Halfway into NaNoWriMo, it occurred to me to ask a friend and fellow writing buddy how she classifies her book. It was a routine question more than anything - her book deals with a group of twentysomethings navigating the intricacies of the Hollywood film industry. Some are old pros who have grown up to it, and some are newcomers to the scene, seeing it as daunting and majestic in turn. One of the daunted is the protagonist - who is new not only to this crazy world, but also to the region, to her job, to most aspects of her life as a new adult.
But then my friend replied with "Young Adult, I guess," and I began to question everything I knew about categories. "I mean," she said, "I know the characters are in the New Adult range, but it won't be NA because nobody will be having explicit sex."
It might not have struck a chord with me, perhaps, had I not been struggling with this question for a considerable while myself: do we have a genre on our hands defined exclusively by its sexual content?
When New Adult emerged onto the scene a few short years ago, it was classified as "dealing with new adults, and their many firsts: the first time living alone, the first job, the first college experiences, the first time in a new city, the first time abroad, the first stable relationships, the first sexual experiences". It was meant, in short, to fill a gap in the market between Young Adult, which dealt with teenagers who were mostly still living with their parents, and the Adult literature, where characters started out largely independent and who aren't as new to the ways of the world. But those first pioneers of the New Adult genre did place a heavy emphasis on romance and sexual experiences, and in doing so it established a trend which precious few NA books have broken since. If other firsts exist within the story, they are very much secondary to the romantic and sexual aspects. Very quickly, the New Adult became known as "Young Adult, with sex," and it has been a simplification which is has not been able to shake.
New Adult was meant to be a category rather than a genre, in much the same way as Children's Literature is a category, and as Middle Grade, Young Adult, or Adult are categories. Merriam-Webster defines 'genre' as artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content. A 'category', meanwhile, is any of the several fundamental and distinct classes to which entities or concepts belong. In our ever-fluctuating world of new releases and fresh genres, it is only too easy to forget the distinction. But a distinction nevertheless exists, and it boils down to this: to deem a book Young Adult tells us nothing more than that it concerns a teenager. Two books within the YA category can have absolutely nothing in common apart from their characters' age range(s). Most of these categories recognize and contain a multitude of genres: from fantasy to contemporary, from dystopian to science-fiction, and beyond.
Like most of the categories mentioned above, New Adult meant to allude to age range far more than the principal plot of the novel. Calling a book Middle Grade tells us very little about its content. But calling a book New Adult tells us almost exactly what to expect therein. Because New Adult has established a pattern which authors tend to follow rather than challenge, and a plot trend which remains virtually unchanged from its inception until today. New Adult is largely contemporary, largely centered on romance, and will almost inevitably feature explicit sex in multiple scenes. There are tropes which have morphed into unspoken rules, and a myriad of subgenres left almost entirely untouched and unexplored.
Recently, some of the mostly-YA authors have taken to challenging the NA status quo in the way that only YA authors can. Bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout has so far penned several NA paranormal series where romance does exist, but is secondary to the main plot which goes far beyond romance. Likewise, Sarah J. Maas's newly-published A Court of Thorns and Roses debuted as #2 on the New York Times bestseller list, as a New Adult fantasy novel which marries fairy lore with fairytale retellings. In the spirit of the original idea of NA, this NA fantasy and NA paranormal does approach themes of sex and romance more boldly than a YA book would. But its chief plot goes far beyond mere sexual exploration. The firsts are those very firsts that the genre (category?) first aspired to, but never quite achieved: it is the discovery of self, the discovery of our strengths independent of our sexuality, of our talents independent of our partners.
So this is our call to writers, professional and amateur alike: broaden your horizons. Broaden our horizons. Explore a whole market yet unexplored. Speak to twenty-year-old new adults in a new and creative way. And we will be the first to champion your novels and attempt to give you the platform you need to put your novel out there and make it count. There's A Whole New New Adult World out there. And we for one can't wait to get to experience it.
Love New Adult? Less than enthusiastic about New Adult? Share your opinions with us in the comments below. We are open to any and all discussion topics, and any and all recommendation of New Adult books which break the rules. Other categories have taught us that that's what rules are for, anyway.
THE FAULT IN NEW ADULT
4/ 5Oleh The Honest Bookclub