I was checking out some sites online and I saw a prompt. It was a rhetorical question shouted out that I felt the need to answer here.
The question was: “Why don’t teens read like they used to?”
And the answer is that they’re reading more.
The worry over “teens” is permanent and malleable. It is also, more often than not, misplaced anxiety. Lost in the perpetual hand-wringing over youth (here, “the teens”) is how vague this concerns is. First, do we have any reason to suspect that teenagers are reading less than we did at their age? I doubt it. “The teens” are constantly on the internet, glued to screens. And they’re generally reading. Sure, it may be punctuated by GIFS of Parks and Recreation, or dotted with emojis, but the primary mode of communication is written.
When phone-calls have been replaced with the literal text of text-messages, it’s out of touch to suggest teenagers aren’t reading.
But of course, that’s not what this prompt meant. This prompt was talking about reading. You know, reading, whispered in “you know what I mean” italics that reflects a snobbery in the literary world that I despise.
The question, then, embodies its own answer. By asking a question in a nagging tone, it confirms the quiet dread that teenagers feel: that real reading is somehow a chore. This question posits that reading is a duty rather than a joy, some cultural exercise you slog for in exchange for superiority. And that attitude is reflected everywhere: there is an unpleasant attitude in some writerly circles that the more arcane your prose, the smaller your audience, the more worthy your art.
To suggest that the quality of your art is inversely related to its accessibility insults and punishes the audience. And, to delve to the vernacular, that’s dumb and bad. It intentionally makes communication and the expressiveness of literature harder to understand in some misguided drive for worth.
Infinite Jest, the sort of book name-checked by the serious prompt-writers of the world, makes this argument as well. The wraith of James Incandenza expresses that critical acclaim was never the goal of his genius. “The scholars and Foundations and disseminators never saw that his most serious wish was: to entertain.”
If that remains the goal of writing – to entertain, to reach, to stir something both deeply and broadly – then teenagers will read. Consider, for a moment, how wildly successful Young Adult literature is. But if the question is why aren’t teenagers reading what we want them to read, we have to come to terms with our motivations.
Do we care about how they enjoy reading or do we want them to collect shiny badges of intelligence, choking down stale classics to satisfy some rite of passage?
Teenagers don’t read like they used to because they’re smarter than ever. They can find the pieces that actually speak to them. And with our attitude, why would they ever stretch themselves beyond that? Contemporary literature is bleak, obnoxious, and self satisfied. It’s full of rambling, difficult sentences that punish the readers. Anything rewarding is branded childish: what we’re telling those teenagers is that that real literature is a punishing slog-fest.
The attitude we take towards reading is wrongheaded. The adults who should know better are too timid to admit the truth: that if literature is communication, if it’s really art, then resonance should be easy, not difficult. If writing is living, then we should embrace its growth. This new generation isn’t against reading: they’re against the forced formality and smugness reflected in our reading society.
Throw a teenager a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint and watch them devour something outrageous, conversational, and most importantly, true. But merely tell them they should be reading Phillip Roth with the detached air of a teacher and watch them retreat to their iPhone.