What New Adult Seems to Be and What It Should Be

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It seems like twelve months ago agents and editors were declaring that “New Adult” wasn’t a thing. Now many are clamoring for it. While Young Adult is relatively easy to define, a working definition of New Adult has proven somewhat elusive. Regardless many authors are forging ahead, turning New Adult into a genre/category that is defining itself. Time will tell if this is this a good thing, but in the meantime I’d like to offer my two cents on what New Adult could be, in comparison to what I’ve seen so far.

Sex

absNA copy

If you consider that both Fifty Shades of Grey and Bared to You qualify as New Adult by most definitions, then on average you could safely say there’s a heck of a lot sex in NA. Many NA advocates insist that NA is not just about sex but I have yet to see evidence of this. ALL the NA I’ve read has not only been high octane romance genre but at least half has featured a plot or important character arc relating somehow to sex. Rape recovery narratives are popular as are virgins or relatively inexperienced girls being repeatedly nailed by wildly experienced and/or slightly kinky boys or men.

New Adult doesn’t need to include sex at all when you think about it. In much the same way that chaste(ish) romance has monopolized the category of YA, spicy romance seems to have monopolized the NA category.  But need it be so? Where are the boy POV NA books? Where is the genre? The sci-fi, the historical, the high fantasy? I’m not adverse to a little hankypanky in my books but give me a plot to hang it on. Years ago I went through a phase of reading Marion Keyes books. If I were her publisher I’d be repackaging these books as NA right now. Writing richly plotted stories about young women just starting out in careers, drinking, smoking and shagging worthless boys, Keyes was NA when YA was still in diapers. But her books had substance.  I need substance

Non-Sex plot points (also known as “The Big Secret”)

The plot of many NA books seems to hinge on some moronic secret that a five year could figure out. It’s kind of like Superman trying to pass as Clark Kent. I mean come on. He’s Superman! Anyone could see that. As far as I’ve seen the “Big Secret” in NA usually  falls into one of two categories:

1.            There is some rift between the heroine and her love interest, often family related. His father killed her parents, he got her father fired, they’re new step siblings who hate each other’s parents and so on. Bonus points if one or both of them doesn’t know that the other is this hated person or from this rival family.

2.            There is some secret in one or both of their pasts that one of them knows and the other one doesn’t. Bonus points for one thinking that the other will reject them forever if they discover this secret. Extra bonus points if this secret is somehow related to sex. Triple points for some kind of poorly portrayed and factually dubious mental illness.

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“Big Secrets” are ghosts in the machine as far as I’m concerned. They are a cheap way to add tension to what is usually already an overwrought plot. It is entirely possible and even desirable to plot an NA novel without “Big Secrets”. I really wish someone would do it. Just as an example I’m thinking of one of my favorite YA novels, BOY TOY by Barry Lyga. The hero of this book, Josh, is 18 years old and in grade twelve. If instead he was 18 years old and a college freshmen (bumping the category up to NA) the plot of the story might remain essentially the same; the general crux being that EVERYONE knows his sordid past (even the reader. It is revealed on page one). There are no secrets necessary. The tension in this fine book is derived from the question of whether Josh will be able to move on with his life.

Even if a secret is necessary there is no need to give it such purple treatment. LIVE THROUGH THIS by Mindi Scott has a secret, a devastating secret that is dealt with brilliantly. PERSONAL EFFECTS by E. M. Kokie also features a big secret that drives the plot without degenerating to cheese.

Romance (also known as insta-love)

Well, insta-love is a problem in YA as well, and it bugs me there too. But in NA insta-love seems to have been taken to new extremes. Usually it’s some variation of heroine having an instant lady-boner for the handsome hero, while  said hero is instantly smitten with the beauty and “innocence” of the heroine. So of course he can’t give her the rogering she so ardently desires because he’s “not good for her” or some other nonsense. Usually this happens within about five minutes of meeting, often before they have been formally introduced.

There are a million different ways for couples to fall in love. Not all of them involve instant hard-ons. At the very least I would love it if NA characters had a bit more personality. More talk about tastes and humor and less about rippling abs and alabaster skin and whatnot. So far the superficiality of NA is a real turn off for me both because it’s obviously a cliché but also because in general I don’t like superficial people. The otherworldly beauty of NA characters makes all these books seem like category romance. Nothing wrong with that but NA can be so much more.

Living arrangements

NA heroines mostly have two different living arrangements.

1.            They live in a dorm. As much as dorm life is a key trope in NA, it bugs me and I’ll tell you why. No one lives in dorms. Yes I know many of you did, but what American writers need to understand is that dorm life, frats and sororities etc are unique to America and as a result start to seem a bit dinky to non-American readers, much the same way that posh/ancient boarding schools (like Hogwarts) are a bit gimmicky.

2.            They live in some fabulously unrealistic and unaffordable apartment with their best girlfriend/gay friend. Or they MOVE into a fabulous apartment owned by the alpha hero.

I have three degrees. I’ve been to four different universities in three countries (the USA, Canada and Australia). In that time I’ve had a total of two friends who lived in dorms. I’ve been in a dorm room once (and no, I didn’t bonk him, though he did take me for a ride on his Harley). I’ve never even seen a frat house. Most of my friends lived at home, or in cheap apartments or shared houses while they were in college. Many continued living in these humble digs long after they graduated. Where are the stories of Mom and Dad’s basement, the large shared houses, the dodgy flats above sketchy grocery stores that rattled every time a streetcar went past? Where are the long nightly bus rides back out to the suburbs, drunk on beer, with your panties on backwards? The mattresses on the floor, the roommate’s dirty dishes, the cat box, the house party stragglers who need to be bounced in the morning? Where’s reality? NA is in danger of becoming “dorm porn” and I for one and not going to sit idly by.

kissNA copyCareer

NA characters are often college students. Sometimes there is not a whole lot more information about them than that. No major, no career plan, mostly they seem to just be going to parties and mooning about boys.

If the NA is focused on the years after graduation there seem to be a limited number of career options available to NA characters.

1.            Something non-specific and vaguely corporate that affords ample opportunities to meet billionaire entrepreneurs

2.            Something vaguely artistic or creative like working in a gallery or in advertising

3.            Shitty job because heroine had to drop out of college to care for sick relative, usually mother or underage siblings due to death of parents. Bonus points if it’s degrading and slightly desperate but somehow sexy – cocktail waitress or nude model for example.

Although in reality college DOES involve a lot of partying and mooning about boys I would estimate that at least 50% of the drama of college life involves trying to keep up with homework and master the material. Most students have a declared major by sophomore year. That major then becomes a big part of their life, their thinking and their plans for the future. Just once I’d like to read an NA about a nursing student, a math whiz or someone in pre-law with a focus on environmental economics. These fields can be woven into plots that are deeper than just “how to bang the beautiful boy”.

As far as after college goes, there are two approaches missing:

1.            The reality of working in Starbucks with your MA in 12th century poetry or Peace and Conflict Studies

2.            A real life honest to goodness first job. Junior accountant, dental hygienist , assistant policy advisor to the Mayoral committee on urban planning, information officer for a drug and alcohol agency. The possibilities are endless.

Finally, so far I haven’t seen and NA that deals with the difficult and often disheartening SEARCH for the first job after college.

Race

File:Inuit snow goggles.jpgWell, there’s not much to say about this. If YA is white then NA is…whatever comes after white. Some colorless color that the human eye can’t even see. NA is so white I need those snow glasses the Inuit used to wear so I won’t go blind from the glare.

My best friend in college was half Sri Lankan. Several of my classmates in my MFA were of Chinese or Vietnamese descent. Many classmates and professors in San Francisco were black or Hispanic. Not only that, but people DO attend and graduate college in other countries. Someone please write about them.

Covers

NA has three main types of covers that I will represent graphically here:

NA covers copy

Covers can be and should be a varied as nature, humanity, the art in galleries and the photographs and images of daily life. As much as I like abs, why not show another part of the body? If the heroine has to be on the cover cannot she be doing something other than gazing wistfully into the middle distance or at her hot alpha hero’s lips? And does everybody have to be so WHITE? (see above)

Tropes

NA is nothing if not reliable with its tropes. I can pretty much set my watch by the possessive stalker trope, the rape rescue trope (often the latter justifies the former) and the clumsy heroine trope. Of course there’s the uber-orgasmic first sex trope (often involving a sexually dominant hero), that’s a given, and usually we get a bit of the fashion porn thrown in there, just for some light relief.

Here’s an idea: be original. Avoid tropes. Or better still, subvert them. Have the heroine take the designer  ball gown back to the store and spend the refund on cheesecake and iTunes. Have the heroine rescue the hero from a predatory skank or a beating by barroom thugs. Have the first sexual encounter be an awkward giggly mess. And let the heroine spend the whole book doing parkour in pajama bottoms and a Green Day t-shirt. Oh, and let HER tie HIM up for a change.

If NA is going to be a thing, and I think it is, then it behooves us to make the category as broad as possible. There was a time when YA was mostly viewed as “issues” books and gossipy series, now it encompasses everything from Steampunk to Cyberpunk to elves and mermaids, drugs, sex, swords, ghosts, bullies, suicide, shifters, spaceships, time travelers, and of course, vampires.

Why can’t NA be as broad as that? Come on NA writers and publishers – it’s time to spread your wings.

Rant over

(images Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos)

6 thoughts on “What New Adult Seems to Be and What It Should Be

  1. Great post, Gabrielle!

    I was intrigued when I heard that “New Adult” was going to be the Next Big Thing, because it seemed to fill a big gap — if so many young readers like their protagonists older, that pushed the 16-17-18 year old readership past most YA and into “adult” books (not in the X-rated sense, but books about 20-somethings on up.) It seemed odd to skip the college years (whether attending college or not) as an age group and as subject matter, and I thought NA was going to do that.

    Kind of disappointing to learn it’s mostly sex draped around cliche plots and stereotype characters. But maybe it will evolve.

    FWIW, most college students I know and have known *do* live in dorms, at least the first year or two. It’s often a requirement. Then they escape to play house in over-priced, ramshackle dumpy dives with 4 roommates so they can afford the rent ;-D Frat and sorority houses do still exist, and often college students who like a particular group will join a frat/sorority simply because the living arrangements are much nicer than the dorms and the food is a lot better. Of course that’s only one type of college existence, but it is definitely still alive and kicking.

    I thought New Adult protgs were 18-22-ish? I love Marian Keyes, and because I discovered her long after everyone else, I went through her entire oeuvre just a few years ago. Her youngest protagonists were in their mid-late 20s, as I recall, and then as the books grew longer and the issues more complex, in their 30s. Even 40! So I don’t think they could be considered NA. Sure would be great if more New Adult books included the depth as well as the humor in her books.

    Cheers,
    Deb Mc.

  2. Thanks for your comment. My point about frats and dorms is that is very VERY American and therefore foreign and weirdly implausible to non-American readers. New Adult protags can range up to 25 or even 26, depending on who you ask. 50 Shades and Bared to You both qualify because both the protags begin their first jobs out of college.

    But, yeah, so far, pretty disappointing. Lots of one and two stars and a bunch of DNFs.

  3. I’ve wanted to write a New Adult for a while now, but they all seem to be centered around sex, which is something I don’t typically write in graphic detail. The ones I’ve read so far are pretty descriptive. So, I literally googled, “Does New Adult have to include sex?” and that’s how I stumbled upon your article. It gives me hope that maybe someone might read my story, even if I don’t have them ripping each other’s clothes off. Thanks!

  4. I think having a “brand new genre” opens a lot of doors in terms of scope. I do think the market on NA seems to be romance, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think this can ease the genre into existence, and then it can grow into all the different subgenres you’ve listed.
    I didn’t even know I was writing NA until someone told me. It’s interesting for me because I don’t think about genre almost at all. Other readers do, but when I pick up a book at the library, I don’t look at genre, and when I write, I TOTALLY don’t think of genre.
    I think the comment about the cover, while true, doesn’t really tackle the topic. Covers are that way because that is what sells books within the genre. I’ve tried to go for different covers, things that are a little bit odd or reflect the mood/tone of the story, but buyers don’t respond as well.
    I will say that I’m interested to see where the genre goes, and I look forward to more thoughts and discussions like this one. Thanks for putting it out there.

    • The cover thing is true. I spoke to a bookseller,s decrying the soft focus girl covers and she told me they love them – because they sell books! Ultimately I think young women and girls are drawn to this kind of cover. WHY is a whole other discussion.

      Melodramatic, tropy books with soft focus covers are not exactly my thing, but they are certainly the taste of many other readers and I think that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a formula. Romance readers have done so for decades. My main complaint about NA so far is there isn’t much variety (or diversity!). I’d like to like this category, but it’s not appealing to me – yet.

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