College Romance 101

The New New-Adult Genre If everyone’s talking about (and writing) New Adult (or NA) romances maybe that means they’re almost over—but I decided to do a reading intensive to see what all the fuss is about. Or rather, I read a few and got hooked. Seriously. I read dozens of them in the past two months. I’ll try to talk about the patterns I see without any spoilers – which is rather like the NSA aggregating surveillance metadata without actually invading anyone’s privacy….We’ll have to see how it goes.

  • Good girl heroines: This is troubling to me, though why more so than with other romances I’m not sure. These heroines are always distinguished from the “skanks” and “sluts,” though of course they too are plenty into sex once they meet the hero. It’s not so unbelievable that some of them are virgins since they are usually still teenagers (in fact, I kind of like the virgin plotline, though I think it could be used with the boys too and I’ve only seen that done once—in one of Katie McGarry’s Pushing the Limits series). But I wish they wouldn’t demonize the sexually active girls so badly—with the nice girls ganging up with the former man-whores against them. Some of the best authors in this genre avoid the worst of this double standard: Elle Kennedy’s Off Campus series about a college ice hockey team at least differentiates between mean girls and “puck bunnies” so that some of them get some respect. Sophie Jordan and Renita Pizzitola experimented with sexually active heroines in Tease and Just a Little Flirt (respectively) but that became a motive for their self-loathing and low self esteem. It was refreshing when the hero in Just a Little Flirt genuinely doesn’t care about the heroine’s previous hook ups (although she is presented as just as new to pleasure as the sexually inexperienced heroines…That’s still a given). Almost all of these books have absurdly pure heroines who were traumatized in some way that leaves them frozen until the prince comes along to melt their panties….which brings us to
  • Bad boy heroes. This is the never-ending story of romance novels: good girl meets bad boy and redeems him for a happily ever after (HEA to readers). Fine. I love that story as much as the next fanatical romance reader. But the NA bad boys have a pretty narrow range: they are almost all jocks and almost all “man whores” (I’m getting the hang of the vocabulary now, which entails a lot of odd locutions like “sex on a stick,” which is apparently a good thing). They binge drink and hook up with the skanks until they meet the right good girl and get tired of it. They have 6-8 pack abs though they are never seen working out (Lex Martin and Cora Carmack are better than most at creating realistic athletes). If they aren’t athletes idolized by everyone and about to go pro they are working class guys from the wrong side of the tracks (somehow working with one’s hands—in garages or bars—is the same as working out one’s body and they all are “cut” too. Tattoos and piercings are always hot.
  • Plots: There are agonizing moments in every romance where you think “don’t do it!” because clearly having just one more drink, handing over your password, or skipping the condom just this once is a BAD IDEA. More specifically, they are the bad ideas that advance the plot into melodrama-land and they should be obvious to anyone. Plot is usually not a strong point of romances and the NA genre tends toward High Drama. Typical plots involve childhood traumas, dysfunctional families, substance and domestic abuse, foster homes and, most of all, extremely bad parenting. Those with good parental figures often lose them or, in a role reversal, have to support them. The best NA books explicitly confront how hard it is to separate your life from your family’s life at that age, how big a step it is become an adult, but many use adolescence as an excuse for horny characters who have very little to do. The result is a world of students who drink and party over and over, making many of the novels indistinguishable. A few (novels, not students) take college seriously: like Elle Kennedy’s The Deal, which revolves around a tutoring relationship between the hero and heroine. These books that take the genre and push its limits and expectations deserve tons of credit. Elle Kennedy is an author who definitely experiments with boundaries, both sexual and literary. Another is Robin York whose Deeper and Harder double whammy takes a longer view of their central couple and lets them evolve over more time. And Sarina Bowen’s The Year We Fell Down presents a disabled heroine who still finds love and romance with the boy of her dreams in a novel that upsets many assumptions about body image, sexuality, and genre conventions. The only book I’ve read like it is John Green’s Fault Is In Our Stars, and Bowen does a better job of avoiding melodrama.
  • Alternate POVs: The first two I read like this were eye opening: Brenna Aubrey’s At Any Price and Courtney Milan’s Trade Me alternate between hero’s and heroine’s voices very well, using the new perspective to delineate a new character, not just provide an opportunity to describe the heroine as sex object. Those authors, as well as Elle Kennedy, Robin York, and Cora Carmack, get in their hero’s heads to show their confusion and insecurities too. Each shift in voice (not always by alternating chapters) has to advance the plot too though and that is hard to pull off seamlessly.
  • Side kicks: The gay best friend. The loyal BFF. The rival best friend. The point of contrast (the girl who makes her wallflower friend go to parties and dress hot and taunts her into sex)…. These friends always seem to keep important secrets from each other (like past traumas or family problems) but share everything else, including details about their sex lives. Sometimes they get their own books….A few of these stand out from the pack: Mia’s hilarious gay friend in At Any Price, who defies stereotypes; the irrepressible Stella who gets knocked down in Cora Carmack’s All Played Out but is sure to bounce back; the adrenaline junkie Logan in McGarry’s Pushing the Limits series; and the transgender Maria in Courtney Milan’s Trade Me, who is even going to get her own book next year to further expand the genre.

I teach college students and I have adolescent children and I don’t think these books are necessarily realistic (they are romances, after all). But I can see their appeal (and why I can’t seem to stop reading them either): romances are essentially always about transformation, about how love can change your life and make you a better, happier person. And that overlaps nicely with the goals of adolescence and college: self-knowledge and independence. Add in raging hormones, more privacy, and fit young bodies and voila! A new romance genre is born!

(cross-posted on Medium)