Thursday 9 February 2012

New Adult? A genre too far?

Recently on Twitter, I saw a young writer I know asking for recommendations for ‘new adult’ books.  New adult? WTF?  And that was pretty much what I said to Becca. She told me not to be snippy (and I said I wasn’t; I was just deeply puzzled) and she sent me some links.  St Martin’s Press are doing it, she said.  So I took a look.
St Martin’s Press reckon this is a new, ‘previously unidentified’ genre and go on to explain that, ‘New Adult is about young adulthood, when you are an adult but have not established your life as one (career, family, what-have-you)’.
Apparently it’s all about ‘transition’; about ‘coming of age’, about people who, while legally ‘adult’, are still finding their way.  According to blogger Cally Jackson ‘The protagonists in these books are too mature to be considered YA protagonists, but they’re not worldly enough to be considered Adult protagonists.  They’re too old for YA but not old enough for Adult fiction. So where do they fit?’
It seems to be chiming a chord.  Blogger Jessica Lawlor laments the lack of these adult inbetween novels. ‘While I love YA books and adult books, I can’t help but feel like an entire demographic is missing,’ she says. ‘I’ve yet to come across a really great book about someone in their 20′s dealing with the issues twenty-somethings deal with; their first couple of years out of college, starting their first real jobs, finding an apartment, dealing with issues of drifting friendships, relationships starting to get serious…the list goes on and on.’
Hmm.  So we need another genre, yet another subsection to slot books into? I had a quick Google and, yes, it seems that new adult fiction, also known as ‘post-adolescent literature’ (oh my!) really is starting to happen. Wikipedia says:
‘This category is intended to be marketed to post-adolescents and young-adults ages 14 to 35. This age group is considered to be the lucrative 'cross-over' category of young-adult titles that appeal to both the young-adult market and to an adult audience.’
I don’t know about you, but the word that sprang out there was ‘lucrative’. How desperate are publishers becoming? I know it’s tough out there but… Do we honestly need another brand of ‘youth’ writing?  And up to age 35?? Oh, come on!  In fact, targeting anyone over 16 is pushing it, as far as I’m concerned.
When I was 16 I was reading Dostoevsky, Hesse, Hardy, Goethe, DH Lawrence (and no, not just the dirty bits in Lady Chatterley), Le Carre, Susan Howatch and so on and so forth.  I was being a pretentious little shit and lapping up Gide, Maupassant, Balzac and Mauriac in French and Lorca and Valle Inclan in Spanish (yeah for fun – at school it was all Moliere, Racine and Corneille).  And yes, I used to write letters to my best friend in Latin but hey… you know what I’m saying. If someone had suggested I read books for ‘new adults’, I’d have given the mother and father of all eyerolls. 
When I left university, I devoured modern literature as fast as I could.  I wanted to catch up; I was just seriously turned on by people who caressed, shocked, beguiled with words – Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, Russell Hoban, Patrick White, Knut Hamsun, Lawrence Durrell, Mervyn Peake, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Fowles, Angela Carter, Milan Kundera, William Golding…the list goes on and on.  I wanted to read about everyone and everything - about old people, young people, people in all kinds of places and all kinds of situations. I was living my wild twenty-something life - the last thing I wanted was to read about how other people just like me were living theirs. Shit no.
Okay, so I loved literature, I adored words.  Maybe I’m being a crashing lit-snob here?  Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe we need to help ‘young people’ (yup, even those 35-year old babes) get into reading?
But, but, but… isn’t it just a bit, condescending? Are modern ‘young people’ so lamentably poorly educated and unimaginative that they can only read books written especially for them, with characters their own age, going through their precise ‘life transitions’?  Where does that leave the rest of us?  Are they going to come up with a genre just for me and my ilk – neurotic middle-aged women living in gloom and penury in the countryside?  Neurotoruralpremenopausal lit?  Seriously, where would it end?  No, let’s not go there.
Since when did books have to be shoe-horned into such precise categories?  At this rate, all books will end being written like Mills & Boon – to a precise, paragraph by paragraph, formula. Literature by numbers. Are we getting to the point where a writer of ‘adult’ fiction won’t be able to employ a child POV or that of a ‘new adult’ (up to age 35 – sorry, still blinking wildly at that). 
Though, hang about, there is a bright side to this.  If a 35 year old is a new adult, that makes me…?  Probably not even middle-aged.  Positively sinfully youthful in fact. 
Anyhow, what do you reckon? Am I being a miserable old bag?  While you're pondering how to say 'yes' without being unutterably rude, I'll leave you with a short suggested reading list for ‘new adults’…fabulous books that felt absolutely no need whatsoever for a special category. Bet not one of them would make a ‘new adult’ list from a modern publisher.
Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
The Secret History – Donna Tartt
The Magus – John Fowles
The Group – Mary McCarthy
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (and Jane Eyre by Charlotte)
All Jane Austen and a shedload of Hardy
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
Angela Carter – The Bloody Chamber
The Alexandria Quartet – Lawrence Durrell
Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake

Bet I missed loads, huh?  What would you put on the list? 
And, on re-reading, I find myself arguing with myself (again)...just a bit. But, no...let's leave it like this.  Tell me what you think. 


Anonymous said...

Yes, I do believe it is yet another marketing gimmick and one to beware of. It's about shoehorning folks into boxes, and narrowing minds and horizons.
Fuck it.
Did I just say that?
I did. Sorry.
But there are now so many books out there, it is impossible to narrow down your search without categorisation.
I think that perhaps putting a reading age on adult fiction the way they do for children's fiction wouldn't catch on and might in fact enrage people. But in the end, this is what some of the genre classification is about.

Philip Ellis said...

I think the recent explosion of "Young Adult" fiction does young readers a disservice. The characterisation is often paper-thin, allowing teenagers to insert themselves into the role of protagonist, while the prose is functional and unchallenging. They are more like computer games or soap operas in many senses than they are literature. The most disturbing thing is the popularity of such novels among grown adults - at what point are YA readers meant to progress onto more engaging fare?

Sessha Batto said...

Like you I read widely as a child and teenager and, for the life of me, can't remember ever picking up a book based on the AGE of the characters - this is all madness to me, it makes no sense. Up to age 35? Hell, that could possibly slot MY books in as New Adult - and while the adult part certainly fits, the rest is simply ludicrous, just like this continual subsetting is - enough already!!

Vievie said...

New Adult I think is fitting as society is redefining what it means to be an adult and for more people it's a long continuation of being a teenager which is why I think the dramatic soap-opera fluff appeals to them. People are so interested in themselves that they seem to gravitate to books that relate to them as opposed to books they can learn from and enjoy for reasons bigger then their own views and situations.

AliB said...

Yup - I also picked up on this 'new' category a while ago and pricked uop my ears as my recently completed wip is a 'coming of age novel'. But as far as I'm concerned, anyone can read it who wants to! I think age of protagonist is often confused with age of readership. Other c-o-a novels that rank as adult fiction - Human Croquet (Kate Atkinson) The Outcast (Sadie Jones)Black Swan Green (David Mitchell) ... I could go on (and on and on!)

Unknown said...

For me, it helps me let potential readers know what to expect im all about giving readers a heads up so they can spend their money wisely i wouldnt want to be blamed for promoting my novel toward teens, nor do i want to upset adults who were expecting a worldlier read for me, its that simple dont understand why its worth getting grumpy over but i can appreciate your need to vent :)

Elspeth Cooper said...

I'm with Jane on this one - I'd given up on age-appropriate books by the time I was 12, and would have felt incredibly patronised in my 20s to be referred to or marketed to as a "new adult". By 24 I'd had a job for 5yrs, I had a house, a mortgage, a live-in boyfriend and four cats: I *was* an adult, thankyouverymuch.

Unknown said...

I was married and pregnant at twenty, too, and very much an adult. But what do you do when you write a book that FEELS YA in many ways, but CAN'T be marked as an adult unless you want a lawsuit on your hands from some parent who DOES dictate what their children/teens read? While I think teens should be allowed to read adult books if they want, they should know those books are adult. At the same time, if you market a book as "adult" adult readers have certain expectations. I'd rather them know those expectations won't be met with my book. For me, I think a reader should know what they are getting into and decide for themselves if they want to read it. But of course I'm out of my element here. These are JANE'S FANS on JANE'S BLOG and we ALL know what happens when you disagree with I doubt we'll see anyone doing that here :P Hence her posting this ;)

Genevieve Graham said...

I'm confused by the whole YA thing to begin with. My 11 yr old is obsessed with The Hunger Games series, a concept I wouldn't have believed even publishable a while back - not to kids, anyway. Ya, ya. I read them and found them (at least the first 2) compelling. But when did children slaughtering children become okay since for other children to read? When my own novel came out I said my kids couldn't read it until they're at least 18 (because of one violent scene) and now I just shrug and hand it to them. Why bother with a New Adult when the Young Adult is already too old?

Exmoorjane said...

@Viv - you said the F word! I have to reply with a LOL! ;) I hate the idea of reading ages on books. But you have a point about the sheer volume of books.

@Philip - Well,I confess I read a bit of YA myself - and some of it is just as good as adult fiction. But I do wonder about this further classification. I guess you can't expect everyone to want to read litfic..

@Sessh - I think MOST books, tbh, have under-40 protagonists. There ain't a lot of 'greylit' around. 35 does seem very high.

@Vievie - that's what I wonder...

Exmoorjane said...

@Ali - oh yes...good list...funnily enough, the Mitchell one was my least favourite of his books.

@Becca - Good explanation. Thanks for that. I'd hoped you'd come on to give the other side of the story as I think it's an interesting topic. Venting? Nah, not really. Just exploring a facet of publishing.

Exmoorjane said...

@Elspeth - I was quite the opposite - didn't 'settle down' until I was I guess I was prime 'new adult' material. Maybe it's a generational thing?

@Becca - Nah. I posted it because I found it an interesting topic. :) I linked to you cos I thought it might be a nice touch to direct people to your (good) writing. Sorry if I've offended.

@Genevieve - I liked the first Hunger Games book a lot. The follow-ups not so much. Yes, very violent, I'd agree. Your kids want to read your books? I'm green with son won't touch mine! :)

Milla said...

oh this is the biggest load of old bollocks ever!!!
Like you, Jane, I "did" the classics from 16-22 and bloody relieved I am, too, to have centuries of marvellous literature under my non-judgemental belt, not a shelf-ful of meaningless patronising crap. Trouble came when books stopped being books and started being Product. Marketing? I spit on it.

Exmoorjane said...

@Mills - but maybe it's generational. Maybe we really are grumpy old (book) bags? Does one subscribe to the 'better any book than none' view? I sometimes wonder about that actually. I suppose these genre tags are to help people find the kind of book they some people like to read the same kind of thing all the time. And no shame in that, I guess - just like some always read crime, or SF.

elizabethisaacs said...

This isn't about marketing or gimmicks ... it's about shelving books.

The problem is that the publishing industry has deemed young adult 12-18. Most YA books today deal with subject matter that parents of a twelve-year-old might not like. Also, most publishing houses won't take a YA book with a protagonist over eighteen, and most adult market publishers shy away from books with the protag being 18-23.

I read about the new genre a few years back and my first thoughts were "oh, please!" But then I got to thinking about it. Have you seen the middle grade books? They are perfectly appropriate, and yet they are housed next to books that might be too dark or too realistic. Librarians, bookstores, and parents don't know how to handle Crank next to Misfit McCabe. That, along with the flood of YA books on the market, is what started the trend.

Personally, if it helps define some subject matter for parents of a 6th grader, I don't mind.

Unknown said...

I think saying the NA genre is patronizing .. well, you might as well say the YA genre is patronizing. If saying "this is the kind of content to expect from this book" is patronizing, then where do we draw the line? When I was a teen, I didn't read YA books. I pretty much skipped from GOOSEBUMPS to Anne Rice (and admittedly the books discussed in Oprah's book club lol). So, it's not like I felt I HAD to buy YA books because I was a YA book. The YA label told me what those books were. From there, I decided if that was what I was looking for. (It wasn't). But no big deal. I wasn't outraged or hurting that the YA genre existed. If we're too be outraged about the NA genre being patronizing, then we might as well be outraged about the YA genre, too.

Unknown said...

Exmoor, it's not generational. I mean, I don't see you pumping out the classics. You write YA. So what? It's a hot genre right now. You're good at writing it. That's what some people want to read. There's no shame in that. And even MY generation and I'm sure those younger than mine agree that being told WHAT to read based on their age is ridiculous. BUT being told what something IS that might help us determine if we would like it, that's awesome. For me, I read YA (now) and I read Adult. I still read more Adult than anything else. I'm not sure I would read much New Adult either, other than to maybe replace some of the YA books I've been reading that are just a little *too* young for my tastes (being someone who prefers adult novels). But as much as I love Adult novels, it's not most of what I write. Nor do I write YA. I want people to know what to expect when they're deciding to buy my book. I don't want them think it's YA and then pick up my book and be like "WTH is with this sex?!" Some people don't want to read that stuff, ADULTS INCLUDED.

Maybe we'd be best to get rid of all the age grouping (adult, YA, MG, etc) and come up with another way of hinting at the content maturity level? But this isn't a NA issue specifically. It's an age-group issue. And it has nothing to do with what generation someone was born in. Most people I know are from Jane's generation and they don't react this way.

(and everyone thinks I'm younger than I am, anyway, but don't worry, I won't lose sleep over people being patronizing toward younger people who "just don't get what them older generations do")

Exmoorjane said...

@Elizabeth - interesting points. Thanks for that perspective - food for thought.

@Becca - Yup, it started with YA, a genre we didn't have previously per se. And you're quite right, of course - I ain't pumping the classics, far from it.
Someone on Twitter had an interesting point - about there being an age shift - that people (in general) are now 'younger' (maybe in attitude, if not physically) than they were before. Hence all the 50 is the new 40 and downwards...
I suppose I just find it odd that someone can legally marry at 16; join the army, whatever - yet isn't considered 'adult' enough to read 'adult' literature (and I'm not talking erotica or full-on slasher violence).
It's interesting, is all, and I'm grateful to you for flagging it up to me - I had missed the buzz around this before.
Good debate. Thanks.

Frances said...

Jane, this old reader remembers when she was a much younger reader and read anything and everything.

By the time I was ten, I'd read everything in my school's library and my encouraging teachers just let me loose on the local city's public library. (There were also lots of classics on the shelves at home.)

I read and read. It was so odd to have Great Expectations part of an school course when I'd read the book about three years before. (This has both good and not so good results.)

There were no young adult publishers' categories then.

We readers just pushed on.

Decades later, I continue to hunger for the newest publications while still relishing the treasures to be found in my library's stacks. Some of the treasures were published well before I was born.

Marketing. A force to be reckoned with. Over here in New York, the real estate marketers re-name a neighborhood that might previously been a bit down at the heels, but providing housing for thousands, and all of a sudden the place is hip. The rents soar.

Sometimes this re-designating can also happen in other areas. Politics, economics, basic food.

Sometimes I despair, just hoping that folks will notice what might be pulling right over their eyes.


Frances said...

Jane, this old reader remembers when she was a much younger reader and read anything and everything.

By the time I was ten, I'd read everything in my school's library and my encouraging teachers just let me loose on the local city's public library. (There were also lots of classics on the shelves at home.)

I read and read. It was so odd to have Great Expectations part of an school course when I'd read the book about three years before. (This has both good and not so good results.)

There were no young adult publishers' categories then.

We readers just pushed on.

Decades later, I continue to hunger for the newest publications while still relishing the treasures to be found in my library's stacks. Some of the treasures were published well before I was born.

Marketing. A force to be reckoned with. Over here in New York, the real estate marketers re-name a neighborhood that might previously been a bit down at the heels, but providing housing for thousands, and all of a sudden the place is hip. The rents soar.

Sometimes this re-designating can also happen in other areas. Politics, economics, basic food.

Sometimes I despair, just hoping that folks will notice what might be pulling right over their eyes.


Rob-bear said...

"Neurotoruralpremenopausal lit?" Good grief!

I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was about 15, and things went up (or down) from there. Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath and works by Eliot, Hardy, Houseman, Hemingway, and so many more. And Homer, in Greek. (But I never wrote letters in Latin.)

For your list, I would nominate The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Our grandchildren do not have television in their home. They read. And they read when they have a "sleep over" at their grandparents' place. We started them with Dr. Seuss. I haven't introduced them to literary classics yet, but that will come soon enough. (They're not even close to their teens yet.)

Jackie Buxton said...

Great for me, my novel can now fit into New Adult, Adult and Still-got-a-bit-of-life-in-them-yet. My four main characters are 23, 35,51 and 78! Seriously, I don't think we need a new 'genre', no. I'd be concerned if a book I wrote were shoe-horned into that genre because of all the market it could then miss. My 13 year old might pick it up but I wouldn't read a book specifically targetting late teens on, in the same way I wouldn't pick up a YA for me (although I have read some great stuff once instructed by my children.)
I'm not an expert but I wonder if there may be some truth in there being less literature concerning 20 somethings doing battle with life? However, I wouldn't expect it to sit anywhere other than 'adult literature' with any specific genres such as 'contemporary fiction' added after that.
Great post as always, Jane

Ashen said...

I resonate with Jane's refreshing rant. From around 12 yrs I ricochetted between philosophy, adventure, psychology and love. I devoured classics and myth along with Hesse, Kafka, Musil, Proust and edgy stuff. Elizabeth mentions shelving rather than marketing is behind the new definition. Could it be about law issues - publishers wanting protection from parents.
I was not happy to have my story read as YA by a HC reviewer. Not a label I attached.
My solution would be to lower the YA definition to 16 so publishers can relax. Young people, be it of age or heart, will read what they want anyway.
I would however like a new genre 'IMAGINATIVE',which can be magical, but is rooted in reality, as distinct from fantasy.

Sessha Batto said...

aftr thinking about this yesterday and ruminating on it overnite I think the problem here is one of classification - YA, NA, MG - they AREN'T genres - the books could be about anything and everything, they don't help you find the SUBJECT MATTER you want - they're ratings (like G, PG, PG-13 and R for the movies). A genre gives some idea of content (space opera, thriller, fantasy) regardless of age. Instead they are meant to convey the amount of adult concepts contained within.

JD Revene said...

Three all time favourites of mine in your list of new adult. What would I add? Well Sons and Lovers seems a natural and perhaps Less Than Zero?

Oh, and you may be being a literary snob, but I have to say, I'm with you.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear. From another pretentious teen who read anything with words in it from the atlas (free travel and no injections) to Solzenitzen via Harold Robbins (very enlightening to a boarding school educated only child!) and anything published by Virago (very cool at the time and a good education too)

The whole point about being young is that you know everything so you read everything to prove that you are right, and then you discover you're not :) I believe it's called growing up.

The bike shed said...

You wrote:

Are modern ‘young people’ so lamentably poorly educated and unimaginative that they can only read books written especially for them, with characters their own age, going through their precise ‘life transitions’?

Do you want an honest answer to that - in which case be prepare to be disappointed. We sell millions of tabloids every day - and have you read any of the Soap or TV magazines (millions more every week)
High culture (including literary fiction) has always been the preserve of the few - the well educated, liberal, literate few at that.

For all that I agree with the sentiment of what you say and the list isn't bad either. I'd add the following (all short so not huge effort)

Jean Rhys - Good Morning, Midnight or Wide Sargasso Sea

Graham Greene - Doctor Fisher of Geneva and the bomb party.

George Orwell - 1984

Can't go wrong with any of those.

Cait O'Connor said...

I agree with you Jane, it is all about creating a (lucrative) market, I don't even like YA books or Science Fiction/Fantasy - which we have to have in the library and they mean many great books are not read as the genre puts people off.
Will it be post menopausal next?

Gappy said...

Oooh, loved The Secret History.

I have to say though, that what I took in the main from your article was a rather optimistic feeling that I might not be quite so ancient after all.

So thanks for that.

janerowena said...

My own history of reading is very similar to yours - but my sisters are so different that i can hardly nelieve that we are related. We all circulate our books as we visit each other, and our childrens' books as well. We are all so different - and strangely on one visit one of my sisters was wishing that just such a genre existed, for her 22 year old son. He loves reading but hates buying books and finding that he dislikes them. He can't afford to risk wasting the money, but as he is always travelling he can't get to libraries.

My siter would love to be able to just walk into a bookshop and have a ready-made selection in one area, that she could just pick from and send on to him.

Adam said...

I'm not surprised. One's 20s have become infantilised.

It's not the fault of the publishing industry. They're just
trying to make a quick buck.

You used to go to uni, leave, get a job, a house, a girl. Maybe if you were a tradesman, then you would already be charging through an apprenticeship, eager to set up shop by yourself. Now, the 20s are an emasculated form of childhood.

The rights and responsibilities of adulthood are dangled in front of you, yet you are still, essentially, a child. You drift from one grotty rented dig to the next. Half-lives – temporary work, agency work; transient, lusty, sexual relationships – mean that university and graduate life are indistinguishable. We rely on our parents for rental deposits and backhanders for holidays.

My question is: in the era of debt, mickey-mouse degrees for all, mass
youth unemployment and crushingly expensive housing, when does
childhood end and adulthood begin?

Rob-bear said...

Adam: I have so much sympathy for the points you're making. We're facing the same stuff on this side of the pond (the colony of Canada). I've been busy with the Occupy process, and I'm working side-by-side with a lot of struggling young people.

J. Lea Lopez said...

I don't know that a New Adult category is any more condescending than the insinuation that today's 20-somethings are uneducated, self-centered, illiterate, or uncultured, as some of the comments seem to hint at. Is it really so wrong to want to read contemporary genre fiction? It's interesting that so many people who think the NA category is superfluous trot out classic title after classic title as what these young or new adults could be reading instead. I have nothing against the classics, but I'd like to read something besides those, and yes, I'd also like to read (on occasion) stories with protagonists who are similar to me. That's not the result of poor education or lack of imagination, it's the result of being able to recognize and say "the market is not meeting my needs".

It isn't just about readers, either. Like some others have said, my first manuscript would fit into the NA category. I have no desire to make my characters older, because it would change certain dynamics of the plot that wouldn't work in the same way. And same goes for scaling them down to younger in order to fit more neatly into YA. So when it comes to traditional publishing, what's a writer to do when agents and editors feel like they can't sell your manuscript because it's not exactly YA, but the characters are are still too young to appeal to a broad adult audience (or so the "pros" say)? Of course there's self-publishing, but that's a different discussion altogether.

I've also never seen such a broad age range for new adult. I've usually seen 18-26, and sometimes up to 30, but not 35. I've read books with protagonists 15 or 20 years older than me (not just now, but when I was younger as well) and liked them just fine. Did I occasionally have difficulty identifying with the divorced mother of one? When that aspect played a central role in the plot, sure, I probably wasn't as emotionally invested as I could've been. I see nothing wrong with wanting a book now and then that features someone more my age dealing with some of the things I might be dealing with in the background as well. No one's saying that has to be the entire plot. There's already been a category of fiction where fabulous 20-somethings dealing with pain-in-the-ass bosses, new careers, finding love, etc. is the entire plot - it's called chick lit. NA is not trying to be that.

Anyway, that's just my two cents. :-)

Exmoorjane said...

Huge thanks for all the comments... really interesting stuff here. You might be interested in reading a new post Becca has on her blog regarding this question. Puts the other side of the story well.

BRKingsolver said...

I remember having to use my mother's library card because I wasn't 14 yet and they didn't allow children upstairs. Yes, I've read the classics, and continue to do so. I just re-read Anna Karenina and War and Peace, have never stopped reading biographies and history.

New Adult is not a genre, or something written for a target audience. It's a missing segment in the current market where publishers insist that coming-of-age books have teenage protagonists and adult books deal with "adult" subject matter.

Most of this "genre" is Indie published because publishers are rejecting books in all genres with protagonists in their late teens and twenties. And that is what it is - books written in a certain age group, not for a certain age group.