Age-based genres are subjective—there’s not limit to when one must stop flipping through picture books and no requirement for when to begin reading adult fiction. But while it is possible to jump genres, their existence is still essential to properly educate and bring awareness to the themes pertinent to each age group. And while juvenile literature encompasses picture books, middle grade, young adult, and everything in between, there is a lack of literature for eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds. There is, however, a genre of fiction—called new adult (NA)—that hasn’t yet reached widespread recognition by mainstream publishers. New adult differs from young adult in the way that it approaches the topic and action of sex, the ages of characters, and the responsibilities and challenges that they face in their lives.
In the December 2013 edition of Booklist, Michael Cart writes, “Since the early years of this century, a growing number of developmental psychologists, doctors, sociologists, and neuroscientist have been studying this age group and, call it ‘the second decade of adolescence,’ concluding that it constitutes a new distinct life stage.” New adult fiction addresses this distinct life stage and bridges the gap in literature between young adult and mainstream adult.
The target audience for new adult fiction doesn’t quite fit into the young adult age group, as most have finished high school, and many are no longer living at home with their families. There is a greater sense of freedom, whether it is because of going to college or entering the workforce. On the other hand, most emerging adults are not yet starting families, nor do they have mortgages to pay. This stage of life is distinctly different from being either a young adult or an adult. For what is considered its own life stage, one would assume that its own genre of literature would be expected and accepted, but, unfortunately, that is not the case.
While some publishers do recognize new adult fiction, there are limitations. According to Cart, “the term ‘new adult’ (NA) was coined in 2009 by the publisher St. Martin’s Press when it issued a call for ‘fiction similar to YA [young adult] that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of older YA.’” While St. Martin’s Press began publishing new adult fiction after coining the term, other publishing houses haven’t been as receptive. Delacorte Press vice president, Beverly Horowitz, believes that the market for NA fiction is mostly online. This is shown “by the fact that Random House now has four adult digital-only imprints: Hydra for sf [science fiction]/fantasy, Alibi for mystery/suspense, Loveswept for romance and women’s fiction, and…Flirt, which targets ‘the rapidly growing college-age NA audience.’” Rather than recognizing the new adult online imprint as its own entity, it was considered a subset of adult fiction.
New adult fiction novels tackle themes untouched by other genres. Teri Brown writes, “The term encompasses novels with characters in their late teens or early 20s exploring what it means to be an adult.” Brown also interviewed longtime YA editor Karen Grove about the rise of new adult. Grove mentions the numerous NA submissions she received and loved, “but that didn’t quite fit within the parameters of YA. ‘It drove me crazy that there was no place for these books,’ she says. ‘They wouldn’t be successful in YA and they wouldn’t find an audience in adult. They were in between. It seems the 18–24-year-old had been forgotten in literature.’” Since the target audience is older, new adult is able to feature sex throughout the book without too much focus being paid. It is much more normalized and a natural part of the character’s lives. Brown continues the conversation about other themes in new adult: “The good New Adult submissions tend to focus on the conflicts of early adulthood—somewhat like the first Bridget Jones book—dating, jobs, first apartments, money, identity, self-sufficiency, etc.” The conflicts of those in early adulthood fall into these general ideas, and most people just want to be able to connect with the characters they are reading about.
While new adult was created to satisfy the needs of a certain age group, it is accessible to people above the age group. Adults read YA most likely because of the younger characters and more nostalgic themes, which are also prevalent in NA fiction. Rachel Deahl and Judith Rosen highlight this point: “We have an avid YA base that is getting older, so we’re trying to figure out how to accommodate that. We also have the parents of that YA group, who are more actively involved in what their children are reading.” Both parents and their children have been absorbed by these subgenres, despite them not being the targeted demographic. Even though new adult has its own demographic, people outside of the target market can appreciate it too, which is particularly important when considering the sales of new adult and how economics influence publishers to make changes.
In a 2017 Booklist article, Engberg, Seaman, and Vnuk say that new adult “portray[s] characters who are leaving home for the first time, or returning flat broke; navigating college, buckling down to jobs, or not; and, of course, weathering the storms of lust and love.” Its stories about twenty somethings falling in love and navigating their struggles, some centered around relationships and sex, but many featuring a more general view of the beginnings of adulthood. Authors Colleen Hoover and Rainbow Rowell have braved the subgenre with the bestsellers Ugly Love and Fangirl, respectively. Ugly Love features the struggles of a young woman working as a nurse right out of school, while learning how to balance her job and the new relationships she is beginning to form. On the younger side of new adult, Fangirl focuses on college rather than the workplace. As described in the Booklist article, “Rowell explores the world of literary fandom—familiar territory for many NAs—in this novel about a young writer’s tumultuous first year of college.” College is something relatable to the lower range of the new adult age group. The struggles of freshman year is something that can also be easily aged out of, just like other young adult novels, which is why these types of new adult novels are published as young adult rather than adult.
The need for new adult to be recognized as its own subgenre is so prevalent in the publishing world, especially as society’s demands for it are growing and more and more books are being rejected just because there isn’t a “market” for them. The success of Ugly Love and Fangirl, and other new adult titles attest to the fact that there is a market for new adult novels and an audience that is in desperate need of literature that is relatable to them. Recognizing the term and understanding what new adult is represents a huge step in pushing the publishing industry towards taking new adult more seriously in the years to come.
Alyssa Weinberg is a current student at Emerson College, studying the world of publishing. She is from a small town in New Jersey, and can alwaysbe found drinking hot chocolate and reading a YA book.