As The Fault in Our Stars barrels into theaters this weekend virtually guaranteed to become a blockbuster, it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it is bad—it isn’t—but because…
Isn’t it more disturbing that teenagers are reading this stuff? Adults are notoriously complacent: they (not I, to be sure) have jobs and mortgages and kids and cars and therefore can’t be trusted to think or feel independently. Adults have also seen some death, sickness, bankruptcy, etc.; they have felt in their aching tendons the transience of life, which makes them sentimental and latitudinarian.
But when I was an immortal adolescent I would never, ever have read anything marketed specifically to teenagers. I was on the hunt–at times very naively–for “mature readers” or just plain pornographic comics (from Heavy Metal to the Vertigo line to Daniel Clowes and the Hernandez Bros.), books that were considered blasphemous or dissident or dirty or radical (Stranger in a Strange Land, Trainspotting, The Stranger, The Grapes of Wrath, The World According to Garp, The Sun Also Rises, The Satanic Verses, Beloved, Sexual Personae, etc), adult indie movies (who can forget, to name only one, High Art?), and writers whom I suspected others of considering too difficult for young people to love (Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner).
Granted, I was a bit more priggish than the average; I always scorned the Beats as slovenly and anti-intellectual ranters (though time has brought me around to the strange genius of Burroughs), and it took till age 31 for me to see what anyone ever saw in Salinger–and as if that weren’t enough, late in my teenage years I took Harold Bloom as my literary vade mecum. But my “adult-oriented” attitude wasn’t atypical; I don’t recall that any of my friends in high school or even middle school were interested in kid books, however cloyingly labeled with social science jargon. Even when it came to Batman, my seventh-grade comics-reading friends and I confined our genuine appreciation to the “mature”-labeled graphic novels and mocked the monthly bilge of Chuck Dixon et al.
Everybody wanted to know about sex and drugs and politics, quite rightly; we wanted denunciations of war and religion; I recall fierce extracurricular debates, across the lunch table and over the phone and while painting or drawing in the art studio, about feminism and freeing Tibet and the aesthetic avant-garde. Neither fantastical Katniss Everdeen nor realistic Hazel Grace could have got a foot in the door–though poor Hazel Shade might have been invited, unlike in the book.
I know this sounds “elitist,” but then anyone who thinks that word has any relevance to the arts should really think again.
My point is merely that the endemic weakness of adulthood entails a certain slackening of judgment, so I don’t think it’s a big deal if adults read trash from time to time. But if adolescents don’t maintain severe aesthetic and ethical standards, a counter-religious intolerance toward anything that isn’t intense and elevating and radical, who the hell will?