Courtesy of City Lights Booksellers and Publishing

November 3, 2019

YANG | The Missing ‘Adult’ In Young Adult

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I took a trip back to the Bay Area over Fall Break and spent a few blissful days with my three best friends from high school. It was like having gone back in a time machine: We had dinner at our favorite Puerto Rican restaurant, surprised our theatre teachers, did Carpool Karaoke to musicals and cursed at Bay Bridge traffic. If it weren’t for the addition of the Salesforce Tower in the city skyline, you could’ve told me it was 2015, and I’d have believed you.

That is, until we went to City Lights. Upon entering the bookstore, I practically hopped down the stairs into the basement. There are two small alcoves tucked in the very back, where the old wooden floorboards creak loudly and the shelves are piled high with mystery, fantasy and young adult (YA) novels. It’s my favorite place in City Lights, and I used to spend hours just standing in front of the shelves browsing until my legs went numb.

This time, however, I found myself scanning the YA shelves for no more than five minutes before I became bored. I circled the alcoves a few more times, feeling out of place and distracted. Then I went back upstairs to the “proper” fiction section and ended up buying two books by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“I miss when we were young enough to read YA novels,” I said to my friend when we left the store.

“I don’t think you have to be a certain age to read them,” she frowned.

She’s right, of course, but it’s the same as saying you don’t have to be a kid to read children’s books. The fact is neither of us have actually read YA novels in years, when back in high school they were pretty much all we read. What’s ironic, however, is that the name of the genre describes exactly what we are, yet somehow the age range it caters to is heavily skewed toward teenagers. Some have defined another genre “new adult” for fiction with college-aged protagonists, but I can probably count on one hand the books released this year that fits that description. The college and “new adult” experience is missing from the fiction world, a gap that most people don’t even realize exists, and subconsciously fill by reading “real” fiction instead.

From a writer’s perspective, the teenage experience may appear more alluring of a subject compared to the new adult one. When the ups and downs inherent within being a teenager comes in contact with family issues, identity struggles, bullying, illness, tragedy or romance, dramatic conflict ensues inevitably. The high school setting itself is conveniently romantic and distinguishable. Yellow school bus, lunch table, homecoming, prom and graduation — these are all not only ideal settings that enable plot development, but culturally significant symbols etched into the American psyche. Most importantly, no matter what went down in the storyline, at the end of the novel, hope and change is in the air, and the possibilities seem infinite.

The college and post-college new adult life, if put on paper as it is, gives tangible form to those possibilities. And suddenly, they don’t seem so infinite anymore. They would take the shape of academic pressure, job search, financial stress, party and hookup culture. Professor Nabokov may have done his research for Lolita by listening to conversations on the bus in Ithaca, but I doubt he would find our conversations on the TCAT these days very inspiring when all we talk about is prelims, job interviews and frat parties.

This stage in our lives is an awkward one. We’re no longer young enough to be as freely expressive of our feelings as teenagers, yet not old enough to be completely comfortable in our own skin as adults. We continue on the same old quest of trying to figure out who we are, yet this time with the burden of the real world weighing on our shoulders. But for that very same reason, it’s also, literarily speaking, a potentially very interesting stage that’s somehow gone unrecognized by writers. It has a unique set of language that expires as quickly as a Snapchat, and a set of challenges that’s an awful yet wonderful conglomerate of being young and being a grown-up.

Not long after Fall Break, Sonoma and the East Bay caught on fire, and so did our lives. One friend went back home to face a family crisis, another lost loved ones and I was overwhelmed by my own mental state. Just like I couldn’t ignore how the Salesforce Tower has fundamentally altered the San Francisco skyline, I couldn’t ignore the fact that we’ve grown up.

So maybe I don’t want to read about the protagonist bemoaning failing a midterm, but I want to read about them pursuing their dream or being forced to give it up, about wanting and being afraid of love, about loss, mistakes and redemption. I want stories about who we used to be, and who we’ll become.

Andrea Yang is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.