The Problem With New Adult Books

Not long ago, I commented that I wished there were more books about people my age, in my situation: young twentysomethings trying to figure themselves out while simultaneously trying to figure the world out.
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Not long ago, I commented that I wished there were more books about people my age, in my situation: young twentysomethings trying to figure themselves out while simultaneously trying to figure the world out.

After all, there are plenty of coming-of-age books focused on teenagers, and there are even more focused on adults in midlife crisis, but there didn't seem to be a plethora of novels about people in the lost, purgatory years in between.

Then came the New Adult genre. New Adult is a new genre whose target audience is people like me--young twentysomethings, overwhelmingly of the female variety. A New Adult book is basically a Young Adult book with sex and cursing thrown in. A typical plotline features two brooding, damaged souls with damaged pasts (typical examples include characters whose entire families have tragically died, characters who have grown up in abusive homes, characters suffering from manic depression or panic attacks) who meet, sparks fly, and drama ensues. The books are often titled something like "Damaged" or "Broken" or "Smashed with a Sledgehammer" (I may have made that last one up, but I'm sure it exists somewhere).
The books cater to the former Twilight crowd who felt unsatisfied with the laughably chaste romance but maybe weren't yet ready to move onto the absurdly unchaste knockoff, the much talked-about 50 Shades of Grey.

Now, I'm not criticizing books about people with issues (as long as the issues aren't covered in a pulpy way) or even books about people who find love in a melodramatic fashion. I'm not saying that all twentysomethings must be reading Ulysses, War and Peace, or Infinite Jest. Books in the New Adult Genre are like books in every other genre-- some are surprisingly excellent; some are so terrible it's surprising they got published, and many are in-between. However, what I am criticizing is the category of New Adult and the assumption that lies behind it.

New Adult is a label that is condescending to readers and authors alike. It implies that the books act as training wheels between Young Adult and Adult. For the New Adult books that are particularly childish, the label implies that they are a step above Young Adult--which is insulting to the Young Adult books that are far superior. For the New Adult books that are particularly sophisticated, the label implies that they are not worthy of being considered "adult." It's a lose-lose situation for everyone.

Genre labels on books have always been a tricky thing. They are largely manufactured by the publisher for marketing purposes. Genre labels also place narrow boxes around books. For example, a Fantasy label might repel a reader who prefers realism, and yet plenty of Fantasy books have crossover appeal--if non-Fantasy fans would look past the label and give the books a chance.

There is, of course, the occasional book that comes along and takes the world by storm, obliterating all genre labels. For example, fans have been flocking to J.K. Rowling's newest book, (The Cuckoo's Calling) despite the knowledge that it is a thriller with no fantastical elements, simply because it's written by J.K. Rowling, the reigning queen of transcending genre labels. The Harry Potter books were not successful because they were Young Adult books or because they were Fantasy books, but rather because there was something about them that made readers look past those labels. Adults who normally stayed away from YA books found themselves reading them, and people who ordinarily stayed away from Fantasy were enticed by them. Had people paid attention to Harry Potter's marketing and its location in the bookstore--in the YA section--its audience would have been reduced significantly.

Therefore, the new genre of New Adult is a large step backwards. It increases the system of categories and labels even further, and prevents readers from expanding their horizons and minds. The term is reductive and it is insulting to its own audience.

Books are supposed to expand your world; expose you to people, places, emotions, and ideas you might not otherwise experience. Suggesting that you need training wheels for such a thing is like suggesting that a child needs training wheels to walk. You've just got to do it. Good fiction is supposed to hold the mirror up to reality, regardless of the genre--and reality does not have training wheels.

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