Millennial Reading Habits Have Changed the Definition of a Classic , and Other Lazy Writing
Millennial-bashing is popular among the media, and this is a problem not just because it’s lazy writing but also because sometimes it distracts from what is actually going on.
Quartz, for example, published a clickbait piece last month where they claimed that adults under 40 had killed off the "classic novel" (found via The Passive Voice).
he era of the ubiquitous classic is behind us. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Ragtime, and Slaughterhouse-Five have had their time in the sun. What would their modern equivalents be? The reason it’s harder to name such tomes is because there’s quantifiably less options to choose from, despite having more books to read.
Since its first publication in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye has sold over 68 million copies, roughly moving a million copies for every year it has lived. In 2007, A Thousand Splendid Suns was published to great acclaim, similar to the reception of J.D. Salinger’s magnum opus. But by comparison, Khaled Hosseini’s novel has only moved nearly 6 million copies, averaging over 500,000 copies per year—half that of Salinger’s.
So what sends J.D. Salinger’s 69-year old novel still flying off the shelves and shrinks a novel that was just as well-received upon publication?
The answer could be adults under 40.
Adults under 40 may be the death of classic books. In 1982, a year after adults under 40 began being born, the top of bestseller lists were shared by seven or more authors. By 1988, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities could only manage eight weeks. A year later, Salman Rushdie had just nine for The Satanic Verses. By 1994, 10 writers were sharing top spot, each book averaging four weeks. And by 2000, 33 authors were sharing time at the top of the list, ensuring no one stayed longer than a week.
First, I should probably point out I have a Chrome extension that changes "adults under 40" to "adults under 40". (I could fix this but I think it’s better this way.)
This piece has multiple problems, most of which stem from the decision to go for clickbait rather than delve into the real cause.
The thing is, the best-seller lists have changed significantly over the past three decades. Books are staying on the lists for shorter and shorter periods, this is true, but adults under 40 aren’t the cause.
No, that would be the internet.
The single biggest cultural, social, and technological difference between now and the 1980s is that back then communication channels were limited as compared to today. This enabled gatekeepers to control the flow of information. They could choose what got promoted, and essentially make something a classic simply by choosing it.
In 2018, things are very different. Now, we have this thing called the Internet, a communication medium where everyone can talk to everyone. It has its problems, but one upside is that it’s really easy for readers to find new books to read.
Readers don’t have to accept the gatekeepers' choices in 2018; they’re free to listen to other readers, reviewers, or even authors. What’s more, readers have infinitely more options than we did 30 years ago. There are a whole lot more books being produced, all competing for the same few spots on the best-seller lists.
(And yes, I could also make the point that these lists can be gamed and thus don’t actually tell us anything about the quality or value of a book, but I’ll leave that for you to make in the comments.)
So no, "adults under 40" didn’t kill the classic; the internet did. This, folks, is an example of why millennial bashing is such a waste. It is lazy writing that distracts from what is really going on, diverting attention with a cliche.