Do adults not want to read about other adults anymore?

Warning: Potentially unpopular opinions to follow.

My entire life, I’ve most preferred to write about young people. Even when my characters age into adulthood, I still see them in my mind’s eye as they were in their younger years. With the exception of parents, I only wrote about people around my age until I was in my mid-teens. In fact, my Atlantic City characters were written pretty unrealistically as adults until I was an adult myself! I had such little experience with writing about realistic adults, they inevitably felt like overgrown adolescents playing at being grownups.

I’ve honestly never had any problem with adults reading books intended for a younger readership. If you’re writing about young people, it stands to reason that you need to be familiar with the category. That was actually what helped me to realize I (mostly) really write adult literature that just happens to have young protagonists, instead of books that would be considered YA or MG by most folks nowadays.

If you write a book review blog that focuses on YA, MG, or children’s lit, it also stands to reason you’ll be reading a lot of that. And many books written for younger audiences are so well-written they transcend age-based categories. If a book is really good, we can enjoy and relate to it in different ways at different ages.

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However, I’ve become increasingly off-put by this undeniable trend of adults now exclusively, or nearly exclusively, reading YA and sometimes MG. I’ve seen many people, YA writers or not, outright admitting that’s all they read, and that they don’t read adult books.

Many times, a trend is so pervasive someone isn’t aware of taking part in it because of social contagion. Take, for example, the explosion in first-person present tense and alternating narrators/POV characters. Of course I don’t think everyone doing that is deliberately, mindlessly following a trend. But when you’ve seen so many examples, it does start to influence you. A lot of younger writers admit they think past tense and third person are stuffy, boring, and outdated, or don’t think books can still be written that way!

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Of the YA published within the last 10 years or so, I most enjoy graphic novels and novels in verse. I also love contemporaries with a gritty, urban setting, like the late great Walter Dean Myers’s books. I’ve been sadly disappointed in a lot of the YA historicals published in the U.S., and really didn’t click at all with any of the other genres I had to read for my YA Lit class.

I’ve revisited a number of books I loved when I was younger, and many times was left wondering why I ever loved them so much. Maybe it was because I now read more as a writer than a reader, but it’s also due in part to how those books are written for a younger audience. Adults want different things out of a story than children, preteens, or teens.

So, yes, I do find it kind of weird and creepy how adult women are openly swooning over fictional teenage boys, announcing crushes on them, feeling fluttery over their kissing scenes, and declaring themselves Team So-and-So for books with love triangles.

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I’m an adult, and never had the type of high school experience often depicted in YA contemporaries. I never dated or went to parties and dances, and didn’t want to. I barely even went out socially with my peers, also by choice. And forget taking part in current pop culture!

How can you relate more to a bunch of high school kids when you’re in your thirties? Don’t you want to read about other adults, with adult concerns, in a writing style meant for adults? There’s certainly a valid time and place for those kinds of stories, just as not all adult literature is going to be Crime and Punishment or Don Quixote. However, we all need a balanced diet, and too much of any one thing isn’t good for us.

I’ve also seen a lot of adults who start talking like characters in YA contemporaries. It’s really embarrassing to hear a thirtysomething soccer mom regularly saying, e.g., “All the things!” “All the feels!” “All the whatevers!” Their real-life writing style is often indistinguishable from that of an actual teenager!

This feels like deliberate cognitive stunting, avoiding engaging with writing intended for adults. Having a favorite or preferred genre (books, movies, music, artwork) doesn’t mean you should exclusively consume it. It makes us better-rounded when we sample from other buffets.

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Top Ten Tuesday—All About Romance Tropes/Types

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s topic is All About Romance Tropes/Types. I decided to split the list, with half the items being tropes and types I hate, and the other half being the antidote I love to see in their places.

Hate:

1. Instalove. Enough said!

2. Awesome, perfect, amazing first-time sex, whether it’s the first time for both parties or only one of them. Of course it can happen, but not nearly as often as the romance industry wants to lead us to believe.

3. The man ALWAYS being older in an M/F romance, esp. when the female lead is barely legal. Can we please have some more realistic, appropriate age differences, or at least a thoughtful exploration of the dynamic an age difference can create?

4. Rape and domestic violence (NOT to be confused with consensual BDSM!) being presented as romantic, swoon-worthy, excusable. When a female character in a romance has had a tragic past including rape or domestic abuse, it should have an original angle, and not dominate her entire life or storyline. I’m far from the only person who hates the “rape as character development” trope seen in so many movies, TV shows, and books!

5. The headless, hairless bare chest on the cover. It’s even worse if this kind of cover also includes a crotch shot.

Love:

1. A couple who’s been friends for a long time before becoming lovers, childhood sweethearts, or a couple who’s already together when the book begins. This kind of road to happily ever after, or happily for now, is so much more interesting and realistic than instalove.

2. Realistic, awkward, fumbled first-time sex. I can see an awesome first-time scene if one of the parties is already rather experienced, and the virginal partner is very emotionally ready and open to being a student, but even in that kind of instance, it’s still the couple’s first time together. What worked with previous partners might not work with the new lover, and there’s a whole new dynamic if this is the experienced lover’s first time with someone s/he loves instead of a purely physical act.

3. Couples where the woman is older. As a proud puma (woman in her thirties who likes younger men), formerly a bobcat (woman in her twenties who fancies younger guys), three years away from officially being labelled a cougar, I really love seeing these kinds of match-ups. Sometimes an older woman is just what a younger, inexperienced guy needs to get his head screwed on straight and gain valuable life experience.

4. Healthy, mutually respectful relationships, including sexual negotiation and moving at a speed comfortable to both parties. It’s really sweet when someone asks permission for a first kiss, and it makes for a better sexual relationship when the couple discusses and agrees upon things in advance, while their clothes are on. If someone, e.g., has a certain fetish or doesn’t like certain things, the heat of the moment isn’t the best time to first bring it up!

5. A cover featuring the couple but with interesting details to set it apart from other romance covers. For example, a richly embellished purple ballgown, a guy with an attention-grabbing shirt, a foreboding background.

Why I’m not wild about many current YA historicals

Warning: Potentially unpopular opinions to follow.

As I’ve discussed in a number of previous posts, it was a long, slow, challenging process to realize I write adult fiction that just happens to focus on young characters. The perception of the young adult category has changed so much from the time I was a young adult.

With some notable exceptions, I haven’t liked a lot of the YA historicals published in the U.S. within the last 10 years or so, since the YA explosion. The best recent YA historicals I’ve found tend to be published outside of the U.S., like Mal Peet’s Tamar, Paul Dowswell’s The Ausländer, and Anne C. Voorhoeve’s My Family for the War.

So many times one of my blogging buddies, or the reading public at large, raves about a certain YA historical, and I have the exact opposite reaction when I check it out. I often wonder if we read the same book! Probably a big reason I prefer YA historicals published outside of the U.S. is because those books focus more on the history instead of the teen experience. They also have a voice and style that speaks to people of all ages, instead of feeling intended only for teens.

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While I love MG historicals, and a select few YA historicals published in the U.S., I just feel like the current YA style doesn’t fit very well with traditional historical storytelling. I want to read about young people living through history, not young people who just happen to live in the past.

The extreme oversaturation of first-person in YA is also a roadblock for me. First-person absolutely can be done phenomenally well, but historical is a genre which traditionally works best with third-person omniscient for a reason. With so many YAs being first-person these days, the narrators start to run together after awhile. First-person voice also seems rather modern and too personal for historical.

As I’ve mentioned many times, there was no concept of adolescence until really the 20th century. There were children, and there were adults. Some adults were younger and less experienced, but they were still considered adults in the eyes of society. For example, many of the young wives in The Decameron are all of 13 or 14. It’s kind of hard to forcibly bend the story of a teenager 100+ years ago to have the same voice, experiences, and sensibilities as a teen of the modern era!

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Choosing a famous young adult as the protagonist also fails for me. Someone like Joan of Arc or Catherine Howard (one of Henry VIII’s wives) would’ve been seen as an adult by her society and era. (Side note: The cover of Katherine Longshore’s Gilt, the first in a series about the Tudor Court, uncannily resembles the cover of Madonna’s Erotica.)

Many historical writers do give characters somewhat more modern views and behavior than most people of that era had, to try to make them more relevant and relatable to modern audiences. However, I’ve seen a lot of recent YA historicals making characters way too modern (e.g., anachronistic slang, high-society débutantes having premarital sex with the stable boy, lecturing people about smoking, shacking up with a boyfriend of another race).

This leads to the Gossip Girl in period clothes style, like Jillian Larkin’s Flappers series and Anna Godbersen’s Luxe and Bright Young Things series. Any actual history is shallow window-dressing for stories that essentially read like contemporaries. These books also fail because they’re trying to play it both ways. Either you’re writing about teenagers having authentic teenage experiences, or you’re writing about younger adults having pretty normal experiences for their era.

Then we have laughably unrealistic nonsense like Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied, where 15-year-old Evie sees nothing of risking her reputation by heavily making out with two legal adult men. She’s not scared of getting caught or things going too far and getting sent off to a Florence Crittenton home for unwed mothers!

Bottom line: I’m sick and tired of historicals featuring typical YA contemporary characters who just happen to be plunked into the past. I’m also tired of books with very adult situations being passed off as YA just because the characters are teenagers.

Why I’ve cooled on the NA marketing category

In loving memory of Curly Howard (Jerome Lester Horwitz), who passed away 65 years ago today.

Over the last almost six years in the writing blogosphere, I’ve met a number of New Adult writers. I regularly participated in a seemingly discontinued weekly Twitter chat. I regularly visited and commented at the now-inactive New Adult Alley blog. I did a group presentation about NA in my YA Lit class. This was definitely something I supported.

I’m far from the only person who’s cooled on the idea of NA as a category, as much as I once believed in its great potential. Some of these reasons include:

1. NA Alley has changed its Twitter handle to NextLit, in addition to discontinuing their weekly chat and no longer blogging.

2. With some notable exceptions, and in spite of the somewhat greater diversity of genres a few years ago, NA is dominated by contemporary romances. While there’s nothing wrong with that genre, that’s not how you successfully pitch a new marketing category to the wider public.

3. Related to #2, many read like YA with slightly older characters and sex scenes.

4. Where’s the actual adult coming-of-age experience NA was supposed to represent? You know, going to university, graduating, finding a first apartment, getting a first job, navigating a first serious relationship that’s not the entire focus of the book?

5. Many writers who once proudly waved the NA banner have stopped querying or classifying their books as NA. They’re now simply adult lit. Sometimes they age the characters down to make it YA.

6. While I’m much more enthusiastic about the indie movement (both small publishing houses and self-pubbing) than traditional publishing these days, many agents and editors have said they no longer consider NA, or would make writers age the characters up or down.

7. Not enough representation of other kinds of early adult experiences. Where are the stories of going right from high school to the working world or the military instead of university? How about getting married and starting families instead of taking part in the hookup culture? The entire world isn’t bourgeois!

8. NA doesn’t seem to work with certain genres. While this may contradict #2, an adult character’s age doesn’t really matter in a genre like sci-fi, fantasy, or mystery. What does it matter if the protagonist of a high epic fantasy is 21, 26, or 32?

9. Do we really need yet another excuse to prolong adolescence? As compared to 50+ years ago, the average twentysomething of today isn’t in a longterm job, married, or a parent. It’s more common to go clubbing and bar-hopping every weekend, hook up instead of seriously dating, and work crappy jobs.

10. Related to #9 and #8, historical doesn’t really seem like the best NA genre. While we shouldn’t aspire to only read about characters who are similar to us, it also might be harder for modern-day twentysomethings to relate to characters living as and being treated like full adults instead of overgrown teens. More on this in a future post.

11. This delays readers from graduating to full adult literature already. Once upon a time, there were no stepping-stones. You just started reading books from the grownup section of the library and bookstore. I started reading Hermann Hesse at 14, and began reading Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, Chekhov, and Turgenev at 16. I never thought I had to only read about people my own age.

12. There’s enough of a problem with people over 30 exclusively or almost exclusively reading YA. I have no issue with adults reading YA or MG, but I’ve become increasingly off-put by this trend of adults who won’t read books about other adults. More on this in a future post.

13. I dislike age-based categories in general. While I agree general labels exist for a reason, there are often nuances within them. The definitions have also shifted drastically over time. Many books written for children in the 19th and early 20th century are now shelved as adult classics, while many books classified as young adult in my day are now shelved as MG. And how do you pigeonhole a book which ages the characters over 5+ years?

14. It’s kind of patronizing to call the 18–25 range “new adults” instead of simply adults, period. It’s like helicopter parenting in loco parentis.

15. Many NAs have become repetitive, indistinguishable, cookie-cutter.

NA really did have awesome potential, and I’m sorry to see what’s happened to it. There certainly is a market for books about characters in that age range, but I no longer feel that needs a new, separate category.

How I figured out my writing doesn’t constitute YA

This is based on my own experience and perspective, and is decidedly NOT meant as any sort of bash against either YA books in general or YA writers in particular. Writers in other genres, or historical writers outside the U.S., probably will have much different experiences and perspectives.

Since I began writing when I was a young person myself, it was just natural for me to write about other young people. Even when my original characters have aged several decades, I still can’t help picturing them in my mind as their youthful first incarnations, and I really enjoy writing the stories of their children and grandchildren.

I always thought, thus, that I was writing books for a primarily teen audience, based on my characters’ ages. When I finally took my lifelong dream of publication off the back burner in early 2011, however, I gradually came to discover that probably most of what I’ve written, and have continued writing, doesn’t seem to fit very well in the current U.S. YA market.

These reasons include:

1. Length. While my Atlantic City books to date (except Cinnimin, my 12-volume handwritten magnum opus in progress) have tended to be under 70,000 words, my more serious-minded books are much, much, much longer. When I entered Jakob’s story as YA in a few contests and even got a few behind the scenes partial requests from agents, I got a number of comments about how the writing and concept were great, but it was “too long,” at a mere 120,000 words (actually 128,000, as I recently discovered).

The story covers five and a half years, October 1940-May 1946, and takes place during some very dramatic, intense events. Of course it’s going to be long. I expect my other European books will be about the same length. It’s honest to the plot trajectory and longer timeline, but doesn’t fit with current word count policing, particularly in YA.

2. Ensemble casts and adult characters. By and large, I tend to work with ensemble casts, not just one or two protagonists. It’s what I’m used to reading. I also have fairly important adult characters in many of my books, who feature as more than just parents or friends’ parents in the sidelines.

3. Third-person omniscient. This is just how I write, the voice that comes most naturally to me. Once in awhile, I’ll write something that’s a lot closer to third-person limited, if the story is focused on just one character, but it’s still for all intents and purposes third-person omniscient. Outside of short interludes within a book, like a letter, newspaper op-ed, or love note, I haven’t written first-person in about 20 years. I doubt I could sustain that voice for more than just a few pages every so often, as much as I love writing these short interludes.

4. Timespan. My longer books are set over long time periods, and thus the characters age more than just a little. Most American YA these days is set over just a short period, maybe a year at most, not three, five, ten, or fifteen years. And with an ensemble cast, that means that not all the characters will be the same age at the same time, and that some will become adults midway through the book while others go through the full journey from childhood to adolescence or early twenties.

5. Mood, theme, language, introspection, focus. A lot of what I’ve written reads more like adult literature that just happens to focus on younger characters.

6. Slower-paced, character-driven. I tend towards writing about the overall journey of growing up and coming of age during historical times. Of course there are plotlines, but they’re more peripheral to the overall story of going through life and becoming an adult. They take slower to unfold and develop. I prefer stories about growth, change, and development.

7. Historical is a much different beast from other genres. The typical teenager of 50+ years ago was more like a twentysomething of today. Experiences like marriage, engagement, parenthood, living on one’s own, working, and assuming very adult responsibilities at home were commonplace. Could the average modern teen really relate to a Shoah survivor who’s engaged at 15-16 and married while still in his or her teens, or my four parentless Ryan siblings, Girl, Boy, Baby, and Infant, who grew up squatting and fending for themselves by begging and doing odd jobs?

This is why I roll my eyes so much at a lot of what passes for historical YA in the U.S. these days. They seem more like Gossip Girl in period clothes, fluffy, silly soap operas that just happen to be set in the past, giving historical teens very modern interests, language, actions, and lives. Others can’t seem to figure out if they’re telling an adult story, about people who would’ve been considered adults in their era, or YA.

Overall, I like to write stories that are history-focused and just happen to involve young people, not teen-focused stories that just happen to be set in the past.