Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Monday, May 10, 2010

Digital Opiates and Paperback Palsy

Guest Post from one of my students.
By Evan Acuña

They constituted an era filled with tension and tumult. Martin Luther King rose in the arms of the Civil Rights movement, only to later fall at the racist hands of hatred. A questionable battle sought to free the South Vietnamese people, but in the process created an America as divided as the foreign land it supposedly was trying to help. During the 1960’s the United States served as the home stadium for an active and principled youth that wasn’t afraid to get involved and make a scene. Social and political tension, along with the burgeoning Hippie movement, ensured that young, visionary voices were always ready to preach their messages.

Underpinning this youth revolution was a breadth of recent literature that reflected the restless ideals of young American marchers, demonstrators, and dreamers alike. There was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road of 1957; J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye of 1951; William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch of 1959. These books and others represented the pre-1960’s tension that erupted into what was arguably the most explosive decade of America’s history. They were vital components of the visionary zeitgeist that often guided the behaviors of American youth. Since the 1960’s, though, there has been a decline in the importance of this type of literature.

Surely revolutionary writers are still typing furiously for their causes, creating works for active, ardent audiences—but not nearly so many as before. Television, video games, and even the Internet, despite its myriad potential outlets for writers and thinkers, have all worked together to wrest influence from thought-provoking and challenging books. The role of popular literature as a visionary and influential medium has diminished since the 1960’s, its reduced importance stemming from the proliferation of electronic entertainment in American homes as well as from the increased corporate domination of the publishing industry.

From TV to the first video games to the advent of the Internet, electronic entertainment technologies have provided users with something that rich literature never could: instant gratification. This is an idea that children seem to grasp very well. A Game Boy, for instance, is more fun than a coloring book—‘nuff said. And children don’t just play with the Game Boy until they’re old enough to sit calmly and read a book—they play with the Game Boy until they’re old enough to use the Play Station, and then they use the Play Station until they get kicked out of the house or sent away to college (same thing, usually).

The effects of America’s quest for instant gratification have been clear. A quick look at any recent list of best-sellers affirms this. Sexy, sensationalistic thrillers top the charts with regularity. Works by John Grisham and Janet Evanovich typify the literary value found in today’s top sellers. Grisham and Evanocich are by no means poor writers, but their rapid fire releases of new full-length novels suggests that they might be more focused on quantity (read: money) than quality. The type of writing that Grisham and Evanovich create is only exacerbating the problem of literature’s decrease in visionary quality and influence. Grisham’s tales are thrilling to read on a dark night, Evanovich’s equally exciting in a dark bedroom. The two authors, and scores of copycats, are delivering the book world’s best interpretation of the instant gratification drug.

While an overbearing electronic entertainment industry has had a disconcerting impact on the modern bookstore’s inventory, television and its successors have not been the sole causes of current literature’s precarious position within the lives of Americans. The publishing industry has been continuously shifting since before the 1960’s, and the changing publishing climate has been another clear factor of literature’s diminished role in American society. Since before the 1960’s, publishing company ownership has steadily shifted from homegrown, family-run businesses to national conglomerates, and, in the process, the character of the industry has shifted as well.

Traditionally, many of the family-run publishing companies were descendant from old money. They had little need to publish books for profit, and so they often approached their trade more as a philanthropic act than as a business venture. As consolidation took over, though, publishing companies found themselves under the ownership of necessarily shrewd businesspeople. A new formula emerged to determine the worthiness of new books. According to this model, “publishable” now means bankable, marketable, sellable—and few publishers are left that can afford to care about quality. Couple this reality with a shrinking market for new books and it’s easy to see why hot sellers like Grisham and Evanovich have become darlings of the publishing industry.

To understand the falling significance of literature in American society is to understand many key differences between the 1960’s and today. Compare the riotous revolts against the war in Vietnam to the passive indifference with which most Americans regard the war in Iraq. Compare the inspiring words of Dylan singing for the greater good of humanity to the self-centered indulgence of Eminem.  Fifty years after the rumblings began, the United States has lost a culture of visionary revolution to a wave of instant gratification. The displacement of inspirational literature by electronic entertainment and a publishing industry plagued by increasing corporate dominance have combined to create a national climate that is unsuitable to the mass appreciation of thought-provoking books, poetry, and prose—and without a population united by the common goals of contemporary literature, music, and other arts, the revolutionary spirit of the 1960’s is likely as burnt-out as many of its founders.


  1. David McCorquodaleMay 11, 2010 at 2:47 PM

    While I agree with the author's thoughts about the publishing industry, there is much I disagree with in this article. While the beat writers may have set the early tenor for an attitude that exploded in the 1960s, the more immediate media which people experienced had a more much profound effect. Music and the artists who simply grew long hair had made a statement that conformity was no longer necessary. If one could be different in the way one looked or dressed, one could dare to express attitudes disagreeing with the established order. No longer did the decisions of one's elders or one's government go unquestioned.

    Influencing all this were various forms of media, especially music. But for a backwater area, such as Delaware, it was mainstream publications that first taught people about hippies, the summer of love, marijuana, and anti-war marches. TV news soon followed and many people on the right who were around then probably felt it was the news and the popular anchors such as Walter Cronkite who were turning the youth against the war..

    What has changed in the interim? At the start of the Iraq invasion in 2003, there were larger anti-war demonstrations than had ever been seen during the Vietnam war. But the media, especially the large networks, which have been consolidated into larger and larger multi-national conglomerates, had a lot tighter control on how the information was released. Now, they work hand-in-hand with policy-making and governmental authorities to downplay the impact of these demonstrations. Now, they deliver the subliminal message that the demonstrations won't change anything. They want people to give up, to acquiesce to the agenda of those who rule.

    So, don't be so cynic. Changes can still made by activism. Remember, it was the Last Poets who put out the brilliant proto-rap poetry of The Revolution Won't Be Televised. No, it won't. Nor will it be sung about or published although it may be blogged, unless more clamps are put on internet freedom. Before writers write and singers sing, there are live interpersonal actions in which the attitudes later expressed through media are first expressed in person.

    BTW, I'm torn between wanting to laugh or be insulted by the last sentence. First, it doesn't make logic sense: the "Sixties" weren't founded by anyone; those who were there were caught up in the circumstances and were reacting in their own fashion as happens in any era. But let's say you meant those who were expressing that sense of revolutionary spirit are now "burnt-out".

    Well now, we all express spirit in different ways and as we age we will express it differently than when we were young. I'm still for radical change and work for it. I might well ask "Where are you and your generation to carry the youthful torch of spirit?" But that would also be disingenuous as the world has put much more pressure on young people. It's becoming much more difficult to survive. So I won't cast aspersions. I'll just say that the spirit of revolutionary change lives in one's soul. You've either got it or you don't. Books and other forms of media help to make your knowledge richer and help to put feelings into words and deeds. But, if the Spirit exists, it's inside you.

  2. "Founders" may be too imposing a word to describe what Dave and I did, and I don't think we are "burnt out," but I have had the experience, at least temporarily. I thought the use of the term was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek Oedipal jab, using a stereotype for the sake of humor. The ironic register was suggested with self-directed remarks like "They [meaning Evan's generation] play with the Game Boy until they’re old enough to use the Play Station, and then they use the Play Station until they get kicked out of the house or sent away to college (same thing, usually)." Sometimes I tell my students to avoid irony, but sometimes it's a dish too delicious not to dish.
    The strength of the piece is how he used the artifacts at hand, the best works of the 50s, to suggest the role they played in preparing the zeitgest and how the popular pap of today is hardly likely to inspire anyone.
    Of course Dave is right that the relative quiet of today is due not so much to lousy literature as to the effective marginalization of the movement by the corporate media in collaboration with the government. Still, literature has a role to play, stripping the tarp off the bullshit and inspiring random acts of solidarity.
    The post was particularly effective in eliciting such a thoughtful and impassioned response from Dave, to whom I give thanks.

  3. I'm afraid I have to respectfully disagree with Mr. McCorquodale. While I can't argue against anything he has said regarding media in the sixties, I can certainly comment on the my view of the current "young" generation. The vast majority of the current generation is generally apathetic to the events happening in the current political arenas. Don't blame the mass media networks for any sort of conspiracy theories which aim to bring all power to the government, thats taking the easy way out. What is really happening is that this generation just doesn't care. Plain and simple. Most of the people I know are perfectly happy carrying on with their cushy lives, regardless what is happening in the world around them. The author makes some very good points when he brings up the bit about the Game Boy and Playstation, stating that these devices of instant-gratification are what rule the brains of many of today's youth. It is "distractions" such as these which divert the attention of the young generation away from current events. Many of the people I know are politically apathetic, and seem to not care about who is in charge of the country, and what laws are to be enacted. The response I hear most often is "If it doesn't affect me, why should I care?". While this is sad, and somewhat pathetic, it is a reality of my generation. Even those students who I know to care about what happens in the world go no further than voting in national and state elections, nowhere near the political activism that was seen in the sixties.

    You talk about the protests at the beginning of the Iraq War, and how they were larger in size than those in the sixties. While this may be true, the United States is still occupying various Middle Eastern countries, and no one seems to care. The main difference between the war protests of the sixties and of today is the resolve of the protesters. As the Vietnam War proceeded, the strength of protests increased in size, there were more and more people who were willing to leave their homes and fight for a cause. As the Iraq War progressed, the protests decreased in size and number. Why? Because it was no longer in the forefront of peoples' minds. Those not directly involved seemed to forget about the war, and just accepted it as a constant presence in their lives. This is also a result of the short attention span my generation seems to have. Our society has become one in which people's minds flit from one thing to another, never stopping for any long period of time. We focus our attention on whatever is new and "fresh", causing things that happen over a long period of time to fall by the wayside (wars, genocides, countries with civil rights violations). In my opinion the author is not as much a cynic as he is a realist.

    I think the last line was quite funny and somewhat true. I have nothing against reminiscing about an exciting past, but there are some ex-hippies who take that reminiscing to an extreme degree. Sometimes its just better to move on with the rest of the world.

  4. I think people confuse political apathy with not associating with marginal political views.

  5. Let me clarify what I mean by the 2:08AM post. Being on the margins is not necessarily a bad thing. The American political spectrum is broad and being on the margins of it is not wrong.

    Clarifying my original statement: I feel that the majority of youth have what are traditionally moderate views. These political views no longer fit into the traditional two parties. They are moderate views.

    Yet, the majority of Congress is on the margins. Either radically conservative or radically liberal. The roots of this political dichotomy can be traced to the polarizing times of the 50s and 60s.

    The question then arises how are intermediate people suppose to be politically active in a polarized environment? Demonstrations are tools of radicalism so, they are void for our cause. Can you imagine people rallying with signs and melodic mantras for moderate taxes, an appropriate budgets, and a return to logical not emotional decisions? It's a contradiction. Moderation cannot be demonstrated through extremism.

    But at the same time, the Constitutional age limit on representatives prevents us youth from electing a representative from our constituency. Additionally, the current incumbency advantages prevent constitutionally able contenders from ever getting a fair start. Polarized politicians have a life term in office.

    This leaves discourse among peers is one of the only viable options for political activism but since this never makes headlines we're apathetic.

    Thus us youth must wait for the climate of change last seen in the 60s to storm again. Disgust with the Two Party System is rising. The current government is aging. Our generation's political climate is developing and soon it will have its chance.

  6. Amid all this discussion about the youthful idealism and activism of the 60's, let's not forget that most of the activism was created by a small minority of students. The vast majority were indifferent to the great issues of the day; The great demonstrations of the late 60's were stimulated by self interest, an unwillingness to go die in a meaningless colonial adventure. And they died down once the draft was abolished.

    The big difference between now and the 60's is that the 60's came after 30 years of progressive movements; we grew up at a time when everyone believed we could make a better world. That belief no longer exists.

    Peter Goodwin