New Adult Fiction Defined–And What About Genre Fiction?

What is New Adult?  Well, as this post makes abundantly clear, nobody has really settled on a definition.  Elizabeth gathers up definitions from AAAAALL over the place.  It’s a hotly debated topic.  For my purposes, my favorite was this definition by Jane from Dear Author:

Jane wrote New Adult: It’s not about the sex (but don’t be afraid of the sex either)  “New Adult, however, is not just sexed up YA, but an exploration of a time period in a character’s life. The post high school / pre responsible time period” and “New Adult is a time period and a feel — 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. Their whole world is their oyster. The future is a bit more nebulous. The space for experimentation exists and the cast of characters varies widely, not just limited to the over the top billionaire but has room for the pierced, tattooed, low income, and all those in between.”

Molly McAdams, over at an interview with Bookalicious Pam, defines it as “a genre where it’s all about the time in your life when you’re legally an adult, but you’re finding out exactly what it means to be an adult. It’s all about the highs and lows that we’ll come across in our lives as we get to experience everything without having your parents there trying to guide you. It’s terrifying and thrilling all at the same time.

I polled Pam herself (an agent at Foreword Literary), as well as my own agent, the Magnificent Laurie McLean (founder of Foreword).

Pam said: OMG, I’m an adult. WTF do I do now?  (I do love her).

Laurie sez: Where YA is about first experiences–first kiss, first love, first crush, first moral dilemma–NA takes it one step further. The protagonists are in college or otherwise on their own as legal adults, and are experiencing deeper and more complex “firsts” than they did while in high school. Plus you can show them having sex. 🙂

But what about me?  What do I think?  I’ve talked about this a little bit before back in 2010 (clearly I’ve been thinking about this a while).

Back when I was growing up, I jumped from kid books (I voraciously devoured all Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Babysitters Club available) to adult books (Mary Higgins Clark and other mystery greats) when I was 13.  YA did not exist as a concept back then, and what little was available had such high handed moralizing and poor understanding of actual teenagers so as not to be actually appealing to real teens.  There was L.J. Smith, but once I plowed through her books, there was nothing else, which is why I started writing in the first place.  But I digress.

I was always curious WHY there was such a gap in the ages of book characters.  In high school, I wanted to read about college and those early years after.  There was NOTHING.  It jumped straight to adults with grown up problems.  Which were interesting but with which I did not always manage to successfully identify.  That’s where this whole concept of NA fits in.

First off, NA is not even a genre, in my opinion.  It’s an audience, an age bracket.  And within that audience or age bracket, you have every other ACTUAL genre.  Romance.  Mysteries.  Sci Fi.  Urban Fantasy.  Contemporary.  Whatever.  And each of those actual genres has conventions that should be adhered to, no matter the age of the protagonists.  The kicker, and what makes these books NA, is that the stories center around issues that are very much related to the transitory time of your life when you ARE a new adult.  You’re not in high school, but you’re not well established in your career and talking about 401ks either.

It seems that the vast majority of what’s being talked about in NA is contemporary.  To a point, I think this is because publishers are trying to replicate the success of 50 Shades (which some are crediting as having kicked off NA, though St. Martin’s made their call for New Adult manuscripts all the way back in 2009).  But it’s also because the issues and themes that really suit NA didn’t actually exist before modern society.  It used to be that you went from child to grown up lickity split.  You got married in your late teens, worked your job, had a family.  Rinse.  Repeat.  Even up to a few decades ago, you graduated high school and went straight on out to get a Real Job.  Now going to college is the norm, which delays entry into the Real World.  And the state of the economy is such that full independence from parents isn’t happening for everybody right upon graduation (somebody want to explain how you’re supposed to get experience for an entry level job that requires experience?).   This gives rise to a whole host of new issues and challenges.

Sharon Bayliss makes a great list of possible themes and life events that would be a good fit for NA:

  • College life
  • Moving out of your parents’ house and living alone for the first time
  • First jobs
  • Deciding who you want to be, career-wise, and in general. Identity issues. Existential issues.
  • First serious relationships, finding love
  • Sex – It’s less important that it be a “first time” as it is in YA. But the character should still be figuring stuff out. Since our readers can watch R rated movies, we can also be a little more explicit here without as much controversy.
  • Experimentation – Sex, drugs, alcohol. Of course, not all new adults engage in experimentation, but the phrase, “I experimented with “x” in college,” is a phrase for a reason. 🙂
  • Isolation – Living alone for the first time can be difficult
  • Single life – New adults often do not have life partners and families yet, so their main relationships may be with friends and boyfriends/girlfriends.
  • A struggle to “find yourself”
  • Change – Moving out, going to college, finding a job…it’s a lot of transition.
  • Money challenges

In discussing this issue with Claire, she was asking if I thought there was room for genre fiction in NA.  To which I say HELL YES.  With qualifiers.  Just making your hero or shero fit the age bracket isn’t enough.  Just like in YA, you need to hit on those transition themes that are appropriate to the age group.  And that is going to vary from genre to genre.

To go back to part of Jane’s definition: 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. Their whole world is their oyster. The future is a bit more nebulous. The space for experimentation exists and the cast of characters varies widely.

I say it depends very much on the world in which you’re writing.  A NA high fantasy might be hard to pull off because in that kind of world, there’s not really a lot of in between from child to adult.  Whereas a mystery that follows a lowly graduate student investigating the death of a classmate or favorite professor has plenty of room to hit on those transitions.  Or the bunny I’m playing with that’s straight up urban fantasy and deals with a hero and heroine who are older than teens but are not considered full-fledged warriors in their society yet.  It just depends on how it’s dealt with.

I hope that NA DOES explode on the genre fiction scene because, frankly, we’ve well established that I don’t much like reality, and all these contemporary NA novels about people doing the single life and sleeping around and being all Sex in the City post college hold no appeal for me.  I never did it.  I met my husband at 19. Married him at 23.  SO freaking grateful I got to skip the stress.

Anyway, what about you?  Do you find NA appealing?  Which definition do YOU thing rings most true?

15 thoughts on “New Adult Fiction Defined–And What About Genre Fiction?

  1. I’m with you on defining NA as an audience rather than a genre—but I’ve also seen NA defined as the latest form of “chick lit”, so in that sense, it could be a genre. I think time will tell, as for which definition holds up.

  2. Totally agree that NA should be considered an audience and not a genre. I’d love for NA to be more than just “chick lit” or romance or contemporary, and I’m eager to see if it evolves that way!

  3. Up where you give Bayliss’ list, did you mean NA rather than YA?

    Harry Potter would be YA, right? Would Twilight (yeah, I know you hated it bit it’s the only example I could think of) be NA because it explores sexuality and moving away from school and family?

    1. Twilight is still YA. Plenty of YA explores sexuality. There may be some who would argue it transitioned into NA by the end, but I haven’t read the rest of the quartet myself, so I can’t speak to that (I chucked New Moon at the wall).

  4. I would probably read NA if the story line appealed to me, but I really prefer books where the adults are older. It’s s funny that I’m that way about books, because I like YA movies…A Cinderella Story, Sky High, etc. LOL

  5. I think of YA as a struggle to figure out who you are at a time when everyone is trying to tell you who you should be.

    NA, for me, is often the struggle to figure out who you are, and your place in the world, when that direction is taken out of the equation..

    Not an absolute, but a lot of good YA tends to have adults. Parents, mentors. Even when these people aren’t physically present in the story, there’s often a legacy there. The YA character relies on the lessons learned from these people (sometimes even what not to do) in order to make decisions.

    NA characters often don’t have those authority figures. Sometimes they’re looking for them (and if they have a horsewhip, so much the better? Is that how it is?). Often they’re relying on their peers to help them find their way. (St. Elmo’s Fire, Reality Bites)

    Using the Whedonverse to back up my thinking, when Buffy was in high school, she had Giles and Joyce, who did more caretaking of her than she realized. Part of the problem she had when she went to college was in the way Giles took a big step back from her and left her floundering a bit. In the NA seasons, Giles moves to another continent, Joyce dies, and Buffy struggles with adult responsibilities for which she’s not prepared, despite being the most kickass female on the planet.

    What I most liked about what you said is that NA is more than just having characters 18-23. To be NA, it needs to include something of these transitional struggles. There’s room for that in any genre, including high fantasy, where, if you chose to write NA (rather than just high fantasy with a 19yo protag) part of that choice would be to write a society in which that transitional period exists in some way.

    I think the most important thing in defining NA is to realize that it means something, figure out what that is to you, and then write it on purpose.

  6. “I met my husband at 19. Married him at 23. SO freaking grateful I got to skip the stress.” *high five* Taylor Swift’s song “22” means nothing to me, and I have no regrets about that. 🙂

    THANK YOU for this post! It’s so confusing. If it’s just about sex, that’s really boring to me as a reader. Not that I’m opposed, mind you, I just prefer that it’s part of a good story rather than the focus of it, and I wouldn’t seek books out just for that. I’m not really in the NA-issues stage of life, so I might pass on contemporary NA stories, unless they’re dealing with more universal issues than college life, first apartments, etc.

    Right now, I’m labelling my closest-to-done WIP “mature YA” (protagonist is eighteen- ancient by some YA standards). NA doesn’t seem to have a place for Fantasy, and I don’t want people to be disappointed that there’s not more explicit sex if they’re expecting that. But really, it seems like there are a lot of NA issues in the story. No, she’s not going off to college. But she did just break off a semi-perfect engagement and future (they marry young here), leave her family to find out who she really is, and run off to a foreign country with a stranger to explore ideas and experiences she wasn’t even allowed to consider when she was growing up.* These seem like more NA problems to me than YA, though she deals with YA problems, too (first love, guilt over first break-up, finding her identity beyond her family, fighting with her mom). I don’t have to decide right now, but it’s still tough not knowing, especially if I decide to figure it out on my own.

    It will be interesting to see where this settles. I definitely prefer to think of NA as an audience, rather than a genre; genre sets up much stricter content expectations. Being a new adult is (gasp!) about more than college, sex and getting a job. I’d hate to see the label apply to nothing more than that. I guess the good news is that there’s a lot of overlap between YA and NA audiences; I’m 32 and I still read YA, and I’m sure there are 15-year-olds reading NA stuff. Labels might tell us what to expect, but I doubt they’ll limit readers.

    *I know, I just made this sound like the most trope-tastic thing ever, but I promise it’s a lot more unique than it sounds here. 😉

  7. Ok, my question is have you encountered any NA books you like? Like you said, it’s not a genre all by itself, but more about the characters. I read Girls in White Dresses which is about 4 friends trying to figure their lives out amidst engagements and what not and I really didn’t like it. All the characters seemed flat and stereotyped and it was WORK to finish the book. I’d be interested in books that fall into NA, because technically that’s me as an audience still, but make it interesting! Got any recommendations for an author or book that does that WTF do I do now thing well?

    1. Well, as has been said, the focus currently seems to be on contemporary and very realistic kinds of stories–none of which is my cuppa tea. But I open the floor to others!

  8. This is so interesting to me. I wrote a fantasy with characters in the NA age group with issues to boot before anyone started talking about NA. Then I aged everyone a bit because it wasn’t “old” enough and the content was too adult for YA. It could have been NA if I’d left the ages alone. It needs some revisions…maybe I’ll change it back.

  9. The only thing that strikes me as missing from some of these definitions is the concept of tone and voice…and really, p.o.v. of the character beyond themes. I’ve had a number of people, including long-time pro writers, label an urban fantasy series of mine “New Adult” primarily because of the tone, the fact that it’s first person with a female protagonist, and just the content of her “voice,” meaning the kind of language she uses (she’s in her late 20’s, San Francisco), and the way she thinks about things. There’s a kind of expectation of a more cynical-sounding voice for what is commonly thought of as adult fare, I would argue in addition to the more adult experiences…and most adult fiction is in 3rd person, not in first person. The other thing with this is that most NA seems to invariably have a female protagonist in the first place. So I guess I’m not sure if it’s *wholly* an audience bracket (although all genre is about audience really, that’s the whole POINT of genres, is to tell someone if they might want to read a book or not). What do others think about the tone/voice/p.o.v. issue?

  10. I have not read any of this new genre yet, but am anticipating reading Lisa Renee Jones book ESCAPING REALITY. I love her other genres and can’t wait to reaad this book.—

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