Ask Alice: Did new adult ever really ‘die’ and what lessons can we draw from it for the future of young adult?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.
Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!
When would you say you truly felt like an adult?
Odds are it wasn’t when you were 19. It might not even have been when you were 25. It might not even be if you’re 29, doing your PhD and writing a monthly column for #LoveOzYA.
(Hmmm. I might have shown my hand, here. . . )
The point is: it can be tricky to pinpoint exactly when ‘adulthood’ begins, in earnest, and what quantifies and qualifies the shift. So little wonder, then, that there’s often vibrant and revealing debate about what exactly Young Adult literature is, and when a text may stray into a deeper stage of emerging adulthood.
Which is where ‘New Adult’ stories come in. I quite like this definition of New Adult as: “fundamentally about coming of age, though it looks at what happens after the messiness of adolescence. […] NA protagonists have left childhood in the rearview mirror. But that doesn’t mean they feel like full-fledged grownups just yet.”
However, despite being an oft-discussed form of story, New Adult hasn’t exactly taken off in the way many predicted it would. The wonderful Jodi McAlister, author of recently released Libby Lawrence is Good at Pretending (Wakefield Press), explored this in her academic non-fiction title, New Adult Fiction, released in late 2021.
For this month’s Ask Alice, Jodi very kindly let me pick her brain on all things New Adult: where it came from, where it went, if it’s truly ‘gone’, and what the experience may teach us about the future of YA.
Where did New Adult come from?
The specific term New Adult was coined by a publisher: St Martin’s Press, in 2009. From the outset, New Adult received quite a lot of hostility from various segments of the literary industry. For some, the new term felt like a marketing exercise rather than a sincere investment in a specific readership.
But is marketing an inherently dirty word?
Not necessarily, as Jodi explained in our recent discussion: “As much as it is marketing, and it is a way of selling books, it’s also a way of connecting books to people (that) helps people know what they’re looking for.”
Interestingly, despite coming up with the term, St Martin’s Press did not really publish any New Adult books, nor did other publishers. However, New Adult as a term and category has, despite the best efforts of publishers to not have it leave the ground, proved strangely enduring.
As Jodi notes in New Adult Fiction, a key ingredient in a genre’s emergence – and equally, its survival – is whether or not its existence is “fulfilling a need” for readers.
So despite a rocky start, has New Adult fulfilled a need?
So is New Adult ‘dead’, or are those reports greatly exaggerated?
Despite its chilly and ill-supported birth in the publishing world, the term New Adult has been embraced by readers in spaces such as Goodreads, as well as less hierarchical publishing environments such as Amazon.
And if you google ‘New Adult’, articles dated within the last 12 months will come up, as will lists of new adult books, as will pages of booksellers which specifically offer titles under the category of ‘New Adult.’
So, if it’s dead, it’s not doing a brilliant job of staying in the grave.
Which means that the idea of new or emerging adulthood as a specific focus for published works must have some sticking power.
This feels logical at a time when the traditional ‘markers’ of adulthood are being re-examined and, in some instances, redefined, especially as research suggests our brains don’t stop developing until we’re 30. Arguably this is even further complicated by a global pandemic which has reportedly led to a resurgence in the so-called ‘boomerang generation’ who have either chosen or been forced to move back in to their parents’ home.
In its current form, what distinguishes New Adult from young adult?
As Jodi explains, New Adult has evolved since 2009 to more closely align with two specific genres (so far): romance, and fantasy – two things that feature heavily on any YA bookstore shelf.
But there are still ways to parse out NA and YA, perhaps none as elegantly put as Shaun Stephen in an article entitled What is New Adult? for the University of Queensland website:
“Using a simple transformation analogy from nature, YA is the depiction of identity as a newly emerged butterfly, emerging from a chrysalis. NA, on the other-hand, follows that same butterfly as it explores life: taking the very first few flights, mating and finding a new home.”
It’s an idea Jodi articulates with the term ‘entwicklungsroman’ in place of ‘bildungsroman’, illustrating how a character across the journey of a text is closer to being an adult, but isn’t fully there, yet.
I guess the other way I’d phrase it is that you’re dealing with a bunch of firsts, but the firsts you experience in your very late teens and early twenties are very different to the firsts you experience between the ages of say, 13 and 17.
What can Young Adult learn from the New Adult phenomenon?
First, readers can find — more precisely — what they want.
A great many texts which are currently classified as YA (or upper YA) might be better segregated out into a separate category for the simple reason that people may be able to find them more easily. The sticking power of New Adult as a term and concept proves that readers will embrace language and terms that help them find the books they want to read, irrespective of marketing and other factors.
Even though we can fuss about what to call things from a publishing perspective, the active role of readers in shaping these terms cannot be understated. In a nutshell, more precisely identifying texts means readers can find what they want.
When I put that notion to Jodi, she was quick to contextualise it within the local community and publishing market: that is, within the realm and remit of #LoveOzYA.
”I think #LoveOZYA as an institution has some capital when it comes to shaping the way that we use genre terms in Australia,” she explained. “We’ve talked a lot about upper YA here [but] finding ways to talk about YA that serve that whole market [including the gap for lower YA] is something that I think LoveOzYA has a little bit of capital to do.”
It’s a fair point because, as we know, Australian YA has staggering depth and breadth. That leads on to the second key takeaway…
As a community, we can have a more nuanced discussion about the variance within our titles.
#LoveOzYA may have a role to play in more actively using and promoting genre terms and nuance in how we talk about titles — which makes sense, given how diverse their tones, writing style, and subject matter can be.
Take a look at the #LoveOzYA titles releasing this year alone, and, at a quick scan, you’ll find contemporary (The Brink, Holden Sheppard), fantasy (Only a Monster, Vanessa Len), comedy (That Thing I Did, Allayne Webster), historical (Slipping the Noose, Meg Caddy), and horror (What We Saw, Mike Lucas).
Beyond genre, the ages of targeted readers also varies widely. Just to pick two Australian YA books I’ve recently read, My Spare Heart by Jared Thomas is accessible to a far younger range of readers than Jodi McAlister’s Libby Lawrence is Good at Pretending.
Although LoveOzYA is a wonderful umbrella term, bringing more precise delineations across categories can help create an even more thriving literary ecosystem, because readers can find what they want, and authors have the language and tools to be able to promote themselves. And that includes those who want to read and write books which examine the experiences of people fumbling through the first experiences with adulthood.
If there’s one final takeaway, it’s this: New Adult isn’t going away anytime soon.