I only recently saw a link to this article from a few months ago, On Campus, Vampires Are Besting the Beats.
His premise: when this one chick went to college back in 1969 (based on her memory, anyway) everybody she knew was reading stuff like Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Golden Notebook, Sylvia Plath, and Anaïs Nin. It was deep, man.
But now, based on campus best-seller lists, all college students read nothing but the lame Twilight series and books about Barack Obama.
"It’s as though somebody stole Abbie Hoffman’s book — and a whole generation of radical lit along with it."
By my count it’s two generations, actually. But those of us on campus in 1989 were just Gen-Xers and nobody ever cared about us anyway, so whatever.
(You know who was a Gen-Xer? Kurt Cobain, that’s who. But you kids today probably have no idea who that is. Here we are now! Entertain us! We had real music back in those days! Whaddya got now? "My humps my humps my humps," you call that music? What, is it about a mutant camel?)
Now, I know a lot of people who think the Twilight books are terrible (including me), but this essay doesn’t bother establishing that. It seems to simply assume that everyone already knows a book about vampires is Not a Real Book for Serious-Minded People.
The essay seems a little confused about whether we are supposed to be clucking our tongues at college students for reading books of Insufficient Seriousness, or for reading books of Insufficient Radicalness.
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?
So, is he trying to suggest that there have been no feminist writers since Greer, or that the feminist writers we do have are insufficiently radical? Or that our parents don’t hate them enough? Or that we are the parents now so it doesn’t count?
Or is he really complaining about the fact that forty years ago he knew about all the Cool New Books and now he doesn’t?
Also, if you are seriously trying to argue that the Boomer college students of 1969 were really out there changing the world with their genius radical thoughts, man… well, I wouldn’t mention Hunter S. Thompson.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published in 1971, is a bitter, almost nihilistic rant about how the moment when real change seemed possible had already passed by. It is firmly set in the "doomstruck era of Nixon." It’s an elegy for the radical spirit of the 1960s.
"Every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened."
"We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave … So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
(Fear and Loathing is a great book and you should totally read it. The movie starring Johnny Depp is pretty good too.)
Back to the essay.
Nicholas DiSabatino, a senior English major at Kent State, is co-editor of the university’s literary magazine, Luna Negra. As a campus tour guide, he used to point out where the National Guard shot students during the May 1970 riot. But the only activism he can recall lately involved anti-abortion protesters and some old men passing out Gideon Bibles.
Lately? How lately? Because I can recall Bellingham college students getting pretty cranky, in fairly large numbers, over things like the Bush re-election (2004) and the Iraq invasion (2003).
(And they turned out in amazing huge numbers to celebrate Obama’s victory just last year, which is activism of a sort, though not technically a protest.)
(And if the point of this essay is really that today’s college students are all Young Conservatives, um… Obama?)
However, there has been a change in activism styles lately — for one thing, large protests are often effectively disappeared if they don’t fit the media narrative, something that didn’t happen so much during the 1960s and early 70s.
(Although it seemed to me that the media artificially pumped up the right wing teabaggers out waving signs on April 15. But that could easily be my own bias talking.)
Maybe I’m only aware that students are doing this stuff because I live in a college neighborhood and listen to the college radio station and go up to campus semi-regularly. Also, I don’t watch cable news. Also, I’m not a Baby Boomer.
But wait, weren’t we talking about books?
Professor Eric Williamson <..> argues that "the entire culture has become narcotized." <..> "There is nary a student in the classroom — and this goes for English majors, too — who wouldn’t pronounce Stephen King a better author than Donald Barthelme or William Vollmann. The students do not have any shame about reading inferior texts."
Oh, my God, I’m having undergrad flashbacks…
I would like to think he’s simply lamenting the fact that his students have all read Stephen King but never heard of Donald Barthelme or William Vollmann. This would hold true for me, English major that I was.
But that’s not exactly what he’s saying. His use of the term "shame," his "nary a student" straw man? He’s simply perpetuating the same tired old academic anti-genre bias. It’s the flip side of the golden holy glow of poetry, stemming from the same axiom: that literature does not exist to be enjoyed. It exists to be "uplifting" in a vague way, or to be "good" as in "good for you" and about as fulfilling as a dieter’s penitential rice cakes.
I am so virtuous! I read only books that I do not enjoy!
Which reminds me of something King (a Boomer himself, and a much better writer than snooty academics seem to think) wrote in his 2000 book On Writing:
I don’t want to speak too disparagingly of my generation (actually I do, we had a chance to change the world and opted for the Home Shopping Network instead)…
(On Writing is another great book, by the way, and there’s a recorded version read by King himself which I recommend if you like that sort of thing. I don’t listen to a lot of recorded books, but I like the ones read by the author. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is another great pick.)
This touches on the part of the Boomer declension narrative that really grates my cheese, the part where they seem to forget that they’ve kinda, sorta, you know, been in charge of everything for the past forty years. The world that exists is, in most respects, the world they made.
So, twenty years ago y’all were gonna change the world. Did you? And if you failed, is that really our fault?
As young people shift toward the Internet and away from exploring their political activism in books, the blood drains from their shelves. For the Twitter generation, the new slogan seems to be "Don’t trust anyone over 140 characters." What you see at the next revolution is far more likely to be a well-designed Web site than a radical novel or a poem. Not to be a drag, but that’s so uncool. For those of us who care about literature and think it still has a lot to offer, it’s time to start chanting, "Hell, no! We won’t go!"
So, his grand conclusion: because young people today get their political activism on teh Internets, they only read sucky books.
Does Not Follow.
Literature is literature, political activism is political activism. Political literature? Not always so hot. A lot of things that seem really radical and full of insight when they are brand new start to seem dated just a few years later — which is why some books that were radical at the time still get read 20 years on, and others fall by the wayside.
Now, you kids today might not know it, but smug Boomers were writing stuff exactly like this twenty years ago. Oh, the particulars were different, but the particulars always are. We were reading Anne Rice instead of Stephanie Meyers, and we (though not me) actually did vote for Reagan and major in "business" and whatnot, so the characterization of my generation as money-grubbing Young Conservatives was at least not entirely inaccurate.
But we had our own cultural touchstones, some of them involving radicalness and activism. We had things like MTV (which showed videos once, you know) and weird hair and riot grrls and ‘zine culture and sex-positive feminism and queer rights and anti-AIDS and Solidarity and anti-Apartheid.
By all rights, people my age should now be writing these "kids today" essays. But somehow it didn’t work out that way. The Boomers are still the ones hogging the pop-culture telescope, and everything gets viewed through *their* lens.
It’s like the last 20 years never happened.
And I’m about to turn 23. Woo-hoo!