The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of Fiction

One of the most important questions I ask about fiction when I’m looking at a manuscript- or even at a published book- is “why?” Why is this scene important, and why is it necessary? (Those two answers aren’t necessarily the same thing.) Is it furthering a plot arc? Character development? Thematic through-lines? Is this a scene that’s important for the author to know happened, or is it something the reader really needs to know?

I admit it; one of my favorite things about YA and MG fiction is how streamlined they are. Yes, they’re frequently 400+ pages long these days, but in a good story, that length comes from a slow-burn development of something important in the novel: a relationship (among friends, family, or potential sexual partners), a storyline, etc. When I finish a particularly good novel, I feel like there isn’t a single scene that could have been left out, nor a single scene added. It’s a story, and it’s complete and it’s whole.

This is part of why the idea of New Adult as “It’s YA but with sex!” bothers me so much. There’s plenty of explicit YA out there (physically graphic, emotionally erotic, or both). But when it’s there it feels necessary. What people may mean when they talk about NA as YA with sex is that part of the emotional or thematic or plot-related growth is expressed in sex. But when we say “YA with sex,” I think there’s an implication that either the sex is something missing in YA that needs to be put in, or the sex is something extra that can be added. The idea of NA being necessary to be “YA with sex!” is fundamentally minimizing to at least one of the genres; either one is incomplete or the other is superfluous.

So let’s put that aside and look at one of the other definitions:

Looking at the idea of ” Harry Potter meets 50 Shades of Grey” that’s been getting tossed around as a definition of New Adult (thanks for that, New York Times) has mutated into us discussing it like the goal is “young adult [even though HP is middle grade --a pedant's opinion] meets pornography.” And I know that those books are the ones chosen because most people writing about these things don’t know anything about romance or erotica as genres, and the only things they know about children’s lit and YA are HP, Hunger Games, and Twilight, so they went for the one that they thought would horrify the most people and gather the most attention.

But I find the choice fascinating, even though it was probably unintentional from the people who coined that phrase, because the fan origins of 50 Shades and the fan community that surrounds Harry Potter has a lot to do with the parts of New Adult that sound appealing to me. I’d argue that the growing fan culture online is probably part of what’s leading to the need (real or perceived) for New Adult: people who felt strongly and passionately about these books who want that strong passionate connection as adults. In fact, I’d argue that, regardless of your feelings on its literary or erotic merits, 50 Shades is an excellent example of this: someone taking a relatively chaste YA series and adding a spin that reclaims it for their own age group, allowing them to keep the emotional connection the stories evoked while making the additional concerns metaphorical manifestations of adult desires, rather than teens’.

But even though it did that, as I understand it, 50 Shades doesn’t fit any version of what New Adult would be that I’ve seen. Although the protagonist is a college student, 50 Shades is not dealing with problems that are exclusively faced by 18-to-24-year-olds. It doesn’t follow a bildungsroman format. (In fact, it’s worth noting that even the “50 Shades of Grey meets Harry Potter” quote indicates that 50 Shades doesn’t count on its own; it has to be melded with a young adult [MIDDLE GRADE] series to achieve what they think NA is looking for.) But I’m also struggling; from everything I’ve read, I feel fairly certain that 50 Shades wouldn’t be considered NA, but I’m not entirely sure why I feel that way, or why this would or would not be true.

If we’re defining New Adult in the context of YA, that also means we have to define YA, which is frustrating, because there isn’t any one way to view it. For me, part of the appeal is an unexplainable, visceral connection. I can give you a lot of theories for why, all of which I think are real (off the top of my head: the stories are a lot more raw; they aren’t clouded with nostalgia; they aren’t self-consciously aware of ‘real’ problems that ‘matter more'; they rarely pontificate about the Meaning of Life when they could let a story explain it), but it’s still amorphous enough that I can’t say for sure.

Part of any literature is simply the alchemy of storytelling: do all the parts combine in a satisfying way? Is it possible for them to? I’ve already explained why I don’t think it’s possible to have YA with porn, but is it possible to have the appeal of YA with adult concerns? I’d like to believe it is, but part of me thinks it simply might not be plausible. If part of YA’s appeal is that adolescence is a kind of safe space in which to experience these things and come out the other side still developing (and I’m not entirely sure I’m willing to make that argument, but IF), then there’s an additional weight when a college student or a young worker makes those decisions that isn’t there in the YA protagonist. If YA novels are about learning to navigate the world without adults, it sounds like NA is about performing that tightrope walk without a safety net.

All of which makes me think that New Adult is basically a quest to find the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of currently popular literature. It’s not that no one ever thought of combining chocolate and peanut butter; it’s just that it hadn’t been in that package before.

(Side note: I’ve seen a fair amount from children’s and YA librarians about new adult, but what are adult librarians saying about NA? Is this need for NA (real or perceived) a gap in content, a gap in marketing, or a gap in consumers knowing who to ask to get what they’re looking for?)

I’m still not sure, honestly, what New Adult is. I don’t know if it’s achievable, and I don’t know what goal would be attempted to achieve it. I don’t know if New Adult is a new type of literature that needs to be invented on the publishing end of the industry, or a new shelf marker in bookstores, or if it’s just an additional metadata tag to be thrown into MARC records. But I think that the discussion has the potential to tell us a lot about ourselves as readers, and about what young adult as a category really means.

About Amy S.

I have my bachelor's from Bryn Mawr College and my masters' from Simmons. I enjoy children's literature, reality television, cut-paper art, naps, and Comic-Con. When I grow up I want to live in the giant library from Beauty and the Beast, especially if they install wi-fi in there.
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2 Responses to The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of Fiction

  1. Isadora says:

    I don’t see 50 Shades as “New Adult” at all! It’s erotica/romance. If anything can be learned from 50 Shades it’s that romance can be sold in a very mainstream way to a broad swath of readers if you ease up on the pink covers and/or photos of mouths leaning into each other. Take it out of the pink ghetto and into the list and we’re all pretty happy to perv to your fic (though I haven’t actually read it because I detest controlling boyfriends in real life and in fiction).

    I see Jessica Park’s Flat-Out Love very much as a New Adult book. But almost only because the character is in college. And from what I’ve read (from her and other authors) it comes down to agents and publishers wedging books so tightly into categories that you have to either set your book in high school to fit in YA or age your characters a few years and put a super heavy emphasis on the romantic entanglements (by amping up the sex or making the romance not just one of the plots but the primary one) in order to wedge into either a category romance or chick lit.

    And since all of these terms are just marketing constructs? Having more of them to reach more readers and giving more room to authors is a good thing.

  2. Great post! I haven’t read a whole lot about New Adult (I mostly live in a Middle Grade world — and word about Harry Potter being MG, btw), but in theory I’m in favor of YA-style books written to deal with the concerns of adults. On occasion I want to read a book with characters my own age, dealing with the concerns of a thirtysomething, but “they rarely pontificate about the Meaning of Life when they could let a story explain it” is exactly why I almost always put those books right back down again.

    But guess what, publishers? Adults are concerned about more than sex! And if we want to read erotica, we’ll do so; that doesn’t mean every book needs to have sex in it unless, as you say, it’s necessary to the points the story is making. The best examples of “YA about people in their early 20s” I can think of are Melina Marchetta’s Piper’s Son and Gayle Forman’s Where She Went. Both are sequels to YA novels, picking up the characters a few years later. Both have some sex, but that’s hardly the point of the book. They deal with the concerns of college-aged adults using the emotionally raw, briskly paced language of YA — pretty successfully, I’d say.

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