Basically, my thinking is this: Fiction needs to find its rock and roll roots and become relevant again. And by ‘relevant’ I mean to a teen audience who surf the perpetual wave of contemporary music and movies and can peg their formative years to those cultural memories. And by ‘again’ I mean ‘for once’ because I think this is where fiction fails teen and young adult readers.
I have fellow kidlit scribe Vivian Lee Mahoney to thank for the line of thinking that led me here (though I meander quite a bit in my thinking). While taking an initially reluctant listen to the Justin Bieber phenomenon among her daughters she recognized that beneath the banality the lyrics spoke to her girls, as do the songs of Taylor Swift. In the end of her post she opened the floor to the world to talk about the songs that spoke to them. I couldn’t resist adding my own but I also got to thinking.
Popular music can have such a strong effect on us emotionally, depending on our age and the frame of reference from when we first hear it, but it’s so powerful that even Hollywood knows how to bend its power. I think it’s overused, but if you’re watching a film set around 1969 and you hear the Rolling Stones “Gimmie Shelter,” its opening melody picked out on the guitar over an ethereal chorus, you know the world you’re entering is going to have an apocalypse moment because that’s what the song captures. That song is steeped in the Vietnam war and world-wide protests and the hangover from the Summer of Love, and if you don’t get a tiny shiver every time Merry Clayton’s voice cracks in the middle section of that song then I don’t know what to tell you. The point is, the song is of its time, about its, encapsulates its time, and manages to remain listenable to this day after decades of airplay.
Three generations of listeners can identify “Gimme Shelter” and enjoy it. Name one book from the same era that does that today.
I can hear the arguments. That rock and roll songs are short. That musical hooks are catchy enough to be memorized after a single listen. That they benefit from repetition. All true points. Books have never been, and were never meant to compete with, rock and roll or pop music.
But I’m not wondering if maybe that’s a mistake, that maybe the problem with fiction and literature is that insists of forms and formulas that speak less and less to modern readers and, as a result, the audience for fiction is drifting away. Everyone agrees that fiction is important, and that books will continue to exist in some form or another through the digital revolution, but what about the readers? Will fiction become the rarefied domain of intellectual adults, a sort of cultural snobbery that looks down its nose at those who cannot be bothered to recognize its superiority?
Something that comes up often in my own writing is struggling to identify what my characters want, or what they think they want, and what they get as a result of the conflict between those two wants. When we talk about what teen readers want from fiction we speak in terms of genres or character types but we never seem to figure out (as perhaps they haven’t either) what they want in terms of form.
What sort of music moved teens in the 1780s? Where they sneaking in the side exits of the concert hall to hear the latest Mozart, or where they lingering around the pubs digging that hip adaptation of a folk song about John Barleycorn by Robert Burns? Music had its high and low back then, its classic and its pop, just as there were many forms of music being made in the 1950s before Elvis came along. The modern song is little more than a watered down version of the chorale, church hymns, which themselves also inspired classical music to take flight and grow into symphonies. The hunger for the new in music is always there taking new shapes as the generations demand them.
Why doesn’t this happen with fiction?
The Beats may have been the last literary movement to capture the attention of the younger generations. After that you see counter-culture authors like Heller and Vonnegut and Thompson tilting at windmills, but nothing so unified as a movement. The closest thing we have these days are fantasy and horror (cum romance) series that have as their unifying element the ability to be popular and garner huge sales and be turned into blockbuster movies. Is this really all young readers want from their fiction, mass conformity is serial form?
I can’t explain it, I can’t articulate it, but I can feel it. Somewhere, just below the surface, like the haunting opening chords to a song, there’s a literary shift bubbling up. It’s story, it’s fiction, but it speaks to youth and reinvents what we know as storytelling in an entirely original way. Like the birth of jazz, the one true cultural invention of American art, somewhere on the horizon is a lo-fi rock and roll literature that’s about to spawn a full-blown literary rebellion. Like that first time a song truly spoke to you, this literary venture will speak to a generation who will have to put up with old people complaining about “all that noise” while culture marches on. It will catch on and give birth to its own Elvis, its own Beatles and Stones, its own new subgenres.
I only hope that when it comes I’m smart enough to recognize it and not be one of those out-of-touch old farts yelling at the kids to turn it down.