What is New Adult?

If you’ve never heard of the term ‘New Adult’ in connection with literature, you are not alone. I only heard about it after I started writing within it. I then came to understand that I’d also read novels within this category. To put it simply, ‘new adult’ is what the name suggests—that is, “New Adult is an emerging market that brings readers in their late teens and early twenties, who are all too often missing from the pages of both Young Adult and Adult books, to the forefront” (Kieffer 1). In contrast with Young Adult (YA) which is aimed at teen readers (ages twelve to seventeen) with protagonists of the same age, New Adult (NA) targets emerging adult readers (ages eighteen to twenty-five). The fan website New Adult Alley states that, “‘New Adult characters are often portrayed experiencing college, living away from home for the first time, military deployment, apprenticeships, a first steady job and first serious relationship’” (Beckton 6). As with YA fiction, NA is a literary category containing all genres and sub-genres for every type of consumer (Beckton 7). Does this describe any novel you’ve read? Perhaps a novel, of any genre, set at college, with a protagonist in their late teens or early twenties? If so, it’s likely you’ve read a New Adult novel without realising it.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, there is great appeal to reading NA fiction. Naughton argues, “‘Both the characters in new adult and the readership for new adult are people who are exploring identity, exploring their purpose in life, exploring what’s important to them,’” says Sarah Frantz, senior editor at Riptide. ‘They’re also of a generation where LGBT characters and friends are natural, even expected…so it makes sense that LGBTQ themes show up in their books’” (3-4). This is fantastic for representation in fiction as it fosters empathy for minority groups within our society, allows fresh voices and themes to enter the literary zeitgeist as well as showcasing under-represented groups to see themselves portrayed in literature. This is an important step for, say young LGBT characters, in the same vein as it was important to portray strong, authentic women in the early 20th century literature after centuries of male-dominated protagonists—it indicates our societal progress and allows literature to explore important contemporary issues. However, you may be thinking to yourself ‘but I already get an exploration of identity and have LGBT characters in the YA novels I read. Why is NA special?’ Carnegie medal nominated Katy Moran provides the answer by stating, “‘I also think that while there’s no theme you can’t cover in YA or children’s fiction you do have a responsibility to your reader when writing for teenagers which you don’t have when writing for adults’” (Hughes 1). Because NA readers and the protagonists they’re reading are adults, more mature themes can be explored in refreshingly frank and non-saccharine or figurative ways (as is often done in YA). Themes such as the coming-of-age-experience, mental health (including depression and suicide), abuse, sex and sexuality (including LGBT), and emotional growth and relationships are prevalent within the NA literary category and are depicted in a more mature and sophisticated manner than in YA (Kieffer 1). How many books and television shows have you consumed where the drama is set in High School and how many have been set at College? I would hazard to guess that fewer were set in a College—which suggests a gap in the market for those eager to exploit and explore NA fiction.

I argue that the difference between YA and NA extends beyond merely the age of the protagonist and the freedom to depict franker elements. For me, Identity is a key aspect of defining NA and the deeper psychological exploration NA allows. Using a simple transformation analogy from nature, YA is the depiction of identity as a newly emerged butterfly, emerging from a chrysalis. NA, on the other-hand, follows that same butterfly as it explores life: taking the very first few flights, mating and finding a new home.

Where did this category spring from? Believe it or not, a publisher stumbled into it when, “In 2009, St Martin’s Press (a subsidiary of Macmillan) held a contest for submissions. They were actively looking for great, new, cutting edge fiction with protagonists slightly older than YA and can appeal to an adult audience…a sort of ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’” (Jae Jones qtd in McAlister 4-5). Of course, there have been novels with twenty-something protagonists before 2009, however it was the first time the term was both used and loosely defined. As Jae Jones observed (McAlister, ibid), market forces propelled the genesis of NA. The most significant market force was the fact up to 55 percent of the people who both purchased and read YA, were adults. Incredibly, a majority of the market were not the target ‘teen’ audience. This shows that adults were seeking out fiction that contained elements consistent within YA—i.e. coming of age— but also driving demand for more mature and sophisticated content (Beckton 7). Not only did the analysis make sense at a societal level (considering the anecdotal trend of YA novels becoming darker and more mature in the twenty-first century), it made sense financially. If audiences wanted more of The Battle of Hogwarts type scenes within Harry Potter then how would a publisher exploit this new trend? The answer is simple; publish fiction aimed specifically at this segment of the market—New Adult fiction was born.

Interestingly, like Children’s and YA literary categories before it, there are psychological and educational forces behind the NA literary categorisation, as noted by many theorists. Beckton states that “Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett proposes a paradigm to address these considerations, which he names ‘emerging adulthood’, noting that these transitional changes constitute a separate period of the life course (2007). Arnett notes that in a short time this theory was adopted by many fields including psychiatry, sociology, anthropology [and] education…” (2). If emerging or new adulthood is accepted as a distinct life-stage, (just as the category of ‘teens’ in the 20th century), then it is appropriate for a literary categorisation to cater for this specific readership for educational, representational and developmental purposes.

The NA category is not without its critics. As Wetta argues, “Some commentary heralded the category as the potential ‘next big thing’ and the ‘hottest category of books’. But others wrote it off as a passing craze, marketing ploy or ‘sexed-up’ version of young adult literature” (1). Perhaps the most stinging criticism is that the NA category is just ‘50 Shades of Grey for the college-aged’ (Beckton 7). It is legitimate to argue that the Romance and Erotica genres fit neatly within the New Adult genre, however there are a number of other genres which NA fiction can house just as comfortably. For example, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (in fact published by St Martin’s) “…features college freshmen who are deeply engaged in online culture and fandom. In Fangirl, Cath struggles to establish her identity outside her relationship with her twin sister and her life as an author of popular fan fiction” (Wetta 2). I believe Fangirl is unquestionably a contemporary NA novel as it focuses on a college-aged protagonist and depicts her burgeoning new identity. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas is also framed as a New Adult novel. Wetta argues that “The fantasy title features many of the hallmark characteristics of NA…” (2). I’d highlight that urban fantasy (UF) certainly fits with the NA category. These examples assist in dispelling the critique that NA is only populated by the Romance or Erotica genres.

The NA literary category is still emerging. As a new category, NA may appear to have very few titles in the bookstore. For example, with many of the novels I have referred to in this piece still being published as YA fiction through YA imprints (due to cost and marketing considerations) while they are classified as NA on eBook publications and online review sites such as Goodreads. Exposure to the ‘NA’ term is low, and not widely used by the general public. But the numbers of New Adult titles being published are growing and, as I believe it’s only a matter of time before there is a critical mass of NA novels, look out for a distinct NA Category in bookstores in the near future. The 2020s promises to be an exciting time for both NA writers and readers.

Please keep an eye out for many of fantastic New Adult titles at the UQ Alumni Book Fair being held in 2021.

Written by Shaun Stephen, Masters student in Writing, Editing & Publishing at UQ.

Beckton, D 2015, ‘Bestselling Young Adult fiction: trends, genres and readership’, in J Seymour & D Beckon (eds), TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses, Special Iss. 32: Why YA?: Researching, writing and publishing Young Adult fiction in Australia, pp. 1-18, accessed 21 February 2018, < http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue32/Beckton.pdf >. 
Hughes, Sarah. All grown up now: the writers blurring lines between teen and adult fiction. The Guardian. 23 June 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/22/young-adult-authors-grow-into-fiction-bestsellers

Kristen, Kieffer. What is New Adult Fiction? well-storied. 21 July 2017. https://www.well-storied.com/blog/what-is-new-adult-fiction. 
McAlister, Jodi. “Defining and Redefining Popular Genres: The Evolution of ‘New Adult’ Fiction.” Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 4, Dec. 2018, pp. 1–19. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=anh&AN=133491420&site=ehost-live.

Naughton, Julie. "New Adult Matures." Publishers Weekly, vol. 261, no. 28, 2014, pp. 37-n/a. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/docview/1545555009?accountid=14723. 

Wetta, Molly. "Teen Literature Comes of Age." School Library Journal, vol. 62, no. 11, 2016, pp. 44-n/a. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/docview/1833185437?accountid=14723.