There is a new readership amongst us: they’re no longer young adult, but not quite adult – they are ‘new adult’ – a term coined by St. Martin’s Press back in 2009, for books featuring characters in their ‘college years’ and originally targeted at readers just out of high school. These are books that contrast the impotence of teenage youth with the aimless uncertainty of early adulthood; illustrating that getting older doesn’t necessarily mean ‘getting it together.’
If you’re unfamiliar with the term then get ready to be inundated – this is a readership that’s dominating bestseller lists, acquisitions and are the new success stories out of the world of ‘indie’ self-publishing.
But despite the creeping success of new adult, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that this fledgling readership has already started to lose its way – with a slightly overshot audience of older new adults, it’s being highly influenced by the Fifty Shades erotica boom while still attempting to target the younger, young adult readership.
Before you eye-roll at bureaucratic age-bracketing, there is actually logic behind a new readership. Milestones and life-changing moments that mark us as ‘adult’ keep shifting further and further away. The milestone for moving out of home, for instance, has moved to somewhere in our mid-twenties. There’s also the fact that today’s new adults were yesterday’s young adults – Y really being the first generation who had young adult books marketed to them, they’ve grown up with this readership and it makes sense that authors they cherished throughout their teen years could migrate with them into early adulthood.
There have been some truly wonderful new adult books published over the last few years (even if these books are still labelled more popularly as ‘young adult’). Holier Than Thou by Laura Buzo, Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar, The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta, Something Like Normal by Trish Doller, Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard and Gayle Forman’s Just One Day to name a very, very few (a more comprehensive list is here). And I understand why the ‘new adult’ label works for these titles. Kirsten Hubbard’s Wanderlove and Gayle Forman’s Just One Day for example, concern characters who have just finished high school and go overseas before beginning university. There can be a point made that the ‘gap year’ is a rite-of-passage more common to graduates and 20-somethings than, say, 14-year-olds.
But in recent years the new adult readership has been overrun with self-published ‘indie’ authors. This is partly because the new adult instigator, St Martin’s Press, held a manuscript submission contest searching for unpublished voices – but since then the readership has become increasingly sexualized; a reflection of the self-published Fifty Shades erotica boom. It’s left people questioning if the new adult readership is bridging age-gaps, or introducing young adults to adult themes much too soon.
Anastasia ‘Ana’ Steele of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey is 21-years-old, placing her firmly in those ‘college years’ of the new adult readership. Obviously Fifty Shades being such a reading phenomenon (selling faster than Twilight and Harry Potter), it’s not surprising that teenagers would become curious and read the books. But what is disturbing is how many indie authors are now writing hyper-sexualized books featuring characters in their 20s, and marketing them to teen readers under the ‘new adult’ label. It has gotten to the point that there’s been an attempt to further distance these books from too-young readers by labelling them ‘steamies’ (and including parental-advisory warning labels). Young adult readers are confused by this readership that’s marketed at them, but not quite for them. As a result, eroticism is seeping into a readership that isn’t ready to push sexual boundaries to such an extent.
Of course, young adult books are not so sanitized so that they don’t feature sex, but new adult books are increasingly closer to Fifty Shades in their sexual content, and that is a concern. Sex in young adult books has a purpose – it’s part of the coming-of-age narrative (Julia Lawrinson’s Losing It, for example), and increasingly it’s about positively portraying a broader inclusion of sexuality and sexual orientation. Sex in new adult fiction is more like porn – with poor narratives designed to prop up sex scenes rather than actual storylines. And while Twilight’s Bella Swan was a less-than-ideal role model for young women, the sexual submissive archetype portrayed in Fifty Shades is recurring in many new adult titles, and offering a skewed view of male and female sexuality.
When St. Martin’s Press coined ‘new adult’ back in 2009, it was probably never intended as such a sexualized readership, especially as it was an expansion of young adult books. But then Fifty Shades landed in 2011, and self-publishing took an erotic turn and now readers and marketing teams seem equally confused as to what new adult should be and for whom. It’s also a problem that while St. Martin’s Press originally designed new adult books for slightly older teen readers; it has become increasingly obvious that it may not even be the 20-something age-bracket who are pushing for these ‘sexier’ YA books. According to a recent Bowker study, 55 percent of teen fiction is being bought by over-18’s, and buyers aged 30 to 44 account for 28 per cent of sales.
Books featuring characters in their 20s are hardly a new phenomenon, and perhaps the ‘new adult’ label is a rather insulting (and unnecessary) attempt to take the stigma out of adults reading young adult books. It could also be categorizing gone mad (what’s next – Geriatric Adult? Sub-Adult?) Whatever the impetus behind a stepping-stone readership, the sudden success of new adult books would suggest that this is a literary label we’ll have to grapple with for longer yet, and as such it might be a good idea to better define who these new adults are, to ensure their hypersexual trends don’t leak over into the young adult readership.
Danielle Binks is a Killings columnist and book reviewer on her blog Alpha Reader, with a particular interest in children’s and young adult literature. She is also Digital Editor at Spinifex Press, and is currently working on her first young adult manuscript.