Where is Our Culture Heading?

I wouldn't characterize myself as an intellectual snob, but I have always regarded fiction for adults as an indispensable endeavor that offers insight into the human condition through storytelling, excites one intellectually and emotionally, and is truly worth the investment of time and concentration.

My generation read deeply of the works of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, O'Hara, and hundreds of others, as well as the glorious classics as represented by Dickens, Thackeray, Balzac, Flaubert, Mann, Twain, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Proust and many, many others who form the canon of great works of literature.

We weren't necessarily academics or one-note specialists in the study of these works. We read largely for pleasure and to absorb ideas and inspiration that helped us navigate the shoals of a complicated life.

We graduated into these works from young adult fare that set the stage for future appreciation of literature and formed a lifelong habit of reading as our principal mode of gaining insight. Thus, we learned to profit from the leisure moments that are essential for a fulfilling life.

As a child, I did cut my reading-teeth on comics and eagerly followed the adventures of Smilin' Jack, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Gasoline Alley, Flash Gordon and many others syndicated in strips in newspapers throughout the country. We called them "Funnies."

Then, came the comic book era with Superman, Batman, and other knock off superheroes rendered in colorful drawings with balloons of dialogue in staple bound magazines.

I read, too, the serial sets produced regularly by story factories that provided such series as the Hardy Boys, Bomba the Jungle Boy, The Boy Allies and for girls, Nancy Drew, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and numerous others. The heroes and heroines were teenagers, just like us. Edward Stratemeyer and his army of ghostwriters pioneered many of the series for teenagers.

This and similar books were the usual fare of young readers of my generation, and they are still being sold in up-to-date versions. In my case, these books were read long before television. Our Saturday movie fare consisted of comic book characters like Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon, who took human form in what were dubbed "chapters," which were continuing sagas that always ended in a cliffhanger to be continued at next Saturday's matinee.

Radio held sway in those days and we kids couldn't get enough of the adventures of The Shadow, Omar the Tentmaker, and Inner Sanctum with its scary, creaky-door opening.

Then, I grew up.

I turned away from comic books and those wonderful serial books, over which I haunted Stone Avenue's children's library in Brooklyn. I outgrew the excitement of the movie serials and limited the horror fare and Flash Gordon's adventures. I remember, too, outgrowing some brief childhood fling with fantasy, horror, zombies, vampires and other stories in books with characters that also cropped up on the radio and in the movie form.

It must have been around age of 15, but I began to upscale into semi-adult reading like Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Albert Payson Terhune's books about dogs, and the enduring books by Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling. Who can forget David Copperfield and The Jungle book? In high school, we were encouraged to read these books and were required to write book reports on them to be graded by our teachers, who could rest assured that we were reading these books.

Comic books began to fade from the American scene, along with the serial books. But then, I was growing older and the comics and the boy's adventure stories no longer interested me, along with horror, zombie and vampire stories. They were always around, of course, but did not seem to dominate the popular culture.

Now, all these categories are back with a vengeance, attracting vast hordes of fans, including, to my shock, people that are, by age, sophistication and experience supposedly outside the age of the young teenage demographic (which is still the golden target audience of these products).

So, my question to everyone within reading distance is: why the phenomenal upsurge? How come these categories are soaring back in other forms? Are we regressing as a culture? Why are comic characters returning in new wrappers that are attracting thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands or millions worldwide to graphic novels, games and movies illustrating the adventures of superheroes and superheroines? Please enlighten me. Does it have something to do with wishful thinking about empowerment? Perhaps.

Nor do I understand the enormous fascination with zombies and vampires. Indeed, I have a friend, a top executive at a major computer company in his fifties, who admits to being addicted to books about zombies. Others, in age groups well beyond the "teenage" category, are also in thrall to vampire and zombie movies and books. It baffles me.

Some say it is because real life is so fraught with problems and insecurity. They say that the doom and gloom retailed by our media and politicians turns us away from reality to an escape into fantasy, the unreal, or anything that turns our attention away from the terrors of modern life. Others say it is merely our culture inventing new forms of communications, reinventing and embellishing old cultural assets through the transformative wonders of modern technology. Still, others say that this is a passing phenomenon. Who knows?

I hate to think of it as a manifestation of our decline, which some have postulated, a kind of dumbing-down of American culture. I offer this later idea not as a flip or inflammatory insult to those thousands who flock to this kind of fare, but as a somewhat biased, informational observation. Admittedly, it could be evidence of stubborn literature elitism on my part.

Believe me, I have no quarrel with folks who love and enjoy these categories. I did when I was a teenager. But why are adults gobbling them up? Why is purveying this material increasingly profitable? Will it last? Where is our culture heading? Is it good or bad?

I am very aware of the vast diversity of human interests and the slicing and dicing of categories of human endeavor. As they say, "different strokes for different folks."

Was it always thus, or have I lost touch with what motivates Americans of upcoming generations? This is a possibility that I contemplate with very personal alarm.

But, please, don't condemn me for asking. I am open to explanations and enlightenment.

Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections published in numerous languages. Films adapted from his books include The War of the Roses, Random Hearts and the PBS trilogy The Sunset Gang. He is a pioneer in digital publishing. For more information visit Warren's Website at www.warrenadler.com.