Being a Better Writer: What is “Adult” Fiction?

Wow. Where did this month go? It seems like just yesterday it was the end of October, and now … Yikes. It feels like things just sped by.

One item of news to note: It is Cyber Monday! And yes, my books are still on sale from Black Friday (and will be through Thursday). If you’ve been thinking of grabbing a few for yourself or as Christmas gifts, now is the time to do so! The more I sell the better, and it’ll make up for a flat late-October/Early-November.

Anyway, you can check out the deals here, though note that if you’re on Amazon.co.uk, there are more deals, and that link takes you to the US-based site.

And … Sands, I lied. I have one other item of news to note: As of yesterday, I am sitting at 90 ratings/reviews on Goodreads! That’s right, only ten more to go before I break my year-end goal!

With that, my news is done. Little else to report. So let’s dive into today’s topic.

What is an “Adult” book?

The answer, as you might have guessed, is a little complicated. Why? Well, because no one can agree on one definition … And that’s where the battles start online.

See, I hang out on plenty of places online that discuss books, from the SpaceBattles Forums to Reddit’s r/books (that one provides some hilarity) among others. And a constant thread of what I often find funny is people disagreeing over the term or, funnier yet, asking for a recommendation for an “adult” work and then getting into a debate with people submitting works that “aren’t” using the term “correctly.”

Sands, I’ve even seen the “definition” be at debate where my own works are concerned. My favorite review thus far of one of my works—or at least my favorite review that made me laugh—was a three-star review for my first book, One Drink. In this review, the reviewer declared that it was an alright book, and that they’d enjoyed it, but that the biggest thing that held it back was that it didn’t have any sex. Therefore, they declared, the book wasn’t written for adults, but rather for teens or children, and this was a mark against it, as they wanted an “adult” book.

Now, I’m certain some of you at this point are scratching your head and saying something along the lines of “Wait, what? But what about X YA book that has sex in it?” And yes, that’s just one of many valid counterpoints that could be tossed at this reviewer (see why it’s my favorite amusing review?), but it does serve to illustrate this “division” among folks about what “adult” truly means in the context of a story.

See, some people have taken it to mean “adult” like the “adult film industry.” In other words, sex, nudity, rape, etc etc etc. If a story doesn’t have two people doing the horizontal tango, then that story isn’t a story for “real adults.” It needs to have sleaze. It needs to have foul language. It needs to have everything “real adults” do in order to be a “real” adult story.

And this opinion is actually something you’ll see people talking about online. Asking for even. I hang out on r/suggestmeabook (which has done a number on my list of library books to read) and requests like this show up all the time: Guys, I’m tired of reading YA books for kids. I’m ready to read books written for adults, with sex and other adult things. Rec me some?

The thing is … this works. There are people out there that see this definition of “adult” as the proper definition, enough that a person asking for recommendations in this vein can usually get quite a few. However … quite often you’ll see this threads also devolve into a debate over what adult means, as people holding that adult means something else, and that what they’re just asking for is books with sex and violence will come in and point this out, and … well … the predictable happens.

But getting back on track, is there some validity to this definition of the term “adult?” Well … I would argue no (though you probably guessed this already). For a couple of reasons. Obviously, as some of you instantly thought, there are plenty of books out there that are listed as YA books yet have these “adult” elements in them, from sex to violence to language, and on to other darker elements. And yeah, that is a valid reason, I would say, as to why this definition of “adult” isn’t correct, but only by virtue of pointing out an issue with its criteria. Honestly, however, I think there’s a deeper reason as to why it’s not a proper definition, and for this, I’m going to pull out one of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis. Here it is:

“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development.

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

This quote effectively illustrates the core issue at the root of this definition of adult. To this flawed definition, something is “adult” because involves “adult things” like sex and nudity. Except … the core idea that those things are “adult” comes from an age-gate based rating system. Now, I’m not saying that the age-based rating system is right or wrong, but that people have, in growing up, looked at the “divisions” across it as a mark of what it means to be an “adult.”

And so you run headlong into Lewis’s quote about desiring to be “adult.” Holding sex as a mark of an “adult” book really only comes from this idea that “Well, I’m X age or older, therefore I must read books with this age rating to prove that I am an adult.”

In other words, it is, as Lewis said, a childish drive to prove that one is an adult by reading “adult” material. Which ends up being based off of old age-gate ratings and restrictions. And why is that bad?

Well, because those ratings were quite a bit smarter than most give them credit for. To borrow an example from film, under the old age-rating system, Ben-Hur (the original) was given a G rating, meaning “General Audiences.” Adults, children, anyone. And that wasn’t because it was some-sort of squeaky-clean movie by a long shot. Ben-Hur was packed with complicated ideas and concepts, from betrayal and loss to faith and belief. But it presented all of these in a way that was approachable for all audiences. It still had blood. It still had violence. It still had complexity. Nowadays? It’d probably be PG-13, as the ratings have changed with the times, but then? It was appropriate for all ages.

What was “adult” then, under that system? Not complicated plots or deep ideas, but eroticism. Titillation. 18+, and therefore, as time went on, “adult only.”

And from that gating, grew the idea that sex and, well, smut essentially, were for “adults” as a generation grew up with this “sign post” splitting them off. And so, to be “adults” and be seen reading “adult” books they must be reading stories with sex in them.

Bascially? The premise that sex equals entertainment for adults is a flawed misconception that grew out of rules to restrict children and teens from openly erotic material combined with, as Lewis put it, “the desire to be very grown up.” Children saw the restriction “adult” and concluded therefore that “perusing this material must be what it means to be an adult.” And that’s how you get people on a website asking for “adult” books with lots of sex, or holding a lack of sex as a strike against otherwise good books.

Okay, so we’ve broken this down and showed some of the flaws at the core of it. But that’s only answering the “question” of our topic today insofar as showing what it is not. In addition, this is a writing post, about being a better writer. So if that’s what “adult” writing is not, then what is adult writing. And how can you use that knowledge to be a better writer?

Well, in actuality, the real answer to “What is adult writing?” is actually kind of easy, though you’ll find a myriad of definitions online once you move past the aforementioned sex concept. But I would summarize it as this: A work of adult fiction is a work of fiction in which elements are given real weight and consideration rather than simply being presented and discarded or glossed over.

Okay, that sounds a little confusing, I know, so let me clarify a little what I mean by this. If you’ve ever read YA fiction, you may have noticed that as a genre, it tends to gloss over certain things or simplify them. A backstab from a friend, for instance, may be resolved in a few paragraphs. An unintended side-effect of the protagonist’s actions may be simplified, taken care of through near deus-ex, or even ignored altogether. A characters emotions might be dealt with in lighter fashion, rather than diving deeply into how some event has effected them.

And that’s all fine. This is a hallmark of YA fiction. YA fiction is a mid-point, I believe, between the simple nature of straight children’s stories, and the more in-depth material of a work written truly for adults. A near end mid-point, but still its own place.

Now, this doesn’t mean it can’t explore ideas and concepts more in-depth, but it usually means that it’s going to only explore a couple rather than exploring all of them (then again, at this point the definition gets a little muddy, as most things do near the edge). So, for example, while the story might go deep into depth about a character dealing with the loss of a close friend, they probably will keep the story close to the that theme, rather than branching out to how this can tie into other areas based off of that loss.

Right then, what does that make true “Adult” fiction, then? I would say it’s simply treating your topics with the gravitas, weight, and depth they deserve.

Note that this says nothing about genre. That’s on purpose. While some argue that only certain genres can be “adult,” this falls right into a similar trap to the idea that “sex equals adult.” And falls apart just as easily.

In other words, you want to write an adult fantasy adventure? You can do that! There’s nothing wrong with writing a fantasy world with characters that give things a realistic weight. Crud, I’ve done it. Shadow of an Empire I would hold as such an example. While an adventure (and a mystery) it still gives its characters a lot of proper weight and emotion. They face fears, reason through things, give their decisions and emotions weight and value.

Which, in essence, is what being “adult” kind of is. There’s responsibility and the acknowledgement that things carry weight, that decisions bring consequences on all levels. There’s a level of seriousness and realism to approaching a characters emotions, responses, or ideas.

Take Anna, for example, from Colony. She’s a skilled mercenary who was a child-soldier in her early teens and only left the business for good after her and her older brother were used as expendable assets on an operation. One that cost her older brother his life right in front of her.

And that event, as well as her childhood, left her with emotional marks and sensitivity, which the story sometimes dips into and does let color her character. As do the other characters’ pasts, beliefs, and fears. They’re handled and approached carefully, with an intent to give them the full seriousness they warrant in the real world.

Another way of explaining it is how “in-depth” concepts, ideas, and characters are. How much detail and exploration you might give them. For example, a YA adventure story may be about a protagonist going out to save the world, and along the way they fall in love, and in the end get a happy ending. A more adult version of that story will add more depth, exploring concepts that were glossed over in the YA version of the story. They may have doubts about themselves, or saving the world may not be nearly as cut and dry and come with unintended consequences.

That’s why Ben-Hur is an “adult” film while still maintaining a General Audience rating. It explores a number of concepts in depth, from the pain the protagonist feels at his betrayal to how that shapes his life and how the rest of his family turns out different as well. But while exploring those concepts in-depth, it doesn’t bury or overwhelm the audience either, and a child can easily understand the idea that’s being addressed, even if all the nuance slips past them. Thus, general audience.

That’s really what “adult” means. If you’re writing a story that’s “adult” it means you’re exploring concepts with the same depth they’d run into in the real world. You’re giving characters, ideas, and concepts a full length to run their course.

Now, with all that said … how about using it in your writing? Well, this is really a case of knowing what it is so that you can decide how far you want to go. Do you want to get in depth about a character’s thoughts on battling their way through hordes of the villains forces, show the mental strain that it puts on their psyche? Or do you want to gloss over that in exploration of the more fun, actiony bits?

Either answer is valid! There are plenty of books out there that hold as their only claim to the term “adult” the age of their protagonists. And you know what? They still sell well, and plenty of adults power through them with enjoyment. Are they really just longer YA books with a different-aged protagonist?

Well, yeah. That’s exactly what they are. Not often said, but true.

What’s that mean for your writing? Well … it means you have a choice as to how adult you want your story to be. How much weight and depth do you want to give to concepts and ideas in your story? Do you want quiet moments where they struggle with something? Or will that get in the way of the adventure?

Ultimately, it will come down to what sort of audience you’re writing for. Some folks love the “YA but with adult protagonists” genre. Other’s want books that are entirely self-reflective, that are adult but fixated entirely on exploring a single concept within the mundane. Others want books that mix adventure with realism … the list goes on.

In other words, in choosing how adult to make your work, consider what sort of reader you’re trying to attract. What kind of story, what sort of details will they enjoy? How in-depth should you go, or as the case may be, not?

Or what about particular elements? Not everyone wants to read a story, after all, that gets too dragged down by making every single element of reality come to life in full fashion. If you’re going to write an adult story, which elements will you explore in a more developed sense? Someone’s mindset? Someone’s fears? Their job? Their relationships?

That’s all up to you. And, be warned, it may not be as easy as it sounds. Sometimes there are things you can’t quite grasp fully without either a lot of study or first-hand experience, like a cracked rib. Some topics or concepts might be out of reach when you first try to explore them. That’s okay. Give it time. Don’t force it—after all, the quote from Lewis can apply to the creation of something just as well as it can the nature of entertainment.

And … that’s it. So let’s recap very quickly. First, an “adult” story is not one that engages in what has become known as “adult rated behavior,” ie sex and the like. It’s a story that embraces concepts, sometimes difficult ones, rather than glossing over them and explores them to a realistic degree. And these concepts can vary, based on choice and audience, from the simple to the elaborate, from disagreements between people to someone struggling to overcome a crippling loss.

But adult fiction is fiction, be it fantasy, Sci-Fi, Noir, or just Slice-of-Life, that explores its concepts and gives them time to develop. What concepts those are, and how far you choose to take them … that will be up to you and your audience.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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