and literate generation came of age waiting in the lines outside the bookstore at 1:00 am, parents and children huddled together in the cold, counting down the minutes to the next Harry Potter book's release.

Welcome. You've made it. And you've made it your own.

If Rowling taught us nothing else, she taught us that storytelling will out. Where stories need telling, there will be a place for people who know how to tell them. Will we be able to support ourselves on the proceeds? Only time will tell, but for my money, the Generation of the Book will not lightly relinquish their stories, nor those who tell them.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).