Skip to main content

The novel America needs in 2013

By Mark Bauerlein, Special to CNN
December 30, 2012 -- Updated 1446 GMT (2246 HKT)
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 clichéd, 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
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT