Via Twitter Hollis Robbins offers a prompt: “‘[A]ll American fiction is young-adult fiction.’ Discuss.” Her takeoff is A. O. Scott’s excellent “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” which you should go read; oddly, it does not mention the show Entourage, which may be the best contemporary narrative artifact / fantasy about the perpetual party.*
American fiction tends toward comedy more than “young-adult” because comedy = tragedy – consequences. AIDS fiction is tragic because people die. Most contemporary heterosexual love stories are comedy because the STIs tend to be curable or not that important; people who are diligent with birth control rarely get pregnant. Facing death, starvation, or other privations have always been the adult’s lot, and adults who made sufficiently bad choices regarding resource allocation or politics died. Think of the numerous adults who could have done everything they could to flee the area between Russia and Germany in 1914 and didn’t, or the ones who didn’t after 1918 and before the Holocaust. The example is extreme but it illustrates the principle. Frontier and farm life was relentlessly difficult and perilous.
Today by contrast we live in the a world of second chances. America is a “victim,” although that is the wrong word, of its own success. If you color more or less inside the lines and don’t do anything horrendous, life can be awesome. People with an agreeable and conscientious disposition can experience intense pleasures and avoid serious pain for decades; not everyone takes to this (see for example the works of Michel Houellebecq) but many do. The literary can write essays, the scientists can do science, the philosophers can argue with each other, the business guys have a fecund environment, and the world’s major problems are usually over “there” somewhere, across the oceans. If we ever get around to legalizing drugs we’ll immediately stabilize every country from Mexico to Chile.**
What are the serious challenges that Americans face as a whole? In the larger world there is no real or serious—”serious” being a word associated with adulthood—ideological alternatives to democracy or capitalism. Dictatorships still exist but politics are on the whole progressing instead of regressing, Russia and parts of the Middle East excepted.
One could reframe the question of all American fiction being young adult fiction to: “Why not young adult fiction?” Adults send young people to war to die; adulthood is World War II, us against them, thinking that if we don’t fight them in Saigon we’ll have to fight them in Seattle. Adults brought us Vietnam. Young people brought us rock ‘n’ roll, rap, and EDM. Adults want to be dictators, whether politically or religiously, and the young want to party and snag the girl(s) or guy(s) of their dreams.
Adulthood is associated with boredom, stagnation, suburbs, and death. Responsibility is for someone else, if possible, and those who voluntarily assume responsibility rarely seem to be rewarded for it in the ways that really count (I will be deliberately ambiguous on what those ways are). Gender politics and incentives in the U.S. and arguably Western Europe are more screwed up than many of us would want to admit, and in ways that current chat among the clerisy and intellectual class do not reflect or discuss. If adulthood means responsibility, steady jobs, and intense fidelity, then we’ve been dis-incentivizing it for decades, though we rarely want to confront that.
Many people are so wealthy and safe that they are bored. In the absence of real threats they invent fake ones (vaccines) or worry disproportionately about extremely unlikely events (kidnapping). Being a steady person in a steady (seeming) world is often thus perceived as being dull. In contemporary dating, does the stolid guy or girl win, or does hot funny and unreliable guy or girl win?
A lot of guys have read the tea leaves: divorce can be a dangerous gamble while marriage offers few relationship rewards that can’t be achieved without involving the legal establishment or the state more generally. A shockingly large number of women are willing to bear the children of men they aren’t married to: 40.7%$ of births now occur to unmarried women, and that number has been rising for decades.
Why take on responsibility when no one punishes you for evading it and arguably active irresponsibility is rewarded in many ways, while safety nets exist to catch those who are hurt by the consequences of their actions? That’s our world, and it’s often the world of young adulthood; in fiction we can give ourselves monsters to fight and true enduring love that lasts forever, doesn’t have bad breath in the morning, and doesn’t get bored of us in four years. Young adult fiction gives us the structure lacking in the rest of our lives.
Moreover, there has always been something childlike in the greatest scientists and artists. Children feel unconstrained by boundaries, and as they grow older they feel boundaries more and more acutely. I’m not about to argue that no one should have boundaries, but I am going to argue that retaining an adult version of the curiosity children have and the freedom they have is useful today and in many cases has always been useful.
The world has gotten so efficient that vast pools of money are available for venture capitalists to fund the future and tech guys to build or make it. The biggest “problem” may be that so many of us want to watch TV instead of writing code, but that may be a totally bunk argument because consumption has probably always been more common and easier than production.
In this world fiction should tend towards comedy, not the seriousness too typically associated with Literature.
If American fiction is young adult fiction, that may be a sign of progress.***
** Breaking Bad and innumerable crime novels would have no driving impetus without drug prohibition. The entire crime sector would be drastically smaller almost overnight were we to legalize drugs and prostitution. That would be a huge win for society but harmful to fiction writers.
*** Usually I eschew polemics but today I make an exception.
“A man rarely succeeds at anything unless he has fun doing it.”
—Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People, a book I’m shocked not to have read yet and that ought to be mandatory reading for academics, who are very bad at applying its lessons. Not everything in the book I buy but overall it is much more interesting than I expected and much better written. Note that this is the pre-1981 version, which means some references to gangsters and “popular” figures are dated, but as often happens with very old books it is revealing about its own time in ways not intended by its author.
I often see the point quoted above said regarding writing, coding, and any number of other activities. Yet I rarely see it said regarding, say, tax law, or accounting, or proctology, or garbage hauling.
The Presentation for Self in Everyday Life endures because while it is nominally about sociology, its observations fit into other fields too: One could read it as a work of literary criticism but without literature, or a novelist’s handbook about how people behave around other people. It is filled interesting observations, like “not a few psychotherapists find employment in [. . .] making their living by telling individuals the facts of other people’s lives.” Or, colloquially, one reason people like fiction, memoirs, and blogs is to figure out how fucked up other people’s lives are. Few of us wish to advertise the fucked up parts of our lives and so in everyday experience those parts are hidden. I for one wish that I’d realized as much when I was younger.
Goffman gets the game theory aspect of punishing defectors from collective norms:
Similarly, a girl at a party who is flagrantly accessible may be shunned by the other girls who are present, but in certain matters she is part of their team and cannot fail to threaten the definition they are collectively maintaining that girls are difficult sexual prizes. Thus [. . .] teammates are often persons who agree informally to guide their efforts in a certain way as a means of self-protection and by doing so constitute an informal group.
The sexual double standard is maintained more by women than by men, which Goffman got in 1959. He describes the way “teammates everywhere employ an informally and often unconsciously learned vocabulary of gestures and looks by which collusive staging cues can be conveyed.” Novelists should attend to that vocabulary and those clues when they discuss characters in specific worlds. One’s cultural world and coworkers color one’s viewpoint. A professional photographer cannot help but seeing the world partially through photography terms, and lawyers see cases waiting to happen everywhere. In the underworld this is most obvious, which is one reason why The Friends of Eddie Coyle works.
Goffman gets the way that people are groupish and feel conflicting loyalties towards their groups and towards outsiders who may be taken advantage of. In my own life, I feel more loyalty to readers than to the nonprofits and governments I write about in Grant Writing Confidential. The same is true of many bloggers in many fields who choose to pull back the curtain, so to speak; doctors and lawyers have scads of blogs devoted to that topic, as do hookers like Belle de Jour (whose Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl is good).
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is also a defense of privacy, and novels are generally experienced in private.
There are sections that are dated or dubious, as when Goffman writes that
we may have some sympathy for those who have but one fatal flaw and who attempt to conceal the fact that they are, for example, ex-convicts, deflowered, epileptic, or racially impure.
By now being “deflowered” is generally a positive, being epileptic is a medical condition, and racial purity is itself a bogus concept. Nonetheless the number of abstract lessons is large and Goffman’s observations are sharp. I haven’t exhausted the book based on a first reading. Much of human life is about politics. Human life will always have a strong political component because everyone learns from everyone else and there is no way to be as effective acting alone as one can act in groups.
In the NYT Motoko Rich asks “Why Don’t More Men Go Into Teaching?“, and he gives a variety of answers but not an important one: any male teacher is only one accusation away from having his entire career derailed and a potentially lengthy, onerous police investigation. I thought about going into teaching, but stories from existing male teachers were persuasively dissuading.
At the K-12 level, you’ve got all the problems that all teachers face—obnoxious “do something” administrators, angry parents, medium- to low-status, etc.—plus the need to teach defensively and to think about how any words or actions can be interpreted in the worst light possible. Being one-on-one with a student is dangerous. It’s often normal to touch someone for emphasis, or hug someone in a non-sexual manner, but that can’t happen. In short, many of the little things that are part of normal human interactions are forbidden or dangerous.
William Deresiewicz just wrote Excellent Sheep a polemic about education and what students need; one excerpt, “Students crave emotional mentorship from their teachers that their parents can’t give them. There’s nothing wrong with that,” describes how students want and need mentorship. Male teachers can’t really provide that at the K – 12 level. School policies and culture are ironically curtailing what is arguably the best part of education. It’s been said that guys in foxholes no longer fight for their country or their ideals, but for the guys next to them. I suspect that many students—and I’ve experienced this—don’t try to excel in a given class for the specific skills or the subject or the future job. They excel because they’re compelled to by the person in front of them. Yet that person can’t forma genuine connection without being able to spend at least some one-on-one time with some students.
The dangers are real and the cultural feelings are pervasive, though they rarely rise up to the level of official discourse. Still, check out the stories in “Teachers of reddit, have you ever had a student try to seduce you? What happened? [serious] nsfw,” or numerous similar threads. They reveal a level of well-founded paranoia on the part of male teachers.
Teachers deal with hundreds of students every year. It only takes one grandstanding neurotic, to use Camille Paglia’s phrase, to create a huge amount of work and a level of gossip and innuendo that could take years to dissipate—if it ever does.* The paranoid attitude is also not limited to K – 12. When I was a first-year student at the University of Arizona, I was driving to L.A. to see my family for Thanksgiving and told some students, many of whom were from Southern California, that if they wanted a ride they could hitch one. That ride could be worth hundreds of dollars, relative to a flight. I also went to school three thousand miles from home, where I got a lot of help with matters like this—mostly from my cross country coach, but to a lesser extent from professors and others. I can appreciate what it’s like to show up somewhere and have no resources.
Nonetheless, I told some other grad students that I’d told students they could get a ride to California, and the other grad students were shocked. That’s so dangerous! Are you crazy? What if something… happens?
They’d internalized the defensive mindset. Their reaction helps explain why so much teaching is so poor. And I was dealing with legal adults most of whom lived autonomously! Nonetheless, the other grad students were expressing a real fear. The fear that male K – 12 teachers live with is legitimate and governs their behavior. .
So why put up with the usual problems teachers face if a teacher can’t even do the job really well? Answer: Don’t.
* Paglia writes that she favors campus efforts to deal with genuine sexual harassment and rape, but that “I was concerned about the possibility of false charges by grandstanding neurotics, with whom I’d had quite enough contact at Bennington. Every sexual harassment code should incorporate stiff penalties for false accusation, presently rarely mentioned.”
I went to Clark University, and a couple weeks ago I talked to someone from their “development” department (read: they ask alumni for money) about what I’d been up to, what I thought about Clark, and then, finally, in the “Will-she-sleep-with-me” moment, whether I’d give more than $10 a year. I won’t. Even if I magically made Zuckerbergian billions, I wouldn’t give much more because while Clark is a good school, it isn’t in a position to solve the most pressing problem(s) in higher education: cost and access. Clark can be a wonderful and amazing experience for individual students but it will never be widely accessible due to cost and its model is not replicable for the same reason; the major problems in education are cost and access, which I’ll return to below.
Right now I give a little cash because of bogus rankings like those by U.S. News and World Report; here’s a good piece by Malcolm Gladwell on their bogosity. Nonetheless, despite them being bogus, people love rankings—even very bad rankings. When I was in high school, someone—the villain U.S. News again, maybe—ranked high schools simply by the number of students divided by the number of AP tests (or vice-versa). My high school came out well in that regard and parents and administrators and even the students themselves (to some extent) ran around saying “Oh wow we go to one of the best high schools in America!!” Which was bullshit to anyone who stopped to think for 30 seconds, but the meme propagated anyway and the number of people infected with the counter-meme (“Most school rankings are bullshit”) was and is much smaller than the number with the first meme.*
Maybe nothing short of a cultural change in views on college can alleviate the obsession-with-ranking problem. Some of that cultural change may be in the air: here’s one of the articles about Google’s decreased emphasis on college degrees. Maybe more firms will move in this direction. Certainly I would be more interested in assessing someone’s blog, books, or other material in hiring them than their degree. I’ve met a lot of PhDs who are morons. That is not to deny the value of education—it is easier and more pleasant for most people to learn in the context of someone who can select material, judge material, and accelerate learning. But too few teachers seem able or willing to do that. Alternate signals may emerge.
To look at one alternative to the present education system consider Western Governors University. This is one article on WGU, though there are many others. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the major problems in contemporary higher ed emerge from rising costs, Baumol’s Cost Disease, weird cross subsidies, and related factors. Tyler Cowen’s book The Great Stagnation is good on these subjects. I obviously like and generally support Clark but I don’t think the school is the answer to the biggest problems in higher ed today. There may not be one single answer. We may be seeing the researcher-teacher hybrid model splitting back into their constituent pats as well, since, as has long been observed, someone very good at one may not be good at the other.
The “teacher” point is important too, because teaching well is expensive and difficult. It’s not clear to me that the current structure of higher education is sustainable regarding teaching. Here is one well-written and half-right, half-wrong piece about how “Teaching Is Not a Business.” In some sense everything is a business whether we want it to be or not.
Saying that teaching is not a business is another way of saying, “We can pour an infinite amount of money into this endeavor without asking what we’re getting it.” There is a magic to teaching and I’m susceptible to that feeling, but teaching is also a system and set of institutions and many other things as well. Not surprisingly most members of the guild want to retain the mystique and a lot of outsiders appalled at rising costs want to de-mystify and improve. The overall trajectory of the last two or three hundred years makes me think the latter are eventually going to win, even if the definition of winning changes and the win takes decades to play out.
This is getting far afield from the point about donating to Clark, but the biggest issue is that I don’t see how most of the current version of higher ed is rewarding teaching adequately. Some like “The Minerva Project” may be the answer. It and Western Governors University are both very consciously doing a lot of things very differently than the standard college model, which Clark follows in important ways. Clark has a high cost structure and can’t avoid that. As I said above it is a good school. If I had a kid and could afford to send them I would.
But how much does Clark cost?
Somewhere within Clark, someone has the minimum number of dollars per student the school must take in in order to stay afloat. If I had to guess, I’d guess that number is between $25,000 and $30,000, and Clark must hit it whether Joe pays $15,000 and Jane pays $40,000 or vice-versa. Every college has this number somewhere. For a few schools it’s probably zero, counting endowments. Until we get more clarity about that number, however, it’s hard to get a meaningful value for it.
This began life as an e-mail to the Clark development person. Most of the answers she gets are probably more emotional than my somewhat cerebral / systems-based thinking, but part of my dissertation is about academia and I’ve now worked in, around, and for a lot of colleges, as a student, instructor, and consultant. The inside of the sausage factory is not a pretty place and the romantic notions I may have once had regarding the college experience are now dashed. I still retain hope and even optimism—I would be teaching as an adjunct this semester if I didn’t—but the ugly reality is that relatively few existing institutions have the structure or infrastructure, literally or intellectually or politically, necessary to make real changes. Whatever spare cash I might have one day—ha!—is unlikely to go to existing providers. It’ll go to whoever is trying to augment or replace them. Right now I don’t know who that is.
It’s not you, Clark. It’s it.**
* These sorts of idiocies persist. When I was in grad school, some girl in the University of Arizona’s Rhet Comp (or “Rhetoric and Composition”) program claimed that they were “number two in the country.” Being the obnoxious person I am I asked, “As ranked by who?” She didn’t know. “As measured how?” She didn’t know and didn’t like me. To be fair I thought she was dumb and didn’t see her manifesting evidence to the contrary while I was around.
** See also “Ten Ways Colleges Work You Over;” I doubt any individuals at Clark approve of the competitive college race, but they are also relatively powerless to stop it.