New Young Adult Shit

31 May 2013

Veronica Sullivan looks at smut and literary classification.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a young person. Maybe you enjoy reading. If so, you are–whether you like it or not–part of the target demographic for ‘new adult fiction’, a genre invented to bridge the gap between young adult and general fiction.

New adult books are aimed squarely at older teenagers and twenty-somethings. They narrate the journey of emancipation and self-discovery that characterises the shift into adulthood. Often, they can prove indistinguishable from typical young adult books, as they have a shared sensibility and similar palette of themes: relationships, angst, heartbreak, etc. What makes them different, however, is their portrayal of those themes. They contain more frequent and explicit depictions of sex, drug use and abuse, and they are written with a degree of moral ambiguity. Through a lack of ‘appropriate’ consequence, authorial judgement is often withheld on illegal or destructive behaviours.

Nestled within the young adult section at Readings Carlton is a single shelf labeled ‘New Adult’. Its contents are an awkward compound of titles, some of which would otherwise be under fiction, and others that have been pulled from the young adult section. The most notorious new adult novel is Tamara Webber’s Easy, which follows the life of a young woman during her first year at college. In the opening scene, the protagonist is nearly raped at a frat party. On publication, it drew much controversy and pearl-clutching, as though dark and confronting sexual themes had previously been absent from teen books. As a matter of fact, V.C. Andrews’ 80s camp classic Flowers in the Attic was infamous for its depiction of an incestuous relationship. Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower deals with the trauma of repressed childhood abuse. Explicit content in teenage fiction is not a new occurrence.

Jessica Shirvington’s Between the Lines is another new adult book to draw controversy, this time for its examination of self-harm and suicide. The main character Sabine is a teenage girl with two lives. Every twenty-four hours, she mysteriously changes to the ‘other’ life. The book is deemed new adult due to Sabine’s desperate attempts to wrest control of her lives that culminate in attempted self-harm. The frank descriptions of her struggles are harrowing to read. It’s a sensitive and weighted topic, and Shirvington writes without approbation. But to exclude the book from the young adult genre, and, as a consequence from being read by young adults, is ill-considered.

There’s an implied censorship in the delineation of new adult. It patronises teenagers by suggesting that they lack the sexual and emotional maturity to digest challenging or dark material. It also assumes that twenty-somethings clamour exclusively for books that track same-age protagonists whose experiences are familiar, albeit with extra sex and transgressive behaviour to spice things up. That these demographics are uninterested in reading about experiences that differ from their own is, in fact, a rather insulting assumption.

Young adult books are extremely capable of examining controversial and difficult topics. Why sequester a select few from other books intended for that audience, and create a new category? Young adult fiction, by definition, is already aimed at young adults. Not at children, but at people with nuanced and developing emotional maturity. These readers should be given credit for being intelligent enough to seek out works that interest them, and to self-censor as they wish. Many young people read general fiction. Many twenty-somethings read teenage fiction. Literary categories are nebulous artificial constructs; endlessly refining them is unnecessary. This is especially true given that young adult and general fiction are not mutually exclusive, and books have straddled the two genres since The Catcher in the Rye.

Publishers and booksellers should trust the capability of readers to determine what they want to read. Narrowing literary categories only serves to narrow expectations. It’s in human nature to want to define, to have control. But an expansive, open-minded approach to literature is so much richer and more interesting.

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