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Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Brief History of the New Adult Genre

Hi everyone! I am YA author B A Binns , writer of contemporary and realistic fiction for teens. My tagline tells you what I am about - Stories of Real Boys Growing Into Real Men - and the people who love them. 

I'm happy my fellow Genre-istas have asked me to kick of September, a month when Romancing The Genres is shining a spotlight on New Adult Books

Evolution in publishing:

Once upon a time there were only two kinds of fiction books, children's and adults. Then one day an enterprising entrepreneur noticed the amount of disposable income young teens had, and began marketing directly to older kids. Thus, the Young Adult category was born. Older adolescents and teens had their own books and sections of bookstores and libraries, far away from their former favorites like Peter Rabbit and the Bobbsey Twins. 

Technically, Young Adult books remain part of the Children’s department in many publishing houses. Voracious young readers in the 12-16 age bracket have made it a category with high growth potential. (Yes, I know, kids as young as 10 and some older than 18 read YA, but the core market, the "sweet spot" remains in that middle.) 

The World of Publishing was now complete.

Well no, not really.

"Birth" of New Adult

There remained a gap, with few books about life after high school and before the thirties. Publishers couldn't call books with college age protagonists YA, the children's book sales and marketing departments didn't know what to do them. (Lets be real, Sales and Marketing pretty much drive the entire capitalist market economy.)  Calling these books Adult didn't work either.

Still, in 2009, St. Martin’s Press issued a call for “fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of older YA or NA.” Thus, the term "new adult" was officially coined.

When NA first emerged in the early 2000's, they were often primarily “Young Adult fiction having explicit sex;” erotica set in universities filled with Animal House style clich├ęs and excesses, where no one actually matured into adulthood. Fortunately, much of the genre has maturing past those storylines. NA authors are now writing the stories that involve more than characters bent on exploiting the freedom to finally have all the sex and drugs they want.
These New Adults books chronicle the story arcs of protagonists in dealing with the period some call the Quarterlife CrisisLiterary agent Carly Watters described NA as a phase of ‘firsts’ – starting university, getting a job, living independently, etc.

In reality, NA is not a new genre. Author Francesca Lia Block foreshadowed the genre by
several decades with her Weetzie Bat books. 
"I feel I’ve been writing NA for 25 years, before there was even a term for it. I’m very interested in the years between adolescence and full adulthood, as this time marks an important threshold in human development. For me, it was a painful period of growth and exploration. I don’t know how this category will affect YA. Some people consider it just a marketing ploy to sell more books. (Is selling books so bad, anyway?) But for me, it’s more a case of naming a category that already exists in my oeuvre and my heart."

She added a P. S.: “I worry a bit that my work will be marginalized as NA instead of just fiction and, perhaps, not taken as seriously.”

That remains a legitimate concern. In a 2014 Huffington Post article, New Adult was described as a label that condescends to both readers and authors.
"It implies that the books act as training wheels between Young Adult and Adult. For the New Adult books that are particularly childish, the label implies that they are a step above Young Adult—which is insulting to the Young Adult books that are far superior. For the New Adult books that are particularly sophisticated, the label implies that they are not worthy of being considered “adult.” It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone."

What makes NA unique?

The major distinction between NA and either the Adult or YA genre is the level of emotional development and interests of the audience. It's about the level of sophistication and emotional focus. The characters’ behavior and emotions are often raw because they’re young and inexperienced.  Both YA and NA stories tend to be intense and passionate, with high stakes and strong desires because that’s what life is like in those years.

As Clover Autry, author of the Anointed series, said, "Young Adult is more inner reflective of who am I. New Adult is more where do I fit in society, can I make a difference in the world?"

This coincides with a guideline for distinguishing YA from NA made by Sophie Brookover, program coordinator and social media manager for the New Jersey Library Cooperative, LibraryLinkNJ.

“In YA fiction, the characters’ lives are circumscribed by school, family, and sometimes work. In NA novels, the characters have more freedom: they’re in college or the workforce (or trying to enter the workforce). And that’s one reason YA fantasy and historical fiction crosses up easily to NAs. In those genres, the age of maturity is measured differently than in our contemporary society, and teens may be far more independent at a much younger age.”
Reader comments show ambivalence to the genre:
  • I can't imagine anyone wanting to read books about 20 somethings learning how not to be mooches and leeching off family and society or wondering what to do next while they work to get out of debt. I wouldn't even consider reading such depressing topics for entertainment.
  • I'm 21 and fresh out of college, and I'm stuck living at home and working in retail. In some ways I'm grown up and in other ways I might as well be 16 all over again. I can definitely see a market for books dealing with characters in this situation.
  • II feel like most adult books are written for people older than me (30s and above), while YA can be more geared toward teens. It would be nice to have someone to relate to when I am 25 and feel like I'm stuck between teenagehood and adulthood. I am still living at home even though I have a college degree. I think that experience needs to be put out there. It's a unique one, yet a lot of us are living it behind the scenes.

For these and other reasons, both bookstores and libraries have trouble determining where to place and how to promote New Adult books. The Young Adult chapter of RWA, YAWRA, welcomes authors of New Adult books with open arms. But many of authors who write NA prefer allegiance with authors of Adult Fiction.

What do librarians have to say about NA?

Librarians want books that appeal to readers who are looking to find characters that share their age and interests. Neil Hollands, adult services librarian at the Williamsburg (VA) Regional Library, states that “The books we’re looking for try to capture the feel of a generation, including integrating technology’s effects on communication and relationships, new outlooks on a range of political and social issues, and more recognition and blending of the genres that younger readers are most familiar with.”

Kaite Mediatore Stover, director of readers’ services for the Kansas City (MO) Public Library, agrees. “[NA] readers tend to be urbanites, wired and techno-savvy, and on top of trending cultural-political-social issues. They are checking out books with edgy content, zippy plotting, identifiable characters, and unusual narrative structures.”

Becky Spratford, Reader’s Services librarian at the Berwyn (IL) Public Library, notes that “NA books are circulating well to all adults under 40, not just the 20- to 30-year-olds Specifically, the romances are hugely popular with my under-50 romance readers.”

Former YALSA President Chris Shoemaker said that NA probably fits a reading need for those who don’t want to read about either teenage Sturm und Drang or thirtysomethings dealing with mortgages and kids. Another past YALSA President, Pam Spencer Holley, adds,
“I’ve always wanted to have more books written that are in a college setting, but wouldn’t it also be nice to have some set in a work situation? We keep trying to get people to read more, but if the books aren’t about them or at least their age group, it makes it harder. And this age group is caught up in a lot of new things in their lives: marriage, babies, college, and work.”

Final Thoughts

New adult readers need diverse NA stories. Everyone needs to see themselves and their own experiences represented in fiction, every age and every people group. The genre still may not have its own section in bookstores, but the storylines are  increasingly being sought by agents, acquisitions editors, and readers.  This will continue as long as authors write into existence the changes we all want to see in the industry, and abstain from the original "people now free to have all the sex, drugs, and violence they want" trends.

During September, Romancing the Genres is taking a special look into New Adult with some fascinating authors. Be sure to return here each Saturday for the next installment.

In the meantime, if you are an NA author or reader, please share some of your favorites in the comments.


Sarah Raplee said...

I consider Cassandra Clare's Paranormal Steampunk Series, The Infernal Devices, to be New Adult. The Shadowhunter characters (demon fighters) in an alternative 19th century Steampunk world, while young, face issues related to how they fit into society, changing social issues, love and marriage, and how they can make a positive difference in the world.

Madelle Morgan said...

Excellent post! I wrote a NA romance/romantic comedy, Caught on Camera, with a heroine's "what sort of person do I want to be" ethical dilemma at the center.

I had read that most NA are full of college-age angst, sex, etc. That's not the book I wanted to write. In contrast, my novel is light and fun, and yes, set in a work situation - the heroine's stuck in a menial job and aiming for more. I thought I'd totally missed the market.

This post has informed the post I'll write for Sept 12 re my NA novel.

Thank you so much!

Maggie Lynch said...

Excellent article on the distinctions between YA, NA, and Adult fiction. Though there is certainly a wider readership--unassociated with age--in each of this areas, you hit the nail on the head when you shared the reasons NA exists.

I find that my YA books are enjoyed by the 12-17 set and the 40-60 set. The latter because they like reading about coming-of-age stories.

I'm beginning a NA series that follows the daughter of one of my characters in the adult romantic women's fiction Sweetater Canyon series. I've been struggling with a way to differentiate it when I talk to others. The quote you shared will really help me with that. "Young Adult is more inner reflective of who am I. New Adult is more where do I fit in society, can I make a difference in the world?"

B. A. Binns said...

Thanks Maggie. I do love that distinction myself, because the difference is not just in the age of the reader. It's very much the goal of the protagonist.

Judith Ashley said...

B.A., Thank you for a thoughtful, informative post on YA, NA and Adult romance stories!!! And thank you for starting Romancing The Genres off on our Celebrating New Adult Romance month of guest posts.

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Great post, B.A. Thanks for the definitions and history of NA--I'm sure this will clarify New Adult for a lot of people. In my reading, I find many YA historical novels, for example Kirby Larson's "Hattie" books, could also be NA.