"New Adult" Literature and No-Good Writing Advice

Last week, I was reading “What’s New About New Adult?” in the January/February issue of Horn Book. The article is about the rise of “New Adult” literature, a sub-genre of Young Adult (or a sub-genre of adult) that focuses on characters in their late teens or early twenties. Many New Adult protagonists are college-age, and some of them are actually in college. Teens and adults are reading within this genre, although I’ve found little of interest in it, mainly because of its heavy focus on romantic plots.

Still, I attached a sticky note to the article that read, “I was told not to write about college-age characters when I was IN college!!!” (I got lots of new sticky notes for Christmas, so this sort of thing will happen a lot.) In the advent of New Adult, this advice seems to have been seriously misguided.

Short stories have never been my strong suit, and producing three short stories for my college creative writing class was a struggle. None of them were particularly good. But my favorite of all three, the one that felt like it might actually matter, took place in a college dorm, between two roommates who were at odds. I drew a lot on my own experiences (although I was fortunate to have a room-mate with whom I was never at odds, and who remains my best friend to this day).

I don’t remember much of the feedback about that story, except that everyone jumped on the bandwagon of claiming that it shouldn’t take place at college. College was too “safe,” they claimed. College wasn’t the “real world.”

I left feeling frustrated on several levels. First, the advice to “write what you know” was being chucked without good cause; I did not yet have personal experience with life beyond college, but that’s what I was supposed to be writing about. Second, my experience, and the experience of all college students, was being invalidated. Somehow, it was not real. Third, while college might be a somewhat protected environment, that does not necessarily make it “safe” — tell that to the 25% of college women who are sexually assaulted each year on campus. Or all those who are confronted with making real decisions about sex, drinking, time management, and trust for the first time. Or those who give up the religion they were raised with, or start practicing religion for the first time. Many adults will cite their college years as a catalyst for discovery and change, and as formative in who they ultimately became. If good fiction is about change, why has it traditionally ignored a setting that is so rich with new experiences and the capacity to change?

Still, after I graduated I went into a career that brought me into contact with a lot of young adult literature, much of which I read. And I wondered if my creative writing class was on to something. In about a decade of working closely with new YA lit, I only came across two books that took place on a college campus. Lots took place in high school. I wondered what it was that made high school somehow less “safe” than college.

Although I never had much desire to write about college once I was out, I wonder what the naysayers would say about the fact that New Adult has emerged as such a profitable genre, or about the fact that Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, which takes place in college, was the first runner up in the young adult category in the Goodreads Reader’s Choice Awards, with over 17,000 votes. The moral of the story?

Write what you want to write. Write what is REAL and daring and unsafe to you. No place setting or time of life is an “invalid” place from which to tell a story. I wish it hadn’t taken the emergence of a whole new genre for me to figure that out.