New Adult: What Is It?

“Home” is such a simple word, at least on the surface. But where is home to a modern 24 year old? Is it the tiny apartment that she lovingly decorated with IKEA furniture and inexpensive trinkets from Target? Is it the two-story Victorian that he grew up in, where his parents still welcome him with open arms (and wallets)? Or is it that fuzzy future house he and she keep thinking about? The one they’re going to buy together a few years from now, with a big backyard for the Beagle they recently adopted and the little boy they both want someday.

Guest column by Kristan Hoffman,
freelance writer and designer. She’s a
published columnist and aspiring YA
novelist.
See her website here.



These are the kinds of questions my friends and I are wrestling with as we transitio
n out of school and into the Real World. It’s a strange time, because we’re technically adults, but most of us feel more like overgrown kids.

And that’s exactly the unique life period that New Adult fiction is intended to address.

“New Adult” is a term coined by Dan Weiss and his editorial assistant S. Jae-Jones (known as JJ). They are on a mission to discover and develop New Adult voices for St. Martin’s Press. To that end, they recently ran a contest for writers of New Adult fiction and ended up selecting 18 winners. Now they are reading partials of those 18 manuscripts, and one of them, happily, is mine.

While I calmly (hah!) sit and wait to find out if the St. Martin’s team is interested in reading more of my work, I find myself searching for the best way to explain New Adults and our fiction. It’s more difficult than I would have expected. In the end, I decided that the clearest explanation might be a composite. Here are a few quotes about the nuances of “New Adult,” accompanied by my thoughts as a New Adult person writing New Adult fiction.

THE CONCEPT

In the words of JJ at St. Martin’s, “New Adult is about young adulthood, when you are an adult but have not established your life as one (career, family, what-have-you).”

So, it’s about transition. The transformation from child to adult doesn’t happen overnight—just ask as anyone who is or has been (or is a parent to) a teenager. But the transition from teen to adult doesn’t happen overnight either. There’s a period of time where adulthood feels like a new pair of shoes. The expectations of independence and self-sufficiency are still new, still being broken in. New Adults are the people who have just begun to walk in those shoes; New Adult fiction is about their blisters and aches.

THE PROTAGONISTS

Writer and actress Adrienne Kress describes New Adult as “work that isn’t quite adult and isn’t really YA”—i.e., “college-age stories, or stories with individuals just out of high school.”

That puts New Adult protagonists in the range of 18 to 26 years old. (Earlier in history, adulthood may have started as early as 15 or 16, but I think you get the idea.) College, first jobs, first relationships, or marriage… There’s a lot that can happen when you’re 18-26, but the fact is, those same events feel very different at that age than they do at 12 or at 40. Because kids and teens focus on the present, while adults draw on their past experience to inform their present and future decisions. New Adults are somewhere in between. As the saying goes: old enough to know better, but still too young to care. That distinction might seem subtle, but it comes through loud and clear in the voice of New Adult fiction.

Now, obviously there have been protagonists aged 18-26 before. New Adult as a concept is not new, but recognizing and promoting it as a separate category is.

THE READERS

Agent Kristin Nelson explains that New Adult stories “will speak to older teens and twenty-somethings.” But then “where [do we] put these books so they can be found by the target audience. Does it go in the teen section or in the general fiction?”

The answer is that there is no answer yet. In an ideal world, New Adult fiction would go on a New Adult shelf, but that doesn’t exist in mainstream bookstores yet. Part of St. Martin’s mission is to help interested readers find these books, regardless of where they end up. The fact that these interested readers might hail from all different age groups makes the task more challenging, but perhaps also more rewarding.

St. Martin’s Weiss is an industry veteran, responsible for successful ventures such as the Sweet Valley High series and SparkNotes. He’s got a knack for understanding what niches are not being filled, which consumers aren’t being satisfied. If he believes New Adult fiction will have an audience, then I’m inclined to agree.

Especially since New Adult could offer a variety of “flavors.” Sci-fi, fantasy, romance, historical, thriller, literary … Just like the Young Adult umbrella, New Adult can (and probably will) cover all these genres and more.

THE BIG PICTURE

Finally, and my personal favorite, St. Martin’s Press VP Matthew Shear sums up New Adults—both its readers and protagonists—as “emerging adults who are navigating career, love and family in a 24/7 connected world.”

Exactly. In fact, that’s what I had in mind while writing Twenty-Somewhere, my New Adult manuscript currently under consideration by St. Martin’s. In Twenty-Somewhere, three best friends (Sophie, MJ, and Claudia) graduate from college, scatter across the globe, and begin their own careers and relationships. Despite their great differences and even greater distances, all three struggle through similar issues, and they struggle through them together. Because in this day and age, being close doesn’t require being nearby.

That brings us back to my original question: Where is home? For New Adults like me, I think the answer is again a composite. Home is the new apartment, the childhood residence, and the future house. For New Adult fiction, the only home right now is St. Martin’s Press. But if Weiss and JJ are successful, it’s only a matter of time before other publishing houses follow their lead. And when they do, I have no doubt that New Adult will find a home on a bookshelf of its very own.


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11 thoughts on “New Adult: What Is It?

  1. Ken

    What a bunch of crap. This site is for morons. I love the smiles. Do you get a free smile with the subscription to FOOLS TODAY, the magazine for fools and their admirers. Remember, just keep writing. Until you run out of ink.

  2. Kristan

    Rachele,

    I tried to write a response to your question but I think it got flagged as spam due to links. Let me try again…

    Curtis Sittenfeld’s PREP is another title that might qualify as NA. I would also argue for Junot Diaz’s BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO (it spans multiple generations, but primarily it revolves around 3 "New Adults"). Editorial assistant JJ also has some great New Adult links ( http://sjaejones.com/blog/ – check the right sidebar) and talks about books that could be New Adult ( http://sjaejones.com/blog/2009/new-adult-shelving/ – this is just one of a few).

    Steve,

    When I was writing this, I wondered if talking about college and career would be too alienating… Because you’re absolutely right, it’s not just about those kinds of people. So warehouse workers and fast food servers are perfectly legitimate protagonists. As long as the stories about them are well written and entertaining. 🙂

    -Kristan

  3. Steve

    My question is whether "New Adult" protagonists must be college educated. I see talk of "career" but nobody seems to just have a "job". Is the 20-something couple where he works at a warehouse and she flips burgers at Mickey D’s part of "New Adult"?

    Why or why not?

    -Steve

  4. Jessica Hampson

    Kristan- Congrats on a great post! I, too, have often questioned the meaning of "home" since moving back to my hometown, but not living in my parents house. I remember when I was not living in Houston I did consider my parents house to be "home" because it was the place that I felt most relaxed. When I am at my parents house I am at total ease and highly enjoy the fact that I can hang around all day in my PJs without any judgement, and show up to the welcoming arms of my parents and a homecooked meal at any time. Now, though, I wonder if I could just call Houston my "home" since both my parents house and my apartment(which I have made quite cozy)are mere miles from each other? I am still debating.

    Thanks again!
    Jessica

  5. Kristan

    Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep would very likely fit the bill. I might argue for Junot Diaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as well (although that novel spans several generations and ages, its focus is on 2-3 "New Adults"). Over at her blog, JJ has a good compilation of New Adult links and thoughts:

    http://sjaejones.com/blog/ (check the right sidebar)

    http://sjaejones.com/blog/2009/postadolescent-or-new-adult-fiction/ (one post in which she discusses what books could be NA — there’s another one but I couldn’t find it)

  6. Rachele

    I’m excited that "New Adult" literature may be making a name for itself. I’m trying to think of books that already fit in that genre, and I think Curtis Sittenfeld attempted it with "Man of My Dreams" and Melissa Banks with "The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing." They both are novels in stories, but a large part of the protangonist’s life is in that "New Adult" stage. Can you think of any other books that could be called New Adult?

    Rachele
    http://www.freckle-head.blogspot.com

  7. Kristan

    Thanks again, Chuck, for inviting me to guest blog!

    Also, I didn’t get a chance to mention this in the article (which was already running long!) but I wanted to say that the contest I won was an initiative by St. Martin’s Press WITH an online resource called YA Lit Chat. (URL: http://yalitchat.ning.com/ ) YALitChat is a great group for Young Adult and New Adult writers. Members include writers of all levels, as well as agents and editors. I definitely recommend that anyone interested check it out!

  8. Theresa Milstein

    Last month, I wrote a post complaining about not being published. A nice Canadian author gave me advice. When I commented back, explaining how many categories of children’s books exist, he responded that he didn’t know why anybody wanted to write for children with all of the complexities. Who wants to worry about the age of the protagonist and the content to figure out where it fits, and what if the age and content are at odds? I’ve been told by an agent that readers don’t want books that have characters that are younger than they are.

    I’m sending the author this link to show him age-bracketing has crept into adult literature. Soon there may be more categories and adult writers may be saddled with the same issues at children’s book authors.

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