Postcard For Reader + TIME

The giant post about new adult literature.

If anybody's been paying attention at all to my twitter feed over the past few weeks, you may have noticed that I occasionally go on rants about a certain age category that has recently been all over the place. Yes, "new adult" is the new big thing. It's even earned a spot in Publisher's Marketplace for new deals.

The problem is... well, a lot of things, actually.

What is new adult?
For those who don't know, new adult is a genre of literature that takes place once a character attends college and slightly after, roughly in the 20 - 26 range. So far, they've been coming of age stories that heavily feature sex and sexuality. I've discussed it before here and here.

New adult as a bildungsroman?
This image has been going around a lot lately.

Image by Dear Author.

There's a problem here. If you cross out new and replace it with young, it also works. New adult novels are not bildungromans. They are not coming of age novels.

This is how categories of books work.

Picture books tell a story to people in pictures made strictly to entertain. Children's literature tells a story that's often didactic - there's a point at the end. (Accept people for who they are, be creative, listen to your parents, etc.) Middle grade novels are the beginning of the coming of age story. By the end of the novel, the protaganist has usually learned something about themselves. Young adult novels are the bildungsroman, that full coming of age story - figuring out who you are and what you believe in.

If we're defining new adult as an older bildungsroman, it doesn't work, because the whole point of young adult literature is that bildungsroman arc. That's why adult high fantasy novels and sci-fi novels (Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, for example) can have young protagonists and still be sliced into the adult genre because there isn't that bildungsroman. The story focuses on a character who already knows who they are.

I'd love to see new adult do that. What happens after the bildungsroman? What do you do once you know who you are? How do you handle that?

What does new adult mean for the adult genre?
If we're defining new adult by that definition, of course, what does that mean for the adult genre? How will that be defined now?

There's no strict definition for adult as a genre; it's just typically deemed that the characters know who they are and are exploring that in some way - which is the exact definition I described for new adult up above.

So... where does that leave adult fiction?

That's a question I don't have an answer to, but I've gotten some hilarious answers.

The confinement in genre.
Right now, I've seen all but one new adult book set in a contemporary time period. I've seen contemporary romances and paranormal romances and one - one - historical. And that's it, that's the genre.

A lot of people seem to be defining it as a novel that deals with the problems that arise in and after college. Finding yourself in college is something I've been dying to have young adult explore more, and figuring out who you are and then exploring that is something I would love new adult to do. But the current definition seems to fixate heavily on that college atmosphere and that age rather than the actual progression of character after the bildungsroman.

Part of this has to do with what has been published so far, part of it with the definition of the genre as we know it, and part of it has to do with sex. (See below.)

Where does that leave fantasy and sci-fi settings that don't have college? With the current definition of it, it's very hard to escape and make new adult make sense in something that isn't contemporary - because those definitions already are categorized. High fantasy and sci-fi in the adult section often feature what I've described as new adult, and high fantasy and sci-fi in the young adult section often feature what other people have described as new adult. Unless the definition of the genre changes, it's going to end up taking away from another genre or dying quickly because of the fact that it already exists.

And, of course, the biggest thing we've seen in new adult so far is sex. It's been described as YA erotica - and, let's be fair, that is where it started to get big. St. Martin's may have been using the term earlier to court books with the 20 - 26 age range, but it's more frequently associated now with young people having sex. It ties into the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon.

I have no problem with sex in novels where it's relevant to the plot. (This post sums it up nicely, but I have several posts about sex and sexuality on my discussions page.)

In that case, there's two halves to this:
- young people having erotic sex with no point to the plot
- young people having sex with a point to the plot

If the first, well, the books should just be shelved in the erotica section. The characters are older than 18, so it's legal by adult standards, and I have no qualms with people reading about sex and enjoying it.

If the second, it's being argued that having sex in the plot is exclusive to NA. And, uh, it's not. It happens frequently in a young adult setting. It's been argued that it's a common experience for people in college, but I know plenty of people who haven't had sex in college - and plenty who did in high school. It's a weird sort of thing to argue and takes away from both genres.

Authors focusing on sex only solidifies the stereotype that college is the place for sex and parties and nothing else, which I don't think is the case. - @notsnow_white

If there does need to be a focus on sex in the NA genre, it needs to be handled differently - not sex for the sake of romance and newness, but actually exploring sexuality. If you're discovering your sexuality in YA, you should be figuring out how to handle it in NA. Figure out you're bisexual in a young adult novel? Deal with the stigmas with it in NA! Discover asexuality and find a partner who you have to explain it to. Hell, track the experience of a demisexual with a partner who isn't demisexual and see how that works! If YA is finding what you are, and coming of age, and understanding that, NA needs to be about how you handle your coming of age and how you deal with the world around you.

I think new adult has a lot of potential if handled as I wish it would be, and while I worry about how that will reshape the adult genre, I'm curious to see where it goes. But a lot of what's happening right now is problematic and worrisome in regards to its own creation and to its affect on YA lit.

What do you guys think of new adult so far, for those who have seen it?

thoughts on, and more:

The giant post about new adult literature. + TIME