Tag Archives: books

The Missing Genre

Where are our “coming of older age” novels?

Our society celebrates “coming of age” novels, from Huckleberry Finn to The Catcher in the Rye. Newer books fit into this genre, too, from The Fault in Our Stars to blockbuster series like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.

Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 8.24.08 AM

But how many novels can you name whose central characters are retired or aging?

You might be able to think of some after awhile if you’re a dedicated reader ike me. But they are not so obvious and, as best I can tell, not recognized as a genre even though more than 46 million Americans are now over the age of 65, a total projected to more than double by 2060. I looked online and found lists here, here, here and here, all filled with examples of great books with older characters, but they still don’t feel like a “thing” to me.

screen-shot-2018-03-30-at-8-26-00-am.png
The recent death of Philip Roth got me thinking about this. (Another great writer, Tom Wolfe, also died. It was a bad week.) Roth famously explored the challenges of older age. When I learned of his passing, I had just finished The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a powerful story about an African American teenager who sees her friend killed by police. I loved her book but it’s worth noting its central character was a young person, just as in The Goldfinch and some of the other books I’ve read while serving in the Peace Corps.

Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 8.27.14 AM

My list just topped 100 and, out of curiousity, I went back to see how many of the novels had older protagonists. There were a few, such as Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo and A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. But most of the books dealing with older age were nonfiction, such as two good ones I read recently: Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginnner’s Guide, about his experience with Parkinson’s Disease, and Marc Freedman’s Prime Time, about people creating new careers and identities after leaving the conventional work force. Many nonfiction books for older readers focus on financial planning and other practical questions. Those books are often suggested even when you search online for fiction about older people, as shown below.

Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 8.25.36 AM

The percentage of American adults who read books has remained relatively unchanged in the past few years, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The median American reads four books a year. Print books continue to be more popular than audiobooks or e-books, which are more popular among younger readers, who read slightly more books than older Americans.

Younger adults are more likely to read for work or school while adults of all ages are equally likely to read for pleasure or to keep up with current events. In other words, the readers are still there, even as independent bookstores struggle to survive. So why aren’t more novelists focusing on “the coming of older age” — and why aren’t these books treasured as a genre in the same way we celebrate stories about people at the other end of the age span?

Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 8.29.05 AM

Sure, there are classics such as Shakespeare’s King Lear or Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and more recent characters such as Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman or John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. But their ubiquity or cultural impact are small compared to, say, Harry Potter. (I don’t think Disney World is considering a thrill ride yet about Medicare, with parts A, B, C and D.)

I wish more great novels featured characters my age. I don’t understand why they don’t. Obviously, the books assigned in our high schools are more likely to feature characters and stories of interest to younger readers. But how about for the majority of readers who are older than that — people like me? Why don’t our bookstores have shelves devoted to these audiences on topics other than how to apply for Social Security or deal with dementia?

Maybe it has to do with the economics of the book industry, but books don’t sell advertising like television shows, which want younger viewers to buy their beer and cars. Maybe older characters are harder to fit into genre fiction, like mysteries or romance novels. Maybe they’re not taken seriously by younger Americans, a thought that occurred to me this past week while reading Dan Lyon’s Disrupted, his hilarious but unsettling account of working at a startup company in his mid-50s.

Maybe it’s something else. I guess I’m too old to figure it out myself.

Advertisements

My Favorite Books

‘Tis the season for year-end lists of favorite books. Here’s mine from Moldova. I downloaded almost all of these books onto my Kindle for free through the online OverDrive system which, as I’ve written previously, is the best thing that ever happened to a Peace Corps Volunteer who likes to read.

 

I could fill my Top Ten list just with recent novels I read this year. My three favorites were Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant depiction of two refugees from a war-torn Arab country; The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which captures the brutal insanity of North Korea; and The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s chilling exploration of slavery in antebellum America. All three novels haunted me for weeks.

I also loved Manhattan Beach, which Jennifer Egan sets on the waterfront of New York, showing us a different side of the city while telling a harrowing yet moving family saga. Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You and Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool are gentler but wonderfully written, with compelling protagonists struggling to make sense of their aging years. Viet Thanh Nguyen in The Sympathizer and Karan Mahajan in Association of Small Bombs both took me to communities I barely knew before. Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher was funny and wise. Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl was even funnier. All ten of these novels were a pleasure.

 

I also loved three older novels: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, whose depiction of a man’s life upturned by accusations of sexual misconduct seemed especially timely now; Redeployment by Phil Klay, rightly hailed as one of the best novels about the Iraq war; and Smiley’s People by the great John LeCarre, who published an acclaimed autobiography this year.

I’ll give a partial thumbs-up to three other novels: Moonglow by Michael Chabon; The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian; and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Bohjalian’s book is about the Armenian genocide, and I read it shortly before we visited Armenia. Like the others, I thought it was good, not great. I was even less enthusiastic about Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, which was snarkily funny in places but somehow didn’t click for me.

 

I also read some great nonfiction this year. My favorite book was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I know it’s come in for criticism for its depiction of dysfunctional white families in Appalachia, but I found it insightful following our election last year. Arlie Russell Hochschild covered some of the same issues in Louisiana in Strangers in Their Own Land, which I enjoyed but found less compelling. Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, was a treat from cover to cover. So was reporter Katy Tur’s recent Unbelievable, about covering the Trump campaign, although its uneven text reflected the haste with which it presumably was written. (Sorry, always an editor.)

I’m in a science book club back home, so I’ll give a shout-out to my favorite science book of the year: Steve Olson’s Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens. It wove geology, politics, history and personal stories into a narrative I would have found engaging even if Steve weren’t a good friend.

I’m also a history fan. In Revolutionary Summer, Joseph Ellis offered a fresh look at how early military defeats under George Washington nearly ended the American Revolution in its early days. In The Wright Brothers, David McCullough showed how the two aviation pioneers were nothing less than admirable, illustrating what’s best in the American character at a time when I needed to be reminded.

 

I’ll also give a hat tip to two novels I read just for fun. In Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan poked fun at the super-rich families of Singapore and Hong Kong. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie version when it comes out next year. Another comedy of manners featuring people with too much money was Eligible, Curtis Sittenfield’s modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Once again: well-done fluff that kept me turning the pages.

Detective and mystery novels are great page-turners, too, and I read several good ones this year, including books by John Grisham (The Litigators), David Baldacci (The Guilty), Paula Hawkins (Girl on a Train) and Jonathan Kellerman (The Murderer’s Daughter). My favorite was Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast, which dealt with neo-Nazis emerging from the shadows, in this case in Norway, yet another case of novels unexpectedly touching on today’s news.

Then there were travel and adventure books. I’d missed The Old Patagonian Express by one of my favorite travel writers (and former Peace Corps Volunteer), Paul Theroux. It described his trip across Latin America. Eric Weiner’s entertaining The Geography of Bliss explored why some countries are happier than others, with Moldova featured at the opposite end of the happiness scale. In The Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker described her adventures as a foreign war correspondent, a tale recently adapted by Tina Fey in the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. David and Veronica James in Going Gypsy and Kristin Newman in What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding described extended trips they made after leaving the workplace. All gave me new perspective on my own recent adventures.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 9.05.02 PM

Among the books I expected to like better but never finished were The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Still Here by Laura Vapnyar; Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The biggest clunker for me was Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which extolled the virtues of simplicity and decluttering while bloating a 10-page idea into an entire book.

Finally, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, 2017 was the year when I finally got around to reading some of the Harry Potter books. I blasted through both Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets and am looking forward to reading the others in the year ahead. That is, if I can find time after we get home and start binge-watching all of the movies we’ve missed.

Thanks to the Durham County Library and the Duke University Libraries, together with the OverDrive system, for providing these great books for free. Which others did I miss? I welcome your suggestions and will look forward to reading some of them in the year ahead. If you’re a reader, too, I hope you’ll try some of the books I’ve recommended here. Happy reading in 2018!