Friday, December 21, 2012

The New Adult Category Revisited

In case you guys missed it, within the last month or so New Adult "officially" became a category. I'm not ready to fly the Mission Accomplished banner yet, but I am thrilled. Back in May, I set forth an argument in favor of New Adult, and the most common response I received was "That'd be awesome, but it won't come for a long time."

Tada! Here it is!

Of course, with progress, so comes the snark.

I normally don't mind snark too much. With every new thing comes worry and confusion, and snark is often the way people choose to publicly express those feelings while avoiding vulnerability. I have to admit, though, that this latest round got under my skin a bit.

The snarky argument in the Twitter-verse and elsewhere is that the New Adult label is restrictive and even insulting. The snarksters throw out jokes like "What's next, geriatric fiction?" and sarcastic comments like "Yes, because readers should only read books with characters exactly like them. I'm 32, so therefore my protagonists must be 32 and have three kids and a chinchilla!"

Variations on the last comment are the most prevalent, and the thumping noise you hear is me banging my head on the wall. The point of age categories is not that kids should ONLY read books about kids or teens should ONLY read books about teens. It's about stages of life and having someone to relate to. A kid in the fifth grade doesn't have the same issues as a sixteen-year-old. In the same way, a twenty-something fresh out of college is living in a completely different world that the aforementioned sixteen-year-old.

Arguing that the fight for NA fiction limits readership is akin to the argument that having a non-white protagonist limits readership. It very well may to those who are close-minded, but isn't the risk worth it? Readers should have protagonists with whom they can connect. A well-written protagonist is relatable regardless of age, gender, or race, but does that mean that diversity should be dismissed?

Adding a new age category does not limit readership any more than adding the YA age category limited readership back in the day. I think most all of us can agree that allowing YA to grow by giving it its own category greatly enhanced the possible reading experience rather than restrict it. In the same way, NA fills in the neglected and tumultuous time of life that falls between the heyday of teenhood and the (relatively) settled life of full-blown adulthood.

Here are a few more arguments/concerns regarding New Adult that I would like to politely dismiss.

1. Gap? What gap? You're either a teen or you're an adult. Or, as the much-loved Ms. Kelly from Stacked puts it, all the stuff post-high-school "is simply called adulthood." WRONG, I say! Legally, yes, that time of life is defined as adulthood, but emotionally, mentally, socially, culturally? Not so much.

USA Today posted an article on "emerging adults," or those in the age range of 18-29. That's an actual phase on human development being studied by researchers, thank you very much. In addition to putting off marriage and parenthood, emerging adults are also defined by their contact with their parents and the present economy. When asked if they felt like adults, the majority (46.8%) of emerging adults polled said "in some ways yes, in some ways no."

I've talked with friends from college, and very few of us feel like "true" adults. Some of us still live at home. Few of us are completely financially independent. All of us are still going through that weird transition time with our parents. None of us have begun careers in our chosen fields. College, grad school, part-time jobs, and full-time jobs elsewhere for the sake of a paycheck are still very much in the picture. We're not kids. We're not happy-go-lucky teens. But we're not adults either. The law might call us grown up, but we don't feel grown up, and that's what New Adult addresses.

2. There's a gap, but they didn't need books before, so they don't need books now. There wasn't always a gap, just as there wasn't always a socially accepted age bracket for "teenager" or "child." But there is now. The world has changed. Social structures, the economy, and many other factors have combined together to make this gap. Call us Millenials. Call us boomerang kids. Call us young whippersnappers, we don't care. But we exist, and if we exist, we read.

3. There's a gap, but the gap doesn't matter. This particular belief irritates me for two reasons. First of all, it's not true. Sarah over at CEFS repeats the widely known yet crucial observation that teens tend to read up. A fourteen-year-old might read about another fourteen-year-old, but odds are she also wants to read about seniors and all the super-cool things they're doing. That's all fine and dandy until suddenly the seniors reach the end of the YA line and find themselves staring at an abyss.

According to their books, life ends with graduation, disappears into unforeseeable nothingness, and then reappears from the void as a life full of kids, cheating husbands, and journeys where one must eat, pray, and love to find oneself again. Apparently, 17 is cool, but once you hit 18 or 19 you're nothing until you find yourself a solid job and a good man. (Or a rake, if you're into romance books.)

The second reason this argument makes me grit my teeth is because, essentially, I'm being told that I don't matter. The gap doesn't matter; I'm in the gap; therefore, I don't matter. I don't matter as someone with an experience to be shared, and I don't matter as a consumer. Who the heck are you to tell me that I don't matter?

In talking about YA lit, Read Now Sleep Later quoted a blogger (Tammy Blackwell of Miss Tammy Writes) who encapsulates why having YA fiction is so very important for teens. While her quote is true for teens, I believe it is also VERY true for emerging adults. Here's a part of the quote:
I think it's important for teens to feel like there is something just for them, that reflects their experiences. Most of them are struggling to find where they fit in in this world, and YA books reflect that journey and help them find their way.
Now replace "teens" with "emerging adults" and "YA" with "NA." I believe so many emerging adults continue to read YA because of this issue. We desperately are trying to find a way to fit in and find our place. That struggle doesn't end in high school; instead, it grows and stretches to envelope even more issues.

4. Writing about the gap is useless, because no one's buying. Oh, you silly skeptics. Publishers are actively seeking NA lit. Agents are putting it on their wishlists. Why? Because people ARE buying! Dahlia of the Daily Dahlia wrote a bit about the growing market and Stacked put together a small list of published books that can be classified as NA. Leanna at Daisy Chain Books also has some recommendations.

5. We don't know where to shelve the books! Valid point, but a bit weak. Trish Doller of Something Like Normal fame wrote a bit about this issue from a shelver perspective. Basically, there are NA-type books already out there (see point #4), but they're shelved in YA or adult, so a new section isn't necessary. I believe this issue will iron itself out with time as the number of NA titles grows. If my store can find a special place just for nature essays, it can find a place for NA books. Having a section that puts NA books together will aid with browsing, which is how I find many of my books. I don't want to wade through 20+ snoozy adult lits about crumbling marriages and forgotten childhood traumas to find that one NA book.

6. New Adult (NA) is a stupid name. I'll give you that one, but it's not like it's set in stone. Titles change.

To be honest, I probably won't read a lot of the current NA titles, as the newest batch seems to focus a lot on sex. I don't like sex in my books. But I do believe that, as the category expands, its focus will grow as well. Right now, NA has a lot of contemporary college books. This will not always be the case.

My hope is to one day find NA filled with as much diversity and adventure as YA. I want a twenty-year-old knight fighting dragons and a twenty-six-year-old explorer discovering a new planet and a nineteen-year-old graduate moving away from home for the first time. Life does not end at eighteen, nor does it begin again at thirty. Life is happening HERE. NOW. We're living it, and our stories deserve to be told.

What do YOU think of New Adult?

Articles mentioned in this post:
Bookshelvers Anonymous - New Adult; or, There Be Rough Waters Ahead, Matey!
Clear Eyes, Full Shelves - The "New Adult Genre": Thoughts + Questions
Daily Dahlia, The - Whose "Failure" is New Adult?
Read Now, Sleep Later - YA Shame and Stigma
Stacked - Some thoughts on "new adults" and also "cross-unders"
USA Today - Many 'emerging adults' 18-29 are not there yet