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 1:50 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT