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Why our 20s (the “New Adult” years) matter

I recently read this line in WILD by Cheryl Strayed, and it strikes me that this is exactly why our 20s matter, why they are not “wasted” years as some skeptics have argued:

“I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life,” she’d wept to me once, in the days after she learned she was going to die. “I always did what someone else wanted me to do. I’ve always been someone’s daughter or mother or wife. I’ve never just been me.”

I never could have articulated it quite like that until now, but yes, that’s it. That’s what our 20s are. A chance to just be us. A moment of suspension, of midair flight/freefall, after we’ve let go of one vine (our parents) and before we’ve grabbed hold of the next (becoming husbands/wives/parents).

(And yes, I know not everyone will get married or have kids. I’m speaking broadly here.)

Previous generations didn’t necessarily get that chance. I think we’re lucky that we do. Maybe it seems like we’re not making the best use of it, sometimes… But maybe that’s the whole point.

On parents in young people’s literature

This past Thursday marked the first ever #NALitChat — a weekly Twitter discussion about New Adult literature (modeled after the popular #YALitChat on Wed nights). Moderators led us through a 5-question agenda — what is NA, who writes it, who publishes it, etc. — and a thoughtful, lively conversation ensued. I’m looking forward to more in the future.

In this post, I want to pull out one thread that is of particular interest to me:

I asked this in response to someone’s comment that parents could be absent in NA lit without it being as weird as in YA lit. But really, is it less weird? Do parents suddenly evaporate when we turn 18? Or, don’t most of us have to learn how to become more independent while also negotiating the shifting dynamics of our family relationships?

(To clarify: I’m not saying that all books should include 2 great parents. That wouldn’t represent the variety of family situations we see in real life.)

Obviously I’m in favor of including parents when possible. Or at least parental figures. Or at least involved adults in some positive capacity? (The standards just keep getting lower and lower…)

I think too many writers “kill off” parents because it has become the norm, and because it’s easier than trying to represent those complex relationships. But talk about a bad message to send. I mean, critics go nuts about whether there’s too much sex and violence in literature for young people. But what about the idea that life would be better/easier/happier/more exciting without parents? That you don’t need your parents? That they’re inept, or trying to control you, or trying to prevent you from having fun or reaching your goals?

Bottom line?

Confession: I really like Girls

Yes, Girls. As in, the HBO show! What did you think I meant?

Now, I know everyone and their mom is talking about Girls, and I really, really didn’t want to add to that noise… But I have to. I have to, because after watching Lena Dunham’s movie Tiny Furniture, I thought I was going to hate Girls. (To be fair, I didn’t hate the movie. I just didn’t enjoy it either.)

But I was wrong. I didn’t hate Girls. In fact, I kind of love it.

What’s it about?

Girls is an insightful look at the lives of a certain type of twenty-something. It’s smart more than funny, sexual more than sexy. The best part is, Lena Dunham (creator, writer, and star of Girls) isn’t afraid to “go there.” She isn’t afraid to go anywhere the characters take her. Even if it’s awkward or uncomfortable. Even if it’s “unlikable.”

As a writer, I really admire that. Like, I’m not as square as my mother thinks — although I am square relative to a lot of people — but I’m not always brave enough to write about my “rounder” experiences.

Naturally, people keep comparing Girls to Sex and the City. An HBO show about 4 women in New York vs. an HBO show about 4 women in New York — yeah, it’s inevitable. And I think it’s a fair comparison. I can even map the character types to their counterparts. Hannah = Carrie, Marnie = Miranda, Jess = Samantha, Shoshana = Charlotte. But those equal signs are deceiving.

Girls is like Sex and the City, but without Photoshop. It’s the model without makeup on. It’s life as seen without the rose-colored glasses. It is not cute, hopeful, or romantic. It just is.

(Note: I’m a big SATC fan. I’m not saying Girls is better or worse, just different.)

Oh, and for everyone who keeps saying Girls is about “hipsters,” you really need to learn what a hipster is.

Girls sounds like a bunch of privileged white girls worrying about boys…

A) Well, in a way, yes.

B) So what?

C) Don’t most of us, regardless of age, race, or income, spend a decent amount of time on relationships?

D) Anyone can write a dismissive one-line summary like that. As Patricia Wrede pointed out (in a completely unrelated but excellent post): “The Lord of The Rings” is about a short guy with hairy toes who throws a ring in a volcano.

Okay, but who cares about these “girls”?

I do. And I’m not alone.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: New Adult stories are in demand. Why? Because people in their 20s, like me, want to see art and entertainment explore this awkward transitional time in our lives. Just like people in their 30s want to see family life, or people in their 40s want to see midlife crises, or people in their teens want to see high school and first love.

Everyone wants to see themselves reflected in art and entertainment. That’s the whole point.

(So please stop telling us that we’re so much more self-involved than other generations. We’re not. We just have the tools to rub it in your face now.)

On a related note, a band of intrepid New Adult writers recently launched the site NA Alley. I’m not affiliated, but they did quote me in a few places, and I definitely want to support their endeavor.

I’m still not interested in Girls

That’s fine. Really. No one says you have to be.

Closing thoughts

• It’s still early. Only 3 episodes have aired. Yes, I like Girls now, but I’m also curious and hopeful about how it will grow. I mean, does anyone remember the first season of SATC? With all the interviews and the talking directly to the camera? Yeah, shows can evolve. Sometimes they need time to grow into themselves. (Which is a particularly ironic statement when you apply it to a series about New Adults.)

• Part of me thinks it would be a dream to write for the show. Part of me wants to email Lena Dunham and tell her about TWENTY-SOMEWHERE and beg/hope for an opportunity. The rest of me realizes how ridiculous that would be and figures I’m better off just enjoying Girls as a viewer. (I will not tell you which part of me is winning right now.)

• Favorite lines:

Marnie: “He’s so busy, like, respecting me, you know? That he looks right past me, and everything that I need from him.”

Hannah: “Okay, you are a 23-year old girl who’s had the same boyfriend for 4 years. You’re also allowed to be bored. That’s an okay excuse too.”

Jonathan: “I want you to know, the first time I f*ck you, I might scare you a little. Because I’m a man, and I know how to do things.”

New Adult redux

First, a big thanks to Erin, who sent me the link that served as the seed for this post.

Second, here’s my take on what “New Adult” even means.

Third, here we go.

The Young Adult Review Network asks: “Where are all the young adults?”

When is the last time you read a YA book with a 25-year-old protagonist?

An easy solution to this dilemma, you may say, is to walk towards the adult section of any library or bookstore. But why should I? The YA writing style is noticeably different than that of an adult novel. I do not know exactly what causes them to diverge – though I am in a constant quest for an answer – but there seems to be a sort of whimsical, hopeful, non-nostalgic element to YA. I am still a “young” adult.  I do not want to reflect, I want to react.

In other words: There are some readers who want an “in between” genre. Something after YA but before adult fiction. Something to bridge the gap between John Green and Jonathan Franzen.

(Actually, that was a big part of my inspiration in writing Twenty-Somewhere. To explore the stage of life that follows Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants but precedes Sex and the City.)

Agent Sarah LaPolla calls it “Putting the A in YA”:

[This brings] me to “New Adult,” a sub-genre of fiction trying semi-hard to exist in the post-YA, pre-adult marketplace for those between the ages of 18 and 25. I am all for this. The college experience, figuring out grad school, jobs, not living off your parents, etc. are hard to deal with and they are certainly not “adult” concerns.  They deserve their own literature. So why hasn’t it caught on yet?

Good question. LaPolla offers a couple theories on why New Adult is not a marketable genre right now, and why it won’t be for “at least another ten years.” Her first reason: time. There simply hasn’t been enough time for this to catch on. Heck, YA literature is still in its growth spurt.

I totally agree with that. It’s her second reason that I take issue with.

With New Adult, there is no universal experience. Within the genre, there are too many niche markets to consider, which makes it that much harder to place. Not everyone goes to college or makes the same choices when entering adulthood. Even within the group who goes to college, the experiences differ in ways that are much more polarizing than going to different high schools. No matter what kind of high school you went to, we were all forced to take the same general courses or participate in the same extracurricular activities.

Er, I find that to be a bit contradictory. Because the term “universal experience” comes from the idea that in spite of the many different paths we can take, there are certain core things we all have to deal with and go through. So the concept, as I understand it, depends on those different paths. Otherwise everything in life would be universal, right?

In YA lit, some teenagers come from wealth while others are in gangs. Some do drugs while others attend church. Some fight vampires while others fall in love with zombies. But regardless of their circumstances, they all grapple with the same kinds of things. Following or challenging authority, acting on or refusing romantic and sexual desires, discovering their own goals independent from parents or teachers.

And how is that any different from the universal experiences we could be exploring in New Adult lit?

Some twenty-somethings go to college while others go to war. Some stay virgins while others get married and have children. Some work two jobs while others live off their parents. But regardless of their circumstances, they all grapple with the same kinds of things. Having to make, find or redefine “home,” learning how to balance their personal and professional lives, fulfilling or rejecting the expectation to become a “productive member of society” (whatever that means).

In my opinion, there are a whole set of universal experiences and emotions at any developmental stage, and the point of literature is to explore and share the many interations of that. To show the common humanity between people, no matter how different or similar they may seem.

So again, LaPolla is probably right that it’s going to be a while before New Adult lit gets its own shelf at your local bookstore. But I think that it should get that shelf, someday. Because the twenties are a unique life-stage in modern society, and there are people who want to read and write about it. I’m one of them.

If you would like to read some of the “New Adult” lit that’s available now, there are some recommendations here and here.

Confession from a former literary snob

Today — late last night, technically — I was over at We Heart YA talking about how YA, like Pinocchio, is a real boy, goshdarnit!

It all started with an email I received from a fellow writer. Once you read the WHYA post, you’ll see. Anyway, that was a year and a half ago, and I’ve come a long way in terms of how I view writing and genre and all that. Still, I was struck by my original response to that writer, and I thought I would share part of it here.

Admittedly, I still struggle with the genre thing, because I come from the viewpoint you do: literary fiction is king, and genre is like the court jester. Entertaining, but meaningless. That said, if I can bridge the two — if I can entertain without compromising quality of writing, without losing meaning — then I think I will have accomplished something. Something greater than just another book that Twilight-crazed girls will read, and something more than just another book that only other aspiring writers will read. (Gross exaggeration on both counts, but you get my drift.)

That’s actually why I stopped working on the paranormal YA story I brought in last night. Because as much fun as I was having, I wasn’t sure what the point was. Believe it or not, the “New Adult” web series I wrote? Had a point, at least for me. It was very much about being 20-something and wanting to be so much more. Being stuck in transition. And the “New Adult” book I’m working on now? Also has a point for me. I don’t want to do genre just for the sake of genre (which is sort of what last night’s YA story was) so now I’m trying to figure out how to take the best of both worlds and make them into something awesome.

A year and a half later, a lot has changed, but that’s still my mission. Produce Something Awesome.

Easier said than done, no?

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