As I have been given license by Dan to buy ALL THE BOOKS I WANT, I took him at his word and spent over $200 on novels last week. Many of these were for research purposes—to get a sense for the market, as it were—but let’s face it, the vast majority were books I wanted to read. There is something incredibly cathartic about spending that much on fiction without feeling the least bit guilty.
Firstly, I want to announce that submissions continue apace for the St. Martin’s New Adult Contest. Remember, contest is open until Friday, November 20, after which I will announce the winners of P.C. and Kristin Cast’s TEMPTED, as well as the writers from whom we’d like to see partials. We’ve received some really great submissions thus far.
Secondly, I want to discuss in a little bit more detail about “new adult” or postadolescent fiction and how the age of the protagonist isn’t necessarily the best factor in determining whether or not a novel is YA or adult. I read PREP by Curtis Sittenfield and ICE by Sarah Beth Durst over the weekend. PREP was published as an adult title, despite the fact that its protagonist is in high school, and ICE was published YA, despite the fact its protagonist is 18. Why?
PREP by Curtis Sittenfield
Lee Fiora is a young girl from Indiana attending a prestigious boarding school on the East Coast against her parents’ wishes. Lee feels awkward, gawkish, and unsure amongst these self-assured young men and women and withdraws into an isolated world of her own making—always on the periphery.
But then she meets Cross Sugarman, the most popular and desired boy in her class, and the two of them enter into a clandestine sexual relationship despite the social gulf between them that is less than a relationship but more than a fling. Lee struggles with her desire to be “one of them” against her self-perpetuated ostracism and wonders exactly where she fits in his life and in life at the Ault School.
Despite the fact that the plot sounds like it might fit in a YA novel, the book was published as adult and was a NYT bestseller. Now let us examine a YA novel with a plot that sounds more “adult”—with an 18-year-old protagonist dealing with marriage and motherhood.
ICE by Sarah Beth Durst
When Cassie was a little girl, her Gram used to tell her stories of the Polar Bear King. In one fairy tale, Cassie’s mother broke a promise she made to the Polar Bear King and was whisked off to the ends of the earth. As Cassie grew older, she understood it was only a pretty tale to account for her mother’s death. But on the night of her 18th birthday, Cassie encounters a bear on the ice who speaks to her and tells her that her mother is alive—and that Cassie is to be his bride.
Cassie then makes her own deal with the Polar Bear King: in exchange for her mother’s life, she will marry him and carry his child. Never intending to keep her promise, Cassie nevertheless finds herself increasingly unable to stay away from her mysterious husband. One night she uncovers a curse laid upon him and discovers just how far she is willing to go–east of the sun, west of the moon–for love.
Why is PREP adult and ICE YA? If not the age of the protagonist, then what differentiates YA from YA that crosses over into adult?
Perspective, Voice, & Lorrie Moore’s WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL?
One characteristic of adult literature is perspective. With the passing of childhood innocence comes experience, and with experience comes insight. With his/her adolescent years behind him/her, an adult can look back and see “what was then and what is now”. (No one, but no one, does this better than Lorrie Moore in WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL?)
This often comes down to voice. There is a YA voice and an adult one, and even if stories overlap, the adult voice has a sense of scope. What makes YA compelling as a read is its immediacy; a young person cannot write of him/herself from any perspective aside from “now” and “later”. With a YA voice, the past is less present, the present looms like a storm, and the future ever just out of reach. With an adult voice, there is a sense that the future has come to pass, the past is present, and the present encompasses all that has been and all that will be.
This is a fine line to walk. Certain YA novels have scope, like E. Lockhart’s THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS or Marcus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF (what I find interesting about THE BOOK THIEF is that it was initially published as adult in its native Australia). These are the “crossover YA” novels–children’s books that appeal to an adult audience.
“Saukerl [an insult],” [Liesel] laughed, and as she held up her hand, she knew completely that [Rudy] was simultaneously calling her a Saumensch. I think that’s as close to love as eleven-year-olds get.
-Marcus Zusak, THE BOOK THIEF
But what about “postadolescent” fiction? That’s a bit harder to articulate. We, the “new adults”, have some perspective on our lives, but scope? We’re not old enough, we’re not experienced enough, we’re simply not grown-up enough. Our lives have immediacy, just as a teenager’s does, but we also possess the wisdom to understand that this immediacy cannot last for long. It’s a curious place in life and Dan and I feel that not enough fiction (or nonfiction) explore this nebulous time of life. The “quarter-life crisis”, if you will.
In the end, we’re simply looking to publish a good story well-told (like THE HUNGER GAMES or THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE). Keep on submitting, you guys!