Where Are All the Books for Twenty-Somethings?

Posted July 9, 2014 by LeahAdmin in Discussions / 42 Comments

books for 20-somethings

I am 24 years old. I have my B.A., and I work at a job that’s vaguely related to my major. It’s boring and slightly soul-crushing, but I’m thankful to have a job. I don’t really know what I want my career to be. I live with my boyfriend of (almost) five years, but I don’t feel nearly ready to get married. I like watching Disney movies while drinking too much wine with my friends. I love to read, but rarely do I find books that portray my stage of life. There seem to be very few literary fiction novels about contemporary post-college, pre-marriage characters, and I find this very disappointing. Where are all the books for twenty-somethings?

I love a good family-reunion drama or a failing marriage story. I enjoy a nice coming-of-age novel. But I CRAVE books about characters who are my age, who are dealing with the same things that I am — struggling to find employment, working at boring jobs, living in tiny apartments, entering serious relationships, trying to figure out what it is to be a grown-up, barhopping with friends, moving in with a significant other, figuring out relationships with your family when you no longer live near them, being unsure where you want your life to go, etc. I want to be able to see myself, or people of my generation, in the books I read.

When I do see a character my age in the books I read, she’s usually secondary, or part of a book that has many main characters — such as Want Not, Visible City, We Are Water, and Maine — or she’s only that age for a short part of a book spanning decades — as in The Interestings. I rarely see a whole book about a woman in her twenties figuring shit out. Some of my favorite books are coming-of-age novels about children and teens, written for adults — like The Age of MiraclesSalvage the BonesThe Round HouseLife of PiA Tale for the Time BeingSwamplandia!, and Songs of Willow Frost — but I have read very few novels about twenty-somethings written for adults — The Bell Jar and Norwegian Wood are my favorites, but neither of them are contemporary.

In recent years, New Adult has become a genre, portraying protagonists who “generally fall between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, though exceptions may apply. NA characters are often portrayed experiencing: college, living away from home for the first time, military deployment, apprenticeships, a first steady job, a first serious relationship, etc” (NA Alley). That sounds like just what I’m looking for, right? However, based on the articles* about NA that I’ve read, it seems like a genre aimed at people who are graduating from YA and looking for something a little older. As Lauren Sarner writes in her Huffington post article “The Problem with New Adult Books,” “New Adult is a label that is condescending to readers and authors alike. It implies that the books act as training wheels between Young Adult and Adult.”

Now, YA is not my bag and never really has been; I lived in horror of most YA aimed at girls when I was a teen and just read the same few books I DID like over and over again, until I jumped enthusiastically into adult fiction. And most of the NA books I see featured in lists revolve around romance or seem… fluffy. I have seen multiple references to NA as “sexed-up YA,” although I have also seen just as many criticisms of this reduction. (However, 6 of the top 10 New Adult bestsellers on Amazon feature ripped, shirtless men on their covers, so I’ll let that speak for itself.) New Adult, as it seems to be represented, is not what I’m looking for.

What I AM looking for are well-written, literary novels about characters whose lives resemble my own. I want to see myself in the books I read, and I don’t want them to be fluffy. I want them to be real. I want stories about characters in their twenties from authors like Emma Donoghue, Jennifer Egan, and Meg Wolitzer, who craft incredible, vibrant characters and insightful, believable stories. From where I sit (on my couch, in my pajamas at 2:00 in the afternoon, because that’s where I am in my life), there seems to be a dearth of these kinds of books — books that are serious and smart and relatable and about people starting their adult lives. I know they’re out there and that they’re wonderful, but I’m having trouble finding them.

Since I generally despise “20 books you must read in your twenties”-type listicles (though there are a plethora of them on Buzzfeed, Thought Catalog, Flavorwire, and The Huffington Post), I’m turning to you, my fellow readers for suggestions.

What are your favorite books for post-college, pre-marriage adults?

* What is new Adult Fiction, Anyway?: Ebsco | New Adult Fiction is the Hot New Category in Books: USA Today

  • Laura Frey

    You can start with Generation X by Douglas Coupland. I mean, it’s 90s, but it exactly about the whole quarter-life crisis thing, before anyone called it that!

  • Laura Frey

    Oh! Also, The Romantic by Barbara Gowdy. Dead end career, boyfriend drama, 20s… and also just a great book. Super depressing though, if that’s an issue for you.

  • YESSSS. I’ve been waiting since we had the wandering BEA talk about this for you to write this post! Even though I’ve been married since I was 23, I still feel like I kind of fit in this category because I don’t have kids (and don’t plan to have them for some time)…so I’m still sitting in my pajamas at 3:00 in the afternoon finishing some work (high five!).

    I’m going to think on the recommendations, but I think they’re all ones you’ve mentioned, or just portions of other books. But let’s start a demanding revolution!

    • It’s been ruminating in my head for a while, and I finally just HAD to write it. You totally count! I was probably too exclusive in my “pre-marriage” qualification, but I would totally read books about people who get married early in their twenties.

      Yes! Publishers, listen up!

  • Kim Ukura

    Tom Rachman’s new book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, follows a character at three points in her life (10, early 20s and early 30s) and covers some of the things you mentioned. I loved it and really did feel like it was speaking to me about how I feel in parts of my life now (a little older and a little more settled than you, but still largely unsettled).

    • I’ve heard some really good things about The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, and I’ll definitely add it to my TBR list. Thanks!

  • I completely agree and don’t understand why we can have literary coming of age novels but nothing about twenty-somethings. I get that fluffy can be a fun escape sometimes, but it shouldn’t be the only option. The only novel I can think of that fits the bill is this quiet novel April and Oliver by Tess Callahan that is a love story rather than a romance. Or maybe the Innocents by Frances Segal, which is a retelling of The Age of Innocence. Will check back to see if there are any other suggestions!

  • Oh my gosh! I completely agree. I am already married, but I’m still a twenty-something and the characters in the books I’ve been reading lately are either too young for me to relate to or are in their mid-thirties. Although I feel old most of the time, I am still in my twenties! I want to read about characters who are struggling with post-college life, coming to terms with whether they want to marry or have kids or put their careers first. That’s what I want to read about!

    Great post! And Norwegian Wood was absolutely wonderful. 🙂

    • I said this to Shannon, but I was probably too exclusive with my “pre-marriage” requirement. Books about people who get married in their early twenties would also be great, and a lot of people would relate to them. I’m so with you on the kids things — whether I want them/will ever want them is a thing I think about all the time, and I would LOVE to see books deal with this topic.

  • Isi

    I also think that NA books have the same plots as YA books, but with characters a little bit older… 🙁
    I really can’t come up with recommendations to you, sorry.
    And I’m in kind of the same situation as you, but I’m 30 😉

    • That’s how it seems to me, too.
      Hey, some people are settled down at 25, and some people don’t settle down until much later. I was probably too narrow in my post by specifying books about people in their twenties, but I would love to see more books about this stage across all ages.

  • TJ

    Try Susan Isaacs’ Any Place I Hang My Hat. It’s a book I’ve enjoyed because it is very realistic. The characters are believably flawed and while there is a love story on the side, it’s tasteful and doesn’t make you feel like you’ve eaten too much sugar.

    • Thank goodness for tasteful love stories! I’ll look into Any Place I Hang My Hat, thanks for the suggestion.

  • Try Maya Lang’s The Sixteenth of June. It is literary fiction that is a nod to James Joyce’s Ulysses, but it is also about three characters in their late 20s working through what it is they want in the next phase of their lives. I think it is exactly the sort of book you are looking for and don’t be intimidated by the Joyce element, it’s very readable. As another commenter mentioned, Tom Rachman’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers may, in some ways, fit into the same niche. Both books are wonderful. Other literary novels that inhabit the space you are describing, at least to some degree include: The Weirdness by Jeremy Bushnell (quirky and offbeat, but fun), Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (written and set in the 50s, but still apt). I’ve got some other ideas, but will restrain myself.

    • I’ve read a few really good reviews of The Sixteenth of June! I’ll for sure add it to my TBR list now. Americanah is on my shelf, waiting to be read, and I’ll look into the others, too. Thanks!

  • Great post! I’ve been trying to get a handle on the “New Adult” category. My impression is that books in this genre are about the transition to adulthood with a focus on the college years. I’ve often seen the upper age limit of 25/26, but I’d say it’s more about the protagonist’s life circumstances than about his/her age. There are 23-year-olds who are settled into adulthood, and 29-year-olds who are not. For some people, the economic conditions following the 2007-08 financial crisis have delayed their transition to full independence from their parents. Even some of my early thirty-something friends are “struggling to find employment, working at boring jobs, living in tiny apartments, [just] entering serious relationships…”

    • That’s a very good point; we all hit different life stages at different times. Although I specified wanting to read books about characters in their twenties, it would be nice to read about characters who are a bit unsettled at all ages… and characters who settle down very young. There just seems to be a gap in fiction between young coming-of-age stories and adults who are pretty settled down with marriages, jobs, and often children.

  • I can relate to this 100%. Though I am a bit older (31), I still feel like I fall face first into the category of Getting Your Shit Together ages if that makes sense. I’m still struggling to find enough employment to keep myself afloat, learning how to navigate adult friendships with those that are already married and have kids, and figuring out where to go next in life. I wish I had some recommendations. 🙁

    • I focused on people in their twenties in this post, but I think everyone hits different life stages at different times. I would like to see more Getting Your Shit Together novels in general — portraying people in their twenties and in later years. It’s such a tumultuous period that it would be really nice to have fiction we can relate too!

  • Very thoughtful, provocative post, Leah. Since I’m a little past this stage, I hadn’t really thought of it, and when I was younger I read more chick lit (hate that term), but I tended to see myself in those characters moreso than anywhere else. They quickly went out of being my normal reading bent and I was back on my own in terms of being able to relate to fictional characters. Great discussion. Definitely sharing this one.

  • Elena

    This is such a good post, Leah. I am not – was never – a fan of YA, I just went from children’s books to adults’ books and by that I mean Sherlock Holmes.

    The very first recommendation that comes to my mind for reading about life in your 20s is The Bell Jar, how ironic it came from you! But, thinking a little, Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson is another book that could fall into that category. It is not exclusively about life in your 20’s, it is more about growning up and being a woman. You know I’m a sucker for crime fiction, so here it goes my recommendation: Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary. Marnie Rome is in her late twenties (or early thirties, can’t remember), but she is one big mess and so is her personal life and her house. No settled, middle-class lifestyle for her! Also, The Engagements by J. Courtney ‘Sullivan, but it centers more around the construction of the supposed engagement tradition in the USA.

    I hope these two new titles help a little, although they’re no exactly what you asked for.

    • Great minds think alike! I remember seeing your review of The Engagements, and it sounds really good! I definitely want to read it at some point. And I loved Life After Life, so I’ll have to try Behind the Scenes at the Museum! I’ll look into Someone Else’s Skin, too. Thanks for the recommendations!

  • I wonder if we all wonder where the “people like me” books are. I feel the same way, but haven’t questioned it nearly as eloquently as you have here. I want to go on record as saying I HATE the New Adult categorization. What does that even mean?
    I’m going to have to think on suggestions of specific titles. Immediately I think of Robin Sloan and Jonathan Tropper (although their protagonists are male.) I agree on Kate Atkinson (brilliant) and would add Penelope Lively (now in her 80s, but plenty of strong young women in her books), Anna Quindlen (again, her earlier work), Ruth Ozeki (who you mentioned, but read more), Jennifer Egan, Lori Moore (not my personal favorite, but fits).
    I’d also encourage you to go back and read some of Joan Didion’s early work. Simply brilliant.

    • Thanks for the recommendations! I have a Jonathan Tropper book on my shelf; I’ll have to bump it up my TBR list. I’ve read a few of Didion’s non-fiction books, but I need to check out her novels!!

  • The other problem is that if there is a 20-something in a book, they are either mature beyond their years or total losers. What about the normal 20somethings? The 16th of June had characters on the verge of 30, but they seemed older than i did at that age. That being said i was in grad school for far too long and that stunted my growth. I’m now 40 and you can still find my in my PJs at 3 in the afternoon on a weekend. What about books about 40 somethings who totally don’t have their shit together?

    • Haha, it seems like there need to be more books about people who don’t have their shit together, in general, across all ages!

  • Hmmmm ARE there any?? I’m struggling to think of literary fiction that fits what you (and pretty much every other 20-something, including me!) are looking for. Ooh, actually, have you read Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore? It just came out and it’s contemporary literary fiction that’s mystery-ish. The two main characters are college-age girls in their late teens. It’s not super “figuring shit out”-focused, but it’s still a VERY good book and sort of what you’re looking for, I think.

    I also am of the opinion that, in the next few years, we are really going to see New Adult grow and change. I’m a huge fan of the genre in general (or, at least the IDEA of the genre), and I just recently did a post with recommendations: Ten Awesome New Adult Books That Aren’t “Just Sex” (http://tempestbooks.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/10-awesome-new-adult-books-that-arent-just-sex/). But, just to warn you, most of those DO involve at least some degree of romance, which I know isn’t primarily what you’re interested in. I just think that it’s going to take some time before bigger and better authors/publishers start to really “go for” this genre and take the risk of placing a book in this age range. It’s just still so new. But I’m VERY hopeful, and I think that in a couple years we’ll start to see a lot of the type of book you’re interested in reading.

    • I’ll look into Bittersweet!

      I’ll definitely check out your post! I don’t know how I feel about the existence of NA as its own genre, but I would love to see it grow to be more than “adult lit with training wheels.” I just don’t know how there are so many books about children, teens, and middle-aged adults written for adults, but so few books about people in their 20s! I can’t quite understand why that is. But yes, hopefully we’ll see more in the next few years!

      • Oh hmm, I’ve never heard anybody say that before haha. About NA existing as its own genre. If it weren’t to be classified as its own genre — like, YA being for ages ~12-18, NA for 18-25, and Adult for 25+ (I’m just generalizing on the ages here) — what do you think NA should be? Just considered adult lit, but generally having characters with younger ages? I never thought about it like that before. I guess, at least in my opinion, I see NA as being so different from either genre that it’s hard to imagine it fitting into one or other as just a subsection. But I guess it doesn’t really matter! haha. ANY books for the age range you’re talking about would be good! I don’t care WHAT they call it 😛

        • I think I want NA to just be adult literature, with younger characters. I’ve never read NA, so my impressions of it are only from reading articles, but it seems like it can often fall into the trap of being either YA with older characters or dumbed-down adult lit. (I don’t know how accurate that is, so please forgive me if that’s too harsh; it’s just my uninformed impression.)

          As someone who enjoys NA, what makes it stand out to you? How is it different from YA and adult lit? I would love to hear about it from someone who actually reads it, rather than from a journalist who is just carrying out an assignment.

          • “…it seems like it can often fall into the trap of being either YA with older characters or dumbed-down adult lit.”

            I think that’s definitely somewhat true. The problem is that I do like NA, but a lot of what I like about it is its potential…what I see it becoming as it continues to grow. I’ve read some REALLY bad NA books. I almost hesitate to call myself an “NA lover,” just because so much of it ISN’T good, and it really takes some effort to find the ones that have merit (as in, most of the ones I’ve included in my list). But I also know that I tend to read more YA and less literary fiction than you (although I do very much enjoy that genre, which is why I love your blog so much…I’ve just been reading more YA lately), so I’m struggling to promote any of the ones I consider “good” to you, because I think we are pretty different when it comes to what kinds of books we normally enjoy (not that one or the other is good or bad, of course). So I’m not exactly sure that I can sit here and say “you should read NA, you’ll love it!” because I’m not convinced that the genre is ready for that yet haha.

            But I do think that it stands out. The good books in the genre are capable of creating a blend between YA and Adult that I haven’t found elsewhere very often. The combination of YA themes such as identity, sexuality, and growing up can be found in NA, slightly altered to a more mature view of things. As in, sexuality becomes about sexual freedom vs. kissing, and growing up becomes learning how to live life as an adult vs. make it through high school. The majority of NA right now is still very romance-focused, so that’s how I compare it to Adult and YA in my mind…Adult lit tends to be more marriage-focused while YA tends to be more boyfriend-focused (I guess? Or like, teenage flings?). NA is usually focused on exploring multiple sexual partners and/or finding a life partner. It’s that stage in-between high-school puppy love and divorce haha. But, once again, I still think that the amount of NA books around NOW that capture this in the way that I wish it would be captured is very small. I think it will be better at that as time goes on.

            Another way it’s different from either YA or Adult is that many NA books (for example, the super popular Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell) are set in college. This is an area that really needs to be focused on more in books. It’s a very confusing time of upheaval in a young adult’s life, yet almost no Adult books are set in this time period. And I don’t think that you can call a book “YA” if it’s set in college….I see YA as being specifically geared towards high schoolers (or, at least, the characters are in high school — the readers could be any age, obviously). I see it in my mind as being very separate. But, to your point, I also agree that that time AFTER college and BEFORE marriage is also very important as well. I guess I could see a book about that age group being considered Adult by some people, because post-college is really when true “adulthood” starts. But the differentiating variable here, to me, though, is the themes. Adult lit often does not often focus on the themes that a book for the 18-25 age group should include (like self-discovery, building a career from the bottom up, struggling to support yourself, making friends post-college, having a long-term non-marriage relationship). But YA doesn’t fit for that age group either, because there’s definitely a difference in maturity and stage of life there.

            Personally, I’m just a really big fan of the potential of this genre. We NEED more books about this age group, and I love seeing it around more and more. I think it needs to be its own genre, just because of how important it is. I think I kind of understand where you’re coming from, though…literary fiction doesn’t really exist outside of Adult lit, so it’s hard to imagine another genre also taking on that role. I hope that one day we get more literary fiction NA novels…as it is, there are so few. And, just so you know, I don’t really consider any of the ones in my list to be literary fiction, besides the Bittersweet one that I mentioned (which in my mind I consider New Adult, but feel like the majority of readers would probably consider Adult BECAUSE of that literary aspect). I think it’s going to be a big process to get readers to accept that literary fiction can exist and flourish outside of Adult lit…I don’t know if that day will ever even come. But I try to promote the existence of NA as much as possible, because I think that the more people who see potential in it as a genre, with many different genres within it (sci-fi, historical fiction, mystery, literary fiction — not just romance!), the better it will ultimately become.

            Sorry…I seriously just wrote an essay here and I’m not even sure that half of what I said answered your questions haha. I’m just really passionate about it and I’m hoping that the more I talk about it and the more I encourage it, it will grow and become exactly what I want it to be…full of stuff that both you AND I will like and appreciate.

          • Thanks for sharing your perspective! I think our tastes do differ, and I love that; it’s really nice to hear about what other people are interested in and WHY they are interested in it. I love your enthusiasm! I think you should write a post about how you see NA now, what you hope it will be in the future, and why it’s valuable 🙂

  • Kelly Massry

    Try The Smart One by Jennifer Close. It’s about a family of 20 somethings who are trying to get their lives together and be independent but then have to move back in with their parents. Very much tied in to the state of the economy today and our meandering generation.
    This was such a powerful post and I really feel your sense of injustice at not being spoken to as a demographic. I hope some of these suggestions help you along!

    • That sounds great! I know a lot of people who had to move back home after college — myself included.

  • Sarah Louise Moore

    Omg I am completely on board with this – we need way more authentic books that convey the limbo like uncertainty that lives true to being 20 something in this decade.

    The only 2 authors I have read that don’t package the 20 something thing as this amazing pain free experience is Gemma Burgress (dating detox/ a girl like you) and of course it goes with saying Lena Dunham (not that kind of girl)

    I do think we need more books where people are transitioning from leaving university and getting on the career ladder. In fact I would love more books of people 2 – 3 years out of university and still finding their feet in all aspects of their life – changing career, trying to find love. A character who is trying to settle into adult hood by eating cleans, running on her lunch breaks aspirs to be a yogi but still finds herself still waking up with half a kebab on their pillow eith a fresh pack of Marlborough lights in her bag.

    Any how, happy hunting – I hope more talented young writers emerge soon

    xx

    • You would think that this stage of a person’s life would be rife with literary material, with all of the big transitions and questions about who you are and what you want to do. So why are there so few books about it?!

      I want to read that book! And I am dying for a book that explores the complexity of love in your twenties. It’s not as simple as “fall in love, get married,” and I would love to see a book that acknowledges how messy it can be to figure out what you want and need from a partner, or whether you’re ready to settle down with one person or not.

  • shannon

    I stumbled across your post because I have one of these books I’m trying to get published and trying to think of alternative ways to pitch it (as in a different genre than New Adult) because while my book has romance elements, it is not a romance. It is a coming of age for three sisters, aged 18, 22 and 25. Also I don’t see that anyone mentioned the Marriage Plot which I read in college and got me started on the train of, “Where are the books for people my age, set in my decade?”

    • I don’t know how The Marriage Plot didn’t make it onto the list, it’s for sure a good one.

      Good luck with your book!