The title of Alexandra Alter’s Wall Street Journal article on adults reading fiction written for middle-schoolers describes the situation perfectly. “See Grown-ups Read. Read, Grown-ups, Read” suggests not middle school, but an elementary school reading
level. Alter’s story describes one of the many ways that our mass culture is infantilizing adults, turning them into oversized children.
Alter finds several reasons why adults like reading fiction written at the reading, intellectual and maturity level of 12- to 15-year-olds:
- The Harry Potter series of books continues to influence reading choices.
- There is less of a difference in tastes between generations today than in the past.
- There is less of a stigma in adults reading children’s books for pleasure.
- The quality of literature for middle-school children has increased and the themes have become more mature.
The first three reasons are euphemistic ways to say that many adults now maintain the interests of childhood or pursue childhood interests. Of course, Alter avoids the negative judgment implied—and meant—by my expression, “the infantilization of adults.” As one of the several experts Alter quotes puts it, “It used to be kids who would emulate what their parents were reading, and now it’s the reverse.”
The fourth reason is worth analyzing further. Let’s accept the premise that the quality of the writing in books for the middle school audience has improved and the themes and situations are more complex than in the past. The easy rhetorical response is that these books are still for children and not for adults. There is no stream of consciousness writing, no shifting of perspectives without signally the shift (known as free indirect discourse), no long elegant Proustian sentences, and no modernistic imagery. Even today’s new and improved middle school fiction falls short of the best of fictional writing for adults. In addition, the themes covered are those of interest to the middle schooler and thus inherently less complicated than what should be of interest to adults.
Alter peppers the article with quotes from experts, but all of them are authors, editors or publishers of juvenile fiction. No place does she have room for the views of a sociologist, psychologist or philosopher, who might fear, as I do, that adults are losing their capacity for complex thought by reverting to their childhood joys and activities, be it juvenile fiction, theme parks or shoot-shoot-bang-bang video games. In fine Wall Street Journal free-market tradition, the article is about a growing market. In the Journal’s view, all free markets are good and the results of free market growth are always good. The editorial slant of the newspaper reflects a modern version of Voltaire’s buffoonish professor, Dr. Pangloss. He’s the one who keeps repeating in Candide that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. For the Journal, everything is for the best when the free market is operating.
Besides, infantilization of adults is good for Journal advertisers and the American consumer economy is general. Infantilization makes people less able to understand the fine print, less able to understand if what is for sale is really of value. It leaves people less in control of their emotions and more insecure and susceptible to manipulation, just as children and teens are when compared to mature adults. In short, it’s easier to sell products and services—especially useless ones—to the less mature mind.