I Beg to Differ

There was an opinion piece in yesterday’s Washington Post about the reading of college students. They are, the writer argued, more likely to read ‘inferior texts’ like Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series, or our new presidents’ memoirs, than ‘serious literature’ like Anais Nin or Alan Ginsberg, and thus have lost the liberal-political activism of the 1960s to lesser forms of radicalism, like Twitter and website design. The editorial actually made me fairly angry. As a member of the generation this article criticizes, I can’t help but roll my eyes, thinking that every generation – including the author’s own – was greeted with cries of “These kids, now a-days.” And, like all members of every criticized generation, I think the writer of this piece is just stuck in the past.

Ron Charles, the writer, takes a very narrow-minded approach to, well, everything, in his editorial, not the least of which was the too-often-encountered sentiment that popular books aren’t real literature. Oh, how I despise that Oscar Wilde quote that I’m sure Mr. Charles adheres to, “Everything popular is wrong.” He and many of the people he cites are completely derogatory towards any writer or genre that happens to be popular or that they don’t consider “serious literature,” referring to students’ reading as “dim,” bloodless, and superficial.”  Though he doesn’t mention romance novels in particular, I’m sure that he would lump them in with the rest of this literary trash.

Anyone who thinks that a particular type of book doesn’t have worth doesn’t understand what it means to read.

Do college students read Twilight? Yes. Do they read the Onion? Yes. Do they read Harry Potter? Yes. Do they limit their reading to these things alone, as the writer implies? No. It’s such an oversimplification to assume that people that read “popular” books don’t read “serious literature” – or vice versa. And this is all going off of Mr. Charles’ assumption that there’s a distinction between the two. My friends read Sylvia Plath and Frank Miller, Ayn Rand and J. K. Rowling, Jack Kerouac and Sophie Kinsella. Malcolm X and Stephenie Meyer.

In another respect, he seems to have the college experience summed up into a stereotypical round of bad reading, political apathy, too much Internet use, and over-consumption of beer. Though my college experience is, of course, only one school of many, I know my university isn’t an anomaly—and it’s nothing like what the writer says college students are like. He says they don’t protest, don’t pay attention to politics, could care less about activism, and are all moderate or conservative. Actually, I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t been to a political rally or protest of some sort. My school lives for protests and politics and activism. Remember a couple of years ago, when a bunch of students got arrested for laying down in front of Karl Rove’s car after a speech? Yeah, that was my school. Go us. I’m not sure you could describe my university as conservative or apathetic. You know what my friends talk about on a fairly regular basis? Economics. I remember one distinct occasion listening to my friends debate the relative merits of Marxism versus capitalism, while they were both not quite sober. The other day on the school shuttle, two people were discussing whether it would be better for our country to continue to give foreign aid abroad, or to focus those funds on solving our own healthcare crisis. I got into a fairly heated debate once over whether “moral obligation” was a justifiable cause for intervention in a conflict, both international and interpersonal.

The writer seems to me to be just another person who thinks his generation was the greatest in history, convinced that his literature, politics, culture, and technology are far superior to those that came before, and those that have come since. Well, Mr. Charles, I’m one of these college students you write about. I go to protests and I visit celebrity gossip websites. I get my news from the New York Times and NPR, as well as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I read books, and spend way too much time on Facebook. I enjoy Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Sylvia Plath, but most of the time I would rather read a romance novel. I’m sorry I don’t fit your dismal portrait of a college student, but you know what? I don’t know a single person who does.

-Jane Granville

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21 Responses to I Beg to Differ

  1. Donna says:

    Hey, Jane,

    Don’t worry about it overmuch. Mr. Charles is just proving how short his memory is, because I’m sure he was, once-upon-a-time (in the 1940′s, maybe? Just joking!) written off as a pathetic student not worthy of the preceding generation! You’re right about one thing, every generation seems to have some members who feel compelled to offer the old ‘culture is dying’ speech. I don’t know why, but consider it a rite of passage for your generation.

    Really I think it is just an indication of how out-of-touch he is with the evolution of radicalism. Protest, as a social outlet, will never take the same form from one generation to the next. Society evolves, it changes, but there will always be those lamenting the loss of the ‘good old days’.

  2. Camille says:

    Great post. I totally agree with you. I think people who don’t understand why things are popular tend to automatically think they are bad or find a way to mock it. Why can’t reading just be for fun?

  3. Jessa Slade says:

    Brava, Jane! Charles must’ve forgotten that Nin was a slut and Ginsberg a druggie :) or he wouldn’t be pushing them so quick on those college kids.

    A love of story will serve you well your whole life, however you learned to love.

  4. Lynn M says:

    I think this guy is a windbag, not really worthy of being taken seriously. But I always want to ask people like him why he believes he is so well-rounded reading-wise when he limits himself to the “classics” and things he deems worthy literature. Like you said, this generation has read Twilight and Sylvia Plath, Harry Potter and Hemingway. Not to mention all of the additional content today’s college students encounter via the internet. So IMO, the more recent generations are infinitely more well-rounded and well-informed on a global level.

    And I also find it ironic that our generation is left stuck holding the fall out from his generations excesses. He’s got a lot of nerve smacking around the people who are saddled with the responsibility of graduation from college and solving the economic crisis, the global warming crises, the Middle East crisis, that gasoline and fossil-fuel crisis, etc. Perhaps instead of writing editorials bemoaning the decline of western culture, he ought to be reading some “trashy” books on how to go green.

  5. Lynn M says:

    Sorry for the double post…but to clarify my last paragraph, I mean his generation protested by wearing black arm bands and sitting on their…keesters, complaining about The Man. That’s real helpful. And now he’s upset that today’s college students aren’t spending their time marching in circles with poster board signs or building a shanty town in the middle of their college’s green. Perhaps today’s college kids are protesting with action – actually doing something to make a difference instead of just complaining how bad things really are. I have a heck of a lot more respect for the college kid today who throws his empty beer can in the recycling bin than I do for the 1960s era rebel who wore a black armband to show the world his outrage over some policy or another.

  6. AAR Sandy says:

    Those darn kids today!

  7. Katie Mack says:

    Right on, Jane. As a recent college graduate, I can confirm that everything you said about your school, applies to my alma mater as well, here in California. In fact, most of the college students I know are much more versed in what’s going on in the world today than most middle aged adults. And they are a heck of a lot more likely to take action, including protest marches, rallies, etc.

  8. RobinB says:

    I don’t know what bug is up Mr. Charles’ gluteus maximus–I’m a former librarian, and I think it’s great that young people are still reading for pleasure, when they could easily be playing video games, surfing the Internet, texting each other, etc., etc. Oh, and Lynn M, I was one of those sixties’ protesters, and the issue in our day was the war in Vietnam and the Selective Service System. Because there was a draft, and because the war was (as we found out later) based on lies (just like the Iraq conflict), we protested. Ninety percent of the protests were peaceful, and they were effective in terms of changing the policy (although it took two presidential administrations to do it). Oh yes, and many of us who protested Vietnam were also involved in the early efforts to change environmental policy. I am very proud of what I did in the sixties and early seventies, and I don’t appreciate a put-down from someone who freely generalizes about the “sixties generation”!!

  9. Jane Granville says:

    I’m glad most of you share my opinion!

    I don’t know how many of you picked up on this story, but about a month ago a train station in London was shut down after a facebook-advertised “flash mob” silent dance party occurred. More than 14,000 people came. Fourteen THOUSAND, to one train station for fifteen minutes just to dance, because they saw it on facebook.

    Ron Charles is dismissive of social networking, but if you look at something like that, you can’t help but see the potential to turn virtual into real, whether it’s for something fun, like a silent dance party, or for something more “serious,” like a protest.

  10. Magnolia88 says:

    I went to college a long time ago, and I also find that column laughable. The “good old days” were never as good as old folks like to pretend they were.

    It’s hilarious that he lumps in the 80s with the 60s as a time when college students were more apt to read “serious literature.” Yeah, right, if you include Stephen King.

    He also leaves out the fact that a LOT more people go to college now than the 60s. Back then, “co-eds” weren’t even allowed to attend a lot of top colleges! They had to go to “girls’ schools” for crying out loud. And of course minorities are a lot more likely to attend college today also. So today’s college students represent a much broader swath of society than the upper crust sheltered white kid of the 60s.

  11. MMcA says:

    My google skills have failed me, and I can’t find my dictionary of quotations, so I have to ask: where’s the Wilde quote from?

    It’s not that it’s important, it’s just I started wondering if he’d said it as himself, or whether one of his characters had said it. Sounded a bit Lady Bracknellish, somehow.

    In my attempt to find the source, I did come across this alternative Wilde quote from ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. Algernon says:

    “It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”

  12. willaful says:


  13. Cora says:

    Mr Charles seems to have forgotten that Alan Ginsberg, Anais Nin, Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac were dismissed as trash and not taken seriously by the literary establishment of their time. Granted the supposed reasons for those dismissals were different than those for dismissals of romance fiction, Twilight and Harry Potter, but those authors were no more accepted by the literary establishment of the day than Meyer or Rowling.

    In fact, I can vividly imagine a Washington Post OpEd from the 1960s wherein the author bitterly complains that college students these days were just reading trash such as erotic fiction, drug-addled memoirs and poetry that doesn’t even rhyme and scan properly and waste their time protesting the Vietnam war. Whereas the college students of his generation read only proper literature.

  14. Jane Granville says:

    MMcA– You know, I’m not sure where that quote is from. I’ve just seen it around several places. A quick search came up with a more complete quote, “Popularity is the crown of laurel the world puts on bad art. Whatever is popular is wrong,” which is from a lecture to art students. I like the quote you found, though, much better!

    Cora– that’s so funny, about that other op ed! The cycle of criticism is never ending. Every generation is worse than the previous one, it seems– and yet society hasn’t collapsed yet, and has, in fact, continued to progress fairly steadily.

  15. Katie says:

    This author is an idiot.

    I’m a university student and yesterday I was reading Lisa Kleypas, but today I’m writing an essay on Marx and Foucault. Perhaps he has a point that we are a generation that doesn’t want to read Hemingway for fun, but “students reading inferior texts” is an oxymoron – we’re in school, we HAVE to read ‘good’ and ‘academic’ texts.

    Also, I am very critical of the idea of “Classics” reading. Books weren’t published classics, they have to go through a healthy does of history to earn that title. Most of Dickens’ stuff was published in segments in newspapers. And wow, now he’s a “Classic” because his stuff is still popular among literary critics after some 120 years. Sure “Twilight” probably isn’t going to earn that title, but who knows??

    Lastly, frivolous people have read frivolous novels for CENTURIES – who is this author to suggest that we’re the only generation who does it?

  16. Katie says:

    PS. Not to be mistaken – I’m critiquing Ron Charles, not Jane.

  17. Doreen says:

    Both my college age daughters are eclectic readers. They got the literature gene from their dad, who taught American lit at a SUNY but they also read genre fiction widely. My younger daughter especially likes non-fiction. I recently turned daughter number one on to Evanovich and Tami Hoag. They are open-minded, intelligent and curious, okay, as well as being the smartest, most beautiful girls in the world (I’m the mom – had to get that in!) and their friends are the same.

    I think everyone here has been burned by someone thinking we’re inferior because of our choice of reading matter. We’re never going to change those people’s minds. But thoughtful essays, like the blog above, can perhaps make a newer generation of critics to be more appreciative of all types of books.

  18. Lusty Reader says:

    What a great post! It’s definitely important to combat sweeping generalizations, I mean really? If someone enjoys Twilight they don’t read any other genres? So not realistic.

  19. AAR Sandy says:

    Sweeping generalizations suck. About ANY generation.

  20. NJ says:

    “I’m not sure you could describe my university as conservative or apathetic. ”

    Um, Jane? What’s up with this statement?

    Why is there this assumption that only liberals are good people? Conservatives can push for positive change, too. Personally, I consider myself libertarian – but I’ve seen a lot of good done by my campus Republican party, like raising $15,000 for Habitat for Humanity. The College Democrats protested in favor of union payraises – payraises that have since necessitated layoffs as the endowment and the economy tanked.

  21. Jane Granville says:

    I didn’t mean to connect those two as one thought, or to say that liberals are better than conservatives. I apologize if it came across that way. Of course, the writer’s perspective certainly seemed to imply that; I was just responding to his statements that college students don’t care, and that they are all conservative. There’s nothing wrong with students being conservative, and you’re right, College Republican groups have done good things. My point was that, at least in the case of my school, both adjectives, as assigned by Mr. Charles, are quite incorrect.

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