Wednesday, November 14, 2012

New Adult - What the Hell?


The publishing world of the past year has been nothing short of bizarre. As e-books, self-publishing and smaller independent houses take down the big six, now reduced to the big five, the major names fight for survival through any means possible. In our wacky post-Fifty Shades world, where pulling fan-fiction to be published as original is the new normal, the curious case of “New adult” has emerged. New adult fiction, supposedly aimed at readers aged 18-25, is a term that’s been floating around for a while now, but has only really come to prominence in the past twelve months or so. Indeed, in the midst of writing this article, another massive sale of a self-published author’s work was announced, with a heavy focus on its “new adult” status.

The new age range supposedly allows for a more mature creative content, with older characters (usually high school leaver or college age) dealing with jobs, money, university, etc, thus giving the reader an insight into the expectations of the new adult. Theoretically, I am with this trend. The gap between young adult and adult literature is one that’s much more liminal than expected. The jump between the frivolity of high school and the pressures of living and studying from home is terrifying, and one the young adult market hasn’t really dedicated anywhere near enough time and attention to. Of course, new adult also allows for more sexual content, which I fully support. As I’ve been discussing in my series of posts on sex in YA, the genre is just not serving its readers properly in terms of mature, accurate and progressive representations of sex and sexuality. New adult could do a great service in rectifying this situation as well as acting as a helpful marker for the more cautious reader.

However, I personally think the new adult marker is failing miserably. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I feel it’s being used somewhat irresponsibly. A few months ago, there was some controversysurrounding Jamie McGuire’s “Beautiful Disaster”, a self-published bestseller of romanticised domestic abuse that recently sold for a large sum to a publisher and continues to do wonders for my blood pressure. McGuire, after some criticism, insisted that her book was not a young adult novel, despite the fact that it had been advertised as such, sold as such by several outlets and the author herself happily promoted it as young adult when she asked her readers to vote for it in the Goodreads awards. Now I’m seeing the book advertised as new adult, and it’s not the only book of its kind I’m seeing given the new adult label.

Nicole Williams’s novels “Crash” and “Clash” are marketed as “mature YA/New adult” and listed in the children’s section of Amazon, and contain some pretty terrifying stuff that’s a little too reminiscent of “Beautiful Disaster”. For instance, the very first chapter of “Clash” features the delightful romantic hero attacking another man for daring to touch his girlfriend, threatening to put him in a wheelchair, threatens his girlfriend and demands that no man ever touch her again, then ends it by referring to the other guy as a “tight wearing fairy”. After the heroine chastises him, justifiably so, for his behaviour and sends him off, she is the one that feels guilty and apologises for it! The phrase she uses is “You took the good with the bad”. And this is new adult. I’ve made my views abundantly clear on violence and misogyny masquerading as bad boy romance, so I won’t repeat them here. I simply ask what makes this “new adult”, particularly since it’s also categorised as a straight up romance on Amazon. Got to get that crossover appeal and sales, I guess. The same applies to “Losing It” by Corma Carmack, mentioned in the above link. It’s a typical college romance set-up (involving the virginal student and her professor – by the way, I personally find these set-ups creepy, an abuse of power and in no way sexy, but that’s just me) that’s now suddenly new adult.

The snarky virgin college girl who meets the tattooed bad boy jerk with the dark past romance dynamic is nothing new. Hell, the virgin/stud coupling makes up a significant portion of Harlequin’s bestsellers. It’s a romance staple, and if you like it then you like it. However, hard-core sex and erotica are not exactly teenage literature staples, and the big sellers in this NA craze seem more fitted to the romance category than NA. I’ve been speaking in favour of more sexually progressive young adult novels but there’s a difference between depicting sex and writing erotica. You can call these books whatever you want, they’re still sold in the children/teen section of the Amazon Kindle store. Of course discussing my concerns with sexually explicit content in this genre will leave me open to accusations of pearl clutching prudery or claims I want to censor the aforementioned books. I’m not and I don’t. I’m just weary of slapping a shiny new label on a product to justify something that’s clearly a bit off.

What confuses me about this New Adult bandwagon is how not only do we continue to give such rose-tinted problematic content a pass regardless of which age group it’s marketed towards, but that we’re now justifying it further with a new label and claim that it’s more ‘realistic’ to the problems faced by these new adults. First of all, this assumes that young adult novels never ever tackled any tough or realistic topics, which will be news to authors such as Laurie Halse Anderson, Hannah Moskowitz, Judy Blume, Chris Crutcher, Sherman Alexie, Walter Dean Myers, and A.S. King, to name a few. It also assumes YA doesn’t want to tackle real life issues, or that the genre just isn’t suitable to do so. I’ve never been blindly loyal to YA and I’m very aware that the most popular genres within it aren’t usually contemporary or heavy-hitting, but they still matter and we’re seeing many writers producing wonderful, delicately handled but no less hard hitting work aimed at a teenage audience.

This feels increasingly like a post-Fifty Shades marketing gimmick. Don’t forget that Fifty Shades is Twilight fan-fiction, and that’s where a lot of its appeal lay. The characters are aged up a bit (or significantly aged down in Cullen’s case) and the setting changes but the inherent appeal for many readers when the book was first released was in seeing two well-loved characters do what Stephenie Meyer never depicted them doing. A poll recently released revealed something very interesting but not at all surprising to me. While we should take into account the inaccuracies of polling that apply in these situations, seeing that 55% of people buying books aimed atteenagers were adults says a lot to me about the new adult craze. This is full on “Twilight” meets “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Irony aside, this trend feels like a combination of the full on intensity expected of teen romances, only with adult sexual explicitness. For a genre that has people claiming what an excellent opportunity it is to write mature, progressive situations that are relatable for the intended audience, I’m mostly just seeing the same old stuff I’ve seen for a while now. If I wanted erotica, I would buy it (or go on AO3 and get it for free like normal people).

Of course, this is still a fledgling genre, and one that will undoubtedly grow, now that the media’s caught on and the big money’s rolling (because the way to save the big 5 from going under is to throw 6 figure advances at hype. Hey, it worked for Pippa Middleton, right? Oh, yeah). There are glimmers of light in the distance. Tammara Webber’s “Easy” has garnered strong acclaim for its maturity in tackling sexual assault and its depiction of college students. If more writers really dedicate to writing New Adult the way it’s being marketed as then we may see some interesting results. However, I implore authors and publishers to put the work in and not just slap the label on it.

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