March 6, 2009
Ron Charles looks for college radicals — er, kids reading radical books:
Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they’re choosing books like 13-year-old girls — or their parents. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment.
Where are the Germaine Greers, the Jerry Rubins, the Hunter Thompsons, the Richard Brautigans — those challenging, annoying, offensive, sometimes silly, always polemic authors whom young people used to adore to their parents’ dismay? [Abbie] Hoffman’s manual of disruption and discontent — “Steal This Book” — sold more than a quarter of a million copies when it appeared in 1971 and then jumped onto the paperback bestseller list. Even in the conservative 1950s, when Hemingway’s plane went down in Uganda, students wore black armbands till news came that the bad-boy novelist had survived. Could any author of fiction that has not inspired a set of Happy Meal toys elicit such collegiate mourning today? Could a radical book that speaks to young people ever rise up again if — to rip-off LSD aficionado Timothy Leary — they’ve turned on the computer, tuned in the iPod and dropped out of serious literature?
Gotta love that “13-year old girls” crack — because 13-year old boys, you know, they’re all reading Middlemarch. Is Steal This Book “serious literature” now? This whole schtick is some kind of weird fever dream, muddling nostalgias, a botched amalgam of Thomas Frank and Harold Bloom. It can’t quite make up its mind which version of cultural decay it wants to endorse.
Speaking from ground zero, kids are as hard up for reasonably radical social messages as ever — remember No Logo? Remember Fight Club? My students do. It wasn’t so long ago.
Ultimately, though, radical literature is only as strong as the social movements that nourish it. Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Hunter S. Thompson, and co. had lots of readers because Something Big was happening, people were organizing and doing things, living new ways and trying new politics, and other people wanted to know what it was all about. If people are tuning into the internet rather than books, or rather than the newspaper, or rather than television or anything else, it’s not least because it’s on the internet that they’re finding out all about what’s new. Which means that all of those other media begin to serve a slightly different function. I think escapist YA lit is stealing more of its audience from television and the movies than campus radicals, but that’s just my guess — which is apparently as good as Charles’s.