Skip to main content

The novel America needs in 2013

By Mark Bauerlein, Special to CNN
updated 9:46 AM EST, Sun December 30, 2012
Clinging to fantasies like
Clinging to fantasies like "Fifty Shades of Grey" may keep pre-adults from growing up, says Mark Bauerlein.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark Bauerlein: Today's 20-somethings want to stretch out their adolescence
  • Bauerlein: We need a comic novel that exposes the habits of "pre-adults" as ludicrous
  • He says books have the power to fortify attitudes
  • Bauerlein: Only all-out comedy or satire can show that pre-adults' behavior is backward

Editor's note: Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, is editor of "The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking."

(CNN) -- It seems today that a new stage of life has opened up. Sociologists call it "emergent adulthood," Time magazine termed it "the Twixter years," and author Kay Hymowitz referred to it as "pre-adulthood."

People in this group are over 18, but as they head toward 30 they still act and think like adolescents. They bounce from job to job and relationship to relationship, live with parents at home or in a house with five friends, watch ESPN and play video games (the boy-men) and read "Twilight" and ponder whether he's just not into you (the girl-women), while all of them sprinkle "like" and "'n stuff" and "ya know" in their speech. Adolescence used to be a condition you escaped as soon as you could, but these 20-somethings want to prolong it.

We need to counteract them, to restore embarrassment to adolescent habits, and books are a key weapon.

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein

After all, books have the power to fortify attitudes. For instance, the "Harry Potter" books, a wonderful phenomenon for tweens and early-teens, offered so compelling a world of heroic, beset youth and hostile adults that readers clung to Harry well past the proper age. In fact, quidditch matches have spread to more than 200 college campuses. "Twilight" has had a similar impact, intensifying the ordinary shenanigans of teenagers to luridly high melodrama.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Why grow up when adolescence contains so much romance and suspense? Clinging to such young adult fantasies, pre-adults think that grownup content is a sensation, like "Fifty Shades of Grey," a book so poorly written as to be beyond parody. Only a 14-year-old sensibility could read this passage when Miss Steele first encounters Christian without laughing at the witlessness of the words.

I open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet and falling headfirst into the office.

Double crap -- me and my two left feet! I am on my hands and knees in the doorway to Mr. Grey's office, and gentle hands are around me, helping me to stand. I am so embarrassed, damn my clumsiness. I have to steel myself to glance up. Holy cow --he's so young.

Now, who trips over her own feet and falls headfirst to the floor? And the callowness of "Double crap" and "Holy cow" couldn't be more phony. Young women loved it, though. And so did many older women, apparently.

This is bad for our 20-year-olds and bad for our culture. Let us hope, then, that 2013 will unveil a new book about the young, but one that halts the creep of adolescence into adulthood.

Yes, there are several superb recent novels about teens and 20-somethings by talented writers, like Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot" and Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story." But they have too much sympathy for the emerging adult, too much understanding of young love and companionship, to do the work of correction.

It will take an altogether different book to explode extended adolescence; specifically, a frolicking comic novel that submits the interests and longings of pre-adults to whimsy, burlesque and farce. Not gentle humor, but all-out comedy or satire that casts the whole experience and habitat of pre-adults as both ludicrous and avoidable.

Not trite pratfalls that, supposedly, make the characters lovable inept and self-involved, but outrageous (and hilarious) situations such as those in Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim" and Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint." Not sensitive and self-aware individuals coping with circumstances that afflict their whole age group, but memorable eccentrics like Ignatius J. Reilly from "A Confederacy of Dunces," whose disdain for all things contemporary highlights the virtues and vices of modern life.

This comic novel will amuse and sell well, for the better elements of our culture and our youth have grown impatient with the travails and aggrandizing of Twixter books, movies, music and TV.

It will serve a larger purpose, too, the same one that motivated satirists from Aristophanes and Juvenal to Swift and Pope to Mark Twain and the creators of "Dr. Strangelove": to curb self-indulgence, deflate pretense, and expel stupidity. To take down a popular genre or a representative figure or a trendy pose, one good belly laugh works better than pages of strict criticism.

H.L. Mencken chided middle-American backwardness at length, but his best weapon was a one-word comic label: the "booboisie." After Sarah Palin's nomination to the 2008 Republican ticket, intellectuals on the left attacked and on the right fretted, but the surest demolition came at the hands of Tina Fey's impersonation. When the catastrophe movies of the 1970s became too theatrical and clich├ęd, the film "Airplane!" appeared and one could no longer watch the genre with a straight face.

Let's have a comic novel do the same for emergent adulthood.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Bauerlein.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT