Is "New Adult" Fiction Going to Be a Thing?

From what I can see, the iteration of new adult that St. Martin’s Press appears to be pushing in its attempt to turn new adult into a thing is not going to sell well, because it’s not what people really want.
Publish date:
October 2, 2012
books, reading, young adult, not ashamed of my reading habits, new adult

Over the last year or so, there’s been a lot of buzz about the idea of “new adult,” a genre that is supposed to fall somewhere between true young adult and adult reads in a world where older people, especially women, are increasingly turning to teen novels to get their fix. Think of it as the “Girls” of fiction, the books about kids in college or recently graduated and struggling youth; the, uh, food truck founders of the world versus the girls caught between vampires and werewolves and forced to choose where true love lies.

It’s hard to pin down where the precise of appeal of young adult for older readers lies, but it’s an undeniable phenomenon. One thing about the genre that I love is that while it’s a broad umbrella, there’s a lot under it: literary fiction, romance, paranormal fiction, horror, mysteries, biography, contemporary fiction, nonfiction, and more. While young adult is aimed at teens and tweens, something about it is pulling older people; perhaps the sense of innocence in a world where rent and medical bills don’t loom high, and the biggest concern is which vampire boy to take to prom.

At any given time there’s a boom in YA; right now, it’s dystopians, which will be replaced by something else new and hot soon enough. And one reason the genre has blown up so much is not just because more teens appear to be reading and they have a lot of disposable income, but because young adults, people between 18 and 25 and even older, are reading too.

Enter new adult. The training wheels are off for characters forced to learn about the real world, but not yet settled into full adulthood. In a way, it’s a reflection of the prolonged adolescence in society as a whole. Increasingly, childhood is extended and people are shocked when they enter the real world and discover it is not what they expected. Especially right now, in the throes of an economic meltdown, where all those student loans you blithely signed off on four years ago are suddenly alive, real and ready to eat you.

Your issues are bigger than high school and you're thinking about whether you want to have children and buy a home. What kind of career you want to have. What kind of person you want to be. These are things that don't come up in YA, and aren't as prevalent in adult fiction as they perhaps could be.

I’ve been skeptical about new adult, namely because I think we already have a genre that serves the function of bridging YA and adult readers. It’s called crossover fiction, and it’s designed to appeal to both markets. “The Hunger Games” are crossover fiction, for example. While ostensibly written for young adults, with content appropriate to that age range, they are transparently designed to appeal to adults as well.

They capture the sense of childhood we are all yearning for; even in a dystopian nightmare where everything is going to shit, there’s something very sweet and innocent about it all. And some of them dare to explore interesting territory narratively because they have much more freedom to experiment than they would if they were being billed as adult fiction.

From what I can see, the iteration of new adult that St. Martin’s Press appears to be pushing in its attempt to turn new adult into a thing is not going to sell well, because it’s not what people really want. It’s just another form of chick lit –- which has a place and a respectable one, at least in the opinion of a recent xoJane editorial email thread -– rather than being the thing that’s drawing people to YA. Yes, as agent Sarah LaPolla points out, young adult doesn’t necessarily speak to, say, women in their early 20s, because they’re moving beyond those life experiences and into a different phase.

But other literary fiction does, and does so well. I’d argue that it doesn’t need to be supplanted with a new genre; the women reading young adult are going to keep reading YA and crossover fiction, and the woman who don’t find YA their cup of tea are going to continue reading adult fiction. Including, of course, chick lit -– which is still alive and well, even with “Sex and the City” off the air. Attempting to manufacture a new genre out of thin air seems like a bid at creating and cornering a new market, rather than actually meeting readers where they are.

And right now, readers seem to be very much where they want to be. YA and particularly crossover fiction is booming, because right now, for whatever reason, people want to read about 14-18 year olds. It’s notable in crossover fiction that these characters are oddly mature and sophisticated, miniature adults in a high school (or vague equivalent in the case of fantasy and dystopian) setting, indicating that readers don’t really want to read about the lives of teens, but rather want to be presented with a glossy and more glamorized version of teen life, but still, that’s what they want to read about.

As a YA fan myself who loves the genre for a lot of reasons, I think it has a lot to offer readers. And right now especially, I think one of the big things -– and one of the things St. Martin’s is missing –- is the escapism inherent in imagining being able to go back in time to a point where you weren’t expected to be responsible for the daily means of survival, or in placing yourself in a totally different world with your whole life ahead of you but all the sophistication of adulthood.

I don’t want to read about indebted college grads trying to be hipsters in Brooklyn. I want to read about 17-year-old girls slaying dragons. And if I wanted to read fiction about being a young, struggling adult, well, I'd be able to find that just fine on the shelves of my local bookstore without needing a whole new genre for it.

Image credits: Emily Carlin, jenn ster, kate hiscock.