By: Kara MacKenzie
June 2nd, 2023
This article is part of our Winter 2023 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
“Red, White, and Royal Blue.” “A Court of Thorns and Roses.” “It Ends With Us.” “The Magicians.” “Fangirl.”
Although you may not know it, if you are familiar with these titles then you are familiar with the emerging, little-known category called New Adult Fiction. Although books like these have recently dominated bestseller lists in the United States, the category itself receives little attention and is highly stigmatized by the publishing community.
Coined in 2009 at St. Martin’s Press, the term New Adult Fiction refers to books that “bridge the gap between Young Adult and Adult genres,” according to Goodreads. Although it is often misunderstood by publishers and booksellers, the category is not simply Young Adult with sex scenes and explicit language. Instead, it combines aspects of both YA and Adult fiction to tell stories that appeal specifically to those who are beginning to navigate adulthood for the first time: no longer adolescents, but not quite established adults either.
Writer’s Digest columnist Kristan Hoffman describes New Adult as a category that is all about transition. “The transformation from child to adult doesn’t happen overnight … but the transition from teen to adult doesn’t happen overnight either. There’s a period of time where adulthood feels like a new pair of shoes. The expectations of independence and self-sufficiency are still new, still being broken in. New Adults are the people who have just begun to walk in those shoes; New Adult fiction is about their blisters and aches.”
New Adult fiction provides its readers, who are mainly 18–25 years old, with stories that center around their experiences with mental health, social issues, sexuality, emotional growth, relationships and coming of age. Although these are themes that are shared by both YA and Adult fiction, New Adult is able to present them from the distinct perspective of a person who is navigating the adult world for the first time, addressing readers who want books that reflect their unique experiences, situations and challenges.
For readers like Yazzy Amjad, a senior at Michigan State University, the category is extremely valuable. “I read New Adult because it’s more relatable for me nowadays,” she said. “I’m in an in-between stage of wanting a book with the pace of a young adult novel (and sometimes the writing style) but with situations that people in their early adulthood face.”
Sydney Savage, a reader and author of New Adult fiction, agrees. “Your 20s are the time to try new things and experience things and find out who you are, and I love that there’s a genre for that,” she says. “I read and write New Adult because, being a young adult, it’s nice reading a story and realizing I’m not alone.”
According to journalist Vi La Bianca, these stories can be especially important for those whose self-discovery journeys occurred outside of high school. “Self-discovery being reserved for the high school arena — besides being unrealistic (maturation is never started at 14 and finished by 17) — is fundamentally biased against groups that might not have had the ability to even begin that process until they were much older,” they wrote in an article for Medium. For those who did not have their own coming-of-age experiences as adolescents, New Adult addresses a crucial gap in the traditional publishing industry.
One group of readers who can especially benefit from this unique representation is the queer community. Many queer people were not willing or able to come out before leaving high school, which means that they did not experience a traditional self-actualization period when they were young.
La Bianca states that “first crushes, first relationships, interactions with family, entry into their careers, etc. may come much later, in college or even after. This means there is not only a dearth of books where queer protagonists are even represented, but that coming-of-age stories are perpetually geared towards different age ranges.” New Adult is a way for young queer adults to see themselves and their journeys to adulthood represented in a way that they are not in other categories.
Critics of the category claim that it is an unnecessary distinction. However, the ways that the themes of unfamiliar responsibilities, obstacles and emotional challenges are explored can vary dramatically between teens, well-established adults and those who are navigating the space in-between. As Hoffman writes, “New Adult fiction has the potential to help facilitate new adults through the immensely stressful and emotional experiences they face in their day-to-day lives,” something that YA and Adult fiction may not be able to do as effectively.
If New Adult fiction is such an important category then why is the term, which has existed for over a decade, still so obscure? The answer to that question involves a combination of misunderstandings, stigmatization and controversy that has resulted in New Adult being discarded by the publishing industry, ignored by booksellers and criticized by readers.
One reason that the publishing industry and readers alike have rejected the New Adult label is the misconception that the books are just YA, but explicit. The category is dominated by romance and erotica novels, which have unfortunately caused it to be highly stigmatized – an article for popular culture magazine Flavorwire titled “The ‘New Adult’ Genre Is Still Condescending and Pointless” is an example. In this article, writer Emily Temple calls New Adult “mostly an artificially created genre,” claiming that the books are “just YA novels with extra sex.”
Savage has seen the popularity of erotica in New Adult, and she wishes that these themes were not seen as necessary. “I feel like sometimes New Adult romance [authors] feel like there needs to be sex scenes and sexualized characters. But there’s more to love than sex, and I don’t think they’re always needed.”
“I think it’s adding to the confusion and negative views from publishers [about] the genre. Having a romance-dominated genre adds to the oversexualization,” says Amjad, who has recently noticed publishers and readers spurn the category. “Sex and romantic relationships aren’t the only concerns people in their early to late twenties have. It would actually be nice to see a novel written in the new adult fiction genre not geared to romance. It would provide more chance for relatability for readers.”
Indeed, New Adult fiction relies heavily on its relatability to its target audience. If romance and erotica are its only books with visibility, then a large part of the intended audience will move on to a new genre. Although many of the most well-known New Adult books do have erotic themes, this is by far not their only appeal. There is much more to discover in the New Adult category, if only it was given a fair chance.
Another reason that New Adult has been rejected by publishers and booksellers is its low marketability. Shelving the books in the Adult section means that they will be hard for the target audience to find, but shelving them in the YA section risks children and young teenagers picking up books with mature scenes and language. As Sarah Nicolas writes for Book Riot, “It unfortunately makes sense for publishers to classify these books for adult or young adult shelves and market them as crossovers, because there are no new adult … sections in major book review publications.”
The books are also unlikely to have their own shelf space in libraries and bookstores. This space is primarily divided based on traditional genre labels, which means that it is doubtful that a new category such as New Adult would get its own section. Even if it did, booksellers are hesitant to use the label, as it could be mistaken for new releases in Adult fiction, which makes it extremely hard to advertise.
With all of the controversy surrounding New Adult fiction, it is hard to predict whether the relatively new category will last.
At times, it feels unlikely that New Adult Fiction will be picked up by the mainstream publishing industry. It is hard to market and advertise because of its obscurity, and the category has been highly stigmatized by readers despite its uniquely relatable themes.
Amjad is skeptical of the category’s longevity for these reasons, saying “I think the content of the genre will stick around, but the title of the genre — I’m not so sure. I think whether this genre sticks around for some time [depends on] whether or not they choose to axe the term ‘new adult.’”
However, Savage believes that readers need New Adult fiction too much for it to simply fade away. “I do think the genre will be around a long time simply because there will always be young adults who are trying to find themselves,” she said.
New Adult is a relatively new category, so there is a chance that it has a long future ahead of it. It won’t be easy, but if it can overcome its controversies and convince publishers and readers of its value, then it could be here to stay. After all, there will always be readers who would benefit from seeing their long, complicated journeys to adulthood represented.
Kara MacKenzie is currently a senior studying Professional & Public Writing and Women’s & Gender Studies. She is interested in the intersections between rhetoric and social justice, and hopes to one day use her communications skills to benefit a nonprofit organization. In her personal life, she is an intramural volleyball player, plant mom, artist, and avid reader.