Genre Shenanigans and the YA Craze

Photo of a bookshelf

Book Store in Kabul (5274518186)” by Peretz Partensky from San Francisco, USA – Book Store in Kabul Uploaded by russavia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier today (a week ago, by the time this is posted) I had a rather interesting conversation with writing friends Tatiana and Melissa Dominic. Tatiana had mentioned her frustration with the combined shelving of YA, NA, and adult fiction in bookstores. Now, I’ll admit I didn’t actually know that NA was even a thing, and there’s some debate as to how much of a “thing” it actually is.  This link, kindly provided by Melissa, does a pretty good job of explaining it, but from what I gather, New Adult is essentially YA lit aimed at college students, with similar structure and pacing, but with more mature subject matter and material, usually dealing with the looming specter of adulthood lying in wait just beyond graduation.

While my first instinct was to write the whole thing off (after all, it seems to be unique to St. Martin’s Press, and thus strikes me as the literary equivalent of Hallmark’s Sweetest Day) I have to admit that I do remember wishing for something along these lines, before I had developed the inevitable literary snobbery that comes with being a 20-year-old student of writing and philosophy at a private northeastern liberal arts college.

YA fiction has been in vogue lately, something to do with the snappily paced, episodic chapters, the lack of shame with regard to bombastic plots, and the serialized, franchise-friendly packaging. Where literary fiction, for the most part, seem to have forgotten that the primary purpose of storytelling is to entertain, YA writers, as a generalization, embrace that aspect of writing over almost anything else. Throw in the millions of dollars in disposable income in teenagers’ pockets and their tendency toward obsessive fannish devotion, and you have yourself an industry.

The problem with YA lit is that it is written almost exclusively about teenagers. That in itself is fine, up until the moment when a 21 year old realizes they no longer identify with a 16-year-old protagonist with a 16-year-old’s perspective and experience. While I don’t necessarily need to directly identify with a protagonist in order to enjoy a story, there were points in my life when I relied a lot more heavily on watching fictional characters conquer similar circumstances to my own. So after some thought, NA fiction DOES seem like it fills a valid market need: i.e. university undergrads and high school graduates, floundering in the real world for the first time and trying to strike an impossible balance between competent adulthood and comfortable, familiar childhood.

Now, I don’t think genre is necessarily something that writers should pay a lot of attention to. I think it’s important in that if one is writing for a fifteen-year-old audience, he or she needs to pay more careful attention to the ideologies, social values, and lessons one is teaching by telling a certain story. But which shelf a book is placed on has next to nothing to do with the writer, and certainly would have little bearing how I approach writing. But Tatiana’s original frustration, that YA, NA, and adult fiction are increasingly shelved together with no real distinction, is a valid one. While YA and NA are both kind of bildungsroman genres (with bonus undead!boyfriends, I suppose), they aren’t exactly interchangeable, due to the essential difference in perspective between the characters. And someone looking to identify with a university student character isn’t likely to jump for a cathartic novel about divorce or finding a new purpose after retirement.

Melissa may have been right when she said that NA may not have enough ground ever to earn its own dedicated shelf space, but it still gives me pause. After all, while I could spend all day poking around bookshelves, how long would the average person’s patience last? How long until a person who walks in knowing what they want gives up on the idea of it actually existing? And what about the writers of a fledgeling semi-genre whose potential audience can’t find them? Maybe I’m spoiled with the internet and its convenient tagging systems, allowing content to be easily filtered by almost any criteria, but you’d think an industry that cries literary apocalypse oh god books are officially dead every other month,  an industry intertwined with libraries and the Dewey Decimal System, would embrace genre and subgenre organization that makes it easier for potential customers to find the things they want.

Of course, this all depends heavily on which bookstore you visit and the resources available to them, but it’s an interesting thing to think about. Genre is basically a marketing tool and one could argue that it’s ultimately meaningless anyway, but it has become essential to curation and organization of literature, and it makes finding something enjoyable a heck of a lot easier.

What do you think? Is New Adult a real genre? How “adult” are YA and NA anyway? How would you shelf them?

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