Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Generational Reading Gap

I found this interesting article, Talking 'Bout My Generation Gap by John Klima (editor of Electric Velocipede) over at Tor.com, which led me to a post by Elizabeth Bear. In their posts, they talk about how readers often read only within their generation, never out of it. That means old readers only read old writers, new readers only read new writers, and never the twain shall meet. An excerpt:

Elizabeth Bear had an interesting post recently (heck, she ALWAYS has interesting posts, but this one was relevant to what I talk about here) wherein she posits that each generation of SF short fiction writers only reads within its own generational short fiction boundary. Or in more succinct, Bear fashion: "We don't read them. And they don't read us."

I'm sure there are exceptions. I'm sure there are writers of short fiction who belong to one generation that read fiction written by people of another generation, but I think in essence bear has hit upon something here. Again, in her succinct fashion, "I wonder when the last time was that Bob Silverberg read a story by Benjamin Rosenbaum, David Moles, or Yoon Ha Lee?"

I agree with her sentiment because I've had the experience of when I see/hear Gen X writers talk about other writers, they tend to refer to people from within their generation, and vice versa for the older generations.

I think this could apply across almost all genres, not just to science-fiction.

Twice this year now, I found myself nearly petrified with stage fright and standing in front of a crowd of younger listeners. The first time was during the Talecraft talk last May; the second was yesterday, when I went to visit the English classes of Palanca winner Exie Abola (I'll be blogging about these, along with my jaunt (via a needlessly longer route) to Sir Butch Dalisay's class, soon). Somehow I found my comfort zone, put on a mask, and presented a hpefully decent facsimile of a comfortable public speaker. Each time, the talk drifted to good books, good stories, that I've read. When I read John Klima's and Elizabeth Bear's articles above, one title that I mentioned during these talks with younger readers came to my mind. You'll soon see why.

I brought up Watership Down by Richard Adams (one of Palanca winner Luis Katigbak's favourite books, as can be gleaned from his comments here) with these young readers, and each time, I drew blank stares. They knew other old titles, especially those that have been made into movies, but not Watership Down, despite the fact that it was a huge, huge, HUGE bestseller when it came out, and I believe to this day remains one of Penguin Publishing's betselling titles of all time. It was made into an animated film and spawned a hit song in its time. It's a terrific quest story about the travails of a bury of rabbits looking for a safe place to establish a new colony. It's well-told, engaging, and despite the presence of cute and cuddly bunnies, is by no means for children, what with the violence in the tale, along with the higher language and the adult situations that the protagonists find themselves in. And yet, these younger readers had not heard of it.

And then the tables were turned, as these younger readers brought up some titles that I had not yet read: Twilight and its companion novels by Stephenie Meyer, current bestsellers I had heard of but have not picked up, despite the ease with which I could have gotten my hands on copies (my niece would surely lend me hers for awhile if I asked, wouldn't she? Shouldn't she?), and Howl's Moving Castle and the Chrestomanci Books by Diana Wynn Jones. I'm glad that I at least had heard of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, but sadly I could not finish any of the books. Was the generation gap at work here? In fact, the only authors with whom I seem to have met some minor success are Garth Nix and Eoin Colfer (as well as the ubiquitous J.K. Rowling). This was an eye-opener for me, since I still enjoy reading young-adult books, and I thought I would at least recognize a good number of the new books. Not so. Many of the titles that were mentioned were as unfamiliar to me as Watership Down was to them.

Hey-ho. The gap exists. Now what can be done about it? I don't think I can say it better than John Klima did:

Now why does it matter if writers aren't reading each other across generations?

Younger generations are missing out on seeing how established writers continue to hone their craft. If we take Silverberg as an example, what makes his writing fresh to keep selling new material? What keeps him writing? If you're very lucky as a writer, you will have a career as long as Robert Silverberg's. In my opinion, part of learning how he's accomplished this feat (other than talent) is to read what he writes and to learn from what he's done and is still doing. In some respects, a younger writer reading older writers is akin to an apprenticeship.

As for the older generations, there's something to be said for seeing where the future of a career is going. Are there things getting published today that could inspire an established writer to try something new? Look at the impact that Moorcock's tenure with New Worlds or Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies had.

It's a dangerous thing to limit who you read when you're a writing professional. Unless you know what's being done, there's no way you can do something that ISN'T being done. This is called environmental scanning, which is vital to being successful in your field. You see what everyone else in your profession is already doing. You can learn whether what you're doing is similar to others in the field that are already successful. You can also learn what people like from what's being done. But, more importantly, if you do your scan correctly, you can see what's lacking from your environment. And if you can define what's lacking, you can fill it.

But you can only do that by being thorough. So this is my assignment to all the writers out there: find a writer from a different generation than your own and read a short story from them.

And if I may add, not just short stories, but novellas and novels too. There is certainly much that younger readers can learn from those who have already trod the paths, making them well-worn, but it wouldn't hurt also for the older readers to turn and see just what new routes are being carved out by younger minds through the realm of story. It is so easy to dismiss tales as either "having been done" (for the older ones) or "dusty and old-fashioned" (for those who are younger), but the path of least resistance is not always the best. The greater, the greatest, rewards can often come from the mind that stays open, and empathetic, no matter how old--or young--one becomes.


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