Hey guys, this is going to be an actual topical post, so if you’re only here to listen to my vehement angst, you’re in the wrong place! Aha!
Last week I read two books by Rainbow Rowell: Fangirl and Eleanor and Park. Dana here at Gotham recommended the former to me, and the latter has been launched like neon fireworks at my face for the last few months on tumblr and other platforms of social media.
I loved them. I had given up on the Young Adult genre in recent years, resigned to let it rot in a realm of which magical being is sexy right now? and what last name sounds good with Blanche Helena for a protagonist? and love triangles in which one person is a genuinely good person and the other is a clear domestic abuser but he’s got sorrowful eyes and likes The Smiths.
I used to want to write YA books.
I thought I could write books that would make people change their opinions on relationships. I especially wanted to reach the target audience, teenagers, who seem to think that the guy you’re with has to follow you home and tell you that you smell like strawberries and everyone else smells like dry grass in order to show his love for you. It’s sort of like the bad tropes of adult erotica were passed down to YA romance, but without the chapter-length smut scenes in between scenes of bizarre displays of affection, everything just seems awkward.
Which brings us to our next topic: sex in YA. In recent years, it seems the genre has become more lenient towards adult topics. People smoke. People curse. People drink at parties. People think about sex. I remember reading Meg Cabot’s Ready or Not and thinking to myself “holy sweet crickets she’s talking about masturbation?!? Is this allowed?!” and all of my friends at school were like “that was weird I didn’t know she could do that” when we discussed the book the following week.
But now there are people like John Green who can write teens smoking and drinking and swearing and sleeping with each other, and it’s okay because it’s trendy and deep.
But most YA doesn’t get away with that. Most sex in YA is passed over with a turn of a page. “He took me to bed.” Next chapter.
I’m not saying here that I’m irritated YA isn’t pure smut like its adult predecessor, the romance novel. I’m just saying that there’s a kind of stilted view of sex in these books that irks me. Virginity is still this big scary thing as if teens don’t get MTV or HBO (Game of Thrones is a glorified pornography), and every protagonist is an unsure, confused child who can’t even fathom the idea of sex at all.
It makes no sense. We live in 2014 (almost 2015) now, people. Even if teens aren’t having sex (which they are), they at least know what it is and how it works.
And I get it. YA books are targeted towards an age group where what the kids read is still possibly monitored by adults. Parents. But it just is so absurd to keep publishing books about 17-year-olds who look at boys and think “gee golly is he handsome I hope he watches me sleep” instead of thinking “wow he’s hot it would be kinda awesome to make out sometime” which is a much more realistic portrayal of teenage hormones.
Which brings me to the topic of the post: New Adult books. Also called New Adult and College Romance. This genre is shiny and new, and I have been curious about it since I started researching LGBT YA books. Which mostly do not exist–there are some, though. New Adult books, however! (I guess it is still taboo enough to be gay that love stories about two boys or two girls must be labeled “new adult”). New Adult is basically the stage between YA and Adult (which seems obvious), but when I really looked into it, I found that most NA books are just smut.
Like 50 Shades for college kids.
Which makes me wanna barf. Like, look, I am all for smut, but I cannot even vocalize how disturbed I was when I googled “New adult books” and almost all of the covers had college aged couples in soft-core pornographic poses. It was like they just aged down a Fabio romance novel cover to make it more relevant to the audience.
It’s like the jump from YA where sex is glossed over with a deep hipster metaphor about butterflies on chicken wire fences to NA is simply the removal of said metaphor and extension of the missing scene.
Maybe I want the well-written hipster metaphors AND the smut because maybe life actually has both?? Am I wrong??
Is it wrong to assume the youth of America is capable of handling emotionally crippling stories of self-harm, cancer, suicide, and grief, but they can’t handle topics like homosexuality and sex?
And I’m sure there are New Adult books that aren’t just Anne Taylor Loft versions of adult erotica, but I’m still skeptical.
I’m skeptical about everything targeted towards my generation, especially since most of the books seem to be written from some place between nostalgic judgement and lost fantasy fulfillment. Again, that isn’t to say I’m against people from Generation X writing about the Millennials. Of course not. I’m just saying when middle-aged women write YA books about dreamy mermen who kiss protagonists against their will or whatever it is that’s trending in the world of YA right now, it feels forced. It feels like wish fulfillment.
It doesn’t feel like the book is meant for me. It feels like it is meant for them, the author, the one with desire, circling around their object of desire, that is, youth, lost love, spontaneity, when every setting sun was just a setting sun and not a lost day in a long stream of lost days—
I want books about what it is really like to be a young adult in the modern age.
I want books where people don’t speak in unnatural witticisms but they also don’t speak in LOLCATS.
I want books where sex isn’t an unmentionable taboo or a glossy shiny trophy of love fulfilled, but it also isn’t just a chapter filler with lots of flowery ways to name female anatomy.
Is that unrealistic of me? Is it unrealistic to want a form of literature where youth isn’t romanticized or sexualized?
I’m so proud of the genre for the strides it has been making away from Title That is Something About Summer and Boys: Female Protagonist’s Name and Location the Book Takes Place such as Summer with the Delancey Boys: Book 2 Francesca in Charleston.
But I’m also still waiting for a time when I pick up a YA book and don’t walk away feeling like I’ve read some romanticized version of a teenagerdom that doesn’t exist except on television or in the smoke-filled hazy memory of housewives.
I don’t want to read a book about myself, no way, that would be grossly disturbing and also boring, but I also don’t want to keep reading books about pure and eternal true love that somehow starts at age sixteen and extends on a continuum into a neverending shimmering sexless sunset.