This is the question on my mind this week. I grew up in a time where I read at least 5-10 books a week, not because I didn’t enjoy watching TV (although with just three channels back then instead of 300, I admit that that played a part in my foray into literary escapism). I adored reading. I read every single night before bed, and if I really got caught up into a good book, I’d read it every spare minute until I’d finished. My parents were both teachers and our house was practically wallpapered in books!
But don’t get me wrong, by no means was I just a book worm, closeted in my room with my nose buried in a book 24/7. I played four varsity sports in high school and graduated at the top of most of my classes. In college, I played JV soccer and fenced. Although the academic demands became a little more stringent, I still made time to read and always carried a novel in my bag. And, yes, I managed to graduate Summa Cum Laude.
I attribute a lot of my success in academia (and life) to reading so many books as a child and young adult. I read anything that I could get my hands on, even books that some would technically classify as “too old” for me. So the point of this blog post is why do I get the feeling that within the young adult sphere, it seems to me that people are constantly trying to “dumb-down” the kind of books and writing that teens should be reading?
I’ve heard that this is an American phenomenon, and the reason why reading is such a problem in our society versus other countries (I’ve lived in 5). Books are meant to expand minds, to make a reader enjoy the journey, but also to make them pause and think, drawn in by a single image, a sentence, a description, a word even. They shouldn’t be intellectually vacuous or flippant. Yes, I agree that there are places for some books of that nature, but shouldn’t teens have a choice on whether they want to read something with a little more gut and a little more grit? And not just be spoon fed a mass-market diet of what someone else thinks they should read (which more often than not translates to the material that makes the most money)? Or are people just so happy that teens are reading, that it doesn’t really matter what they read?
As an American myself, I cringe when I hear the “dumbing-down” analogy. Shouldn’t people be allowed to buy what they want, and not what someone says that they should buy? Publishers are picking books for money, mass market cookie-cutter books, while educators are picking books that have no money in it, for more literary purposes. There is a huge, almost unbridgeable chasm between the two. In much of the rest of the world, the gap between the two is far less, because history and art and culture are integral parts of any literature, even *gasp* children’s books.
The real crux of the matter is that at the end of the day, publishing is a business, a business of book units. It’s a business of what will sell the most copies. No one wants to take a chance on something that could potentially be better than what is currently out there. And if that’s the flimsy flippant books more “geared toward teens” as decided by a corporation’s marketing team assessing “current market trends” as opposed to actual literary educators, then those are the books that will be heavily marketed and pushed toward the teen market. But despite this, I suspect that publishing will soon travel down the route of all other media monopolies, and become driven by user choice. This kind of Choice Revolution is something that is currently having a huge impact on TV, internet, and all matter of social media – people are deciding what THEY want to read or watch or listen to, not what someone in a business tells them is within their ability or maturity level to do.
At the end of the day, shouldn’t teens decide for themselves what kinds of concepts and language are supposedly deemed inaccessible to them?
Say NO to “Teen Fiction For Dummies.”