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TRB: A Follow Up on Alyssa O’Sullivan’s ‘War Paint’

The Downside to ‘Happily Ever After’

By Alyssa O’Sullivan


Love is illusive and sex is scandalous – well, at least to some people it is, when it is included in novels marketed toward anyone other than adults.

There’s always been discussion about whether the Young Adult book market, and now the New Adult market, should include some of the darker and heavier themes involved in adult fiction, like love and sex. I don’t want to add just another voice shouting over the rest of them here, but the answer seems obvious to me. Do we honestly think teenagers and young adults are still only strong enough to handle Disney-like ‘good prevails all’ stories? Even as a kid dealing with the issue of sharing toys in the sandbox we know that things aren’t so black and white as that.

By age 18, you’ve seen enough of the world to call bullshit at fantastical story lines where things just fall into place for ‘good’ people and love finds the pretty girls who passively sit and wait. You know about the existence of cancer, murder, rape, political unrest, sexism, prejudice, alcohol, stimulants… so why write books about a world that doesn’t include these things? River Ram Press posted a great article by A. Suiter Clarke about the death and loss in New Adult fiction, so I won’t just keep repeating that point. What I really want to talk about is love. Bear with me.

There’s a movement called bibliotherapy in which psychologists prescribe specific fiction to mentally ill patients so that they can relate to a character’s journey, thus finding solace and understanding in their own. There are even lists of fiction to read during times of national tragedy. This is a different idea than self-help books – it combines entertainment with guidance. So why would you want to take away all relatable opportunities in a novel by omitting heavier themes that are a fact of life?

Those who oppose controversial themes in books say this: They fear the copycat response. They fear that people reading about loveless sex will become promiscuous or that reading about gangs will soften us to gun violence. But there is no scientific evidence to support this idea. Just look at sex education in schools, and its direct link to fewer unwanted pregnancies.

I think for the New Adult age range, it’s important to reflect the blurred boundaries that make up life, and especially love, lust and romance.

A true-to-form, traditional romance story ends in ‘happily ever after,’ and these are generally what people are introduced to at a young age. But eventually that ‘ever after’ becomes your present life. There are shelves of relationship self-help books, forums online and radio talk shows addressing problems with love. Even teenagers experience the confusion and difficulties of the ‘ever after’ and find out that ‘happily’ is a vague term.

I’m interested in writing about how love can be temporary at times. Relationships end, and it’s not total devastation but a new beginning. I want to write about the miscommunication between couples, the various forms of ‘companionship’ and discovering oneself through failures and successes with other people. I want to explore the benefits and drawbacks of intimacy for selfish pleasure and intimacy as an act of love. Women can also be the dominant one in relationships and women can be the instigators. Sometimes romantic love is not the only way to a fulfilled life, and even ‘new adults’ have a notion of that. Why postpone understanding until full-blown adulthood?

When considering different reader age groups, it’s not a matter of censoring these topics but a matter of being tasteful and keeping the reader in mind. For example, obviously kids won’t want to read about the technicalities and legal proceedings of a divorce, but there is a place for the topic of divorce to appear in children’s fiction.

The New Adult market is not an opportunity to protect, censor or propagandize – it’s an opportunity to point readers to a book that might interest them and connect readers with characters they’ll find similarities in. Love is illusive and sex isn’t always so scandalous – so write about them with honesty. We’re all lost and we want to learn more.

Alyssa O'Sullivan


Alyssa O’Sullivan Alyssa O’Sullivan grew up in Chico, in northern California. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, she moved to the UK to study creative writing. While a part of her is still in London, where she found inspiration and many distractions, she’s now back in California working on her writing and artwork. She loves the outdoors – snow, rain or sun. She doesn’t care much for monkeys, but won’t reveal that very often as it seems to be a controversial opinion.

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