The Fiction between being Young and Adult

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The book selling industry can sometimes come up with strange categories to help consumers make novel choices.

The last category to bemuse me is called, New Adult Fiction (too old to be a teenager; too young to be … what?  Like me?!?)

Upgrading this classification system, for helping people to identify themselves and their preferred novels, seems a strange paradox of providing many options while narrowing them down to a few.

Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I got a job at a Coles bookstore.  In this little bookstore, where I barely worked, a ‘New Adult Fiction’ section did not exist. The Young and Adult Fiction sections were purposely divided only for cautionary reasons.  One was, for the most part, grossly simplified and stereotyped and the other was explicitly grossly simplified and stereotyped.  Everything else in between was just fiction, unless already caught by a fan-favourite genre like Mystery, Science Fiction / Fantasy, etc.  At the time, the Mystery Section had already spawned a sub-genre called Suspense. Later, I started seeing Thrillers and Psychological Thrillers.  The weirdest genre I ever saw was called ChickLit.  I’ve never read any of the books in this category but apparently, it raised some controversy.

The youth section, back in my youth, was called the Young Adult (YA) section.  Any fiction for those younger than pre-teen went to the Children’s section. Though there were a few good novels slotted in Young Adult, like S.E.Hinton’s, The Outsiders, generally, the Young Adult section was pretty pulpy (starting us young on those pre-processed carbs).

The Adult Fiction section was very specific, too.  It was on a high shelf and consisted of two rows and in plain sight of the cash register desk.  I think I remember some of them having sleeves to conceal part of the book cover, too.

Today, Adult Fiction has broadened in definition, depending on where you buy books.  It is no longer simply a discreet way of separating erotica from hands that may be too young.  Adult fiction can also mean fiction that involves adults or adult concerns (whatever that means).  New Adult Fiction means fiction for ‘newly-made’ adults: people who are fresh out of school, assuming that they all went to school, and learning how to be independent.

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I see how these fiction categories are trying to help readers make choices, however, to me, a good novel is a good novel.  The Lord of the Rings should be in the same section as To Kill a Mocking Bird.  

This opinion is, admittedly, not that practical.  Some people really like wizards and they should be able to easily buy books that have wizards in them and not swim through a hundred other books that clearly have absolutely no wizards.

Categories and sub-categories, are also especially practical for large, physical bookstore.  These stores are huge and it would be exhausting to browse the entire store for a book with wizards in it.  E-bookstores, however, can offer key word searches to help consumers pinpoint exactly what they seek without needing to make more precise categories to help them.

Practicality aside, part of the beauty of reading a fictional story is opening ourselves up to the unknown — at least a little.  The more we already know about what’s in the book, the less imagination and wonder that goes in.  This strongly applies to writers as much as readers.

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My favourite way to choose a book is to read the back and a few pages and see if it grabs me enough to go a little further.

Imagine you were searching for a new partner.  You’re single and want companionship.  You think you know what you want and you look for it.  But imagine getting exactly what you want in somebody. That somebody has nothing new to offer, hasn’t any of his/her own thoughts, ideas or desires that go outside of your own expectations.  This might suffice for some people but imagine the flip-side: You meet somebody who has some things that you can safely expect, and want, yet this somebody introduces you to new and wonderful ideas and experiences that you could not have imagined on your own.  I think it was in the film/theatre play, Six Degrees of Separation, that suggested that people are like doors or doorways that lead you to new and strange places.  Let the cover of a novel be that door.  Check it out.  Venture in a little.  It won’t hurt (hopefully) and it may lead to a pleasant and transformative surprise.

In the case of classifying fiction towards a particular age group, maybe I’m paranoid (actually, I’m pretty sure I am), but I see a subtle risk here. The lucky books that get to fill these categories such as ‘Young Adult’ indirectly imply that these books define not only the genre but the concerns and likes of this age group and what it means to be this age group; thus it becomes creatively and socially stifling.  Keeping precise categories hinders the category’s ability to grow and creates fixed expectations.

I have actually read many Children’s Fiction novels as an adult such as, the Little Prince, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and found these novels had a lot of secrets and wisdom that would be lost if not read as an adult.  I’m glad I don’t feel the need to be a child to pick up these books. 😛

Unfortunately, the flip-side is not true.  I don’t think children should venture into Adult Fiction, new, or otherwise, to be adventurous.  If we really want a useful new definition for the ‘Adult’ label in bookstores, it should just be an aid to children to not be bothered, any earlier than they need to be, by what adults concerns themselves with these days.

Thank you for reading this latest literary chew.

© lyw 


Author: lillian y wong

lyw (lillian y wong) is a writer.

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