Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Get Off Of My Lawn, Screaming At Clouds, etc.

I recently revealed my passionate disgust with the category of "New Adult" that seems to be the talk of genre marketing people all over the place.

The premise, if I understand it correctly, is that a lot of young people who are not yet 30, thereabout, read a lot of YA novels, and do not find books that tell their stories as adults, who are not yet full adults, and don't see a lot of books about them and their needs on the market, written by people like them.

That's not necessarily wicked. Of course, plenty of these books exist if you bother to look around a little, and most people know that. So, it's not really a category that seems necessary at its face. But, no category really is, is it? There wouldn't be anything in here to trigger my gut disgust response, without the influence of a new marketing category and how marketers are selling us this new category.

First, I want to separate the books from the category that is being invented to house them on the shelf. I will not be discussing the books, just the premises of the category I'm pulling off marketing materials and discussion in the sphere of books. For instance, THE GREAT GATSBY carries all the markers of this new category, and it's an amazing masterpiece of American literature, when you think of it as Nick Carraway's novel, and not Gatsby's.

But, let's talk about this category that's being invented before us. "New Adult" they say. A category to feature the coming-of-age stories of young women and men who are in college or recently out of college and looking for their place in the world. Firstly, I have a strong suspicion that the "Coming-of-age" aspect is a front for something else entirely. These are books designed and packaged to sell to a demographic. They are a quest for the next 50 Shades of Gray. This is not a quest to find the stories of this generation so much as it is to find the Next Big Thing for Money! Not necessarily a wicked thing to do, sure.

But, what a strange period of life to focus on, and what strange reasons to focus on it. It speaks to a culture that is privileged to have time to discover the self and obsess over our first loves. You know, when I was permatemping in data entry for a year as a young adult, or slinging coffee at Starbucks, I was a little bit busy trying to find my way out of the menial, poverty-stricken end of the job-market to be concerned about finding my true self in adulthood, and honestly I couldn't have cared less about my first failed love, because that sort of obsession comes from a place of great privilege. If you have time for that, pat yourself on the back. I still don't have time to romanticize life's transitions. I've had to work too hard through all of them.

I see this as a genre of privilege, in so many ways. Questioning your life in this language of finding your place in the world, your sense of self and identity is a luxury that comes from knowing that you can change jobs, change lovers, and still find security and new hope. You're looking for your "place in the world" instead of just receiving your place from your situation as is. The less money you come from, the less choice you have. New Adult, if you expand it to include Lena Dunham's work and others like it in the current zeitgeist, seems to be a literature category of young people who feel hobbled by too many choices, and perceive that as a great struggle. Lack of choice is the actual struggle. Finding choice when there appears to be none is the actual struggle. Too much choice is the self-made disaster of buying into the myth of a true self. You are you are you, and nobody can take that away from you. Happiness is something you can work towards, or it is something you have stumbled upon. Knowing what makes you happy is a myth, because it presumes a choice. Happiness comes from being able to make the choice, period, and being in a place where you can make choices.

Adulthood isn't a series of status symbols or a sense of happiness or making good use of ambiguous choices. It is a number, nothing more. Maturity is what we're really talking about, and the way this is being handled in the category of New Adult is a slap in the face of the great YA protagonists... More on that in a minute.

Feeding into that myth of self-discovery, though, is a marketing ploy to convince you that you need to buy into consumer culture to find your true self. Buy this book, and it will speak to you - yes, you! - and help you find your true self. Buy this product, to signal to other consumers that you aren't a girl, but aren't yet a woman, aren't a boy, but aren't yet a man. Try to hang onto your youth as long as you can, because you will be cool. Being cool is important. Buying cool things is important.

Finding self is a series of luxury goods that marketing departments are selling you.

And what of this category of books is so different than the many, many texts like THE GREAT GATSBY, which seem to be exactly like a New Adult book in every way - a coming-of-age tale about a wealthy-enough young man (Nick Carraway) that turns 30 during the novel and has the time and space to find himself as an in-betweener, not a boy and not yet a man? What about Girl, Interrupted? What about Middlesex? These sort of books mostly exist already. It's just marketing packaging that suggests they don't. If you can't find these books, I don't really know what to tell you except that maybe you could start a group on GoodReads and see what turns up.

Actual voyages of self-discovery begin by learning and reading about people and places that are not just like you.

Ultimately, when people say they want "New Adult" books, that are like YA books except for adults, they are also sort of pooing on the great YA books that aren't even really anything but amazing books that happen to have young protagonists. Harper Lee's amazing American classic, and Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street and Paper Towns by John Green and hundreds of other amazing books, are as deep and powerful and incredible as any book anywhere. They just happen to feature young protagonists. This is to say that adult books are already like YA books except they're about adults. That's not a new thing. That's the way things have been since forever. And vice versa.

Maturity is what we should really be talking about, and what makes someone mature, when we talk about adulthood. Here's where my hackles are up in this new category: One of the great themes and points of YA is that maturity comes at a young age, and courage and good decisions and all the responsibilities of the adult world happen whether we're ready for them or not. Pushing against that and reaching back into childhood and feeling like you're still a kid inside with this new marketing category ignores the greatness of Harry Potter, and just about every YA and MG protagonist I ever rooted for, who had to be more adult than adults despite their young age. YA is often about how quickly we all have to grow up and mature, and how wonderful it is to do so. NA seems to be about the awkward transition, or something, where we're not ready to be a grown up? But life is always awkward and the transition and growth and first moments don't stop until you're dead. Plus, the transitions only get more awkward as you get older. If you think your first love is awkward, imagine having your first kid! You can break-up with your first love, but it's much, much harder to break-up with your first kid! The transition into a retirement home, into dementia, etc. may be the most awkward transition there is, in fact. Transitioning through life in all its awkwardness and all its phases is what general fiction has been talking about forever and ever. This is not worthy of a new category of fiction, particularly with the gift-wrapping of a cynical marketing guru talking down to readers.

My Lawn, you should get off it, I guess. Down with corporate marketing-department-driven art. Something-something read more and better books, read wider and learn of yourself by reading widely in every genre, living curiously, and ignoring the identity that comes from purchasing power. You new adults get off my lawn!

I'm ranting. This is a rant. It changes nothing and will only serve to confound and diminish me if I continue. I stop now.

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