New Adult, Old Tricks

Teen and Young Adult Fiction
 (Photo credit: Blue Train Books)

Have you heard about that New Adult category of books, being created practically before our eyes? Other terms for it include: Upper YA, Crossover Fiction, and Mature YA. How did it start and what is it about? 

New-adult Fiction or post-adolescent literature was first proposed by St. Martin’s Press in 2009. Allegedly St. Martin’s Press editors wanted to address the coming-of-age that also happens in a young person’s twenties.They wanted to consider stories about young adults who were still finding their way in building a life and figuring out what it exactly means. NA characters are often portrayed experiencing: college, living away from home for the first time, military deployment, apprenticeships, a first steady job, a first serious relationship, etc. Other common themes in NA are identity, sexuality, race, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, bullying, empowerment, familial struggles, loss of innocence, fear of failure, etc. – I suppose that list gets plots of most of the books, if not all of them, covered pretty thoroughly. Here you can find a list of most popular New Adult positions (fromGoodreads) and check just the first page, it is more than enough ;p.

Now you have to admit those topics aren’t exactly new so why publishers think we need a new category of books? That is the question and the answer is as old as the publishing business or perhaps even older – money.

I still blame in the first place “Twilight“, with the horribly skewed version of the alluring nectar of forbidden love it presented. I know, Twilight itself remains  firmly in the YA paranormal romance realm but it was a step toward the NA direction. Stephenie Meyer has achieved a lot, earned a lot and her mind-boggling success undoubtedly inspired other authors and the whole publishing world. For example an author I love to hate, hiding under the pen name of E.L. James, as her “50 Shades of Grey”, a cheesy, kinky juggernaut, is so obviously modelled on Twilight. It spawned in turn “50 Shades“-themed bondage classes and single-handedly boosted the book industry (which should be nevertheless thoroughly ashamed of themselves). The book series once dominated the number one, two and three spots on the New York Times Bestseller List (New York Times, shame on you, your bestseller list doesn’t exist in my universe anymore). 50 Shades books are still not NA positions but the success of the series, like that of Twilight, definitely helped to create the NA phenomenon – it showed you can create a certain market niche and then make it brimful of curious readers. And line your pockets nicely in the process. It was too tempting not to try it.

So if you asked me what New Adult books are about I would say: in a nutshell it is about merging the former young adult themes with erotic fiction. In other words the publishers want to lure people who liked novels as children and teenagers, offering them something better-fitted to their more mature tastes. Buying and reading erotica? Some people would still consider it a social taboo. Buying and reading New Adult? Not a problem – it sounds almost posh, almost respectable, with that dashing, naughty flavor some appreciate so much, and it promises content that actually makes sense, a real plot in which those steamy moments are just inserted here and there like raisins in a bun. In fact, after having read some of New Adult positions I must admit I found these books a bit like the old Harlequin romances, just set in modern times, with younger characters, many of whom are in college, coming of age and often exploring their sexuality. Think Smut Fiction with some window dressing so it looks respectable and…kind of new, at least to me (I’ve never read those pesky Harlequin but I’ve heard STORIES).

Of course I am sure there will be plenty of fans and several book sellers who might disagree with such an assessment. They claim New Adult covers a wide range of themes and issues, not focusing solely on sex. That’s why some view New Adult fiction as only a category of literature—meaning, it gives readers general content expectations, but it does not dictate strict, genre-based criteria. Typically, a novel is considered NA if it encompasses the transition between adolescence—a life stage often depicted in Young Adult (YA) fiction—and true adulthood. The fact is that it rarely (if at all) avoids the description of sexual encounters so if you ask about the main difference between YA and NA here it is – the later features more hot scenes, often described in great detail and covering the whole gamut of preferences.

Let me also quote here the explanation offered by one of the NA authors, Cora Carmack, why this category/genre should exist at all. Carmack thinks we’re only just now hearing the term “New Adult” because:

…the world is a very different place than it was when YA first became an accepted genre. It used to be that many people got jobs straight out of high school, and only some people went on to college. And usually those who did go to college were more financially and emotionally dependent. Now, it has become the norm to go to college, and for young adults to remain in contact or even dependent upon their parents for years after graduating high school. College is the new high school, and as such that “growing up” phase has been stretched to include a few extra awkward years.

Hmm… with all due respect that sounds like waffling to me. Authors have been writing about the transition from childhood to adulthood and those ‘extra awkward years’ like forever. Jane Austen, anybody? Some of her characters, like Anne Elliot from Persuasion, definitely prolonged their ‘forming years’ quite a bit. The Sorrows of Young Werther ? (damn that Goethe, he was good – have you noticed how he sneaked that ‘Young’ into his title?) Girl Interrupted? The Dangerous Liaisons? Maurice? Fanny Hill? Gosh, I can even quote here some stories straight from the Bible and they would most definitely qualify for being New Adult– for example the first part of the life of David who later became one of the most prominent kings of Israel. All of them share one basic feature: they present a newly emancipated person on the cusp of discovering themselves, where they fit into life, what allowances they will make, and how they relate to others. Unrequited love, forbidden love, friendship, committments, leaving your old family behind, real-life challenges – you get everything there as well.

Let’s be honest and let me get to my point: those are marketing gurus who really need “New Adult” fiction to be a stand-alone category or genre, not readers. They want the millennials to believe it is a bespoke literature segment created to fit their unique needs. So what the content is hardly new and often presented in a very crude, sometimes even amazingly tacky voice? As long as you believe it is good and you are prepared to pay extra for the ‘novelty’ factor they are going to do cracking business.

Take into account the fact that this new category is intended to be marketed to mostly female readers ages 18 to 30. Quite coincidentally that particular age group is considered to be the most lucrative as it consists (but is not limited to) readers who are already active on the job market at least part-time so have a larger disposable income than, say, your average primary and secondary school student. They have money, they want to have fun and they don’t want to be limited in any way. Ready for harvest.

It reminds me of the term “teenager,” which, crazy as it might seem now, didn’t even exist until the mid-20th century. Today, teenagers are a consumer group worth about $200 billion. Youth became a sought-after commodity but it didn’t happen overnight, the whole process was rather an evolution than a revolution – it needed some generations to solidify. Today, with the digital publishing and the Internet connecting most of the world, it will be definitely something more dynamic.

Will marketers be able to pull the same trick with kinda-youth? It seems they’re certainly going to try – compartmentalizing the market has never been a mistake so far. Before you go to your favourite library and shop for a New Adult novel ask yourself a question, though: what do I really need to read?

The idea of this essay was implanted in my silly brain by Bloddeued and Rameau helped me with the editing and supported me morally on Twitter – thank  you very much, girls, I owe you and you rock!
My sources:

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23 Responses to New Adult, Old Tricks

  1. heidenkind says:

    I agree! It's pretty much a marketing ploy. It makes me think of all the Mary Stewart and Barbara Michaels books I read as a kid that were about women in their early 20s who were discovering who they were. Not a new concept, peeps.

  2. Blodeuedd says:

    Wow, this came about fast 😀 I am glad I told you to 😉 Great essay and totally agree with every word.I just can''t get behind NA, it's just silly. I do not need a specific genre for that coming of age group. I have read lots of books like that, but they have been adult books (and honestly none of them has had a lot of sex). I did not know it was sex in your 20s that made you adult 😉 oh and destructive relationships

  3. I am glad you turned my attention toward this one!I've said it before and I am saying it again: sex sells. The packaging might change, the label might change but the content remains the same. New Adult is not about a new trend in literature. It is, in my opinion about re-packaging the old content.

  4. Definitely not a new concept, no matter what they say.

  5. katiebabs says:

    You made some excellent points, all I agree with. I think the NA craze has become so popular for another reason. In recent years those of college age and a little older are in this holding pattern. Some go on and get great jobs, buy homes, get married, etc… but there are a group in their early 20's and sometimes mid to upper 20's than are still in the high school and college mindset mainly because of the economy. The US economy about 5 years ago lead to many with no jobs or being underpaid. College graduates couldn't find jobs or because they found poorly paying jobs, they couldn't pay rent or buy a property because the mortgage is too high. This group had no choice but to return home to the nest indefinitely. This returning to the nest syndrome perhaps is what has created this need to older YA and college age adult type situation books we now known as NA. Also to be honest, sex is very important for those people in their 20's since they're sowing their wild oats, as some will say. Sex sells and since you can't write graphic sex scenes in YA (or it has to be tastefully) the need for more adult love scenes is perfect for NA books.Also I've wondered why NA is mainly in contemporary. Wouldn't some historical romances be NA since the characters are between 17-25? What about Dystopian YA. Why isn't Hunger Games now considered NA?

  6. Humblebee77 says:

    GREAT post! The part about the term "teenager" being new as of the mid-20th century reminds me of how the term "tween" was coined not all that long ago. Also, "toddler" was invented around the same time as "teenager."

  7. Humblebee77 says:

    Also, the "NA" label is weird, because two of my favorite books, The Magicians (by Lev Grossman) and The Secret History (by Donna Tartt) fit the NA classification but are categorized as simple adult fiction. Exactly WHO is deciding what goes in the NA category? "NA" seems unnecessary. Just shelve it under adult and be done with it.

  8. Kaetrin says:

    I disagree on almost every level. Yes, the term "New Adult" was coined by a publisher. But NA is not just sexed up YA. I'm sure there is some of that, but there is plenty that isn't. If you don't like or don't want to read NA, that's absolutely fine. Me, I'm not really a YA fan. The characters are too young and I'm not really into it. But i do like NA. Not all of it. But some of it – just as is the case with all fiction, no matter what it is labelled – is excellent. I know there is excellent YA out there too, it's just that it doesn't interest me.I'm a little baffled why NA seems to attract such passionate reactions, on both sides. I'm a defender but I don't want to be rabid about it. I'll just say that your definition isn't mine and doesn't reflect my own NA reading. One thing I often forget because I'm a romance reader (& I sometimes forget other genres exist!) is that all NA is not romance. Romance NA is a subset of NA, just as there is non romance YA out there too. I'm sure there is a lot of crappy NA out there. There's a lot of crappy pnr, historical, contemp, western, etc too. But I don't think NA is just or only sexed up YA. That's my take anyway.

  9. Humblebee77 says:

    The Hunger Games has teenage protagonists, and unlike most (all?) NA, it doesn't contain any sex scenes at all. I think it's pretty firmly in the YA camp.

  10. Thank you, Brie for your very long and very thorough comment which I truly enjoyed.I can tell you some stories that have nothing to do with smut fiction. You should know what you’re talking about before offering such dismissive and offensive blanket statements.So can I. And believe me, I know what I am talking about. Those NA books I had the misfortune to read were very close to the Harlequin romances or at least those which I happened to skim (hearing STORIES should be treated more metaphoricaly in this particular case, just saying). If you felt that my statement was offensive or dismissive then well, sorry. It simply reflected my personal and very skewed opinion to which I am fully entitled.

  11. Hear, hear. NA seems to suggest that it is something different which, in my view is a lie.

  12. I think Humblebee77 answered your HG question very well. Let me also add that I think you are completely right about the influence of economy over the mindset of 20-something generation and the 'returning to nest' fenomenon. What a pity I wasn't clever enough to add it on my own ;p.

  13. Thank you for your comment, Kaetrin. I suppose the situation would be clearer if we compared our NA books shelves. It is quite possible that I happened to read those crappier NA novels whereas you had the better luck/better taste to chose the other ones.

  14. Thanks for adding that, Humblebee77 and your other comments – I do appreciate it!

  15. Kaetrin says:

    For some reason (which does baffle me a little) NA attracts a lot of passion! :)I think we have probably read different books. I'm by no means widely read in NA but the ones I have read are not all sexed up YA at all and I have really enjoyed them. I'm not a big fan of YA so I guess I can't really compare NA to YA. FWIW, I'd recommend, Easy and Good for You by Tammara Webber, Something Like Normal by Trish Doller, Pushing the Limits (and the forthcoming Dare You To) by Katie McGarry (both are kind of a YA/NA hybrid I think – adult themes but seniors in high school), Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar. I've just finished Rush Me by Allison Parr and I liked that quite a bit (although the hero was a bit of a dick at first). I'm not sure I have better taste – I had better recs maybe!Thx for your reply 🙂 It's nice to be able to have a conversation and even differing views without everyone losing the plot. For some reason, many NA conversations derail. It astounds me. (But I also realise that I need to make sure I'm not the one doing the derailing, I'm sure I'm capable of it).

  16. Pusing the Limits – I read this one and my review is going to be published this month. I fear you might not like it, though – I criticized that one a lot. Dare You To I read as well and I admit it was a bit better. Still both novels are, I suppose, fully supporting my views expressed in the essay: YA plot + sex = NA.

  17. Kaetrin says:

    But Pushing the Limits doesn't have any sex in it! – they only get to second (or maybe third) base and it's not explicit at all. So I have to disagree with you on that book being an example of sexed up YA.However, I saw a tweet today which said that Ellora's Cave are releasing a new "NA" line called "Gen-Edge" which is e-rom with early 20s characters, so there are at least some publishers which are perpetuating the sexed up thing. This disappoints me because there are some really great books which aren't explicit at all – some have sex but they'd compare to a "standard contemporary" and not, for example to a Sylvia Day or Emma Holly. But I'm not the genre police and life's too short for me to get all bent out of shape about it. I'll have to stick to talking about particular books from now on I think!

  18. I'll have to stick to talking about particular books from now on I think!That's always the safest option. When you talk about a genre you have to generalize and there will be always books which simply defy any pigeonholing.But Pushing the Limits doesn't have any sex in it! – they only get to second (or maybe third) base and it's not explicit at all.If you compare that books to adult fiction I would agree. If you compare it to YA then I think the plot was definitely bolder. Of course, having read it appx. two months ago I might not remember it correctly.

  19. Kaetrin says:

    That's always the safest option. When you talk about a genre you have to generalize and there will be always books which simply defy any pigeonholing.I can see we both fall into that trap though! :)I haven't read very much YA (it's not my thing) so I don't know what is usually in a YA book. But Twitter tells me that there is a broad range of sexytimes across the genre. If one were to categories Real by Katy Evans as NA (I'm not sure whether it is or not, but the author describes it that way) and then compare it to Pushing the Limits I think you'd find that PtL is at the most tame end of that scale. But it does have some sex in it. (Personally, I think that PtL is a kind of YA/NA hybrid as the protagonists are high school age but dealing with very adult issues/ problems (eg child custody etc). But that is my own personal pigeonhole, nothing more. 🙂

  20. rameau says:

    Late to the game, but: Wasn't Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar written and published long before NA became a thing? I haven't seen it republished under the NA label either.

  21. rameau says:

    Dismissive, offensive, highest praise imaginable. Comparing a book to a Harlequin romance can be all of those things. Brie,A couple of years ago, when The Hunger Games was the most popular book, the market was saturated by Dystopian and Post Apocalyptic stories. Why not blame it on them?The Hunger Games is to be blamed in the extent as any trendsetter is. Publishers see what sells and they want to replicate the effect with other books. But there isn't as a straight line to be drawn from THG to NA as there is from Twilight and FSoG. Both Twilight and TGH contributed to the success of YA, but FSoG and the current boom of erotica wouldn't have happened without Twilight. FSoG is Twilight fanfiction. The next logical step is to think of a way to combine the success of YA and erotica and thus NA is born.You might have had better luck with the NA books you've read, but the ones I've read so far—including Cora Carmack's Losing It—are romances. I grew up reading Harlequins and I instantly recognised the formula of a younger woman falling for an older man. Admittedly, he's a bit younger than the traditional Harlequin heroes, but unless we define NA by the age of the love interest it doesn't change Ana's assessment.As Ana has said (on another comment), NA books aren't as erotic as adult books, but compared to YA books written in English—which are dominated by the fade to black effect—they most certainly are.Why I said YA books written in English? Because I've read domestic, Finnish, (comparative) YA literature that examines the coming of age and sexual awakening, namely the quest of losing her virginity, quite explicitly.

  22. But there isn't as a straight line to be drawn from THG to NA as there is from Twilight and FSoG. Both Twilight and TGH contributed to the success of YA, but FSoG and the current boom of erotica wouldn't have happened without Twilight. FSoG is Twilight fanfiction. The next logical step is to think of a way to combine the success of YA and erotica and thus NA is born.AMEN.

  23. Kaetrin says:

    It wasn't published under the NA label but I think it fits the NA genre. That is my personal opinion, that's all 🙂

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