Blame Zombies

“Is Adult Fiction Too Childish?” the Huffington Post article asks, featuring a picture of a she-vamp biting a victim. I clicked on it, half-expecting some misguided soul claiming Twilight was grown-up lit.

Instead, William Adler puts on his literary snob hat and tries to understand the general proliferation of zombie/vampire/superhero nonsense, also called genre fiction. He does it all in a very nice way that suggests he doesn’t actually want to come off as a literary snob, and that he is genuinely baffled at the state of entertainment today. I don’t have a HuffPo account, so I responded here.

Full disclosure: I am a genre whore. I love sci-fi, fantasy, horror, zombies, dragons, the whole shebang. I didn’t like most of the classics when they were shoved down my throat in high school, and I don’t like most of them now (the lone exception being The Iliad, after I obtained a much better translation of it earlier this year). I’m pretty sure people like Adler look at me as a degenerate freak.

I am very aware of the vast diversity of human interests and the slicing and dicing of categories of human endeavor. As they say, “different strokes for different folks.” Was it always thus, or have I lost touch with what motivates Americans of upcoming generations? This is a possibility that I contemplate with very personal alarm.

I hate to sound so Californian, but dude, you list William Shakespeare as one of your great “grown-up” literacists. Maybe you need to reread his works…they’re littered with ghosts, witches, and other supernatural paraphernalia.

“cameron d” (lowercase username) doesn’t even try to be tactful. He/she jumps in with “People have awful taste…people don’t seem to want [‘quality art/literature’] anymore.”

Anymore? Maybe they never did. Go back a couple thousand years and read The Iliad, where men argue with gods and perform feats of superhuman strength. Hell, go back even further and check out Gilgamesh.

The more reasonable Adler goes on:

Why are comic characters returning in new wrappers that are attracting thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands or millions worldwide to graphic novels, games and movies illustrating the adventures of superheroes and superheroines? Please enlighten me. Does it have something to do with wishful thinking about empowerment? Perhaps.

Because they never left. Achilles, Gilgamesh, and all those famous protagonists are basically comic book heroes. Supernatural creatures (maybe not explicitly zombies, but certainly resurrected dead/ghosts/monsters) and heroes blessed with special powers abound. People ate it up, no pun intended.

They still do.

Humans have always loved out-there literature…I think the key difference between modern times and the last few decades is that these types of books—I’ll call it “fringe lit” just for the time being–are finally becoming more accessible.

I read it because it’s entertaining. I do not find, say, Fitzgerald or Faulkner all that fun. They’re not my kind of reading. I did a report once on Wide Sargasso Sea. I chose that book because the Sargasso Sea is called the “sea of lost ships,” and I thought something with that title would be…well, about a ship lost in the Sargasso Sea. You can imagine my ensuing disappointment with Jean Rhys.

Individual taste in literature is something like individual taste in alcohol. Some people prefer a dirty martini. Others like sweet dessert wines. People like what they like…it has nothing to do with intelligence.

For what it’s worth, I don’t quite get the “zombie lit as empowerment” argument. If anything, it’s the opposite of empowerment. Most zombie stories take place in a bleak, post-apocalyptic wasteland strewn with flesh-eating monsters. Death could come at any second. The protagonists that inhibit these stories are gritty survivors, more often than not. I’m not sure I’d call that empowerment. I don’t know what I would call it, but maybe that’s a dissection best left for another post.

I hate to think of it as a manifestation of our decline, which some have postulated, a kind of dumbing-down of American culture. I offer this later idea not as a flip or inflammatory insult to those thousands who flock to this kind of fare, but as a somewhat biased, informational observation. Admittedly, it could be evidence of stubborn literature elitism on my part.

This paragraph almost makes a parody out of the entire complaint. It is evidence of stubborn literature elitism on your part. Who cares if people like zombies? Go back to your Faulkner. I’ll be over here with my Brian Keene novel.

Before blaming the undead for the possible slide of society, I’d take a closer look at the other influences on our culture. We’re plugged into the Web virtually 24 hours a day. Thanks to texting, Facebook, emails, Twitter, and 4square (did I miss any?), it’s virtually  possible to miss anyone anymore. We are constantly in each other’s faces; solitude is virtually non-existent unless you take steps to unplug yourself (which will undoubtedly piss off someone, somewhere, in your network). The advent of smartphones and telecommuting means our workdays continue late into the night—long after we leave the office (hell, maybe it is empowerment, if you look at office drone life as being zombie-like, and heroes who shoot zombies actually rejecting the norm…but that’s more depth than I usually look for). And I won’t even get into the political quagmire the country has found itself in.

Then again, maybe our culture isn’t in a downward slide. Maybe it’s just changing.

But people just love to blame the zombies.

(As a brief aside, I am a product of public education, and I think kids are taught literature and history in a way that practically guarantees we’ll hate both. But that’s a rant for another day.)

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