Tuesday, May 15, 2012

New Adult; or There Be Rough Waters Ahead, Matey!

Something's been bothering me for some time now. I've shoved it aside, stuffed it down, even tried to drown it with reassurances that I'm just being silly, but it just keeps popping back up.

A few weeks ago, I was twiddling my thumbs on Twitter when it came to pass that wise agents from across the land were coming together for an #askagent conversation. These kind and knowledgable folks were holding a sort of impromptu summit, where the eager and groveling masses could come forth to pose questions about all facets of the publishing industry (except no questions involving queries - they were very specific about that).

Pop! Out jumped my worry, the awful little hangnail that had been bugging me.
If a protag. is older than high school age, but part of a coming-of-age/YA-like story, is the story YA or not?
Sneaky me. I knew the answer, sort of.

Part of most people's working definition is that if the protagonist has graduated high school (or would have if in modern times), the book is destined for the young adult section. Three really nice people, Literaticat, Melanie Golden, and Melissa Manlove all jumped in to basically answer the same way. (By the way, I put their links here because they're cool and you should follow them.)

I answered that in college (and now, to be honest) I still felt like a young adult, not someone to be lumped in with Jeffrey Eugenides and Jean Auel and the like.

Melanie pointed out that some protagonists start out in high school and then later in the series go to college, which is true. Melissa tried to make the point that "most" college students don't read much because "they're poor and busy with other reading."

I beg to differ. Sure, college students are poor and busy. So are some segments of the minority population. So are new moms. So are missionaries and blue-collar workers and all kinds of other people. Does that mean that these people don't deserve to read? That they don't deserve books that speak to them? Good grief, I understand that a genre needs to have a viable audience to make money, but I think I just saw college students get tossed under the bus.

More than that, it's not just about college students. There's a whole class of readers who are falling between the cracks.

On one side are books about fresh-faced teenagers, usually in the 15-18 age range. They're still in high school, but dang, they have great adventures. They're falling in love and going through normal teenager angst and growth as well as saving the world and finding out they have mythical powers.

On the other side are the adults. They're doing solid, adult-like activities. Sure, they're spies and assassins and doing other save-the-world type things, but they've got other issues going on. They have their own homes, solid careers in offices, and sometimes live-in boyfriends/husbands and even kids.

So where's my generation's books? In case no one's noticed, there's a recession going on. The economy is craptastic. The job market is improving, but only because it's been down for a long time. The majority of us aren't living in the world of Sex & the City. We're not striking out for grand adventures in "the big city." Heck, even if we were, most of us don't plan on getting serious with someone and having kids for years.

We're not established adults. We're boomerang kids living at home with our parents or in an apartment with five other people while we scrape by on temp jobs. We don't want to read about things that seem to relate more to our parents or other graduates who got out while the going was still good. We still want those coming-of-age stories filled with heady emotions and conflicting paths. We want adventure and excitement!

But we're not kids. I LOVE young adult lit, but sometimes I wonder if that's because there's no other option for me. There are books that I pick up and love everything except for the character's age.

"Sixteen?" I ask. "Seriously? She's a master spy/scuba diving treasure hunter/warlord with a spicy hot boyfriend and she's my kid sister's age? She's probably still got a curfew!"

College kids are capable of being warlords, too. I'd like to be a master spy. You think high school is about discovery and self-awareness? Try college. For many kids, it's their first time living away from home ever. It's their chance to leave all the garbage of high school behind and reinvent themselves completely, because hey, who would know otherwise? They try new foods, listen to new philosophies, take on new beliefs, meet new people. On top of all that, they're expected to choose a major that will define them for 4+ years and potentially(unless they find they like something else better) for the rest of their lives!

And what's more dangerous or exciting than getting out of college? Suddenly, you're being booted from the heady but ultimately protective nest of college into The Real World. It's sink or swim. You've got to find a job, find a place to live, to eat. Many are still trying to find an identity. It's not their major anymore, but it most likely isn't their job either, because the odds of finding an entry-level job that relates to their chosen field is slim-to-none for many.

Some manage to forge their own path and strike off into the wild blue yonder. But too many others drift back home to their childhood bedrooms and a revolving door in a temp office. Still others seem like they've headed out successfully but then reach their chosen field (or even just a revelatory class in grad school) and realize, Oh crap, this isn't what I thought it was; I want out.

Where are our books?

I'm not sure yet, but I wonder if this new thing called New Adult just might be the ticket. I came across a website called NA Alley. Its mission is to promote the New Adult genre, and at the very top of its About page, it quotes Kristin Hoffman, the winner of the St. Martin's Press New Adult writing contest:
“The Transition from child to adult doesn’t happen overnight--just ask as anyone who is or has been (or is a parent to) a teenager. But the transition from teen to adult doesn’t happen overnight either. There’s a period of time where adulthood feels like a new pair of shoes. The expectations of independence and self-sufficiency are still new, still being broken in. New Adults are the people who have just begun to walk in those shoes; New Adult fiction is about their blisters and aches.”

Some might consider me late to this particular party. Apparently, the NA debate has been going on quite a bit. But do you know how I first learned of NA? From listening to people in the publishing industry that I respect (note the present tense - still love 'em) poo-poo the genre. It's a hard sell, they say. It's not viable, they say. Some even turn their noses up at it and sniff at the awkwardness of it all.

Look, I get all that. But just because something is hard does not mean it should not be done. In fact, in some cases, the very presence of such difficulty makes a cause that much more worthwhile.

Listen up, publishing movers-and-shakers. You're passing over an entire segment of the population starving for books of their own! St. Martin's gets it, so where are the rest of you? Don't mumble something about it not being established. YA wasn't always around either, but look at it now. I know a lame-tushed excuse when I hear one.

Please, just give us our own stories. Give us our books.

Any other readers out there who feel the same way? What do YOU think about the NA genre? What books would you classify as NA? Why do you think the creation of such a genre is important? Or do you think we're making something out of nothing?

**For further reading on the subject, please check out NA Alley, Cally Jackson, YA Highway, JJ from St. Martin's, Becca Hamilton and Diana Peterfreund. I read all of these (except Na Alley) after writing this post, and it's taking all my self-control not to cannibalize them for myself, because they express things so much better than I just did.