So, This Whole “New Adult” Thing: Part One

what is new adult fiction?

I heard there was this ABC Nightline special on New Adult fiction, so I thought I better try and distill my thoughts in anticipation of a discussion about it with my grandma. We have dinner most Sunday nights.

Not that it isn’t something that has been on my mind for a while. I’ve been mulling this over in my head for months. I’ve read countless blog posts and articles about it. I’ve talked about it on Twitter and I’ve seen it discussed on listervs. Despite all my investigation and pondering of this idea, my thoughts are still a little scattered.

At first, I was really excited about the concept of New Adult fiction. I love YA (obviously), but I also like adult books! I am still in my 20s! I thought, these will be books for me! Then I kept seeing news articles about it pop up everywhere from the New York Times to The Today Show, and I was disheartened by the way the category was being framed.

Numerous media outlets are writing articles about new adult fiction as if it’s only erotica. The lastest segment to define New Adult as “Smut Fiction” came out today on ABC news. But how useful or accurate is this definition of New Adult? I don’t have any problem with books with more descriptive sexual content being marketed to readers of YA. Lots (around half) of readers of YA are adults, after all. But I think limiting the discussion of “New Adult” literature to contemporary romance and labeling it as smut fiction is counterproductive.

Who Gets to Decide What New Adult Is?

Depending on who you ask, you might get widely different definitions of what “new adult” actually means. Liz Burns did a series of posts on NA— one of which is on the definition—which turns out, differs a lot depending on who you ask. I won’t repeat the very extensive round-up of discussion on what it is because she’s already done a fabulous job. To summarize, there’s nothing clear cut. The definition is still being negotiated and I think there’s still opportunity to make it a useful label. The definition varies widely because there are many different stakeholders interpreting it: readers, writers, publishers, librarians, and of course, the media (we’ve already established what they want it to be).

The actual term originated with a contest in 2009 for submissions to St. Martin’s Press that fell into this new category. So it was coined by the industry, not writers. But perhaps where it has been most widely used is in self-publishing. Many of the self-published success stories could be considered or are actively marketed as New Adult. It’s also associated with another recent publishing phenomenon: pull-to-publish fanfiction. It’s true many of these self-published titles feature older than high school but not completely grown up characters, and a lot of these former fanfic stories are chocked full of sexytimes.

In part, I think the reason that the media has been quick to latch onto the New Adult = Smut Fiction idea is that these two related but distinct reading and publishing trends are being conflated. There’s an audience that wants contemporary romance with twenty-something protagonists and racier content but still a YA tone. But I think there is an audience that wants more books that feature college-aged protagonists without more explicit sex. Equating everything that might fall under the umbrella of New Adult as erotica is excluding all those books that feature these types of post-adolescent early adulthood experiences without a huge focus on sexuality. Just like with young adult literature, sex has its place. It’s a huge topic in teenager’s lives. Sex continues to be an important topic for “new adults” as well as for full-fledged adults who are no longer claimed as dependents on their parents’ income taxes. But it’s not the only topic worth exploring.

I’ve discussed New Adult and What It Means with some of my writing friends, many of whom are outside of the YA scene, some who are published traditionally, some who have self-published, some who are still writing and trying to figure out what labels might accurately describe what they write. They write all different types of stories: mysteries, paranormal, urban fantasy, kinda literary…and though their books are all about characters that fall into this age range and still sometimes explore coming-of-age themes, they aren’t using the New Adult label. That’s pretty much reserved for contemporary romance. But I think this is too limiting.

What makes YA so awesome, at least for me, is the variety of genres that fall inside this category. Authors aren’t constrained by genre and can blend elements of many. I think New Adult is most viable when it is applied to books that feature older than YA characters and continues to explore some of the themes in YA with added complexities and new settings and scenarios. I think these stories can be part of every genre across the spectrum of fiction rather than limiting it to contemporary romance/erotic fiction. Just as with YA, readers can then find books that speak to them thematically whether that book is about navigating a spaceship across the galaxy and battling aliens or navigating the bus lines in a new city where the main character attends college and battling with obnoxious roommates.

Some authors who write YA whose books feature older than high school protagonists don’t want this New Adult label applied to them. Gayle Forman’s Just One Day is a book I think could be included on the spectrum of New Adult fiction (although I think it’s fine as part upper YA, too–there’s a spectrum) but Forman has tweeted that she’s a proud YA author, and doesn’t want to be a part of New Adult. And that’s fine. There are other books that I think could gain exposure by being promoted in this way—both older books and newer ones. I think we could get better stories if authors didn’t decide to move them to a boarding school instead of setting them in college just so they could more easily sell the book as YA.

As much as categorizing books is about marketing to increase sales, it’s also about helping readers find the right book. It seems some people think this label helps them describe the types of books they use. Readers, particularly on Goodreads, have been using the label more and more. Ultimately, it will be readers who decide if this new category gains more traction. They are the ones who buy books.

But Do We Really Need a New Adult Category?

I’ve seen arguments that New Adult should not be a separate marketing category and that it’s simply part of adult fiction. This post from Kelly at Stacked has particularly persuasive arguments.  Despite this, I do think, despite the limiting way that the term is being most commonly used by the media, there is some merit in a “New Adult” category, mostly because I think having a separate category makes it more likely that stories about this stage in people’s lives will be published. People used to think YA would never be a “thing.” There were children’s books and there were adult books (right? I’m not making this up, I swear). And now, YA is a driving force in publishing.

I was a much more casual reader when I was in college, and it was difficult to find books about college-age protagonists. When I was in college and looking for light fiction to read while taking a break from those stacks of dense academic articles, I didn’t find much that I could relate to. Young adult hadn’t ever been a category of books I thought about pre-Twilight. I didn’t read it in high school (or have any idea that there was a section of books categorized as such) and I didn’t know about it until the end of my college years.

So what did I read in college for pleasure? Not much. Just like I watched Sex and the City, I read books about career women who were looking to find their marriageable man. What I didn’t know was I was already dating the man I would marry and not only did these books not relate to my current life, they had no relevancy to any future stage of my life, either. Which was fine. I didn’t have much time to read outside of school work anyway. But if there were more novels about being a college student or books that featured characters in this awkward post-adolescent phase I found myself, and they had been marketed to me, I probably would have bought them. And from conversations with friends and readers, I’m not the only one. Though I’m getting to be pretty grown up, I still seek out these type of stories.

I work in the teen section of a public library in a college town. A huge part of my job is to provide reader’s advisory to library patrons. Which is actually pretty awesome, because I get paid to help people find the books that they want to read.

I talk about books with all different kinds of readers. Adults who love YA and want the steamiest romances.  Teens who want the steamiest romances and don’t mind exploring outside the YA section. Teens who get squicked out by too much making out or discussion of sex. Adults who feel the same way. And everyone in between. I think they all deserve books they will enjoy and I try to help them find what they’re looking for. Having some labels, even if they aren’t perfectly clear, helps readers or the people who advise them decide what’s best suited to their interests.

Since I work in a college town, I do get a lot of inquiries from college students looking for book recommendations. They don’t call it New Adult, but some are adamant that they want something other than young adult. More grown up. Characters their age. In college. And the college experience—or if someone chooses not to go that route, their other adventures—are rife with conflict! So much interesting stuff going on! Why aren’t more books published that deal with these post-adolescent problems? Because of marketing. Writers are routinely advise to age down their characters for the young adult market, which is why a lot of the success of New Adult is coming out of self-publishing. But my own tastes and my experiences with working with readers seem to indicate that there are 1) not enough books that fall into the nebulous category of New Adult and 2) there is so much in adult fiction that it’s hard to sift through to find what readers are looking for.

Of course, just because New Adult is a new category doesn’t mean there need to be new sections in the library or new shelf space in bookstores, in my opinion. I think the New Adult label (even if the term is kinda lame and confusing) is a fantastic way to conceptualize books that might appeal to readers who may or may not know they are looking for New Adult books. This can be done through displays or reader’s advisory lists. Books can be organized around common themes, whether that’s the college experience or books with an extra dash of sexiness. I think the key is to broadening the idea of what New Adult is beyond some hyped up sexed up YA, because when I first got excited about the idea of New Adult, that’s not what I envisioned (or maybe was only a small part of what I envisioned).

The Quarter Life Crisis and What I Want New Adult to Be

I actually consulted my scrapbooks when I was thinking about what being a “new adult” meant for me personally. By looking at those pictures and my notes and mementos it was clear that it didn’t begin right at college, and it didn’t end when I got married and graduated college, but it was definitely a distinct phase of my life separate from my teenage years and grown up years.

I kind of had the idea that New Adult would have the same attitude, perspective, and tone as HBO’s Girls, but the list of books The Millions recommends to fans of the show doesn’t look much like what is typically called “New Adult.” Or maybe the little known but completely adorable British comedy starring Robert Pattinson before he was Edward, How to Be. These shows both have the same themes and feel like what I was always looking for in college and grad school during that awkward post-high school but pre-adulthood phase of my life. The characters are dealing with jobs, with parents, with friendships, with romantic relationships, and yes, sex, but not just sex.

There is an immediate tone to YA, which is why a novel like Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld doesn’t qualify as young adult even though it is about a teenage girl going to a boarding school and deals with classic coming of age themes. YA is very much in the moment, because I think that’s how most teenagers feel. I think this is also why so many YA novels are told in first person present; it prevents any nostalgia from creeping into the narrative. This same style of writing that is unique to YA and is enjoyed by readers of all ages is missing from a lot of adult fiction, maybe because the types of heavy issues and deeper themes written about in adult literature don’t lend themselves to this sort of style. Still, I think a lot of the conventions that make YA popular can easily be extended to books about older protagonists in this post-adolescence phase.

I don’t want New Adult to be a label that just means that you can add in more explicit sexual content to YA. I don’t want it to be a label for authors that are too cool to write YA or for authors who are not good enough to write adult fiction. I want it to be books that “bridge the gap” between YA and adult fiction the same way middle grade novels prepare younger readers for YA.

I’ve been reading a lot of titles that may (or may not) be New Adult, and because this post is already too long and rambling, I’m going to share them in a separate post. There are a couple of posts I’ve seen do round ups of titles, but they have been lists rather than discussions of the books, which is what I want to do. I’ve selected a wide variety of novels with the goal of showcasing the variety that could exist within such a label while still focusing on what they have in common. I’ll be sharing it soon as part of the discussion about what New Adult is or could be.

9 thoughts on “So, This Whole “New Adult” Thing: Part One

  1. “I think this is also why so many YA novels are told in first person present; it prevents any nostalgia from creeping into the narrative.”

    Not exaggerating when I say that this may be once of the most succinctly insightful statements I’ve ever read about YA. I hadn’t thought of it from that angle before, but an absence of nostalgia for the experiences and emotions being described is a great way to differentiate between YA and not YA.

    1. Thanks! I’m sure I’m not the first to try and explain it that way, but I notice it particularly because I used to not understand why there was so much first person present in YA — it drove me crazy. I think it finally clicked for me when I took a character workshop with emily m. danforth and one of the things we talked about was choosing the right POV not only for your plot, but also for your characters and how different POVs effect characterization. We practiced by writing scenes 4 different ways– first person past, first person present, third limited, and third omniscient to get a feel for the different ways you can use POV.

  2. This is a really great and thorough post. I’m uncertain about NA myself. I think the idea is great and that there is a market for college aged protagonists. I don’t think it’s fair to tie it in with “smut” purely.

  3. Wow, this is the first time I’ve heard of this new category in fiction. Thank you for the thorough descriptions and your experiences. I am really excited to read your next post of suggested books!

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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