Monday, 8 July 2013

New Adult or Young Adult?

Open Book, Radio Four’s programme about all matters literary turned its attention to New Adult fiction last week. Was it, asked presenter Mariella Frostrup, just a marketing ploy? Or is there a need for a bridge between Young Adult fiction and Adult fiction?
Cue an intelligent and interesting  discussion between journalist Caroline Sanderson, writer Liz Bankes and editor Emily Thomas, which nonetheless had me grinding my teeth and throwing things at the radio.
It seems to me that the title New Adult could mean books about older teens  moving from the world of school, homework and exams into the adult world of further education, employment, unemployment, sex and parenthood.  These books already exist and are labelled Young Adult.  A New Adult label isn’t therefore strictly necessary but could serve as a useful label to identify books for and about older teens.  It might help them crossover into an adult market. It might encourage publishers and booksellers to see older teen books as a genre worth investment, and keep older teens interested in looking at the teen shelves in book shops. It could, above all, be a useful way of marketing e-books to older teen readers.
New Adult could be this...

..but is actually this
Recent books that might fit into that sort of New Adult category might include Lydia Syson’s A World Between Us – three young people caught up in the Spanish Civil War,  working as a nurse, a journalist, and a printer turned soldier.  Or Malorie Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry, about a boy whose plans to go to university are hijacked by becoming a father. Helen Grant, Melvin Burgess, Meg Rosoff ,  Sarra Manning, Mal Peet, Kevin Brooks  and many other UKYA authors often write about older teens.  These books are labelled YA or teen fiction, they are shelved as such, they are received with enthusiasm by the supposed gatekeeper. Publishers publish them, and teachers and librarians are not scared of  coming of age books.  On the contrary, they often favour them over  books aimed at younger children -  just take a look at most Carnegie shortlists.
He's 18, having sex, bringing up a child. New or Young Adult?
My next book, Salvage, has two narrators. One is Aidan, 18, who is living with an older girlfriend, Holly and her two-year-old son, Finn.  Is Aidan a Young Adult or a New Adult?  His sister Cass, the other narrator, is 16 and embarking on her first sexual relationship. Is she Young Adult or New Adult?
Unfortunately New Adult has stopped being a useful label for my books and the books of the authors mentioned above, because New Adult has come to mean ‘books about teenagers having sex, generally originally self-published, and picked up by publishers who want a slice of the action.’ Unlike most YA authors writing about sex, they include an element of soft porn (generally the softest of soft porn, almost always from a female point of view, with far more about 'panties' than throbbing or thrusting Men's Bits).  The ‘Adult’ has taken over from the ‘New’.  The quality of writing isn’t great in any of these books that I’ve read, and the sex is often boring (one New Adult book that I attempted to read seemed to have been written by someone who’d never had sex in her life, so was hopelessly vague and boring, others are just a bit tacky and embarrassing). In a matter of months New Adult has come to mean ‘rubbishy’  and ‘put that label on my books and I will kill you’ for most authors writing books about new adults.
Having said that, I think that these New Adult books are not a bad thing. Porn is generally produced by men, for men, and it’s surely good for girls to have access to their own brand, written by women. These books do address emotional issues around sex, and they generally feature interesting  and engaging characters.  They may not engage me, but I’m not their target market. If I were 16 and in possession of an e-reader, I think I’d love them.  As Malorie Blackman said recently, books are a great place for children to learn about sex.  The 'New Adult' romances, or -  to use a word invented and only used by marketing managers - 'steamies', are part of that process.
For the last few weeks I’ve been taking my daughter to university open days. I’ve sat in lecture theatres full of 17 and 18 year olds and their parents, learning about the next stage of their lives. What will they study, how will they find jobs, where will they live, how will they make friends?  I’ve had fascinating conversations with my daughter about her hopes and plans for the future, watched as she was inspired, reassured and challenged by visions of her future. I'd love to have more books to suggest to her which focus on the transition from school to adult life, which tell you what it's like to unpack your suitcase on the first day of university (and I don't mean Charles Ryder at Oxford).
New adulthood is one of the most interesting and important times of anyone’s life. It  offers writers many exciting possibilities.  Right now, though, I’d rather steer clear of the New Adult label.


Stroppy Author said...

Interesting, Keren. New Adult is clearly a way to step around the gate-keepers, but I hadn't realised it has so quickly become a label for writing about sex. That's a great shame, as there are other gate-keeper-side-stepping issues. I have a novel my agent says is too gate-keeper unfriendly for traditional markets and she'd suggested I try to sell it as an adult novel. But it's not quite for adults either and I'd wondered whether New Adult was the way to go. There is some sex in it, though not much and it's a violent act, but the more consistent gate-keeper irritant is that it is provocative in religious terms. Sounds like NA is not the way to go with that, then!

To be honest, I'd have liked NA to have worked in the way it was intended. I wonder whether the publishers have perceived a need for it in the way it's turned out because the gate-keepers have become more puritanical, especially in the US, over recent years? But my duaghters progressed from Malorie Blackmand and Celia Rees to adult writers seammlessly. The younger one does read chick lit occasionally, and the 'steamies' don't sound so different from titles already available.

Interesting point about novels that feature starting university, as the trad market tends to focus on people in work, doesn't it? Student life is now very different from how it was when we were all students, and it's very different in different countries. I think that might make it a very difficult marketing point and hard to many writers to get right.

A thought-provoking post, Keren - thank you.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

I agree entirely! my frustration with New Adult has been just that: 'It could have been so much more than that...'. Thank you for this post.

Suzanne said...

I really want to like NA, but while the few books I tried to read stick to a romance theme. I don't read romance as a rule (if Twilight is considered romance, okay, I've read it.) I don't like the theme of "he's cute, so I'll go to bed with him."
I've heard so much chatter about how great NA is, so I'm glad to hear someone else being dubious about the label. If we had books with stories like "Reality Bites" and "Say Anything," then we'd have great New Adult novels.

Karen said...

A thought provoking and timely post, Keren, especially as I'm writing a book written first person, dual narrative with 17 -18 year old characters and some sex which I thought might be New Adult but now I'm wondering whether it's a YA. The underlying theme is love but it's more than a romance so maybe I'll rethink my genre. Thanks for the post.

gingerdoodles said...

I'm currently writing about an adult remembering her time at university and your post (and that Radio 4 programme) has me in a spin. My agent is pushing it as New Adult but the focus is definitely not sex. Nor romance. Though there is a little of both. It's mostly about transformation, developing as a person and dealing with those first intense relationships. New Adult would seem to be a perfect pigeonhole for a book that I think will suit a slightly older reader than my previous teen fiction. That is until I heard NA described as a 'guilty pleasure' you might keep out of sight on your e-reader! Not what I had in mind!! Surely no author or publisher wants that?!!

Susie Day said...

Great (if frustrating) stuff, Keren. I so wish NA had turned out to be more like This Life or St Elmo's Fire: stories about that transition into work, university, etc.

Nicky Schmidt said...

I have to say, I very much agree with Stroppy's points - and the others. I so much wanted NA to be something else - particularly since it seems YA is being downgraded to younger readers. I've been told protagonists of 18 are too old for YA and that I should make them 16, but then it becomes a different story entirely.
Goodness knows where I'm going to end up with my current WIP with characters of 18 - 20!
I think there is unquestionably a place for NA, whether as a marketing category or as a very real niche. As you say, there are things that are different for this group which go unaddressed in much of the existing fiction. But the fact that the description has been hijacked by "steamies" is really unfortunate.
The reality is NA doesn't just have to be about romance, it can be about friendship, decision making and choices, unemployment,student life, dreams - so very much more than just sex.
Thanks for this post, Keren - it's very timeous!

Ann Turnbull said...

This New Adult label is a new one on me - I hadn't heard of it. But I had noticed that so-called YA books seem to be getting younger, as if describing them as YA somehow made them more worthy of notice. (My own YA novels feature characters aged between 15 and 21 and tend to be about things like work, love and childbirth). I think it's a pity if books for older children can't just BE children's books.

Richard said...

Nicky Schmidt said...
Goodness knows where I'm going to end up with my current WIP with characters of 18 - 20!

My WIP has protagonists of 17 and 26. I hadn't heard of YA, let alone NA when I started it, although I suppose it would sort of fit; it could be spun as a coming of age tale. No sex though, and boy doesn't get girl (or vice-versa) until the end. To be honest, selling it is a long way down the road; learning to plot is where it is right now.