Sunday, 12 January 2014

The In-Betweeners: The New Adult Genre

Ah, the New Adult genre.  I must admit that when first I heard of it, I gave it the old side-eye with more than a bit of skepticism.  Don’t get me wrong, being skeptical does not mean biased, I love all manner of books and will read just about anything.  And given that Young Adult was in its infancy when I was a kid, and I made it through that unscathed, I pressed forward with tentative steps.  I’ll try anything once.
That said, it should be noted that I have a particular affinity for Young Adult.

There’s just something so unique and special about the age between adolescence and adulthood, it’s sacred to me, and I must not be the only one who feels this way because you’d have to be living under a rock for the past eight years not to notice the boom in the Young Adult market.
Whether or not you’re a fan, this recent explosion can be attributed to juggernauts like: Twilight, The Mortal Instruments, and The Hunger Games, to name just a few.  Some would argue that I’ve got that backward, that it’s the marketplace which created the need and not those bestsellers which created the marketplace, but that’s a chicken vs. egg debate better left for someone else to dissect.

Whatever the reason, or cause, as it were, what is clear is that Young Adult has arrived in a very big way, and has since put its feet up on our coffee tables and appears to be staying a while.
So what is it about this genre that appeals to the masses?

Well, in my opinion, there’s an innocence about it which speaks to our longing to be forever young, and an exploration of self that comes with not yet knowing who we are.  There is a sense that we are invincible and that love, in its many incarnations, is all-powerful and everlasting.  It is, in essence, one of the most emotionally vulnerable times we will ever experience.  During these precious years, we are no longer children, sheltered by ever-watchful eyes of parents, yet we are not adults, fully capable of measuring risk and making calculated decisions based on a wealth of past experiences.  We are simply in between.  Reckless and unknowledgeable, open and ready, unmolded, we are not yet jaded, but ever hopeful and always dreaming.  I’m not sure about you, but when I recall those days, I remember feeling limitless.
I know I’ve taken you down something of a winding path, but there is a point to all this, I promise.  You see, when I initially thought of New Adult as a genre, I merely expected Young Adult with sexual content and perhaps a sprinkling of other taboo behavior.  Certainly I’m no prude and have never had an issue with sex in literature, but I felt as though this was to be a bastardization of a genre I adored and the capitalization on something I felt was pure.  Okay, so maybe I was a wee biased.

This opinion might have held true had it not been for some exceptionally well written books by some fantastic new authors.  Their insight, poignancy and caring reminded me that there was an in between the in between.  Beyond the innocence and recklessness of our tween and teen years, there is a stage of awareness when we become more than simply young adults; when we are considered full-fledged members of society, able to cast our vote or die in war, capable of buying a drink yet not able to fully grasp the consequences of our bad behavior.  We are viewed by the world as card-carrying members of adulthood, but inside… well, inside we’re still very much finding our footing in a scary new world.  During this time we are many different pieces.  Some will fit into the mosaic of our future selves, others will be discarded, and still others we may work a lifetime to adapt to.

This is where New Adult steps boldly to the plate.  Marketed to those “in betweeners”, the seventeen to twenty-fives, it tackles the stage of development during which we have the freedom to screw up our lives and, hopefully, by doing so, learn to clean-up our own messes and to become independent thinkers.
What New Adult explores is how this period of time galvanizes us, spurring us toward claiming a life of our own choosing.  It offers opportunities to falter and chances at redemption and reinvention, and while it occasionally leads us down circuitous paths, it often spits us out the other side, sometimes battered, oftentimes daunted, but ultimately smarter and more self-assured for having survived it.
It is, in essence, the Alpha and Omega; the beginning of a life we will live as “real” grownups and the death of our childhood.

It’s not that I had forgotten about this part of my former life, it’s more like I had romanticized it.  I had opted to revel in the glory while excising the pain.  My recent forays into New Adult quickly cured me of that.  While, yes, it reminded me of feelings of solidarity amongst my peers, it also reminded me that, tucked safely away from prying eyes, at times I felt very isolated, as if I alone was experiencing the full weight of the world.  There were moments I felt emboldened by my newfound freedom, other times I felt overwhelmed by the choices I was forced to make; knowing there was no parental net beneath me should I fall, the choices and consequences were mine alone to bear, and when I fell, it hurt. A lot.
New Adult looks at these aspects of growth, what goes into making us who we are as adults, how adversity changes us and how we chose to weather the storms of life.
Fear not, this isn’t always an angst-riddled journey.  Yes, New Adult does take us down the many tributaries of growth and offers topics regularly deemed too risqué for Young Adult.  Themes like drug use, sexual experimentation, and date rape are just some of the real life challenges faced by the not-so-adult adults.  However, it also delves into the beauty and wonder of first love, as well as the occasional pitfalls of inexperienced sex.  It can be hilarious and awkward, misguided and gut-wrenching and raw, but it is also hopeful, just as any new life is.

Recently, some reviewers have argued that New Adult is a genre for writers who don’t have the chops to cut it in the world of Adult Fiction.  Others, less blatant in their assault, claim that New Adult is a byproduct of our generation’s “extended childhood”.
With independent publications on the rise, it’s hard to find validity in these arguments.  Yes, it’s a veritable minefield out there with New Adult seemingly helming the ship, but that doesn’t necessarily validate any one claim.  New Adult, you see, is very much like its namesake.  With little guidance from the industry, New Adult does have its fair share of bad seeds, but that’s to be expected from parentless children.

However, the publishing houses are paying attention and, though a bit slow to take initiative, are beginning to welcome New Adult into the fold like a red-headed stepchild.  Atria (a Simon & Schuster imprint) was quick to recognize its potential and immediately scooped up some of the better new writers, but others, like Hyperion, have been much slower to catch on.  Does interest by the publishing industry legitimize New Adult as a genre?  To an extent it does, though I’ve never been one to conform to anyone else’s standards.  The true test is in its longevity and reception by the market.  And if the market is any indication, then, move over Young Adult, you’re bigger, sexier cousin just put their feet on the coffee table, too, and you may want to cover your ears because it’s got a lot of dirty things to say.

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