Defining New Adult

I don’t write New Adult, though I have read some of it, and for what it’s worth, I wanted to weight in on the debates about the definition of the genre and its legitimacy.

Jane, founder and contributor to the influential romance review and discussion site Dear Author, defined New Adult back in December as “not just sexed up YA, but an exploration of a time period in a character’s life” and “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.” In other words, for Dear Author, New Adult is about an outlook on life containing a specific narrative structure.

In some ways, this definition overlaps with that of woman’s fiction. Literary critic Nina Baym, in a discussion of nineteenth-century American women’s novels in her book Woman’s Fiction, describes this trajectory thusly, “The thrust of this fiction has to do … with how the heroine perceives herself. … By the novel’s end she has developed a strong conviction of her own worth” (19). So both woman’s fiction and New Adult seem to be buildings romans or self-actualization narratives.

There was an interesting debate on Twitter yesterday about whether New Adult has an upper age limit. Is, for example, Allison Parr’s Rush Me — which I read and liked with reservations — a New Adult book because the hero is 26? I think Rush Me is a bit of a liminal example, not because of the hero’s age but because I didn’t see growth from the characters. It ended with a commitment to change but didn’t show the change on the page.

Regardless, I think the hostility toward New Adult is interesting. It seems to be motivated by the sense that New Adult is a marketing trick, that many of the founding texts are just smutty young adult, and that many of the most popular writers in the genre aren’t very good.

Let’s take these one at a time, starting with the last. In every genre there are good writers, meh writer, and bad writers. The ratio of wheat to chaff doesn’t really seem to change to me, whether we’re talking about literary fiction, punk rock, cookbooks about cake pops, or New Adult. I get that it’s frustrating when stuff that’s not as good gets wide acclaim or readership, but that’s life. The cream doesn’t rise to the top. There is no poetic justice in sales or readership figures.

Next, I haven’t read that widely in the genre, but in both Easy and Hopeless, while earlier, “fooling around” scenes are described in detail, the sex itself is more of the fade to black variety. In Pushing the Limits, there is no sex. So maybe I’m reading the wrong books in the genre — no, maybe I’m reading the right books in the genre — I don’t see the smut label as applicable to every New Adult text.

The sex that’s represented is healthy and consensual. The characters use birth control and discuss consequences like STIs and pregnancy. When the sex isn’t healthy either because it’s rape or abuse or just bored sex, there’s a flashing red light around it. The myriad reasons that people have sex — good and bad — are explicated. In other words, I think any of these books would make a good jumping off point for a discussion with a teen about sexuality.

Finally, I don’t really get how any traditionally-published book’s popularity isn’t the result of marketing. Marketing and publicity are some of the main reasons why one might choose a traditional publisher over self or indie publishing. And in the cases of Colleen Hoover and Tammara Webber, who started off self-publishing, it seems like precisely the opposite: their success is a testament to the power of word-of-mouth and buzz and is entirely about their writing books that speak to readers.

Again, maybe I haven’t read the New Adult right books. I know that St. Martin invented the term New Adult — though they seemingly haven’t had any success with it — and perhaps other publishers are attempting to profit from the work of the good New Adult writers by publishing cheap, smutty knock-offs. And if so, that’s annoying but utterly like book publishers. That is what they do. That is what they have long done. Anyone who is surprised by this doesn’t seem to follow publishing economics closely enough.

In closing, again I don’t write in this genre, but the disdain doesn’t begin to make sense to me, though the debate about the limits of the genre suggests a genealogy that literary critics might find worthy of pursuit.

One thought on “Defining New Adult

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