In last week’s New Yorker, Rebecca Mead writes (subscriber-only, sorry, but doesn’t everyone subscribe to the New Yorker anyway? Anyway, I’ll tell you what you need to know) about Alloy Entertainment, an editorial factory that produces franchise-able Y.A. lit series (Gossip Girl, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Vampire Diaries, etc). Especially including some marvelous brainstorming sessions during which the Alloy team arrives independently at a Blow-Up-meets-Chappaquidick plot, and a girl-goes-back-in-time-and-befriends-her-young-mother plot, it’s a great piece, with lots to reveal about the marketing of art to children.
Mead discusses the evolution of Sweet Valley High into Gossip Girl—”‘We thought consumer were more sophisticated… They wanted their book to feel like Mom’s book… with a cover that looked like it didn’t have to come from the kids’ section… and it wasn’t embarrassing to be seen with,'” says Alloy’s President—but one thing Mead doesn’t go into is the ever-increasing adult readership for Y.A. literature. But looking at the Gossip Girl TV show’s target audience, the subway ubiquity of Twilight and Harry Potter, et cetera, had me thinking again about Where the Wild Things Are—”There is no difference between childhood and adulthood” being an operating principle for this film that cozies up to the sensibilities and sensitivities of twentysomethings making less than a wholehearted commitment to adulthood.
“The business of packaging books for kids was invented a little more than a century ago”, Mead notes, delineating the forbears of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and all subsequent YA series—you know, things for kids to read in between Hans Christian Andersen and the Greeks and Romans, rather than going bang from one to the other.
This coincides pretty closely with the more-recent-than-you-think invention of childhood—with society’s recognition of and reorganization according to the fact that there are more than three stages of human existence. (The invention of the child as consumer, as Mead’s chronology notes, followed soon thereafter.)
With ever more phases of growth, and consumer choices to go along with each—and with the ever-increasing specialization of higher education—it is becoming easier and easier to pick a suitable place to stop. And, well.
Look, if you’re an averagely privileged young person in American right this instant, it has probably already occurred to you that childhood is, on points, a condition vastly preferable to adulthood. Fewer responsibilities, more possibilities, and more and more varied social opportunities which, in their newness, offer greater potential for excitement and drama. And it comes, cruelly, before adulthood, which is rather like having ice cream for the appetizer, leaving a little bit on the plate as it’s taken away, and only then being told that the next few courses will all be brussels sprouts.
Is it any wonder grown people flirt over erector sets? Spend their 20s drifting aimlessly between jobs and parental support before applying to grad school? Read Gossip Girl books? Mope over the insufficient attention paid to their perfectly singular loneliness?
When I reviewed Where the Wild Things Are, I suggested that its lessons, about overcoming this particular I-feel-just-like-a-child solipsism, are good lessons but ones we should have learned a long time ago. But “should” is a cowardly word that implies far more than it explains, and places its speaker in an untenable position of arrogance; I feel bad about using it. So.
The objection, I suppose, is not to the qualities of Gossip Girl, Raffi singalongs, Connect Four, nostalgia, or anything else fun. These are good things. I don’t actually think the internet is a bad thing, either—I just don’t have it at home, because if I did I would never get any reading done. In both cases, the objection is to the tendency—which is perfectly natural and appeals to certain fundamental issues of the way we’re wired—of the easy to supplant the difficult. When in fact it should never be more than an occasional reprieve from it.
Sorry for saying “should” again, but I think we can all agree, can’t we, that it’s at the outer limits of our capabilities that the best work gets done?
You’ve got to put down the duckie, if you want to play the saxophone.