Over the weekend, film critic A. O. Scott wrote a long essay in The New York Times Magazine that irked me, and I wanted to use my column to unpack some of my feelings about it. If you have opinions about the state of modern pop culture, you might want to join me.
(I’m now going to paraphrase and reduce his arguments to the bones. By all means, read the entire piece for more nuance.)
Scott seems to think that the modern American adult, by his and her refusal to grow up, has had a deleterious effect on the popular arts. He specifically mentions “bromance” movies, like those produced by Judd Apatow, superhero movies, and adults who read young adult (YA) books like the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games. In his opinion, the success of these genres means that we, as grown-ups, are rejecting our responsibilities.
As a tax-paying citizen who serves on jury duty, votes in every election, raised a productive citizen and volunteers in my community, I think I qualify as an adult in attitude as well as age. And I like all the things that Scott decries.
For the purposes of this column, I’m just going to talk about the books Scott talks about. You may assume I have parallel arguments about the other categories, and we can talk about this in the comments, if you like.
First of all, unless we are talking about marketing categories (as determined by publishers, booksellers and librarians), the YA category doesn’t make a lot of sense. When I was in middle school and high school, I read all kinds of books that were not considered to be YA. I read To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye and The Old Man and the Sea, books that are often read by people in those age groups. I also read Giles Goat Boy by John Barth. I read James Bond and Ray Bradbury and Philip Roth. We can argue about the varying qualities of these books, but none were racked on the children’s shelves.
Today, my reading includes some of these writers, and Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, J.K. Rowling and others who some may perceive to write for non-adults. I enjoy some genre fiction.
And I enjoy comic books. Lots of comic books.
Scott seems to think that graphic novels are not as intellectually demanding as prose novels. Like many, I think he confuses the medium of graphic storytelling with the genre of superhero comics. There are certainly books appropriate for the average young adult, such as March. And there are books that are not easily understood by those who haven’t had a certain amount of real-world experience, such as V for Vendetta or Promethea, which require at least some knowledge of history, linguistics, and adult relationships.
Please note: By adult relationships I mean actual relationships between adults, and not just sex. Thinking the word “adult” only refers to sex is actually kind of adolescent.
Now, I don’t really care what Scott thinks about my personal entertainment preferences. While we know some of the same people, I’m not likely to ever meet him, nor would I begin a conversation by attacking this particular essay.
And I don’t think he’s entirely wrong. Baby Boomers in general don’t like growing up, and we have clung to the remnants of our youth with a death-grip. We can be really obnoxious in our attempts to stay relevant, to the detriment of our popular culture.
Still, that is no reason to dismiss examples of popular culture because they come dressed in the costumes of youth and fantasy. After all, for nearly two centuries grown-ups have taught us that you can’t judge a book by its cover.