YA is a sub-genre of fiction written specifically for (and starring) high school aged teens. If they are out of high school, the book is not a YA. (Note: There is some leeway with freshmen in college and 18-year-old protagonists, but those are on a case-by-case basis, and truthfully, if you want the book to be marketed as YA, you better have a darn good reason for making them that old.)
I wish YA was called something else (Teen Lit, perhaps?). For one, the name implies that the intended audience are adults. They’re not. Teens are what happen before adulthood and after childhood. I mentioned before that the term “teenager” didn’t come into the mainstream lexicon until the 1950s, and it took almost 40 years for YA – as a genre name – to have its own section in a bookstore. That’s a long time to wait for recognition, and as we all know too well, YA – even in its Renaissance Period of today – barely gets the respect it deserves.
Bringing me to “New Adult,” a sub-genre of fiction trying semi-hard to exist in the post-YA, pre-adult marketplace for those between the ages of 18 and 25. I am all for this. The college experience, figuring out grad school, jobs, not living off your parents, etc. are hard to deal with and they are certainly not “adult” concerns. They deserve their own literature. So why hasn’t it caught on yet?
To me, there are two reasons why New Adult isn’t a marketable genre, and why it probably won’t be for at least another ten years.
Theory #1: Before “teenager” came into the lexicon, there wasn’t a need to think of them as something different. Pop culture hadn’t given them a voice yet. They didn’t have rock ‘n roll or heartthrobs or beach movies being marketed directly to them. The concept of marketing to teens separately from adults and children was something that lasted well through the ’80s. But then, the ’90s happened and the “twentysomething” was born. (OK, well technically they were born in the ’70s, but you know what I mean.)
Teens were still being directly marketed to, but now another group of people had their own language and pop culture – Gen X. They read books by Bret Easton Ellis (found in the adult section) and watched movies like Slackers and Dazed and Confused. “Grown-ups” didn’t understand them, and teenagers only looked admiringly at them from afar (like I did).
This idea of an extended adolescence wasn’t something that previous generations had the privilege of experiencing. Gen X was the first generation to come out of the Baby Boomers. Many of them were the first of their families to go to college, have a choice other than marriage or military, and live without mortgages and jobs and car payments just a little bit longer.
When you think of how long it took for YA to become a genre after teenagers were finally given a name, New Adult even being discussed as a possibility feels like progress. Even a “Big 6” publisher has started looking for titles under that heading. Knowing this, I don’t think New Adult will take quite as long as YA to get recognized by the masses. The fact remains, however, that it’s not a sub-genre that exists yet.
When I get queries for New Adult, I’m torn. I can either request it, knowing I’m only going to tell the writer to make it older or younger. Or, I end up rejecting it if I know the story can’t be older or younger. As much as I think New Adult should be a genre, I know there’s nothing I can do about it all by myself. Writers can’t write for a marketplace that doesn’t exist, and agents can’t sell to a publisher if the publishers can’t sell it to a bookstore. So, for now, that 20-year-old protagonist who’s still in college who you think teens should read about is going to get placed in the general adult fiction section of most major bookstores.
For one, maybe there’s just not enough distance between my current age and the New Adult age, so I’ve had less time to feel nostalgic for it. (And egad! Why on earth would anyone want to re-live being 22??) But I don’t read YA because I’m nostalgic for high school. I read YA because of the emotions it evokes, and knowing that the human experience at that age is pretty universal.
It’s true that not everyone goes to the same type of high school, or even goes to high school, but everyone goes through puberty. Everyone feels what it’s like to not understand any of your emotions or why they are suddenly happening all at once or why hugging your parents is much more embarrassing than it was the year before.
With New Adult, there is no universal experience. Within the genre, there are too many niche markets to consider, which makes it that much harder to place. Not everyone goes to college or makes the same choices when entering adulthood. Even within the group who goes to college, the experiences differ in ways that are much more polarizing than going to different high schools. No matter what kind of high school you went to, we were all forced to take the same general courses or participate in the same extracurricular activities.
The Gen X definition of twentysomething created the template for the next generation, but it’s still considered a privilege to go to college, to live off your parents, to have an extension on avoiding adulthood. If you ask the person who opted to get married and have kids right after high school, or even right after college, their experience of being a New Adult will look a lot closer to what those who chose to wait consider Real Adult.
So, then, is New Adult really “College Lit?” That creates an even smaller market. There’s a reason “The College Years” of high school TV shows fail. There’s just not enough people who care. The original teen audience can’t relate, the adults out of college think of it as too young, and the actual target audience is too busy being in college, working, or starting families to watch TV or read for fun.