Thursday, June 25, 2009

Youth Not Liking Catcher in the Rye

The classic (1951) book of teenage angst, Catcher in the Rye, is about a young man, Holden Caulfield, who finds the world filled with phonies. Adults are shallow, hypocritical, insignificant. He seems to have Tourrette's syndrome, as every other word is 'goddam'. The New York Times reports current teens find the protagonist whiny, as opposed to 'deep'. Perhaps reality television and more complex TV shows are paying off.

Steve Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You argues that TV and video games are getting more complex, more engaging, and just better. Shows in the 60s and 70s were linear, with a minor comic subplot (think Starsky and Hutch, Dragnet). Today, shows like The Sapranos and Desparate Housewives have a multithreaded approach, where characters are much less black and white. The net effect is that your average TV watcher is more sophisticated that a generation ago, in the same way that New Yorkers were more sophisticated than country bumpkins in the 1920s (the term 'corny' relates to the observation in the 1920s that rural--corn fed--audiences tended to like trite or overly sentimental jokes or scenes, presumably because of their ignorance).

The whole navel gazing as in, Bartelby the Scrivener, where one is supposed to feel bad for someone who can't handle reality, I always found annoying. This is the beatnick idea, that self discovery is the number one priority of people, and that people who are part of an organization (eg, the military, a corporation) with their external values, are either deluded or empty and pathetic. This idea has been very damaging, as it invites a pointless narcissism, elevating a lack of focus, and instant gratification. I believe self discovery is important, as I describe in Finding Alpha, mainly at finding your competitive advantage, what you are best at. This is both related to the self, and the market, because if you are good at what others do not value, it is not good for you. The fact is, happiness and prosperity comes from focusing on others, not oneself. Loving a child, a god, serving a customer, are all other-directed, and generate a lot of happiness.

I was reminded of Holden Caulfield when I read Michael Lewis's book Liar's Poker, a book about Wall Street written by a young man who worked for exactly 3 years in the business. Lewis was appalled by the hypocrisy and shallowness of his rich superiors, who he thought were all phonies. It was a bunch of funny anecdotes about the rich and famous that purported to give one an understanding of finance. It didn't. If you're over 30, think about how clueless those 25 year old Ivy league kids are in your company.

Hopefully, our youth's rejection of adolescent whining is a permanent evolution in the zeitgeist, like when we learned that zero is a number. In the future, perhaps people will become sufficiently sophisticated to learn that knowing about the major personalities in debates or big organizations--their sexual proclivities, drug usage, their family history--is not the same thing as knowing about the ideas or organizations.


Aaron Davies said...

i'm not nearly old enough to remember purely linearly-plotted tv, but i was struck during a recent re-watch of Babylon 5 how transparent the late-80s/early-90s "A plot/B plot" structure seems now. (i'm sure the same thing would happen if i watched star trek: tng again.) modern sci-fi tv is all about arcs--plot arcs, character arcs, anything from month-long to multi-year.

But What do I Know? said...

When I read Catcher in the Rye as a teenager I thought it was funny--maybe because I didn't take Holden Caulfield's whining all that seriously and assumed he didn't either. Wrong!

You're right about the TV shows--I can imagine the dramatic plot/comic subplot thing almost wrote itself after awhile.

Anonymous said...

Aaron Davies,

Bab 5 had a five year (in our time) story arc. All the major plot ideas and character developments were written prior to the first season. Don't be knockin' Babylon 5 :).

Anonymous said...

The best TV is still sports. The more you know about a given sport, the more you understand its multiple plot lines, story arcs, and characters. It has more drama than scripted TV and is more real than reality TV.

And if that's not enough, you can amp up your interest by betting that you know more than the bookies do.

Anonymous said...

My 11 year old would spend his life on Xbox live if he could. We let him spend quite a large portion of it on their because he chats to his mates whilst he's on and they discuss strategies etc etc so there's quite a lot of social learning taking place. Amongst other things

Alan said...

While I agree that it is a positive that kids today find "Catcher in the Rye" to be whiney and simplistic, I disagree that the world of the past was only filled with linear plots.

some things of the past may have seemed "corny", but in many cases it was because the people of the time had more than enough suffering in their lives - they didn't need movies to emphasize the fact (Sullivans Travels, for instance, makes this point very effectively).

In other cases, as with Saving Private Ryan, you now need to emphasis how truly horrible it was on D-Day, but in the 40's/50's there wasn't a need to do that -- everyone had a family member or friend who had been through the war.

Today we have somehing different a "fake" view of suffering and depth that is either brought to people by the news or by video games, in both cases, it isn't reality for the youth of today, and I sometimes wonder how brittle their confidence will be when they are faced with real struggles.

Eric Falkenstein said...

That's a good point Alan. I find it amusing how 60s era kids think their parents are nerds who never saw anything, as there was more whoring and violence in WW2 and Korea to make explicit narratives unnecessary.

Patrick R. Sullivan said...

Somewhat ironic is that Catcher In the Rye was written by a guy who stormed the beaches at Normandy in WWII, then.