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.