The books my kids want to read — books written by modern authors — are so much better. This observation, I predict, is going to elicit howls of protest. The fact that things sometimes do get better is not a popular idea, and never has been. Doomsdayism and good-old-dayism go hand-in-hand: things used to be good, but now we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. How does this relate to writing and to fiction generally? Most ponderers of the literary world will tell you that we’re all getting dumbed down, that literature used to be much better, that we’re all having pabulum shoved down our throats. And certainly there is pabulum to be found. But I propose the radical idea that on the whole, the novel has vastly improved over the decades.
Behind the perception that things used to be better, I see two issues: 1. The Nostalgia Bump: Before I made myself actually sit down and reread The Dark Is Rising to my children, I was convinced this series was evidence that the good old days were better. I mean, I loved that series as a child. It opened up the doors of my imagination more than any other book I've read, and launched me toward Madeline L'Engle and Ursula K. LeGuin. I became a genuine bookworm because of Susan Cooper: I spent my after-school hours happily sitting on the floor of the local library, reading and reading and reading, till my mother finished work and came to fetch me. So decades later, when I saw the Cooper series at Borders (ah, Borders) I had to buy the whole thing and immediately turn my daughter into the same bookworm I was. I was so convinced this would work that it took nearly half the book before I realized I was, actually, as bored as daughter was. We'd both been ruined by Harry Potter: we had strong expectations about plot, character, pace, and humor, and this series was just too ponderous.
2. Apples to Oranges: we compare Charles Dickens to Dan Brown. When we browse the shelves at the local bookstore — oh wait, none of us does that anymore. When we click through the Kindle Daily Deals section at Amazon, or flick our eyes over any bestseller list, we are confronted with a sea of crapola. Or, at least that's what we perceive. Some wildly popular books really are well-written, but so many are not that we tend to see them all as tripe. Anything sitting next to Fifty Shades of Grey looks bad by comparison. And then we look back to The Golden Days of Yesteryear and all we see are Charles Dickens and Virginia Wolf. So the logical conclusion is, once we had men and women of letters! And now we have men and women of handcuffs. But of course, we're only reading Dickens today because he was really an amazing writer. There was fluff and nonsense back then, too; we don't remember it because fluff dies with its generation.
These are all generalities, of course, and generalities based on my own opinion. Some people may still love Susan Cooper's books, and may be reading them to their perfectly entranced children. But I'm using specifics to illustrate what I think is a general truth: books are actually getting better. We are figuring out what the brain wants from a story, and we are shaping our stories accordingly. Clearly, attention-span isn't the issue because plenty of books today are long — both my kids sat and read the entire Harry Potter series, even as the books grew into Bible-sized tomes. Attention span will wander only if we don't give the brain what it wants from a story, and we're much better at doing that now. Newer novels aren't necessarily dumbed-down, either: I indulge routinely in YA novels, especially dystopian, and while these books aren't literary, they are smart. The authors present all kinds of philosophically and politically tricky issues.
I hope this alleviates, at least a little bit, the pessimism you may be feeling this Monday morning as you look around you: the schlocky movies, the tawdry novels, and those damn kids on your lawn. I hope this allows you, Dear Reader, to recognize maybe ... just maybe ... it's not all going to heck: as human beings are getting smarter — so is our entertainment.