New Adult: A Book Category We Desperately Need

Hi there, spooky ones!

In the book world, genres and categories are different. Genre labels media under a certain style or form. The composition of a political satire differs from a demon possession story–unless the story has both politicians and demons, but I repeat myself. Anyway, book categories tell you the intended audiences. There have typically been these: Children’s, Middle Grade (MG), Young Adult (YA), and Adult. YA is not a genre, but a category to tell you the intended audience. A YA book, like an Adult book, can be fantasy, romance, horror, etc.

Recently, though, there has been a new category for those around 18-30, though leaning more toward 18-24: New Adult (NA). This label has some criticism attached to it. Many professionals consider it a marketing ploy, and many readers and writers complain that the genre mostly consists of romance and erotica. I’m not a fan of the dismissive sentiments toward romance and erotica. These are valid genres, and it’s perfectly valid to enjoy these genres. There’s no need for feeling guilty for liking certain genres.

The issue isn’t that most NA works or romance, erotica, or erotic romance. It’s the haughty attitudes that dismiss readers and writers of the genre as “just wanting YA with more sex.” This perception has bled into the idea of what NA is as a whole, and I’ll reiterate that there’s nothing wrong with NA works that resemble YA and have more sex. However, this description has made many authors, readers, and professionals wary toward the genre, and I’m here to say why NA is an important category that should be diversified and rebranded, not because what exists now in the genre is shameful, but because it is only a part of the New Adult experiences. Not only that, but there’s room for all the genres prevalent in every single other age category.

Some might say, “Why don’t you just keep these college-age stories in the YA category?” Well, publishers are leery of accepting these stories, especially ones that take place in college, because most YA centers around high school. But I believe, based on what I’ve heard about twenties-something readers who bounce between YA and Adult, they feel alienated and neither of these categories entirely capture their struggles with work, relationships, identity, politics, morality, grief, mental health, and sexuality. While I’ve seen some argue that 18-19-year-old protagonists could be in YA, but I changed a good deal in my first two years of college, and exponentially in my junior and senior years.

art young woman new adult young adult books writing
“Shit, I’m behind on rent!” A common New Adult aphorism.

What exists now shouldn’t be pushed out, but writers shouldn’t be afraid to embrace this category, especially writers whose voices have been suppressed because one’s college-age years (note: that doesn’t mean the character needs to be in college) are some of the most seminal, and while the identity and independence struggles resemble YA, the changes and paradigm shifts are largely unique to the 18-30 age bracket and are perhaps not as specifically targeted in Adult literature. Yes, “new adults” are technically adults, but there are massive changes when one starts to move away from adolescence. NA means a period of time where independence is new, and someone is learning how to be their own person; unlike YA, with the exception of an orphaned or legally emancipated teenage character, NA revolves around the character functioning and managing their life and relationships with less parental influence, but nevertheless contending with new experiences.

Speaking from personal experience, I went through many changes in high school. However, while I did not 100% change in my undergrad years, I reinvented and comprehended myself in completely different ways as a late adolescent–and I’m still doing this, since I’m 24; I can’t do much retrospection on myself as I am now, but even in the last year, I notice changes in myself, and so do others. When I graduated high school, I was indecisive, lost, and severely depressed (and anxious, but it wasn’t until I was 23 I could understand why I sometimes became sick with worry to the point of not eating).

I didn’t start off going to college because I was torn between my own burgeoning ambitions and what others wanted for me (and what my former classmates were doing, attending Harvard and the like). I was called lazy, but in truth, from the age of ten, I was severely demotivated to the point of daily suicide ideation. My paternal grandfather had died after struggling with colon cancer for years, and I was criticized for not crying (this also occurred when my maternal grandfather died roughly a year and a half later). But my pain was silence, and it was deafening.

I also suffered (and still do, to an extent) because of extreme fear and a lack of acceptance because of my sexual orientation, my bisexuality. I could go more into past abuse, but you get the point. When I was in middle school, I was raised to be homophobic and religious, and though I did personally admit my bisexuality, I would write in my journal long tracts where I apologized to God and begged him not to condemn me to hell. My awakening and acceptance of myself in high school was a struggle, but the way I conceived my identity and expressed myself completely altered in college, especially the last two years. The Countess you see today would have never spoken about these issues, or my severe lack of emotional immaturity because, as a child, I was taught not to emote and criticized for crying, although I would be criticized if I didn’t cry at moments “worthy” of it. Only when I was about 22, when I considered myself fundamentally broken, forever lonely, and unemployable, did I realize how to be gentle with myself while acknowledging my mistakes in the past without self-loathing.

I realized that it’s difficult to know how to process emotions, especially terrible ones, when you never learned. By the time I was 23, I wouldn’t say I was well the first half of the year, but I was still learning, and I obtained an internship. By the last part of the year, my previous work landed me an internship. I gained the confidence to assert myself, to seize opportunities, to send my work out to contests and magazines. I’m still learning how to vibrantly embrace my identity, my feelings for women, and to love myself inside and out. It’s not that I didn’t grow in high school, but that was only part of it, and I didn’t yet have more independence and sustained relationships where  I could grow. To say everything is perfect would be a lie, but even now, with recent tragedies and grief, I may feel fatigued, but I don’t feel as if the weight of the world on my shoulders. I feel if an issue arises, I have the means to work toward fixing it, and if I don’t, I no longer fixate on my powerlessness. It sounds way easier said than done. Trust me, I know.

The YA books I read and enjoy are fun, but I find myself relating less to high school narratives, mostly because I bleached away that part of my life like one cleans up blood from a dead body. And as I’ve said, my journeys with my mental health, identity, grief, etc. in my teenage years were important, but even if they are similar or a continuation of what I deal with now, it’s not the same feeling, so there’s a barrier to complete empathy. Adult books, even ones with protagonists my age, tend to focus less on what it’s like to further transition into school, work, and independence and more on conflict through the overarching conflict, which tends to be removed from these parts of life, even if they’re mentioned.

I could go on, but the gist is this: New Adult is not Young Adult+, even if the issues may be similar because, yeah, all the themes I list above are relevant throughout all the categories, but they’re treated differently with each stage of life. New Adult can become something of its own, and it should be taken seriously. Without realizing the potential of NA stories, we are squandering the potential for insightful, searing stories that could relate to 18-30 readers and potentially help them, or save them.

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