The term “New Adult” has been kicking around for a while — since 2009 in fact, when St. Martin’s Press accidentally coined it in a call for manuscripts. Some champion it and some ignore it — and that latter reaction is the subject of an article this week in The Globe and Mail, which discusses how both traditional publishers and, particularly, booksellers are being slow to recognize New Adult (“or NA” — N/A?) as a genre.
Well, that’s because it kind of isn’t one. Or at the very least, it shouldn’t be. The Globe and Mail defines New Adult as “a new and growing genre of literature aimed at primarily female readers between 18 and 25” featuring “mainly university or college-aged protagonists dealing with early twenties life, in particular romance and sexual relationships.”
Okay. But isn’t this just putting a label on the older end of romance-leaning YA? Do we need to do that? I’d say we do not. Also, doesn’t that description cover a lot of ground? Is The Secret History a New Adult novel? Young college students + sex + occult sacrifices, and yet, it doesn’t feel like one. The article asserts that 50 Shades of Grey is in fact a New Adult book, which is confusing, since it was originally made popular by veteran adults and doesn’t really seem to be aiming at the place in between YA and adult literature.
But the real question is, why do we think 18-25 year olds need another stepping stone — whether actual or intellectual — before they make it to full-on adult literature? If it’s a matter of finding books that people (women) that age relate to, well, there are plenty of books out there that deal with twenty-somethings trying to make it in the world, plenty of campus novels that speak to the experiences of people in that age bracket. And that’s also a huge age range, particularly in a reading life — 18-25 roughly covers seniors in high school to people four years out of college — a time when you’re figuring out what you like, what you don’t like, having your postmodern literature phase, reading Dostoevsky for the first time, getting sucked into the David Foster Wallace vortex, or whatever floats your boat. And if the books being called New Adult float your boat, more power to you. Read whatever you want. But it’s condescending to insist on a new, sexier genre in between YA and adult books, especially in a world where adults read YA books all the time, and many young adults read “adult” literary fiction just as often.
And forgive me, but isn’t it kind of sexist to imagine that “primarily women” need this stepping stone? Is that suggesting that 18-year-old men can jump straight from The Catcher in the Rye to Mason & Dixon, but ladies need more simply-written soft porn in between? Sure, on a basic level, it’s women buying these romance novels, but since this is mostly an artificially created genre, where is the parallel genre for men? There isn’t one.
“New Adult” became an official category last year, when it received its own Book Industry Standards and Communications Code, but I still don’t believe in it. And neither do booksellers, apparently. It makes sense: in our Kindle-heavy age, bookstore shelf space is becoming scarcer and scarcer, and so of course booksellers don’t want to make a place for “New Adult” books. From all appearances, they’re just YA novels with extra sex. Or Fifty Shades of Grey, I guess. But the bottom line is this: as many writers and readers of fantasy and science fiction will tell you, for a robust literary world, we need fewer genre distinctions, not more. Let’s not let the marketing teams of the word shove books into little boxes of supposed meaning, or convince us of things about ourselves, or make those things true.