New adult was arguably the big, hot genre of 2013 for commercial fiction. Covering characters between the ages 18 and 25, and plucked from the self-publishing realm, the stories bridge the gap between YA and contemporary romance. The problem for me, as a reader? It’s a really narrow bridge.
Here’s the basic set-up: upwardly mobile young white woman with little to no sexual experience goes to college. Her financial concerns are nil, giving her the time to concentrate solely on why/how she doesn’t fit in despite being really pretty (btw, redheads are super on-trend). Any angst or conflict comes from a traumatic rape-related secret*. And all she needs to come into her own is a hot, arrogant, experienced white guy who has his own secret pain. Lather, rinse, repeat.
God knows, I loved Tammara Webber’s Easy, but I can’t go on. I can’t read another one, y’all. I’m losing my will to live.
And, yes, I know that Harlequin category romance and Regency romance have been making bank on recycling the same tropes for decades. But is that really what we want for an underserved demo: the same plots over and over with a few variations? (Rhetorical question is rhetorical, because clearly the tried-and-true does sell.)
Honestly, the two best books I read about post-high school women don’t really fall under the NA label but, for me, resonate the most with finding your place at that age. Katie Cotugno’s How to Love and Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. The former is about a young single mother who got pregnant in high school and is now working at an unfulfilling job and attending community college. The latter does touch on the standard new adult tropes of college/boys/angst but depicts a girl who is an actual social outlier, not one with First World Problems.
*I am not dismissing rape as serious subject matter, or calling it a “First World Problem.” Of course it should be written about. But when it’s used hand-in-hand with a heroine’s lack of sexual experience, it’s a reinforcement of the message that “good girls” don’t get to enjoy sex unless it’s with “The One.” All other sex is Bad Sex, Forced Sex, etc. And I think that’s a disservice to women’s sexuality and to a good story. Whether it’s TV or books, rape should not be a narrative shortcut for angst or character development.
And the narrative shortcuts in new adult are many. Where are the LGBTQ characters? The characters of color? And I don’t just mean the sassy BFF who’s there to hold the heroine’s hand or teach the hero A Very Special Lesson about tolerance. It’s sad that you have to go over to m/m publishing to find that — Heidi Belleau’s delightful and diverse Rear Entrance Video series, for example — but even in those catalogs, it’s largely an all-or-nothing environment, where all the characters are generally gay men on a magically all-inclusive college campus. Where’s the in-between? The non-utopian mishmosh of WTFery that is still a relatable college experience?
I’m not saying publishing has to cater to me and my needs (what about my needs?!), but a little more variety would be nice. Take some risks. (And, yeah, I do think it’s sad, in this day and age, that writing diversely is a risk.) Being 18, 19 and 20 and not knowing what the hell to do with your life is not just the purview of one small group. Falling in love for the first time, having those first awkward sexual experiences, and pushing back against your parents…those are global experiences. Is it so bad to want to read about them from other perspectives?
Lest I sound all gloom and doom, I’d love to hear your recs for NA books that defy what’s become the norm. Help me widen this bridge! Give me back pieces of my soul!
P.S. I did read what my RT colleague Elisa calls “the stepbrother book,” A Little Too Far, by Lisa Desrochers, and I thought it managed to buck the trends pretty well.