Back in 2009, St. Martin's Press held a contest for a new category of fiction: New Adult. They coined the term themselves to describe fiction with protagonists slightly older than YA (age 18-26) and that would appeal to adults. There was some good response to the contest, but there were critics as well. Still are, of course. I know not all of the Write Angle crew feels NA is viable or necessary, but I think it could be a great thing. If you haven't heard of New Adult as a category, don't fret. It's not widely used or promoted just yet, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth pursuing. Hopefully I can provide some clarification and information for you to make your own decision on this emerging category.
First, let's be clear about one thing: New Adult (like YA) is not a genre. It's a category. Just as you can have YA or adult fantasy, romance, or any other genre, you would also have NA fantasy, romance, etc. With that out of the way, let's look at some other questions surrounding the NA concept.
Isn't it condescending?
I came across a blog post that asked this very question recently. In my mind, this is an easy no. Some people seem to think a New Adult categorization is somehow prescriptive, telling twenty-somethings this is what they ought to be reading, and nothing else. It's not, just as YA isn't telling teens they should be reading Sarah Dessen and not Tami Hoag. Plenty of adults enjoy reading YA, and plenty of teens enjoy adult novels. The NA category is descriptive. It allows readers and writers to identify some general characteristics of a book before they ever pick it up. Proponents of NA aren't suggesting we start carding all book buyers and only let them purchase books in their prescribed age category.
Why aren't "new adults" reading [insert list of Classics here] like I did at that age?
I've seen this argument both in YA and NA discussions of what's good or appropriate for certain age groups to read. If there's a condescending or prescriptive attitude in the discussion of NA's validity, this is it. Of course there are plenty of wonderful classic novels that encompass the spirit of what it is to be a new adult. That doesn't negate the need for more, though, does it? And it does nothing to address an audience who may want more contemporary settings, characters, and plots. Plus, I don't know about you all, but the classics (like Catcher in the Rye) were usually the subject of English class assignments and discussions, which means I wasn't going near them with a ten-foot pole when it came time for pleasure reading in high school. I've since revisited some of them now that I'm out of school.
Is it just YA: The College Years?
In talking about the New Adult category with some of the Write Angle Crew, as well as reading through blog posts and comments from other writers and agents, it seems that many people have a very narrow view of what NA is, could, or should be. The thought behind creating a New Adult category has to do with much more than just the age of the protagonist, though that is an obvious indicator. Check out this post from St. Martin's Press editorial assistant, JJ, for more on how the age of the protagonist, voice, and scope of a novel differ between YA, NA and adult fiction. She pinpoints it better than I ever could. Here are a couple of quotes that encompass the general idea:
What makes YA compelling as a read is its immediacy; a young person cannot write of him/herself from any perspective aside from “now” and “later”. With a YA voice, the past is less present, the present looms like a storm, and the future ever just out of reach. With an adult voice, there is a sense that the future has come to pass, the past is present, and the present encompasses all that has been and all that will be.And later she states:
We, the “new adults”, have some perspective on our lives, but scope? We’re not old enough, we’re not experienced enough, we’re simply not grown-up enough. Our lives have immediacy, just as a teenager’s does, but we also possess the wisdom to understand that this immediacy cannot last for long. It’s a curious place in life [...]. The “quarter-life crisis”, if you will.So, no. NA is not simply about kids in college, though that would certainly be a portion of the material.
The market isn't strong for NA because college-goers are too busy to read outside of academia.
Really? I suppose it's true for many, but I doubt for all. Maybe not even the majority. I can't say for certain. I know I didn't read as much during the school year, but during winter break I'd read a couple books, and over the summers I'd read as many books as I could find. Personally, my reading for pleasure peaked in late middle school and the first half of high school. Not so much because I didn't have time, but because I had a hard time finding things that interested me. Once I reached a certain age and maturity/reading level, I wasn't sure where to find books I could identify with. I devoured Dean Koontz and his backlist, and I love him to this day, but I was at a loss when it came to more literary stories that spoke to me. Even now, over the past few years, I haven't been reading as much as I used to because while Jodi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks are fine, I'm not always able to identify with the divorcee, or the widow, or the mother of two, and other kinds of protagonists that often populate contemporary women's fiction. My other option, then, is Chick Lit, which fulfills my need for a protagonist closer to my age, but I still find many of them unrelatable on other levels.
Literary agent Sarah LaPolla uses this argument as one of her reasons why NA isn't a viable market (yet) in a post from October 2011. She says:
There's a reason "The College Years" of high school TV shows fail. There's just not enough people who care. The original teen audience can't relate, the adults out of college think of it as too young, and the actual target audience is too busy being in college, working, or starting families to watch TV or read for fun.Sure, we "new adults" are busy, but not too busy for entertainment. As for the TV show analogy, I think there are many other reasons why those types of shows usually tank (like the fact that it's often exactly the same stories as high school, except on a college campus) and it doesn't exactly translate to the New Adult category of literature.
There's no universal "new adult" experience.
Again from LaPolla's blog post:
It's true that not everyone goes to the same type of high school, or even goes to high school, but everyone goes through puberty. Everyone feels what it's like to not understand any of your emotions or why they are suddenly happening all at once or why hugging your parents is much more embarrassing than it was the year before.First, I think she simplifies the universal experience and emotional appeal in YA. There are home-schooled teens who don't know the "typical" high school experience. And while we all take the same types of general education courses, the last time I checked extracurricular activities weren't forced, and included a lot of variety for those who did participate. There are teens who excel in school, some who don't do well, and some who drop out and (maybe) get their GED. Of course we all went through puberty and there are certain emotions and phases many of us went through, but we all still experienced and coped with them differently. There's a rich and varied experience even within what some would see as the "universal" appeal of YA, and yet this same variation is seen as a negative when it comes to NA.
With New Adult, there is no universal experience. Within the genre, there are too many niche markets to consider, which makes it that much harder to place. Not everyone goes to college or makes the same choices when entering adulthood. Even within the group who goes to college, the experiences differ in ways that are much more polarizing than going to different high schools. No matter what kind of high school you went to, we were all forced to take the same general courses or participate in the same extracurricular activities.
Variety is really the whole point here. There's variety in both YA and adult literature, and as a supporter for a New Adult category, what I'm rallying for is even more of it. Why? Because even with all the options out there, I feel like there's still a gap, and it happens to be a gap in an area I'd very much like to read.
Is it just a matter of shelving and marketing support?
I don't know, to be honest. Would you go to a section in the book store marked "New Adult"? I might. Others may not, for whatever reason. Maybe it needs a different name (especially because in a Google search I was prematurely excited to see lots of results for new adult fiction from public library websites, only to realize they were talking about new releases in adult fiction). There's obviously the conundrum of "if there's no shelf for it in the bookstore, publishers won't acquire it, so agents won't rep it."
From the perspective of traditional publishing, I agree with Sarah LaPolla's assessment that the New Adult category will come into its own eventually, but it will take time, the same way it took time for YA to be accepted and recognized. As a reader, I don't necessarily buy into the idea that it's not currently a viable market. From my experience in retail clothing sales, I know it's possible for there to be a ready and willing set of consumers for a non-existent product. Take plus size clothing as an example. For a long time there were next to no options for plus size women to find fashionable clothing, despite the overwhelming number of consumers who would've gladly spent their money on such a product if only someone was making it. Now that the plus size clothing market is booming, it's difficult to fathom that anyone would've ever thought it wasn't a viable market.
How can consumers communicate to product/service providers (whether it's a clothing company or the publishing industry) that they want a certain product if that product doesn't currently exist? And how can retailers measure sales lost to the consumer who never even walks in the door because they already know the retailer isn't selling what they want? It has to start somewhere. Perhaps this is one area where indie authors and eBooks, mostly unrestricted by bookstore shelf labels, can help pave the way and demonstrate the market for New Adult literature. However it happens, I fully support the idea of a New Adult category. What about you?
What do you think "New Adult" as a category? Would you read it? Do you write it?