People, Baby Boomer Lit Is NOT a Genre, It’s an Audience

19 Sep

Yesterday I read an article by author and baby boomer Claude Nougat entitled “Is Baby Boomer Lit the Next Hot Genre?” and I almost had a slight brain aneurism. Why? Because there is no way that Baby Boomer Lit is a genre.

Sigh. This might be very librarian of me, but I think that when you are an author (hell, when you are an educated reader) you need to know what words mean. Take “genre” for instance. It’s a French word literally meaning “a kind” and that makes sense as it refers to “a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

On the surface this sounds like you can pretty much apply this term to whatever you want, but when you are using it with literature, that’s not the case. The use of the term genre as it applies to literature is very specific. While I might tell my students that it’s not a good idea to cite Wikipedia over more specific sources, for general definitions particularly about BIG subjects (like the entirety of literature) it’s pretty spiffy, and its genre entry is dead on accurate.

A literary genre is a category of literary composition. Genres may be determined by literary techniquetonecontent, or even (as in the case of fiction) length. Genre should not be confused with age category, by which literature may be classified as either adult, young-adult, or children’s. (Wikipedia entry for genre)

With this in mind, the picture becomes a little clearer. A genre is a category of literature containing specific elements, for example, mystery, science fiction, romance (yay!), etc. and each of these genres is broken down even further into what are known as sub-genre categories (historical romance, cozy mystery, etc.). But you can never, ever label a genre by the intended age of its intended audience. Why?

Librarians and booksellers deal with many adults who are ashamed to be reading a YA book. Don’t ever be ashamed of ANY book you read. Reading is never shameful and people who want to make you feel bad are dealing with their own issues.

Because it reduces the comparison between books to the age of their protagonists which is wrong to do. You wouldn’t compare a shifter romance to a hard-core space romance to a small-town contemporary just like no one is about to argue who was a better writer, Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway. It’s comparing apples and oranges.

Labeling an age audience merely introduces the idea of a target group who might be more predisposed to a collection of books. This type of label is a helpful way of directing interested readers toward potential books, but it in no way reveals a huge new genre. As author Claire Guyton states in her blog post, “YA is NOT a Genre!” “Thinking that all books written for one age group in various genres should be evaluated in the same way—that is simplified thinking.” For the record, Guyton published that line on Hunger Mountain, the online journal for the Vermont College of Fine Arts, which has one of the best degree programs for children and young adult authors. I think she knows what she’s talking about.

Not Everyone Who Reads YA Is A Teen, But Would Everyone Who Reads Baby Boomer Lit Be a Boomer?

A beautiful painting of a different generations reading by Finnish artist Carl Bengts. I think the title of the painting would translate to "Under the Reading Lamp".

A beautiful painting of a different generations reading by Finnish artist Carl Bengts. I think the title of the painting would translate to “Under the Reading Lamp”.

The entire point of reading is to pick up a book with the potential of experiencing something that is not currently your life or experience. Sometimes it’s an escape, sometimes it’s a deliberate journey. It can be deep or fluffy. But in the end, everyone brings who they are at that moment to the experience of reading. Writer Angela Carter was the one who stated, “Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and your read it in your own terms.” The reason so many people read YA literature is because 1) there are a lot of really well-written books in this category and 2) everyone reading them has been a young adult.

The same cannot be said of “Baby Boomer Lit.” While a rapidly growing demographic, Baby Boomers (Europeans and North Americans born between 1946 and 1964 who come of age in a time of economic prosperity) will always be smaller percentage of the population and topics that people associate with this group are not necessarily appealing to younger readers. Yet I can easily envision successful genre literature with boomer-age protagonists – a terrific mystery with an older investigator, for example – and goodness knows fantasy and paranormal are filled with older werewolves and vampires. Are they boomers? I think they might be. 😉

Don’t let these two baby-faced models fool you – Absolution (the fifth in Kaylea Cross’ outstanding Suspense series) stars two characters in their fifties who are brought back together. The heroine has even just had a mastectomy, but you won’t find a tender, hotter romance on the market today, I promise.

Romance is a little harder as a sell for boomer literature, but it shouldn’t be. So much of romance is tied up with good-looking and sexy people, and in our ageist culture that translates to young. Even when a romance has older characters, there usually is a decent amount of reassurance about how they look younger than their chronological age, or how they still run marathons and that’s why they have a killer body. We’ve got a ways to go in this arena, just like in other areas of diversity of our characters in romance. There are a decent amount of publishing houses, especially smaller presses, that actually have put out specific calls for heroes and heroines (mostly heroines) who are over 40. Hopefully this is a good sign that things are changing.

Claude Nougat (of the original post that made my brain hurt a little) has brought up a great issue with the need for literature that address the issues and life experience of Baby Boomers. This category of literature deserves further exploration from publishers, librarians, and booksellers as these books will undoubtedly appeal to a demographic that may have gone neglected for too long. (Nougat’s even started a Goodreads group – where the description once again refers to YA as a genre – gah!)

My support for the proposed category of Boomer Lit is more an issue of desire for diversity than of tapping a market, which feels mercenary to me, no matter how true it is. Readers should always be able to easily find characters who are like them, be it racially, religiously, socio-economically, or by age or interest. They hopefully will read plenty of books where the characters are also different, but no one type of character should dominate literature.

But please keep in mind as you talk about books, that there is a difference – a big one – between a target audience and a genre. Both are worthy ways of categorizing books, but they do refer to completely different ways of doing so. Words are powerful. Please use them wisely.

3 Responses to “People, Baby Boomer Lit Is NOT a Genre, It’s an Audience”

  1. La Deetda Reads September 19, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    Once again I’m impressed with one of your posts. Hell, I have been impressed with ALL of your posts. As for the cover of ABSOLUTION, well….why not put a couple of 50-yearolds on there. Yes, I know why? It’s all about marketing and the $. I do understand that angle but I really dislike book covers that give a false view of the contents.

    • torimacallister September 19, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

      Right? There are so many good looking models in that age range who would make an amazing cover. I remember Sarah Maclean talking about her last book (the one with the brainy heroine with glasses) and said all she asked of the cover art department was that the cover heroine have glasses and the right hair color. She got neither. But putting a pair of twenty year olds on the cover is SO much more egregious when the H/h are older, I think. I’m glad you liked the post! 🙂

      • claudenougat November 10, 2013 at 3:21 am #

        I regret that you didn’t contact me before writing your post, I think we could have had a really good exchange of points of views. You will be surprised but I am in total agreement with you: Boomer Lit is an age-centered category or “genre”, to use the word you don’t like to see used in this context. Yet “genre” is the normal term used in the publishing industry jargon. Look up the posts of Mike Shatzkin on this, he is perhaps the most widely read guru in the industry, and he is the first one to explicitly consider “genre” in its dual use.

        Why do I say dual? Because there are two ways this word is used, to signal two different kinds (or what you call categories) of books:

        1. theme-centered: romance, historical, thriller, science-fiction etc; that is the way you use the word “genre”. There are of course sub-genres in this, like, for example for romance, you find the sub-genres of paranormal romance, historical romance etc…
        2. age-centered: the most famous age-centered genre is YA Lit – which by the way, is NOT exclusively read by Young Adults, on the contrary. Surveys have shown that is is read by older people, and some books (like the Harry Potter series) is read by adults as much as by the young people those books are intended for; likewise, YA Lit authors are rarely themselves Young Adults. Next, you have New Adult aimed at the 19-29 age group: this is a new genre recognized only since 2009 (when a major publisher made a call for such titles). Today, New Adult is widely recognized as a “genre” as it addresses the more complex issues facing Young Adults once they’ve gone beyond the problems of their teen years and entered the job market and established their first long-run adult relationships – a time in life that is in fact extremely fascinating, a more “mature” coming-of-age as it were than the classic coming-of-age that faces teenagers (remember, YA Lit is classified rigidly as covering the 14-to-18 age group)

        Where does Boomer Lit fit into this? Like YA and New Adult, there is an explicit reference to an age group though this does not mean that an author has to be born between 1946 and 1964 to qualify as a Boomer Lit author . For example,I ‘m not, and a lot of people I know who write successful Boomer Lit are not either. They were often born in the 1970s – not later really, because to write Boomer Lit, you need a lifetime of experience and the capacity to understand that life is marked by major turning points.

        The first, which characterizes YA Lit, comes when you’re a teen and are facing your first challenges in life as an adult, say a first love, a first job etc. With Boomer Lit, you come to the last major turning point in life as you leave behind a life-long career (maybe you’ve lost your job and can’t find another because you’re viewed as too old, or more simply you’ve reached the time for retirement) or a life-long love, marriage or partnership.

        Great literature is characterized by the focus on major life issues, on epiphanies à la James Joyce, and surely the last turn in one’s life is such a one. And that is what is at the very heart of Boomer Lit.

        And Boomer Lit like YA Lit, since it is age-centered, has many sub-genres that are theme-related: romance, thrillers etc

        Now, if you prefer to call YA Lit a “category” in order to distinguish it from theme-related genres, why not? I have no problems at all with that label. The only trouble is that the publishing industry does not normally do this and you’re right, maybe they should. It would certainly help avoid confusion!

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