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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 ChronicleRagtime, 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.


image by BryanAlexander via Flickr

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Richard Hershberger August 13, 2018 um 10:08 am

It’s a small point, but this caught my eye: "But they’re reading in different ways. They’re flipping through e-books…" Two responses come to mind, one analytical and one rhetorical. The analytical response is that ebooks are only relevant to the best seller list if said list does not capture ebook sales. This could be the jumping off point for a much better essay about measuring sales in the new environment. This would, however, be an entirely different essay. The rhetorical point is that "flipping." This is dismissive and vague. Flipping through a book, whether electronic or paper, presumably is a superficial act, contrasted with closely reading the book. Do readers of ebooks "flip" through the book more than readers of paper books? We aren’t told. And what does this have to do with "classics," whatever that in turn has to do with the best seller lists. (As an aside, I am currently reading Absalom Absalom! on ebook. I assure you there is no "flipping" involved.)

Steve August 13, 2018 um 12:43 pm

What does any of this have to do with the notion of a "classic" work of literature? Who cares if two books came out to similar levels of critical acclaim in the year they were written? Who cares about how whether they sold well enough when first published to make a best-sellers list?

The very notion of a "classic" is that the book has stood the test of time, that it retained its appeal years after most of the other works published at the same time have been forgotten.

Dan Holloway August 13, 2018 um 12:49 pm

Ha, yeah, I saw this. I almost thought it was a parody so there was one more thing to add to the "millennials have killed…" memes

Nate Hoffelder August 13, 2018 um 1:09 pm

I usually ignore this type of thing but this screw up missed such an interesting discussion that I couldn’t resist

Mike Cane August 13, 2018 um 4:34 pm

?!? WTF. I didn’t go to the original article, but it’s no damn mystery why Catcher has had such a long life.

Schools made it Mandatory Reading and students had to *buy* a copy. (Yeah, good luck getting one of the few public libraries copies for free!)

These days, I doubt they even teach reading in schools. They certainly aren’t teaching spelling anymore!

Nate Hoffelder August 14, 2018 um 8:58 am

There you go, another example of gatekeepers choosing the book that succeeds.

Xavier Basora August 14, 2018 um 4:42 am

And the millenials killed off mayonnaise. Golly they’really just as horrible as Gen X 🙂

Nate Hoffelder August 14, 2018 um 8:57 am

you can have my mayo when you pry it from my cold dead greasy fingers

Ryber August 14, 2018 um 9:24 am

Is it my imagination, or shouldn’t "adults under 40" have started being born in 1979, not 1981? Or did your Chrome extension change Millennials (supposedly maximum age 37) to Adults under 40 in this instance as well? Your clarifying paragraph there says it changes "adults under 40" to "adults under 40", so that seems likely to be the case.

Nate Hoffelder August 14, 2018 um 11:03 am

That extension was really only intended as a joke to poke fun at millenial bashing. It wasn’t supposed to be 100% correct on the birth year.

Ryber August 14, 2018 um 5:01 pm

Sorry… was having a very literal morning today. And as a millennial, I’d just like to say, if we had anywhere near the power the media says we have, we’d be having a lot more fun 🙂

Felipe Adan Lerma August 14, 2018 um 2:00 pm

I’m beginning to feel the descriptive texts re Millennials are pretty similar to those I experiened in the 60s, 1960s, not in my 60s (which I’ve aged well into now 🙂 Disrupting norms, too laid back, blah blah blah – but maybe that’s the normal course through generations of people 🙂

David Nemeth August 17, 2018 um 9:21 pm

Agreed. This was a ridiculous click-bait article.

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