In this month’s Atlantic, author and staff writer Caitlin Flanagan argues that the success of books like the Twilight series, the romantic raptures of the High School Musical franchise and the syrupy stylings of Taylor Swift are related—indeed, they are a collective expression of an “insurrection” among young girls, which is taking place now. She hypothesizes that girls are hungry for “the Boyfriend Story,” because in the real world, where the sexual landscape is bleak, romance has been replaced by “hook-ups.” Hers is a controversial point, and Flanagan is not everyone’s cup of tea, indeed one blogger called her “the Phyllis Shlafly of the late Boomer set,” and another “the antifeminist darling of the Atlantic.” The Observer is perhaps most diplomatic in calling her “a provocatrice.” I was actually fairly surprised to see the fury she generates; there were on-line rejoinders to most every word she has written.
In any event, whether or not you buy her argument that in this trend toward the lovey-dovey we can espy “the fourteen and fifteen year olds of our nation” making “one of the last, great stands for human dignity,” it seems to me that this sort of conjecture (tendentious or not, I leave this up to you) is part and parcel of the ongoing discussion how books shape and are shaped by the public discourse. Indeed, Flanagan’s essay is at heart about a book—Anita Shreve’s new novel, Testimony, which Flanagan believes is a pitch-perfect portrayal of the grim world in which adolescent girls must operate. Flanagan’s penchant for peering into novels in search of larger reflection of the zeitgeist is hardly unique. You can find examples everywhere—including A.O. Scott’s recent New York Times essay, which connects Sam Lipsytes new novel The Ask, the Ben Stiller film Greenberg and Hot Tub Time Machine, and situates us squarely in what Scott believes is Gen-X’s “midlife crisis.” (As a gen-Xer myself, I find it impossible to believe.)
So, tapping into the cultural studies geek/provocateur in all of us, let’s indulge in a little trend analysis. What does it say that vampire books are huge? For a smart discussion on the new generation of ethical undead, have a look at the Millions. That mash-ups and steam punk and graphic novels are in vogue? That we are fascinated by the Tudors to the exclusion of much of the rest of British history? That books on the unseen forces behind common phenomena, a la Malcolm Gladwell, are so very popular? It’s tricky to make these sweeping statements about what we’re reading and why, but formulating wild generalizations is part of the fun.