My thoughts on the “New Adult” genre

One of the new(ish) buzzwords in the publishing industry is “New Adult”. I can’t go a day without someone mentioning something about it in my Twitterfeed or seeing it talked about in a blog post or in a writing-related article.

New Adult is, for all intents and purposes, really just a shelf label. It’s a marketing tool, just like “Young Adult” and “Middle Grade” are both marketing tools. I mean, it was coined by a publishing imprint. If that’s not a sign of being a marketing tool, I don’t know what is.

I’ve been giving the whole New Adult thing a good deal of thought, since it currently seems de rigueur for an author to at least be thinking about a New Adult concept, or at least have an idea of how she might approach it. And here’s what I’ve decided:

New Adult is that time when you’ve left the structured confines of school and/or living at home and you’re striking out on your own for the very first time.

It’s not an age, per se. A New Adult novel could have a protagonist who is a recent high school graduate, someone in their mid-twenties, someone in their late twenties, or even someone in their early thirties. It’s not about age: It’s about the life stage.

“What are you talking about?” you ask. “Give me some examples!”

If you’d like to watch a few movies that illustrate the time period I’m thinking of, check out Reality Bites. (No, really. Click on the link to the trailer above if you haven’t seen the movie before, or if it’s been a really long time, or if you just want to drool over Ethan Hawke in all his yummy GenX glory.) This is definitely New Adult. St. Elmo’s Fire, too. I think Singles is on the older end of New Adult, but it definitely qualifies in my mind. Want something a little more recent? How about American Reunion?

Are TV shows more your thing? Consider Don’t Trust the B* in Apartment 23 or see if you can catch earlier episodes of Melrose Place. And of course Girls on HBO is a perfect example of what I would consider New Adult.

If Middle Grade is about capturing a time when anything is possible and Young Adult chronicles a time when everything is tragic, I see New Adult as the combination of the two. Anything is possible, but any failure is tragic. Gone are the rigid confines of school (though I think characters in grad school, law school, and med school would still qualify) and parental authority. Now the burden falls entirely on you, and you no longer have that safety net to catch you.

You’ve been on your own long enough to let your crazy side loose (if you have one), so you’ve already Been There Done That.

You’re embarking on your first career, maybe planning a wedding, maybe watching your friends get married and wondering if you’ll ever meet That Guy.

You’ve experienced just enough to think you’re worldly but haven’t quite realized there’s a hell of a lot more that you don’t quite know yet – and you hate it when people condescendingly pat you on the head and say, “Yeah, well, you’ll learn.”

You’ve survived adolescence and are back to thinking that you can do anything you set your mind to doing – and that’s awesome because you haven’t yet learned that there are limits to what you can do.

Like I said: I think New Adult is a life stage. Maybe your character is newly out of high school and is thrust into the very scary Adult World. Maybe your character is still in college and figuring out how to pay tuition and bills and expenses on her own. Maybe your character is a new college grad desperately seeking a job – any job – to make ends meet.

There’s way more drama in New Adult than in Young Adult, but on such a different level. There’s a lot more at stake – real things, like the potential of getting your car repossessed or facing eviction from your apartment. Sure, your character can believe anything is possible, but she’s got a whole lot more on the line if she fails because Mom and Dad aren’t going to be there to help pick up the pieces. (And if they are, she wouldn’t want them to be.)

Am I right in my approach to it? I have no idea. I’m not a published author (yet), nor am I an expert on the publishing industry. From what I can tell, the general consensus lumps college experiences in with New Adult, but I respectfully disagree. I also disagree with those who think New Adult is just “sexed up YA.” But I do agree with those who say that New Adult stories represent that time between being an Angsty teenager and being an established woman.

And based on my experiences, there’s no magic age when you’re suddenly “experienced.” That title comes after a lot of – you guessed it – experiences.

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4 comments

  1. sarahcradit

    This is exactly my understanding of what New Adult is supposed to represent…and would agree with all of your examples.

    And even though its a marketing ploy, its been something of a life saver for me…my friend and I wrote a series years ago (about mid-twenties folks that are going through some of their first really adult-level experiences) that we want to revive and polish up, but there was never a right genre for it because it was too mature for YA and still a little “young” feeling for general fiction. Now suddenly there’s a perfect place for it!

    • E.M.

      There’s definitely a void in the market for that 20-something crowd. Truthfully, I’m not sure marketers knew how to handle those kinds of stories. They’re still coming-of-age stories, but the protagonist is out of their teens. It’s a story about “grown-ups”, but they’re still too immature.

      I’m not saying there isn’t a need for the New Adult genre. Right now, it’s still relatively new and people are talking about it – so now is the perfect time to get something out there! My bigger commentary is on what I think the content should be, which is to say what I would write if I were writing that genre. (Which I’m currently not. But I have an idea. So that means that I might. Soon. Ish. Maybe.)

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