Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Retreat to happiness

The Epoch Times is a free newspaper distributed from racks in the grocery store down the street. It's available locally in Chinese and English but online there are links to editions in French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew, Romanian, Bulgarian, Slovakian, Indonesian, Vietnamese, and Swedish. The paper has print editions in some of these languages as well.

The publishers don't admit to association with any organization, but in addition to consumerist boosterism and China-bashing on nearly every page there're a lot of articles about Falun Gong and the PRC's persecution of its practitioners; and every issue carries a column encouraging benighted members to quit China's communist party. It's the sort of propaganda one might imagine the CIA would fund, if the CIA did that sort of thing. I don't know, I'm just saying.

Last week's edition carried a story titled "Hunting Happier Stories - in the Teen Section." The article started off this way: Today's mainstream adult fiction revolves around cancer, war, murder and aging parents; at least five recent bestsellers had the word "dead" in the title. Some readers are fleeing back in time.

The gist is a claim that adults are seeking out Young Adult (YA) fiction because it's less complicated, not so depressing, happier. Like many arguments advanced in this paper, the thesis of the article is supported by anecdote: In an age when adult novels deal with sobering subjects — cancer, murder, aging parents, war — at least five 2009 bestsellers had the word "dead" in the title — Sydney Stadler, a Texan mother of two, thinks adults are yearning for less emotionally-draining books. [...] Lighter subject matter also attracts Summer Barnett, a fifth-grade teacher from Plano, Texas. "Life’s depressing enough," said Barnett, 33. "I don’t want to read about politics or religion, and I like the kind [of book] that can take you away from the world you’re actually in."

Is this a Texas thing? (No, the article cites readers from New Jersey and Connecticut as well.)

It is true that adult fiction often orbits sober subjects. Kind of like life. But consider this:

At the San Francisco Writer's Conference this year I pitched my current novel manuscript to a number of agents. No, I'm not going to blog my pitch, but I will say that it's about a collective of political activists, and that things don't turn out well for the protagonist. I'll wager Summer Barnett won't buy my book.

One of the agents victimized by my sixty or so breathless seconds of pitch -- a successful professional who shall remain nameless here -- gave me a dour look across the table between us and said, "That doesn't sound very happy." I was taken aback. No, I replied, it's not. The agent invited me to e-mail a query nonetheless, which I did about a week later. A reply came the same day: "Not for me, thanks anyway..."

I myself am not very interested in happy books. To me they don't seem true to life, and if I wanted escape I'd watch TV. You know, unreality shows. But maybe I have oddball taste.

What do you think? Is Sydney Stadler right when she says that adults are yearning for less emotionally-draining books? What kind of books are you yearning for?

9 comments:

  1. It's funny, at first I misread what you wrote as saying that it's the YA fiction that's depressing-- which is much more in keeping with what I remember about the genre from taking my high school-age sister to Borders a few years ago. Shelf after shelf of "Jenny's really a good kid, but she's stressed out at school, having problems with her boyfriend, her best friend was just raped, and now she's started doing drugs". When I was last reading YA fiction (elementary school, before discovering adult-reading-level sci-fi) there was a series I was really into that always had the rather predictable climax of the boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend dying of cancer, or some other horrifying, drawn-out illness.

    Who knows, maybe the genre has really changed course recently, but if so I'm kind of surprised. I'd think that the YA crowd would be even more likely than adults to seek out books about people having problems, to find someone to relate to and/or put their angst in the context of "hey, it could be worse".

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  2. That's a keen observation Quinn, and one I was thinking about as I wrote this post. While I am most interested in whether adults are interested in 'sober' fiction or not, the premise that YA novels are happy stories seems suspect to me too. I haven't read YA for quite a while, but I have glanced through novels that I've bought as gifts or discussed with young friends and family. The title-that-says-it-all for me in this vein is Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. That doesn't sound so joyous to me, and the first few pages of the first book in the series that I read in a bookstore some while ago didn't look like a setup for unadulterated joy, as it were. Go figure. In my experience, most of what one reads in the Epoch Times is best taken with a generous dollop of salt (or soy sauce).

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  3. Two thoughts:

    1 - It seems like getting data to support trends in book buying should be possible. Which demographic is buying which category. If there is a shift in adults buying more YA and less mainstream, that should be supportable beyond anecdotes, for anyone interested enough to do so. You should also be able to get the answer you mention in your comment reply - whether adults are interested in 'sober' fiction or not.

    2 - While I have nothing but my own anecdotes to support my theory, it seems like people do things like gossip, and watch things like daytime talk shows and reality TV because it gives them a chance to see that other peoples lives are more screwed up then their own (or, as you put it, escape). Based on this theory, rooted in the "bad news sells newspapers" concept I learned in 6th grade, harder times would lead to adults gravitating towards more "bad news" mainstream titles than to happier titles, YA or otherwise.

    I would bet that data is not hard to find here, for those interested to know.

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  4. Thanks, David. I'm not so sure you're right, though ... when was the last time you were asked your age at a bookstore counter? And for how many buyers do online bookstores have age data? And for those whose age is recorded with their purchases, how to tell what's for personal reading and what's a gift?

    I suppose someone (oh, say one or another of the major publishers) must have done surveys that are better guesses than the Epoch Times attempted. But finding the results of those surveys wouldn't slake my interest in the sort of book yearnings that keep readers of One Finger Typing up nights.

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  5. I should have said "the major publishers or Bowker," whose accessible-without-fee stats I cited in my Guys don't buy books post. But still. It would be foolish to try to write to a trend (everyone who knows anything advises against it), and it certainly wouldn't be satisfying. From my perspective, it's much more interesting to generate conversation among adults interested in adult topics that ring bells for them and for me. Hence my closing question...

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  6. I draw the line at stories that include cruelty to animals and children. That said, what I like is a really tight, complex story, with amazing and intuitive character development, and if I get those, I’m not too fussy about the subject or if the ending is happy or not.

    I find it amazing that adults have expressed the desire to read books written for teenagers. It’s not just that the subjects of those books might be more bland, watered down, or even deal with more positive subjects than adult books, but they are written for a teenager sensibility. What adult would find that level of reading stimulating.

    I wonder if these “regressors” have considered romance novels. There is an unending supply and every book, I’d guess, has a happy ending. And they are written for adults - maybe not very demanding adults, but adults, nevertheless.

    There has to be a large untapped source of inspirational or “help” books available - how to break a bad habit, build a birdhouse, develop positive thinking, expand your friendships, the list seems to be endless.

    Those folks have given up too easily. There is more than enough positive reading material available in easy to reach places, without backsliding into the land of the 13-19 year olds.

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  7. Thanks, ALG. I wonder how you would describe the difference between teenage and adult sensibilities.

    Is it that the characters are more simply drawn? That their problems fit a narrower range of awareness or concern? That the teen protagonists of YA novels have an "other" or oppositional relationship to adults in their lives? That they reflect a younger person's still-unchallenged sense of immortality?

    All my suggestions are gross generalizations, of course, and I expect that a knowledgable YA reader could come up with multiple counterexamples for each of these possibilities. And I'm certain there are teens whose level of engagement in the world belies their ages. But complexity of characters, breadth of awareness (of a narrator, if not a protagonist), etc. are some of the challenging aspects of what I'd consider adult fiction, so in some senses I'm 'working backward.' I'd be curious to know what you think.

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  8. I can only really speak about my experience as a teen. I read a lot, but was mostly attracted to books about teen adventure. Today, that might mean something entirely different, but as I grew up in a small town many generations back, and spent vacations on my grandfather’s ranch, my orientation was for out-door adventures. You don’t get very “morally challenged” associating with horses, cows, and pigs.

    In my case, I was very satisfied with simple stories, that included teens like me as the characters, who lived in places like Montana and Wyoming. As long as they were good horse back riders, and could shoot a rifle, I was satisfied.

    Like a lot of other comparisons, a teen’s generation certainly has some effect on his or her unchallenged (or already challenged) sense of morality. Where a teen lives - a big city, the suburbs, the country - all play a role. The teen’s family and their attitude toward life is also is a factor. And, of course, the teen’s personality and what interests them.

    I wonder if teens today wouldn’t laugh out loud to read the teen adventure books of the 50s that I took so seriously. It seems that some ten year olds today can be almost more sophisticated than a college student when I was attending college.

    As I think about this, it seems the variation in teen moral development re challenged/unchallenged must be vast in every generation. There will always be teens that retain their innocence through most of their teenage years, as their will be teens that know things that would make me blush now.

    The lesson here is that gross generalizations are meaningless - it’s a good lesson too.

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  9. Sydney Stadler is right.

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