As promised (threatened?) on Monday—another rant.
I write fantasy and a bit of sf. I usually read fantasy and a bit of sf and some mystery. I’m trying to expand my knowledge of the genres, and I’ve been reading some romance lately. Romance isn’t really my thing, but if it’s well-written and interesting, I’ll enjoy it.
At residency for Seton Hill a few weeks ago, the recently popular “new adult” genre was called into the spotlight. We discussed and defined it, and here’s what we came up with.
“New adult is young adult romance with sex that’s written for the 18-22 age bracket.”
College-age romance. Ok, fine. That age range was neglected for a while and not just in romance. When I was a kid, I went from reading “A Wrinkle in Time” to “The Sword of Truth.” That’s a big gap.
So new adult. I made it part of my “expanding mission” to read some of these. After all, keeping up-to-date on what’s selling (even if it isn’t in your genre) is important.
I’ve read a few series of new adult romance, and I’m done. I’m very done. I know the alpha male is a thing in adult romance. I know dangerous men are a thing in adult romance. I know submissive women are a thing in adult romance, and I know that “dark past” is a thing in adult romance. Is it me, or does new adult take these elements, blow them out of proportion, and throw them into the backstories of college age kids? Because, seriously, that’s what I’ve read so far.
The girls—they are brainless. I remember a lot of the girls I went to college with, and some of them weren’t that bright. But the girls in some of these new adult novels are a flat-out insult to the girls who attend college in real life. Maybe I just didn’t associate with these types of girls, but letting your boyfriend walk all over you (to the point of skipping class because it makes him happy) is not healthy or smart.
And submissive. Some of them are submissive to the point where I want to shake them and ask if they were raised by doormats. “My boyfriend told me to strip in public. Guess I’ll strip in public even though half my professors are watching.” Wow, just wow.
And can we talk about the backstories. “I was traumatized somehow (most likely brutally) before going to college.” Hardly any of the leading ladies had a good life before college. I know dramatic backstories make for interesting characters and lots of tension, but the drama doesn’t have to be so severe. And it doesn’t have to be the case for almost every main female character in the genre. If they are representative of the real-life population of female college students, we all have terrible lives.
The sidekick friends—they are actually worth reading for in most cases. They are often the fun, smart kids that I hung out with in college. Probably because they aren’t the center of the story. Who wants to read about college students who make good decisions, right? The friends often seem to have healthy romantic relationships too. Go figure.
And now for my real issue…
Oh. My. God. New adult took the alpha male and transformed him into this barely human monster. “I’m so badass I beat the crap out of people all the time and never get called out or arrested. And all the chicks love me for my mad beat-the-crap-out-of-everyone skills.” Um, no. If a guy is a black belt in karate and able to beat people but doesn’t, that’s attractive. There is nothing attractive about guys who beat everyone (except their girlfriend, conveniently) to a bloody pulp. That guy…he’s a loser.
What happens when super alpha male and overly submissive girl get together?
Him: “I will follow you everywhere, honey. I’ll protect you from all the other guys who want to look at you, flirt with you, date you like a normal person, be your friend before your lover/protector/stalker, have fun in your presence (instead of treating every situation like the world is ending), and have a healthy relationship with you.”
Her: “Okay, (big, strong, hulking, crazy, obsessive, stalker-dude, dangerous, should-be-in-jail) boyfriend.”
How do guys like that get off being romance heroes? How is this romance and not creepy? How does this even qualify as romance? Isn’t romance supposed to end “happily?” I see no possible happy ending with a guy who acts like this.
And for the girl who says “ok, honey,” How can anyone be that stupid/submissive/naïve? How can they not see that their “wonderful” boyfriend is smothering them? How can none of their friends see it?
I read an article recently that called into question the job of genre writers to teach. We write likable characters because people won’t read characters they don’t like. Are we supposed to write likable characters to teach kids how to act? Isn’t that a parent’s job? The same argument has been put to TV shows. Whose job is it to teach kids how to behave and treat others?
Job or not, genre writers, we have an influence on tomorrow’s college students, like it or not. That doesn’t mean all our characters need to be shining examples of goodness, but the “good guys” (who are not specifically being identified and written as dark heroes) should not be less than one step up from the bad guys.
And therein lies my problem with most NA books. The characters are unrealistic. The plots are unrealistic. The actions of the “awesome badass guy” are often illegal and have no consequences, and the girls love their “awesome badass boyfriends” for being an “awesome badass” when they should be filing for a restraining order.
The genre is aimed at college kids, but let’s be real. High school and probably middle school kids are reading these books. There’s a lot of talk about girls and “strong female protagonists.” Again, it’s not our job to write all-around “strong” females, but we need to write likable females. There’s nothing likable about a wet blanket, and those wet blankets double as terrible role models. They show teen and preteen girls that the thing to do in college is get a boyfriend who is mentally and emotionally abusive, who will follow you everywhere, who will alienate you from your friends, and who will give you orders and expect you to follow them.
And it’s not just girls. Guys read romance novels. They won’t admit it most of the time, but they do. Notice the lack of discussion about “strong male characters.” “Strong” for guys means “physically…and nothing else.” There’s no talk of how male characters impact teen guys. There’s no talk of what teen guys learn as acceptable behavior from male characters. Guys reading NA learn that girls want them to stalk them, beat up other guys who look at them, treat them like property, and isolate them.
It’s no wonder there are so many misunderstandings when it comes to relationships at the college level.
I’m not saying to stop writing these books. Even if I was, no one would listen. It just sickens me that romance novels featuring abusive relationships get published and promoted as “intensely passionate” and “hot.” There is nothing attractive about abuse. These new adult books are like train wrecks. I wanted to put them down, but I couldn’t stop staring at the horror. What happened to romantic comedy? What happened to a bit of comedy in a serious romance? What happened to protagonists with normal moods and less-than-traumatic lives pre-story?
And it’s not just romance. I’ve seen it in urban fantasy, mystery, and especially science fiction (young adult dystopias are all about tragedy and traumatic lives). If I do a Google search for “upbeat books in (genre),” Google looks at me like I sprouted a few extra heads and started juggling kazoos.
Current and emerging authors, I beg you (and I know I’m not the only one), write fun. Write happy. Not every book needs to be upbeat. Not everything I write is, but some of what I write is. And more books need to be. It’s getting depressing. It’s said that popular books of an era reflect the overall mood of the public. Historians are going to look back at the early 2000s and shake their heads.
As always, thank you for reading. And readers, I ask this of you. Do not promote books that show abuse as fun, sexy, and romantic. For people who have been abused, it’s not ok that the subject is treated so lightly. And to people who view abusive relationships in books as sexy, fun, or romantic, pardon my French, but wake the f*** up.
@desantismt on Twitter