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 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT