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A short lesson on why the existential void (and good writing) shouldn’t just be for kids

By Hannah Strom-Martin

Pop-culture analysts and members of the PTA have long been rattling the bars, swearing that children are being talked down to, taken advantage of, and otherwise cheated by purveyors of entertainment. It’s a fair assumption–just look at the kiddie-centric, late-stage career of Ice Cube. What these same people and, indeed, the entire viewing or reading public often fail to take into account is that adults have it far worse; the entire reality TV oeuvre, for example, is aimed at people old enough to wear Jessica Simpson cosmetics.

One would assume, given the moral sewer that currently passes for television, that literary-minded adults would fare much better. Literature has always been the last refuge of complex, original ideas, right? Well, it depends on what sort of literature you’re talking about. Because frankly, my dear, when it comes to pop-lit, the adults are getting the soggy end of the stick.

Not only do the most popular authors of adult-oriented fiction talk down to their audience, in some cases their words can actually warp your perception of reality. Lead by books like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (coming soon to a multiplex near you) and the still-chugging, ultra-right-wing Left Behind series, pop-lit demonstrates a remarkable lack of faith in the individual. More to the point, these abysmally conceived tales continue to sell millions of copies a year, making their deficiencies all the more worth examining. The dumbing down of popular entertainment ain’t just for kids anymore.

Take for example the biggest literary behemoth of the last decade: The Da Vinci Code. Yes, it presents some interesting if not entirely surprising ideas (the Catholic Church had it in for matriarchal paganism? Who knew!), but it also stands as a perfect example of what is wrong with popular literature. The story of one religion essentially wiping out the other is a compelling one–hell, it really happened!–but instead of creating equally compelling characters with which to populate his landscape, Brown opts for reducing his cast of zealots and goddess worshippers down to the least common denominator. His Catholic characters are classic stock villains, leaving the reader in no doubt as to which side of the struggle the author is on.

Brown’s enterprising atheist scholars, Robert Langdon and Sophie Sauniere, are stock heroes: he, forthright and American; she, the clay with which he can mold another believer. It’s a formula we have seen repeated since Buck Rogers, complete with a tacked-on romantic ending–and writing as bland and rehashed as yesterday’s leftovers:

“When we possess the keystone,” the Teacher said, “we will only be one step away.”

“We are closer than you think. The keystone is here in Paris.”

“Paris? Incredible. It is almost too easy.”

That’s three stock phrases in as many lines, and is a typical example of Brown’s flair for words. If we wanted something this lifeless, we could have just paid $10 to see The Island. But several million copies and as many dollars later, Brown is pop-lit’s hottest ticket, begging the question: What passes for writing these days?


Still, the worst that you can really say about Brown is that he’s the New York Times bestsellers’ equivalent to Dick and Jane. He may not challenge you to think past the turn of the page, but at least he doesn’t provide a zealous core audience with more fuel for their fire. That task is left to authors like Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, whose Left Behind series (the first book alone has sold, to date, a frightening 60 million copies) provides as much fodder as any zealot could want.

The sheer volume of Left Behind books sold is enough to validate it as a topic of study–or, at least, concern. After 12 books, the series came to an end with Glorious Appearing in 2004, but demand has been so great that a prequel series is in the works. At least 60 million people have read these books, meaning that their message has reached at least 60 million minds. And what a message!

In this tale of life on earth after the Rapture, porn equals purgatory, a few drinks can cost you your soul and liberals are personified in the character of Hattie Durham, a bubble-headed stewardess who worries that her Planned Parenthood friends will have no more babies to abort since the Rapture has swept up everything in a diaper. This would all be slightly amusing if the text itself weren’t (a) dead serious and (b) mind-numbingly boring.

The tale of life after the Rapture and the ensuing examination of personal beliefs could be the occasion for a great work of fiction. But in the hands of LaHaye and Jenkins, it is rendered about as exciting as Sunday school. The rise of the anti-Christ and his series of murders all happen offscreen, and most of the action consists of bad dialogue between characters. This is all to the detriment of the series, for if LaHaye and Jenkins’ apocalyptic vision included something more than mere plane crashes and the obnoxious brown-nosing of an intrepid reporter, their religious bias might be rendered ignorable. It is not. Like Brown, LaHaye and Jenkins are guilty of viewing life from one side of the glass with no attempt to explain such things as what happened to Muslims or Hindus during the Rapture, or why a man like hero Rayford Steele would want to embrace his wife’s religion after she sex-iled him during their marriage.

This, then, is the world of adult pop-lit. The writing is tepid, at best. Well, thank God for young adult (YA) lit, for while Brown and company have been fannying about in the brain department, the struggle between good and evil, sacred and profane has migrated to the children’s section.

Read to Your Adult

Truth be know, we have been given the keys to our own salvation. It comes in the form of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, a YA novel that lovingly recreates Paradise Lost, and in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, in which a boy and his djinn tackle such issues as classism, political corruption and slavery with characterizations in five blazing colors. Lead by trailblazing series like Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and Eion Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books, both of which have new installments published each year, YA has become the last refuge of intelligent entertainment in a sea of pop-culture offal–and a genre that trusts its audience to think for themselves.

The lack of faith in the individual that typifies adult pop-lit is utterly absent here, and yet, sadly, because these books come bearing shiny, fantastic covers and reside in the children’s section of the bookstore, they are largely, and ironically, ignored by the people who watch Survivor. This is, perhaps, the greatest tragedy in modern literature, for while never sacrificing the intellect that challenges readers both young and old, the new brat pack of YA authors provide enough adventures to please the most critical of excitement-seeking readers.

Tonight, when Mom comes home and tries to settle down for a few hours of stupefying mass-market tripe, I charge the kid in the house to pick up one of his own books, and start reading to her. In fact, I hereby declare the next 30 days Read to Your Adult Month. It’s a public service that desperately needs to be rendered by any children who care about the intellectual fate of their parents.

Easy Power

Consider Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy. It began last year with The Amulet of Samarkand and continues with The Golem’s Eye (the third in the trilogy, Ptolemy’s Gate, is slated for January release). A perusal of the back cover will give you a vague idea that this is the story of a boy and his genie. This is already miles beyond the stilted imagination of The Da Vinci Code, but never mind. It’s kid stuff, right? Ha! Not even this pusher of kid-lit was prepared for the richness of prose and idea I discovered once I had opened its pages.

Bartimaeus, told in first person by the charming djinn of the title and in third person when concerning his 12-year-old master, Nathaniel, is a story of class war, slavery and revenge. In the world of Bartimaeus, magicians acquire all their power by enslaving imps, demons, djinn and even each other into their service. Nathaniel, brought up as a lowly magician’s apprentice, summons the djinn Bartimaeus not to make friends, but to exact revenge on an elitist wizard who has humiliated him.

Bitter and powerful beyond the expectations of his elders, Nathaniel is more Anakin Skywalker than Harry Potter. Even in the first volume, one senses that Nathaniel’s vengeful tendencies will push him toward a fall from grace. Because he has been mistreated by other characters, we sympathize with him, but Stroud never lets us forget the boy’s dark side; watching a crowd of commoners, Nathaniel feels “the lazy exhilaration of easy power.” Stroud’s world, like that of Lemony Snicket, is all the richer for its refusal to coddle young readers. Who would expect to find this description in a children’s book:

The state address continued for many minutes, liberally punctuated with explosions of joy from the assembled crowd. What little substance it contained soon degenerated into a mass of repetitive platitudes about the virtues of the Government and the wickedness of its enemies. After a time, Nathaniel . . . could almost feel his brain turning to jelly.

Put aside the fact that there are many adults who don’t know what “platitude” means, this nod to political corruption will go over the heads of most eight-year-olds. But that doesn’t stop Stroud–or any of his fellow children’s authors–from using complex themes and language to strengthen his world-building and enhance his vision. By refusing to simplify, he encourages the mind to expand, trusting his readers to use their smarts, which in this day and age, must be some kind of miracle.

No One Over 14

Themes of governmental discord–indeed, of the failings inherent in all figures of authority–are particularly popular in YA literature. Snicket’s Baudelaire orphans are continually let down by the cluelessness of their guardians. The landscape of Pullman’s Dark Materials is rife with corrupt governmental and religious institutions. In the days of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, the hobbits or children were never without a reliable authority figure (Aragorn steps in for Gandalf when the wizard falls; Aslan rises from the dead before any serious harm can come to Lucy, Susan, Edmund or Peter).

Now the title character of young Christopher Paolini’s first novel, Eragon, must struggle on in the wake of his guardian’s death with no guide but his own 14-year-old moral compass. These portraits of abandonment and self-reliance are no accident. Unlike Jenkins and LaHaye, who spoon-feed their audience every emotional plot point, writers like Paolini trust their readers to form their own opinions when their characters fall into dire straits.

At one point, Eragon–his family murdered, his path uncertain–questions the existence of God. This is a risky thing to do when you are writing for an audience who, unlike the Left Behind crew, isn’t necessarily dialed in to such philosophical dilemmas, but by deciding to chance it, Paolini challenges his readers to examine their own beliefs. Like Eragon himself, they are made independent and must face hard questions without a guiding hand.

Perhaps the most powerful example of an existential void in YA lit is found in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a children’s trilogy based audaciously on Milton’s Paradise Lost, which should, if only for the richness of its language, be prescribed reading for anyone languishing under the tyranny of John Grisham.

The world Pullman creates in His Dark Materials is so complex it would require a small volume to explain. It begins in a world not unlike our own where everyone possesses a daemon, a manifestation of the soul in animal form. If you are prepubescent, your daemon can be any animal it wants, but once you become an adult, it chooses a single form that tends to reflect the sort of person you are; servants, for example, tend to have dog daemons, whereas a warrior’s daemon might be a wolf.

The story centers around a 12-year-old girl named Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon. A mysterious cosmic phenomenon called Dust, which seems to settle around adults, is judged by the religious leaders of her world to be the physical manifestation of original sin, and in an attempt to eradicate it, a sinister organization called the Oblation Board, begins to separate children from their daemons. When Lyra’s best friend, Roger, disappears, Lyra sets off to rescue him and discovers she is the key player in a prophecy that could lead to the second fall of man–or the destruction of God Himself.

In a sense, His Dark Materials is the modern successor to Lewis’ Narnia series, with the heavily Christian message simply turned on its head. But the more one reads, the less simple it becomes. It is a sprawling work, packed with enough armored bears, witch queens and malevolent specters to delight any child, yet with a meaty subtext that is by turns audacious, erotic, frightening and, depending on your religious views, blasphemous. It is a book daring enough to let a character proclaim, “[E]very church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling,” and yet clever enough to balance the author’s views with a simple human story.

Even if you violently disagree with Pullman’s take on religion, you will still have your heart ripped out when Lyra must abandon a treasured friend and journey, like Milton’s narrator, into the world of the dead. Pullman’s prose is sensual and affecting as wine, and once more, provides an example of how YA lit is an imaginative force to be reckoned with.

His description of purgatory is some truly disturbing stuff, and it challenges the child reader not only with its concepts, but with its language as well. Here in the realm of YA, the cookie-cutter prose of The Da Vinci Code would is a sin and the dogged preaching of LaHaye and Jenkins is truly left behind. In the beauty of its language and its willingness to tackle difficult issues of faith and belief, YA literature has become the repository of our most compelling and complicated modern themes, and a genre in which the reader is encouraged to form her own opinions.

Pullman’s series (the movie rights were recently purchased by New Line Cinema, who produced the Lord of the Rings series) is a literary feat that will endure long after its adult-lit contemporaries have run out of steam, so long as children and adults continue to discover it. In these dark times of audience passivity, this mission might be easier said than done, but Pullman and company’s message continues to be clear: Come on, adults! Put your faith in worthy idols, and get thee to a children’s section. There’s no reason on earth why kids should have all the fun.

From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.


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