Boomer Literature: What it is and Why it's Growing

Boomer Literature, or baby boomer novels, are suddenly the talk of the town. Starting in December 2012, the blogosphere picked up the story, and the birth of boomer literature was being discussed and widely commented on many heavily trafficked websites, including Boomer Café, The Passive Voice, The Kindle Nation Daily, Digital Book Today, Indies Unlimited, Venture Galleries, Gawker Media.

You'd think the publishing industry would be the first to take note that a new genre was burgeoning, yet that is not the way it happened:  Hollywood preceded publishing. Perhaps that's the nature of the beast: Hollywood has access to a much larger public (people who view films) than the publishing industry (people who read). Therefore, new trends in the general public, new tastes, new interests emerge first at the level of movies, before they are reflected in book sales.

In any case, film directors were the first to take the plunge and aim movies at a silver-haired audience, taking, as is often the case, a novel as a starting point. Louis Begley's About Schmidt inspired a hilarious film made in 2002 starring an unforgettable Jack Nicholson. Although the film is rather far away from the book, there is little doubt that its success marked an early turning point.

Suddenly  retirees were fun, even sexy. Stories about them, about the third act in our lives, had found a market.

Dame Judi Dench, arrival for the premiere of &...
Judi Dench in Berlin (Wikipedia photo)

Similar films followed exploiting the same marketing vein, some humorous and suspenseful like RED (i.e. Retired Extremely Dangerous), others more emotional and historical like The King's Speech, but all sharing a focus on challenges facing the over-50 generation.

2012 was a special year, first with  a wonderful film that came out of England, based on  Deborah Moggach's book These Foolish Things. Renamed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it was an instant success, featuring Maggie Smith and Judi Dench as part of a bunch of British retiree on a romp in India. A sequel is presently in the works. Then the trend was taken one step further: Austrian director Michael Haneke's film Amour with Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva hit the screens winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Festival and garnering praise in America where it is widely expected to win an Oscar for best foreign film. While it features a somber story about a couple of music teachers in their 80s (the wife is dying), it does signal a major change in the tastes of the public. Also,what is noteworthy is that the film features much older people than boomers. Indeed the boomer here is the couple's daughter, beautifully played by Isabelle Huppert.

If you haven't seen Amour yet, judge for yourself, here's the movie trailer:

This kind of film suggests that new posibilities are opening up for boomer literature: it is likely to encompass not only what happens to boomers themselves but it will also concern their relationships both with younger and older people. Also the themes will be much darker - there are some excellent books out there that do not hesitate to focus on somber content, notably Stephen Woodfin's The Warrior with Alheimer's  and Betsy Robinson's Conversations with Mom: An Aging Baby Boomer, in Need of an Elder, Writes to Her Dead Mother.

Since films are generally made from books, it began to dawn on some people (including myself) that a new genre aimed at more mature people might be in the making.

How to define this new genre? Surely not literature for the aged and the decrepit! A more neutral term was needed, one that would however describe what was happening. That's how Baby Boomer novels, BB novels or boomer literature was born!

It all started with a simple observation. There is at present in the publishing industry only one widely recognized, historic audience-centric genre: Young Adult literature (or YA lit, defined as aimed at the 14-18 age group).  Since 2009, a new audience-centric genre was added: New Adult similar to YA, but focused on somewhat older adults on the theory that maturity is only really achieved when people are in their twenties. Both YA and NA are focused on coming of age issues.  

All the other genres the industry has devised to assist readers in book discovery are content or theme-related: romance, sci-fi, historicals, thrillers, paranormal etc. And this is why YA spans across a broad range of theme-related genres and sub-genres (you have paranormal YA, dystopian YA etc). The success of YA which rose as a major category in the 1960s and 1970s was clearly due to the wave of boomers leaving their adolescence behind and providing a huge market for stories centered on the challenges of entering adulthood.

Now that boomers are getting older and hitting retirement age - at the rate of some 3.5 million every year - they are interested in stories relevant to them at this stage in their life. Thus the new boomer lit genre could be defined as addressing "coming of old age". Boomers, who in their young years were rebellious and keen to change to world of their parents, still see themselves as an active, dynamic lot. They are convinced that their third slice of life, made longer (and often better) by medical advances, is a chance for them to do amazing things, even start a second career. And it is certainly a moment when people ask themselves existential questions again: now that my work is behind me, who am I? What can I do in my remaining years?

Books, to stay relevant, need to accompany these changes in their lives, meeting the new demands and needs, putting forth characters boomers can identify with, characters who face those existential questions.

Hence the term boomer literature or Baby Boomer novels (BB novels), a neutral term that eschews the negative connotations of words like "aged", "aging" or "silver-haired audience".

Why is boomer lit going to be big?  Simply because the market for boomer literature is potentially very large: by a strict definition of boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964), in 2012 there were close to 78 million such people in the US and (though certainly not all of them are rich!) they control some three quarters of GNP.  The youngest boomer is 49,  the oldest is 66. Yet as a genre, these age limitations should not be taken too literally. Give or take a few years, what matters is that the books address issues of concern to people in the over-50 generation. And while the data is only for the US, it is obvious that the genre is of interest to all people over-50  no matter where they live. And a matter of curiosity to many younger people, those who wonder where their lives will end up.

One can expect boomer literature to grow rapidly for the same reasons that made YA lit the success it is. History will repeat itself: once again, boomers are behind it. In that sense, boomer literature or BB lit is a real pendant to YA across time - it just happens to be on the other side of maturity. But the similarities don’t stop there. Like YA lit, it is a vast and flexible genre that can accommodate all kinds of sub-genres, from light comedy to tragedy, from romance to thrillers and more. Beyond novels and graphic novels, it also covers poetry, short stories and non fiction, memoirs, guidebooks...And like YA, boomer lit is likely to attract the interest of younger people, both as readers and writers (there are already some younger writers who have produced BB novels, like Beate Boeker and Sofia Essen).

In the fall of 2012, a number of writers became interested in the new genre. In September, a thread was created in the Amazon Kindle Fora for authors to list their BB novels and it immediately began to grow. In November, on Goodreads, the largest online reading club in the world, a group was created to discuss BB novels. By year-end, with a contantly expanding membership (now over 150 members), the group has some 50 titles on its bookshelf, including many from NYT bestselling authors. Every month, the Group reads a new BB novel (democratically selected through a poll) as a hands-on practical way to explore the confines of boomer literature (it is currently reading A Hook in the Sky).

A definition has already been put forward by two writers, Stephen Woodfin and Caleb Pirtle on the Venture Galleries site: “Boomer books reflect fundamental human issues and can be any genre, but they are character-driven stories centered around those who have the experience to understand life: its trials, its tribulations, its triumphs, and its contradictions.

What do you think of that definition? Do you agree with it? I note it is somewhat broader than my own definition of it as a genre centered on "coming of old age" (a touch of irony is included!). Your ideas?

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