Millennials need books too

New Adult. Is it a thing? Should it be a thing? What is genre anyway?

Articles! Because discussion is good. First up is something from Jezebel; I remember having a huge problem with Jezebel, but I also can’t remember what that problem is. Either way, the final paragraph of this article sums up a lot of the issues that I have with the concept of “New Adult” as a stand-alone genre:

People have been writing about 18 to 25-year-olds forever, from The Sorrows of Young Werther to Girl Interrupted. Let’s be honest: marketers need “New Adult” fiction — which really just means books about millennials, right? — to be a stand-alone genre, not readers. It reminds me of the term “teenager,” which, crazy as it seems now, didn’t even exist until the mid-20th century. Today, teenagers are a $200 billion consumer group. We’ve already commodified youth. Will marketers be able to commodify kinda-youth as successfully? They’re certainly going to try.

The argument that these books are about “millennials” is quite telling for me. New Adult becomes a genre that only makes sense in the here-and-now, a response to one particular cultural shift in the past decade or so, and specifically a commercial response. Just as the “teenager” did not exist until post-WWII, “millennials” only existed after the year 2000 – the conceit behind both concepts is that somebody stands to make a profit from it, as it is no great secret that the people who benefit the most from the existence of genres are definitely not writers, but publishers and marketers.

It seems even publishers and editors have issues with genre, at least if this passage from our second article is to be taken at face value:

Entangled Publishing, an experimental publisher with a mission to bridge the gap between traditional and independent publishing, believes so strongly in this growing market that it’s developed a New Adult imprint, Embrace, and tapped veteran YA editor Karen Grove to serve as editorial director. Grove explains that in her 20 years editing YA at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, she saw many submissions that she loved, but that didn’t quite fit within the parameters of YA. “It drove me crazy that there was no place for these books,” she says. “They wouldn’t be successful in YA and they wouldn’t find an audience in adult. They were in between. It seems the 18–24-year-old had been forgotten in literature.”

I’m incredibly disapproving of this kind of talk; Grove points to the issue that YA is not really sufficient enough of a category to include certain types of story that also don’t seem to fit into other genres, but the solution of making yet another restrictive, arbitrary genre seems much less like a solution for the poor authors that editors feel so bad about rejecting, and much more like digging the hole deeper while keeping the norms of marketing in play. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Grove is lying, just that what she’s saying is a solution is really only a band-aid, not a cure.

A cure, as suggested in the third article from the apparently horrible-place-to-work-run-by-a-narcissistic-sycophant Huffington Post, would be to reduce the number of genres we currently have. The argument is that truly successful books are those that draw in readers across genres, readers who are so drawn in by the book itself that they look beyond the genre label slapped on it – and, on the flipside, the argument is that genre is a reductive, insulting, restricting and stifling thing that is generally pretty bad. And the argument is made by drawing on an example so ubiquitous it should be a cliche, yet so undeniably true that it kind of can’t be – Harry Potter.

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.

Part of what makes the idea of “New Adult” so offensive is that it not only increases the number of rage-inducingly irrelevant and arbitrarily-defined genres already in existence, but that there is an aura of condescension in the way that the genre has become identified: as a “stepping-stone” for readers between YA and “proper” literature:

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.

There is also the fact that “New Adult” primarily targets female readers, not just readers in general, which not only further reinforces the normativity of our cultural infantalisation of women, but also our cultural belief that women = sex and romance above all else:

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.

This also raises the issue with the “Young Adult” genre: it may be marketed toward teenagers – or not, depending on who you ask, gosh genres are just so useful aren’t they – but teenagers don’t even make up the majority of readers. It’s adults. There’s already cross-genre appeal in that sense. There’s been talk of how YA is less of a genre than a category, because it emphasises the target demographic rather than the core themes of the books themselves, but that’s how readers look at things, not the publishing industry. If they say it’s a genre, then they will treat it as a genre, and that is the reality us readers – and writers – have to live with.

And it sucks. I’m nowhere near being a published author, but even in my larval cycle of drafting, revising, and dissolving into a pile of quasi-sentient sludge for a year and a half, I feel incredibly restricted in what I can write – not because I can’t get it published, as self-publishing is always an option, but because if I want professional representation then I have to write in accordance with genre guidelines. While I think restrictions definitely feed creativity, when they come with a financial bottom line and the threat of total exclusion that particular incentive is pretty much nullified, especially with storytelling. Storytelling can be such a personal thing, and is at its most powerful when it is – Harry Potter wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if Rowling had been writing for a paycheck rather than from the heart. And I mean yes, she was writing for a paycheck because she was living on welfare when she wrote Philosopher’s Stone, but that wasn’t the bottom line for her. It was the story.

But the Harry Potter example is a little too seductive; yes, it has cross-genre appeal, but all it’s really done is caused publishers and marketers to get even more fastidious with labels and categories, trying to systematise the lightning-in-a-bottle that was Harry Potter, or Twilight, or The Hunger Games. It’s something you can see even in series that have thrived in the genre-adhering, trend-chasing climate, like Vampire Academy (which I am still working on my review of, though I might just bite the bullet and summarise instead of writing a fucking thesis out of it). Those stories can be good, but they can also be very transparent.

And that’s what I’m afraid of for my own writing. I’m afraid of what I’ve started doing over the past few years, which is slowly training myself to accept and “enjoy” turning my story ideas into genre-friendly concepts. Sometimes that’s fine; borrowing and stealing ideas in a giddy frenzy of appropriative creativity is awesome and I highly recommend it to everyone. You can definitely get some good stuff out of it; some of my favourite ideas have come out of that process. And, again, using genre as a set of creative restrictions can definitely be a very generative process. But I don’t want to tell stories to make money. I want to tell stories that I want to hear, that nobody else is telling, as well as stories that have been told a million times before but I can do better because I’m me and I’m amazing. I guess the most insidious thing about genre for me is this consequence of feeling like you have to curtail your own ideas based on the rationale that they have to be marketable. Which, considering how long it takes to get published (traditionally at least) and how quickly trends in publishing can change, is a doubly-unproductive habit to get into.

Having said all of that – what could be some of the creative restrictions of New Adult? Since it’s stupid to try and chase the zeitgeist, because by the time you catch it it will have changed, we may as well use existing genres to our own advantage, and much as I detest the concept of New Adult as a marketing tool, there are still certain things about it that I think are particularly useful.  Going back to the Writer’s Digest article, we can find a few clear markers of what makes the genre what it is, at least for marketers, and how it differs from YA:

“The mindset is different in New Adult,” Grove says. “There’s a focus on success and survival versus [high school themes of] popularity and acceptance. The new adult brings their young adult experiences and discoveries to a new level, and they get to choose the adult they want to become.”

Let’s have a look at some of these terms, shall we? “There’s a focus on success and survival”. I can see how that relates to the millennial experience, but inverted, so that it’s actually about failure and dying. And what are we failing at? Well, it’s in the name: this is New Adult, so you are failing at, you guessed it, being an adult.

Now just imagine what happens if you throw a wizarding school into the mix.

When I eventually get around to reviewing/critiquing The Magicians by Lev Grossman, I will not really be focusing on the issue I’m about to talk about: the issue of being a newly-minted adult. The book actually probably counts as New Adult, except for the fact that it’s written by a man and is “gritty” and “realistic”, which obviously makes it Urban Fantasy. Grossman started writing the book not as a book in its own right but as Order of the Phoenix fanfic, imagining what it would be like if Harry, Ron and Hermione had been “real” teenagers. If you ever read that book, or have already, you will come to appreciate the scare quotes around the word “real”.

The reason I bring this up is because I think it’s a missed opportunity in terms of exploring the themes of millennial angst through the generic lens of Urban Fantasy. Quentin gets sent to a college – not a school, a college – for magicians, and what little we get to see of his adult life is pretty fucking depressing, but also romanticises white upperclass privilege. He becomes a trust-fund baby, basically, because the magic school they attend, Brakebills, sets them up for life upon graduation, which includes getting them awesome jobs and a fuckton of money. Basically they’re New Adults from twenty years ago, adults who actually had money because they grew up in a world that hadn’t been economically eviscerated by a handful of sociopathic misers, and as such the exploration of drug-fueled loft parties and drunk sex while living rent-free in a studio apartment feels even less relevant to a contemporary audience, which is the only kind of audience who is going to give a fuck about a genre called New Adult, if anybody does outside of the marketing world.

What could have been done, following through with this thought-experiment about how the parameters of New Adult can foster creativity, is that these characters graduate from Brakebills and then find out that they’ve learnt a bunch of magic spells that have absolutely no relevance in the real world, unless they want to go to jail or spend the rest of their lives turning themselves into sociopaths as they manipulate everybody around them through magic just to survive. Or, going with the Harry Potter example, imagine that they came out of Hogwarts and then found themselves at a magical university. Self-directed study, student debt, the crushing realisation that you’re going to have to get a job that will consume most of your energy every day for the next 45 years, and that without Voldemort around to give your life meaning, all you’ve got is a mean Expelliarmus and no employability or work experience.

Or how about Teen Wolf, the series I can’t stop watching because oh my god why can’t I stop watching it: instead of Teen Wolf it’s Millennial Wolf and instead of worrying about being captain of the lacrosse team, going out with the hot new girl at school and keeping himself from slaughtering anyone in his path once a month, Scott McCall has to deal with the sudden onslaught of responsibility that comes with adult life – paying rent, job interviews, flat-hunting, the catch-22 that is trying to find a job you’re qualified to do and, if he happens to be at university, the soul-crushing spectre of student debt. Lycanthropy suddenly isn’t just a problem because your girlfriend might find out and dump you; it’s a problem because your final exam is the night of the full moon, you’re constantly stressed by the fact that you have no control over your life and are constantly on the verge of wolfing out, and there is nobody at all who can or will teach you how to handle either your new adult responsibilities or your life as a bloodthirsty shape-shifter.

And then you team up with a bunch of similarly disaffected twenty-something lycans and use your supernatural powers to overthrow the government, and live under bridges without getting cold at night so that you don’t have to pay rent. Werewolves Against Capitalism. Oh god, I actually want to write this book.

See? It’s working already.

So, the final verdict: New Adult as a genre? Pretty useless. New Adult as a writing prompt?

I think it has potential.

And I think, really, that’s probably the best way to treat most genres: as writing-prompts that can help to give direction to your writing, if you don’t already have one of your own. Something to try on and see if it fits, rather than a strict set of rules you absolutely must adhere to whenever you dare to come up with an idea for a story. Because trends change all the time, the zeitgeist is never caught but, rather, created, and as such we may as well just write whatever the hell we want to.

Except for that millennial werewolf story. Nobody else is allowed to write that. Only me. Get your own genius ideas.

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