Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What's in a name? Defining New Adult by guest-blogger Kristina Perez

Today we're hosting a guest post by my super-smart, super-talented CP, Kristina Perez, who's going to be talking about New Adult!   Welcome, Kristina!

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New Adult seems to be all anyone in the literary community can talk about these days. I first encountered the term last summer when I saw a call for a pitchfest featuring protagonists aged 18–25, and I thought, “Hey, I have one of those!” Little did I know that NA is considered the older (and perhaps uglier) stepsister of Young Adult. Which got my wondering, what’s in a name?  

I was delighted when my wonderful CP, Susan Francino, invited me to explore this subject as a guest on her blog. Since I first talked with Susan about writing this post, the number of bloggers tackling the topic has multiplied so I won’t attempt an exhaustive overview of the arguments for and against this new category; rather, I will tell you what New Adult means to me.  

First, the basics: the term NA was coined by Dan Weiss of St. Martin’s Press and his editorial assistant, S. Jae-Jones. In November 2009, St. Martin’s hosted the first New Adult submissions contest (in conjunction with Georgia McBride, founder of #YALitChat and Month9Books) that launched a thousand blog posts. The original guidelines asked for manuscripts focusing on protagonists “18 or older, but 20s are preferred.” 

Seems straightforward enough, right? Not so much. What distinguishes a book about twenty-somethings as either New Adult or Adult? And how is that different from Upper YA/Crossover YA for that matter? More fundamentally, is NA a genre or a target market group?

 This is how I approach it. What are the Big Questions about life, love, and identity facing people in their early twenties? They aren’t the same ones we have at 18 or at 35. Kristan Hoffman, one of the original winners of the St. Martin’s contest, described NA to Writer’s Digest as being concerned with “transition,” and I believe that gets to the crux of the matter.

 
Literature at its very best is meant to be transformative and readers crave material that addresses the situations they find themselves navigating in real life. Instead of viewing NA as cynical marketing ploy to hold onto the “Harry Potter”-generation as they outgrow YA, it might simply be putting a name on a category that has already existed in terms of tastes and demand.

When I think about that time in my life, the pop culture references that immediately spring to mind are the movies Reality Bites and Singles (showing my age) and, more recently, the TV show Girls. This might be an indication that Hollywood is ahead of the curve in supplying relevant entertainment to this particular demographic. Even this season’s Glee is attempting to follow the show’s stars as they begin to make their lives beyond high school and their hometown. 

In fact, in terms of the issues that readers are looking to identify with, NA could be subdivided into the transition from high school to college (18–21) and leaving school to join the workforce (22–26). Controversial as this might be, personally I would be happy for the term Crossover YA to cover collegiate life while applying New Adult to those first terrifying post-college years when there is suddenly no precise societal script to follow (and yes, I’m aware of my Western middle class bias). Clearly this model works best for fiction set in the “real world”––or some semblance of it––because the issues facing characters of all ages in fantasy kingdoms or post-apocalyptic scenarios might be radically different.

Looking back at some of the classics of the Western canon, I propose that Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie could be read as New Adult. Sister Carrie is considered one of the greatest American urban novels and follows naïve 18-year-old Caroline as she leaves her home in the country to find fame and fortune in early twentieth century Chicago; her gradual heartbreaking disillusionment with big city life is a well-worn trope for a reason, typified perhaps by her age. Although she achieves the stardom as an actress she has coveted, it comes at great personal and moral cost and, ultimately, she realizes that she will never be fulfilled. It’s no coincidence that she lent her name to Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City, perhaps the most famous Carrie of the 21st century, in both her Adult and Young Adult forms. Watching the trials and travails of Glee’s Rachel Berry––budding Broadway starlet––as she tries to make it in New York, one can well imagine her finishing the same way.  

In conclusion, I would therefore like to suggest that it’s more useful when discussing New Adult to consider the spirit rather than the letter of the category. Hollywood has perhaps beaten the publishing industry to the punch of identifying the target audience for NA, but its antecedents can be found in the Victorian novel 

What does NA mean to you? Tell us in the comments.

If you want to find out more about New Adult literature, check out #NALitChat on Twitter (Thursday nights at 9pm EST), or the blog NA Alley.

Kristina Pérez is a fiction writer and journalist represented by Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc. She holds a PhD in Medieval Literature from the University of Cambridge and her first non-fiction title, The Myth of Morgan la Fey, is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan. In 2012, she was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Centre. As a journalist, her work has appeared in a number of international publications including The Wall Street Journal Asia, Condé Nast Traveler, and CNN.

14 comments:

  1. This is a great post!

    Interestingly, I would have never looked at YA and NA as different until I began studying Library Science. The class I have at the moment is all about YA and how it appeals to them based off their changing bodies, new desires, and identity. People who fit into the New Adult category are probably coming out of these stages and entering into new chapter in their life when they are going to experience other things (I mean, many of my friends have to get jobs, are getting married, are moving to new places, etc.)They'd have different thoughts, feelings and emotions and NA books should reflect all of those things, as you said.

    Now, I still thing that a NA can enjoy a YA book and visa versa, cause honestly, I don't think I'd so much notice the differences.

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    1. I like the idea of readership being flexible between NA and YA. Going off of my comment below, there are some issues with that when it comes to "mature" content, but like you, I think I would thoroughly enjoy and appreciate both NA and YA's "Big Questions" as Kristina terms it.

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  2. This is such a great way of defining this category. I love the idea of transition and how characters will face these new challenges in their lives. I think there's definitely a market for it, and it's about time it's getting more attention. That being said, I would really like to see NA develop into something more than what I've read thus far. It would be fantastic to see all genres in the NA category, and not just romance.

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    1. I totally agree with you, Jaime. :) The elephant in the room with NA, if it's not addressed directly, seems to be the level of sexual content that characterizes a lot of the books and how that factors in with YA readers reading up. Cora Carmack responds to the issue in this interview: http://www.usatoday.com/story/happyeverafter/2012/12/04/cora-carmack-interview-losing-it-new-adult/1747343/

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  3. I've been wondering if many of my stories are better classified NA than YA, since many of the protagonists are in their twenties. On the other hand, their scenarios usually have very little to do with realism, so I'm not sure how much it matters. I'll probably hold onto the YA tag, until further notice.

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    1. I have older-ish (17/18) fantasy protagonists as well. So I really appreciate Kristina's mention that the NA/YA distinction makes sense in "realistic"/contemp fiction more than other genres. When you start trying to compare characters in fantasy to real-life stages--"Are you a scared college student? A flailing college grad? A high school student who just has big problems?"--things get really fuzzy really fast. Personally, I figure I'll just write the story the best I can and if someone authoritative decides down the road that it's a slightly different age group, well then fine.

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  4. Really interesting read. I think the NA age group is a really interesting one for characters and can see it's pretty different to YA. Might have to go looking for some to read now.
    =)

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  5. NA for me is just like YA. The characters are still as imature, except they are allowed to have sex. LOL.

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    1. I'm going to wait with my fingers crossed and hope that it develops into something more than what it currently seems to be.

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  6. This was a really interesting and timely post. I recently decided to switch one of my writing projects from YA to NA because of this sense of transition that's described here. Once I changed that, a whole slew of other issues just clicked into place in terms of plot and character development. I love how Kristina said that it's more important to "consider the spirit rather than the letter of the category." Books shouldn't be rigidly categorized based on the age of the protagonist alone. There's so much more to it than that. Thanks for sharing this!

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  7. The YA genre is so popular, it seems kinda good to have subcultures to it. Hopefully they'll have some good morals to them. At least some of it.

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