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Writer Wednesday: The New Adult Hill

Happy hump day! Since we love a good euphemism, today we are talking about the repeated, confusing boning of the New Adult genre. Perhaps bungling is a better word for it.

New Adult emerged on the scene nearly a decade ago. It made a few waves and questionable marketing choices and then sort of sank into the mire. Or did it? While New Adult appeared to fall off the traditional industry radar, it bloomed in the Indie market. Why the shift and why does New Adult continue to struggle in traditional circles despite the numerous authors writing it?

What is New Adult?

According to the managing editors of St. Martin’s Press circa 2010, “New Adult is about young adulthood, when you are an adult but have not established your life as one (career, family, what-have-you).”

New Adult was meant to be about transition. Young Adult often deals with characters coming of age and burgeoning identities, New Adult was meant to tackle that next phase of life. Just like the transition from child to teenager doesn’t happen overnight, the transition from teenager to full fledged functioning adulthood is often fraught with stress, uncertainty, and self discovery.

Author Adrienne Kress described NA as ‘work that isn’t really adult and isn’t quite YA’. These were stories for the college crowd, the sweet spot of 18 to 26, who were dealing with a whole new selection of first experiences.

Now, books featuring that subset age range and dealing with those topics are not new, but putting a term to it and marketing it to that niche was an emergent concept for readers and authors alike. That was what it was meant to be.

Smells like Sex and Candy

To riff off a one hit wonder, New Adult landed itself a stigma it couldn’t shake. Not long after the New Adult genre began to market, circa 2013-2014, a push back trend emerged in the book community. One very memorable headline from ABC News sums it up nicely:

Emerging 'New Adult' Book Genre Puts Smut Fiction on Bestseller Lists

Never mind the not so subtle shaming of romance in this headline here. When St. Martin’s and other publishers set out to start promoting New Adult, they focused their efforts on contemporary romance for a few reasons. Romance is an easy sell, it’s already a booming industry and wedging another sub-genre into the mix wouldn’t hurt their sales but would help NA. However, they never seemed to move beyond this genre and explore the other possibilities to be found in the New Adult range.

Another nail in the coffin can be found in a 2013 Huffpost article ‘The Problem with New Adult’, which stated the name of the genre itself was condescending to the intended age range for readers and authors alike.

“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.” - Lauren Sarner, Huffpost

As the article goes on to discuss, when a publisher pushes a genre, it can fall flat. Marketing niche genres puts books in a narrow box, creates a new system of labels and subsets. This can also be a logistical nightmare in brick and mortar stores that have to make shelf space for a new genre.

The article’s overall tone was heavily dismissive of the genre, calling it an excuse to write YA with sex and cursing thrown in. This may have been due to the titles being pushed at the time, but the vibe readers were getting from the NA genre was books that catered to the Twilight Crowd who weren’t ready for the full on zest of 50 Shades of Grey.

This comparison does a disservice to nuances and stories that could be New Adult fiction, and the final point that creating NA would continue to narrow mindsets and reading horizons for readers sets up a narrative that New Adult is an “unnecessary genre.”

Barely three years after launch, New Adult appeared to fizzle on the Trad scene, but where one ball dropped, another soared high. New Adult remains a thriving indie market, once that has succeeded into bridging into cross genres.

The Hill We Stand On

New Adult was meant to be about transition. Yes, sex is part of adulthood, but what New Adult stories were meant to do, and what many in the Indie circles accomplish is tell stories about settling in one’s skin. That includes stories without sex, stories that explore not only finding one’s identity, but establishing the idea of an identity into a full fledged, actualization.

From a contemporary standpoint, the shift from teenager to adulthood is mind blowing. The brick load of responsibilities and life changes these stories deal with has a space and perspective lacking in novels dealing with later adulthood and young adult fiction.

There is so much untapped potential in cross genre New Adult fiction that has fallen to Indie Markets to produce. A prime example is New Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction, which deals with the same transitory periods in fantastical settings.

These books are also being produced at a trad level, however, they are being funneled into labels of “Upper YA” or straight into genre labels. Is it really fair to shove these books into the Young Adult section and still call them YA? Do the characters in A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Mass truly deal with teenage issues, or are they transitioning to their place as adults in their perspective worlds? How is slapping the sub-label of ‘Upper YA’ any worse than allowing New Adult to have shelf space? While some stories get the support to thrive, many get lost in the shuffle and fail to hit their niche. The stigma surrounding the label of New Adult has become so intense, that we miss the fact that many stories featuring new adult protagonists and themes also feature beautiful writing, and nuanced story lines. There is still a high demand and want for this genre of fiction, not only proven by the thriving indie scene still happening today, but by the numerous authors querying their new adult stories.

New Adult is more than an excuse to stuff sex and swears into YA, and it is the hill we will continue to fight on.

Resources & Further Reading

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