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 technique, tone, content, 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?
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?
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. 😉
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.