Grappling with New Adult Fiction

An emerging genre provides uncertainty and opportunity for fiction writers

By MFA@CIIS graduate, Emma Webster.

When I tell people I still love and read YA, they typically picture me holed up in my bedroom pouring over The Hunger Games or lusting after Edward in Twilight. While I will admit I read both those novels when they first came out, the Young Adult genre is far more than just its small fantasy fiction subcategory. The YA books that I enjoy typically involve college-aged characters or older, and many are coming-of-age stories for people in their early twenties.

A 2015 Nielsen survey revealed that 80% of YA books are actually purchased by adults for themselves, assuring me I am far from alone in my rabid consumption of these stories. Today, Young Adult has become far too broad of a genre to encompass everything it currently holds — from Twilight to The Perks of Being a Wallflower to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Characters can range from 13-year-olds experiencing their first periods to 25-year-olds navigating the working world. It’s impossibly vast, and it leaves many writers wondering where their work might fit.

Enter the “New Adult” genre — a new and emerging genre hoping to bridge some of the gap.

The term “New Adult” was first coined in 2009 by St. Martin’s Press. They defined it as, “cutting-edge fiction, similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult — a sort of older YA.” Young Adult novels tend to focus on protagonists in their teenage years, while New Adult work features protagonists ranging in age from 18–30. The genre focuses on themes of leaving home, sex and sexuality, and career choices — what I would call themes about “the real world.”

The genre initially faced mixed reactions, with some viewing it simply as a marketing scheme. A Jezebel headline in 2013 read, “’New Adult’ Fiction is Now an Official Literary Genre Because Marketers Want Us to Buy Things.” But a lot of what we talk about when we talk about genres has a little
to do with books and a whole lot to do with marketing. Even while writing my book I found myself having to actively not think about marketing — about what audience might be interested, what the book jacket might look like, or what news publications might publish the press release.

Though the initial reaction to New Adult was mixed, the genre slowly gained traction. When publishers were hesitant to adopt the genre, authors were forced to self-publish. Writers like Cora Carmack, Colleen Hoover, and Jamie McGuire started out with self-publishing their New Adult novels and saw their books land among the bestselling lists. The success of these self-published New Adult novels inspired some publishers to jump on the opportunity.

Atria Books of Simon & Schuster republished Jamie McGuire’s New Adult novel Beautiful Disaster in 2012 after its initial success under McGuire’s self-publication. Independent publishers like Zest Books in San Francisco now has a New Adult imprint. Random House has an established digital-only imprint called “Flirt” specifically for New Adult titles, Amazon publishing has made a move into New Adult, and Goodreads has a New Adult tag.

Many authors credit the genre with being able to place their novel in a concrete category where in the past they felt in limbo.

As a hopeful author, the New Adult genre could be a good fit for my novel, which focuses on navigating the “real world” — the world that comes right after the ending of the Young Adult books that I love. I have worried that, as I near 30, I’m a bit too out of touch with the world of teenagers to write a believable YA novel. My book centers around a 24-year-old protagonist entering her first “big kid” job at a sex, alcohol, and drug-fueled sales startup. It has themes that fit YA, like love and coming of age, but it also features sex and drugs, two elements that are sometimes too risqué for YA.

In this sense, New Adult feels like the answer I’ve been waiting for, a neat little container. There is a market for these novels, as authors like Jamie McGuire have proven, and there are publishers willing to print them. Several books I’ve recently enjoyed and looked to for inspiration could easily fall into the New Adult genre. The publisher and the marketing strategy determines whether it gets that label.

This is where doubt creeps in. There is so much confusion in a genre that’s far from established. The publishers exist, yes, but many bookstores don’t have a New Adult section, leaving individual booksellers to determine the genre of my book. Many publishing imprints for New Adult books are digital only, which doesn’t appeal to me as someone who’s always dreamt of seeing my book in a store on a shelf.

Like so many other things in life, I’m taking a wait-and-see approach. I am encouraged by the continued development of the New Adult genre. I think there is a place for it in the literary world. One day, when I open my own bookstore, I hope to dedicate an entire bookshelf to the New Adult genre without hesitation. Maybe my own novel will even sit on that shelf.

Visit Emma Webster’s Medium page to read more of her work or visit her portfolio at www.emma-e-webster.com

To follow Emma’s work and that of other CIIS creatives, follow MFA@CIIS on instagram.

Blog of the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and Writing program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA, U.S.A.

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