The publishing industry has at least one hard and fast rule when it comes to Young Adult books: The protagonist must be seventeen-years-old or younger. Who knew? Not me; at least not back when I was writing my debut novel SEMI-CHARMED LIFE (which just hit shelves two weeks ago).
When I was working on the manuscript, I didn’t have any specific category in mind. I was just writing the story in my head. Those late college and 20-something years are so seminal for people, myself included; I wanted to pay homage to that searching time. I only learned about the importance of fitting into a distinct genre when I began to try to sell the book.
SEMI-CHARMED LIFE’s main character is a 21-year-old college senior named Beatrice Bernstein, who is in the process of becoming a full-fledged adult. She feels lost, searching for a foothold in the outside world and struggling to shape her own fully formed identity in the face of stubborn childhood dynamics.
As I learned more about these genre categories, I began to suspect that Beatrice’s sense of alienation as an early 20-something was warranted: She was straddling adolescence and adulthood and, apparently, so was the book! Would they both fall down the chasm between, screaming all the way (as she does in the novel) about cockroaches, Proust and lipgloss?
While some might have seen the book’s “crossover” status as a challenge, lucky for me, St. Martin’s Press saw it as an opportunity. As far as they were concerned, for 20-somethings, there was a hole in the market. No one was catering to this important groop. No wonder Beatrice couldn’t find her place in the world—she didn’t have one!
Considering how voraciously adult readers have been gobbling up Young Adult books from HARRY POTTER to THE HUNGER GAMES over the last ten years and for how many decades teenagers have been devouring classic literary fiction for all ages by the likes of Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway, it does seem like a good time to reexamine those definitions.
For example, would people really consider J.D. Salinger a Young Adult novelist? THE CATHER IN THE RYE is about a teenager, of course, but what about RAISE THE HIGH ROOF BEAM, CARPENTER or even FRANNEY & ZOOEY, which is about 20-somethings struggling with identity and searching for a sense of authenticity in the world?
When St. Martin’s acquired my book, they talked loosely about a new category they were calling “New Adult,” which blurred the boundaries of Young Adult, Women’s and Literary Fiction. Apparently, SEMI-CHARMED LIFE fit the bill.
My hope is that my book is a great read for teenagers, who are soon entering Beatrice’s searching years and can catch a glimpse of what’s to come. But I also think it’s both fun and valuable for someone who is struggling with those identity issues currently and even for full-fledged adults in their 30’s, 40’s and beyond, who remember what it felt like to test the boundaries of self and search—sometimes with mounting frustration—for any path that fit.
The truth is that, while that “New Adult” or early 20-something time may frequently be about finding oneself (à la Lena Dunham in Girls), we end up having to reinvent ourselves again and again throughout life. That struggle remains constantly relevant.
And, as far as I’m concerned, so do cockroaches and lipgloss.
Nora Zelevansky has written for ELLE, the Los Angeles Times, Town & Country, SELF, Salon.com, Travel & Leisure, and Style.com, among others. She grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and still lives in New York City.