January 16, 2019

The Twee-ification of Literary Culture

“In his history “Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film,” the critic Marc Spitz describes America’s collective turn toward calculated precocity as the most powerful youth movement “since Punk and Hip Hop.” Twee’s core characteristics, Spitz argues, include “a healthy suspicion of adulthood,” “a steadfast focus on our essential goodness,” “the cultivation of a passion project,” and “the utter dispensing with of ‘cool’ as it’s conventionally known, often in favor of a kind of fetishization of the nerd, the geek, the dork, the virgin.”

As if to corroborate Spitz’s thesis about our Great Twee-ification, Dutton Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Random House, is releasing a series of tiny books that give the act of reading a studied whimsy. Dwarsliggers, the Dutch name for these palm-sized, horizontal codexes, are already popular overseas; they are flirtatious, cocktail-party packagings of novels by authors from Ian McEwan to Agatha Christie—pigs in a blanket to the usual hot dog. “The tiny editions are the size of a cellphone and no thicker than your thumb, with paper as thin as onion skin,” the Times’ Alexandra Alter explains. “They can be read with one hand—the text flows horizontally, and you can flip the pages upward, like swiping a smartphone.” The font is slightly smaller than that of a standard book. For its first foray into the mini-books market, Dutton is reissuing four young-adult novels, available individually or in a boxed set, by the blockbuster amanuensis of adolescent yearning John Green.

Green is a standard-bearer for twee, and thus a logical author to lead the American dwarsligger insurgency. He writes for young adults, about young adults, with a teenager’s earnestness and aching emotional intensity. The theme of his stories, from “Paper Towns” to “The Fault in Our Stars,” is the struggle between innocence and experience—between bullies, sickness, and sadness, on one side, and, on the other, courage, tenderness, and beauty. Green’s characters are sweet, hyperverbal smarty-pants; they memorize poetry and say things like “I just want to do something that matters. Or be something that matters. I just want to matter.” They orchestrate chaste sleepovers, during which they lie raptly awake “talking about The Sound and the Fury and meiosis and the Battle of the Bulge.” And then they break each other’s hearts.”

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