What Ever Happened to New Adult?

Over a decade ago, readers, authors, and publishers alike started to recognize a widening gap between the young adult and adult fiction genres. While the young adult genre tends to encompass stories targeted towards readers ages twelve to eighteen, adult fiction almost always features thirty-year-olds and older. This left out an entire market of twenty-somethings who wanted their stories told as well. Hence, in 2009, St. Martin’s Press coined the term “new adult” to describe this subgenre of fiction that bridged the gap between YA and adult.

In the following years, the new adult genre saw a surge in popularity, especially in the self-publishing community. However, it was almost immediately written off by major publishers as a marketing gimmick and dismissed as a credible genre. Publishers believed that readers’ needs were already being met through YA and adult books. This led best-selling authors such as Cora Carmack and Jennifer L. Armentrout to go down the self-publishing route in order to get their new adult fiction into readers’ hands.

Although this new genre proved promising in the early 2010s, and even started to become more and more accepted in traditional publishing and bookselling, the genre has fallen off in the last five years. Mentions of the genre have all but disappeared, even though books that technically fit the requirements are still being published by major publishers. Take Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, or House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas, both published in the last year. Both feature characters in their early to mid-twenties, and both pull elements from YA and adult fiction. Reading them, it’s clear that they don’t quite fit into either category, and instead lie somewhere in the middle. And yet, in both cases, they are marketed not as new adult, but just as adult fiction.

Some of the resistance to using the new adult label has come from the way the genre has been portrayed over the years. When new adult had its first surge of popularity, the majority of books being published and marketed in the genre were romance or erotica. This led to the stereotype that new adult was just “YA but with sex,” and prevented it from truly branching out into other subgenres such as sci-fi and fantasy or thriller and horror. Without being able to break out into other subgenres as YA and adult fiction have both accomplished, new adult is stuck being seen as a small subgenre of adult fiction that encompasses romance books for the twenty-somethings. This failure of the genre is the main reason why it just can’t seem to rise to the same popularity as a genre like YA.

Despite there being a proven market for new adults that are seeking stories about people like them, the genre seems to have failed to truly establish itself as a staple in publishing. Books continue to be published that fit the category, but they are still few and far between, and are refusing the label “new adult.” It is hard to say what the future of this genre looks like, but it seems that for now, the new adult revolution has officially flopped.

It’s all a matter of genre

Let me begin by outing myself as a literary snob. On many occasions, I have defended myself against this label, protesting that due to a deep affection for certain titles or authors that are considered to be genre, I clearly love all good storytelling equally and am not an elitist. Nonetheless, when confronted with the choice between melodic accounts of hardship, human frailty, and dust-bowl depressions or epic tales of heroes wielding swords, creatures from other dimensions, and damsels in distress, I will choose the former every time. During the recent Write to Publish event, instead of attending the panel titled “Literary Fiction: Stories Close to the Heart,” as I had intended, I found myself glued to the words of Allison Moon, Jemiah Jefferson, Stacey Wallace Benefiel, and Holly Lorincz as they discussed genre fiction on the panel “Merit, Shmerit: Genre Fiction and the People Who Love It.” Confronted with their points of view regarding the faulty perception that literary fiction and genre fiction are innately at odds with each other and their unified suggestion that the term genre is not much more than a marketing technique having little to do with the merit of a piece of writing, I realized that I am guilty of subscribing to the notion that literary fiction is real and important in a way that genre fiction simply is not.

Panelists discussing genre fiction

The panel on genre fiction at Write to Publish 2014.

The panel began their discussion by trying to define the term genre, an umbrella word that is arbitrarily applied to anything that is fiction or creative nonfiction and not considered to be literary fiction. Whether horror, romance, science fiction, western, or mystery, what seems to be most central to determination of genre is the identifiable presence of certain characteristics, such as character stereotypes or the presence of a specific set of implausible situations. As Lorincz, an editing and publishing consultant at MacGregor Literary, pointed out, this is often problematic because readers’ expectations become entangled in the formulaic style of each genre, meaning that authors in that genre often have to conform their storylines within predetermined boundaries. Interestingly, although pieces of literary fiction are considered to be serious, detailed works that are complex and multilayered, the idea that genre writers have to adhere to conscribed parameters if they want to write about a certain type of character suggests that a different complexity exists between these authors, their writing, and their readers: a genre writer who desires to be distinct and to generate an audience must do so within a confining set of circumstances, leaving the literary author more freedom to explore.

Lorincz went on to say that in the current market, all writing with female protagonists between eighteen and twenty-three years of age is pigeonholed into the new adult category, a perfect example of the problematic nature she described earlier. Whether or not such an author intended to write a new adult title, it is likely that the writer will be encouraged to add more content that is specific to the new and largely nonspecific genre. In this case, that content is likely to be heavy and frequent exhibitions of sexuality, an element that itself apparently prevents a novel from being perceived as serious, complex, or multilayered. Stacey Wallace Benefiel, the author of several YA literature books, described her experience with publishers who suggested that she alter her manuscript to conform to YA tropes, and explained that her ultimate frustration with the publishers’ conflicting expectations led her to self-publish.

Perhaps the meaning is even more nondescript, as suggested by Allison Moon, who stated that genre is nothing more than a fictitious term useful only for industry marketing. Moon, who has self-published two books of a series described as a lesbian coming-of-age story—with werewolves—discussed the possibility that many of the lines used to define genres are based on divisions that have little to nothing to do with quality of the writing. Instead, categories are determined along social divisions such as gender lines. Moon revealed that part of her impetus for writing the Tales of the Pack series was being told by a male peer that no one would be interested in reading about big, hairy females. She then elaborated on her experiment, noting that she did not conform to the prescribed tropes of the supernatural romance genre. Not only do her stories highlight empowerment of female characters and confront societal mores about sexuality and gender performativity, but they break the golden rule of genre writing: they do not provide the reader with a happy, romantic ending. While that certainly sounds serious, detailed, complex, and multilayered to me, there is that messy business about all the sex and the supernatural beasts. One thing we know for sure is that only genre fiction details graphic sexuality (just think Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates) or contains elements of supernatural transformations (like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). How then does the term genre relate in any way to relevance of social worth or quality of authorship?

Jemiah Jefferson, like Moon, writes about the intersection between the supernatural and sexuality, and claimed during the panel that genre is defined by the attempt to create success in multiple forms. In that case, the issue is not lack of complexity, but exhibition of specific forms of complexity. The idea of literary fiction, then, is disparate from the reality, which is that the form itself is a genre, and does not specify a degree of quality distinct from any other genre. Each panelist is deeply committed to the role they play in the industry. Benefiel is focused on engaging with her audience on a personal level, Lorincz is determined to connect each passionate author with their reader, Jefferson refuses to conform to societal expectations in life or in her writing, and Moon confronts and obliterates gender expectations and the heteronormative dominance prominent within fantasy fiction. It is hard to conceptualize a system which would denigrate the roles they play in the literary world as being somehow less significant than their “literary” counterparts.