Kids today and what they read (#SFWApro)

In this post, John Scalzi discusses how he loved Heinlein’s juveniles when he read them as a kid and his daughter has no interest in them, or indeed in most stuff published more than 20 years ago. In the comments people discuss why. As I find the idea of books falling out of the zeitgeist interesting, I decided to list possible reasons (not based on any surveys, just personal impressions) why yesterday’s books fall out of favor.
•The author’s dead. I really think there’s a big subjective difference between reading the backlist of a living author and reading old books by some guy (or woman) who’s dead. Even though it doesn’t change the books. Likewise Silver Age comics have a very different style from contemporary ones (then again, I just recommended a Silver Age Avengers collection to a friend’s son and he loved it).
•Style. Several people in the comments argued that stylistically older books are just too different to appeal to today’s readers (or some readers). For example, much more omniscient narration, less close up and personal. And of course
•Changing tech. This is one I’ve seen held up a lot: teenagers simply can’t identify with a world that doesn’t have cell phones, personal computers and so forth. I’m not so sure about this—I certainly never felt the need to read “relevant” or “contemporary” material when I was in my teens. And Nancy Drew and L.M. Montomgery (to name two pre-Internet authors) still draw readers.
•Isms. I’m sure the treatment of non-whites, women and gays in older books is a problem for a lot of 21st century readers. Heck, it bothers me, though not usually so much I can’t read them.
•Timing. I know from reading various comics blogs that for a lot of readers who were kids in the 1980s, Spider-Man’s foe the Hobgoblin was one of the great villains. For me, he’s not bad, but not particularly memorable either: I’d seen lots of villains by then he was just one more. Or as Pauline Kael put it, if you’re a teenager who hasn’t watched a lot of movies, maybe Titanic really was the greatest, most epic film you’d ever seen.
•Sheer chance. I love Andre Norton but one of the reasons she was so big for people my age is that school libraries carried so much of her work (I’ve no idea why) when most SF and fantasy was out of bounds. Not the case today.
•So much stuff! The days when you could pretty much read everything in genre or even everything good are long gone, I think. Selectiveness is inevitable, which means some stuff stays and some stuff has to be set aside.
Of course, there’s nothing really startling in 21st century readers not reading “old” books. A lot of authors—most authors, probably—fade into obscurity eventually. But as I’ve mentioned before (in the link to Tor.com’s D&D reread), it’s unsettling when it happens to authors who were contemporary writers for me and are now historical.
Time, as Lord Dunsany says, cuts off the heads of daisies and emperors. And writers.

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