New Adult

I’ve been following the recent chatter over the newish fiction designation of New Adult and thought as someone in the targeted demographic I would like to weigh in. I know Liz Burns and a few other librarians are going to be having a roundtable discussion about it at the ALA annual conference and I would love to be a part of that, but it’s just not practical or financially feasible for me (and my family) to go. I’ve read all of the articles Liz wrote on her blog and one from YALSA too. You can check them out here and here. Liz has links to a lot of other good content about New Adult, not all of which I have had a chance to read because I am busy being a New Adult.

It has taken me quite some time to really pin down what it is I like to read for pleasure. I read a fair amount of Young Adult fiction to keep up on trends and I enjoy a lot of it, but really I enjoy it because I can see myself recommending it to a patron or student, not because I find it to be what I would want with me on a desert island. Of course, I have stumbled across a few titles that I absolutely love, but they are the outliers.

I am, however, a huge fan of nonfiction. It’s much slower going (especially now that I have a baby) and it can be dry. But I am fascinated by history and science and enjoy reading about them. I also feel driven toward nonfiction because I have had a really difficult time getting into Adult fiction. I briefly went through science fiction, fantasy, and mystery phases, but ultimately I wasn’t interested in the formulaic plots and many of the taudry details of mass market paperbacks. There are of course shining examples in all these genres and I read many of those and loved them. They are like the YA outliers I love. Ultimately though, those genres just weren’t for me.

So, what did that leave me with? Realistic fiction and magical realism. (And historical fiction, which aside from the historical setting, I tend to lump in with realistic fiction.) The problem, to me [GROSS GENERALIZATION ALERT!] was that the vast majority of it that I encountered seemed to be about midlife crises and people either cheating on their spouses or getting divorces, or both. Also, depressed women. None of those things was, or is, me. And in pleasure reading you want to identify with the characters, right? I just don’t. I’m not into torrid love affairs. Or divorces. Or depression. Or longing. Or feeling like I just realized 20 years of my life was gone in a blink.

Add to this that, despite the fact that I am married with a baby, a career, a house and mortgage, pets, and the whole shebang, I don’t feel like an adult. I still identify more with the teens I served than with my parents. Even though, in reality I’m probably more like my parents and those teens probably felt that way too.

New Adult, to me, seems to fill a gap. It’s fiction for those of us who aren’t quite at that point in our life where we feel like grown-ups and can relate to middle life. It also seems to me that it may contain a bit of nostalgia for those of us about to exit our 20s. I remember and am still trying to make sense of my last decade. A lot happened. Reading about others in the throes of it or reflecting back on it helps me put my own experiences in perspective. It also make me fondly remember that weird transition time when I was not quite prepared to be on my own, but essentially was. The YALSA article on New Adult mentioned the television show Girls. I’m not that young or free anymore, but I still find their situations completely relatable and oftentimes funny. It also makes me glad I’m not in that weird transition period anymore.

Sure, New Adult has it’s flaws. For starters it’s really just an arbitrary label publishing companies are giving their books. I don’t really think it’s necessary for there to be a New Adult section in the book store. But a label on Amazon that I could click on or marketing campaign, why not? I’m not the target demographic of YA, but I still look for that label to use as a gauge of what I might enjoy reading. There’s a lot of stuff published every year and I need to start somewhere.

New Adult is also pretty narrow. But it’s new! I would bet YA was also narrow when publishers first started labeling books that way. I happen to be part of the demographic that it’s marketed towards now (white, female, middle class, educated). But again, I bet YA was also that way to begin with. New Adult could be difficult because there is a vast range of experiences that can happen in the decade of your 20s, but there are still universal experiences within it. And there is a vast range of experiences in the teen years, but that doesn’t stop us from thinking that a YA label can’t represent a variety of experiences or that YA literature can’t tackle the universal experiences.

There also seems to be an emphasis on sex in these books, at least according to several definitions of New Adult. I don’t think  New Adult needs to or should go down the romance, chick-lit path. That’s why there is a romance and chick-lit label out there. But I find myself rolling my eyes when I read younger YA and middle grade novels where the characters are blushing about a quick kiss. I don’t think sex should dominate the plot or that it needs to be in there, but it can be there so long as it’s natural to the situations and characters and doesn’t devolve into erotica or romance.

A couple of comments I read on Liz B’s discussion of the definition of New Adult implied that adults shamefully peruse the teen section looking for reading material. If that is the reason New Adult is being coined and marketed, then that’s potentially a problem. But it’s also not a problem. So what if it gives adults “permission” to read novels written for a younger set? And by that token won’t there suddenly be a stigma of people in their 40s reading material marketed to 20-somethings? Personally, I don’t really care if I’m reading books marketed for teens or adults so long as I am enjoying them. Because, if I’m enjoying it, it was meant for me; age, class, gender, etc. be damned. But, I know I may be in a minority in that feeling.

However, I think that the “permission” sentiment implies that YA is intended and appropriate for 20-somethings and I think that isn’t correct. As a 20-something, there is YA that I like, but it’s not written for someone in my time of life. Neither are all those midlife-crisis books. So while YA is often relatable and enjoyable because I lived through that time in my life and remember it, YA does not accurately reflect where I am now and who I am now.

I think, too, as librarians we worry a bit too much about categorization and how it might limit what people read. We love ALL the books! And we want everyone else to, too. Even if that isn’t possible. Yes, New Adult might limit some people by making them think it’s what they are allowed to read, but I think those people would be few and far between. I also think, while we should be wary of the effect of labels, the bigger issue is getting people reading. I don’t care if they read graphic novels, romance novels, science fiction novels or new adult novels. As a librarian I want them reading!

Ultimately I believe New Adult could be a useful tag or classification. Just because you aren’t the target demographic doens’t mean you can’t read it. Also it doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself. I’m a new adult, but I’m also newly married, a new mom, a librarian, a world traveler…the list goes on. When looking for another good book to pick up I use a lot information based on my experience as a reader and part of that can include labels like New Adult.