Can we talk for a minute about New Adult as a romance genre?
Well, how about I blog for a bit and you can either read on or click away – that work for you?
So, way back in 2013 when I was a regular online columnist for Kill Your Darlings, writing about youth literature topics, I wrote this piece called Adults: Young and New. It was an overview of this emerging ‘New Adult’ genre, and because I was writing from the ‘youth literature’ camp, there was an undercurrent of criticism to the piece. Take, for example, this line; “It’s left people questioning if the new adult readership is bridging age-gaps, or introducing young adults to adult themes much too soon.”
In many ways I stand by the piece, especially as it was me just throwing questions out there about who the genre was actually targeting, and whether or not it should be for teens … particularly as, when I wrote that article, I had just received a book for review that was marketed as young adult, but came with a parental-advisory warning label on the cover (from memory, it was Rebecca Donovan’s Reason to Breathe – which I had issues with anyway) and I discovered that in America the book was being labelled as ‘New Adult’ – a newfangled term I was coming to grips with, which prompted the article.
I was also grappling with a 2011 book called Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire, which was really my first encounter with ‘New Adult’ and further confused me because I’d seen it marketed and reviewed as Young Adult (even today on Goodreads it has confusing genre tags; with 2,311 users labelling it as New Adult and 1,212 users Young Adult). That book was okay, but I had some issues with how the relationship played out and the hero’s possessive demeanour and, again – because I was writing from the youth lit angle – I had concerns about teens (especially teen girls) reading such sexualised content and somewhat unhealthy relationships presented as HEA.
To paraphrase from my KYD piece; I am cool with sex in YA books. I encourage it, even. Especially YA books that positively depict sexual relationships between consenting individuals, and YA books which offer a broader inclusion of gender, sexuality and sexual orientation. But, in the KYD piece, I said the new adult books I was encountering seemed to have more in common with porn; “with poor narratives designed to prop up sex scenes rather than actual storylines.”
That wasn’t right of me. In all honesty, I was probably too focused on the youth-lit angle, and the article would have benefited more from looking at what teen readers gain from venturing into romance reads – which is increasingly what I see new adult doing, in bringing YA readers into the genre … or even just an exploration into the difference between new adult romance VS. new adult erotica, that I think many people were confusing at the time as the label was just starting to take off.
So allow me to take this opportunity to re-evaluate my stance on new adult romance. Because I do think that I was wrong in a lot of that KYD piece – not all of it, but some of it was too critical of a genre I was only just starting to read and understand (and that publishers themselves were still trying to figure out the marketing for).
I’ve now come to really love and admire this genre, as I’ve read more widely. I am sorry for some of the negativity I laid at new adult’s feet in my 2013 piece. Luckily I know the romance community to be a wonderfully inclusive and thoughtful one, that encourages us to grapple with our thoughts and feelings and grow into ourselves as readers … so this is me, growing, and figuring myself and my tastes out the more I read. And what I’ve figured out is that I love reading New Adult and college contemporary romances.
I’ve found new adult to be amongst the most responsive romance genres to real-world issues. I think part of that may be that some of the most successful writers in the genre are self-publishing, so there’s quick turn-around and free-reign to explore what matters to them … the likes of Sarina Bowen in her brilliant ‘The Ivy Years’ series writing about slut-shaming and rape culture on college campuses in her fourth instalment ‘The Shameless Hour’, at a time when such discussions have reached fever-pitch in the US.
I also see that part of New Adult’s success is thanks to the storylines increasingly reflecting what matters to millennial readers. There's more diversity - in the types of romances – background of characters and authors. Sarina Bowen, again, hooked me big time when her first ‘The Ivy Years’ book featured a disabled heroine in ‘The Year We Fell Down.’
It definitely feels like a genre that’s responsive to the #WeNeedDiverseRomance conversation – take Courtney Milan’s NA ‘Cyclone’ series for instance, the first book of which touched on topics of mental health, and while the first instalment featured a heterosexual interracial pairing, the much-anticipated second book in the series (coming 2016!) ‘Hold Me’ will feature a trans heroine. Likewise, while the first two books in Bowen’s ‘The Ivy Years’ featured heterosexual romances, the third beloved book ‘The Understatement of the Year’ had a male/male HEA. Bowen has also paired with author Elle Kennedy to write a spectacular LGBTQ+ book called ‘Him’.
It’s even the fact that I’ve found more body and sex-positivity in the New Adult genre. I’ve found more heroines of every size (Kristen Callihan and Kylie Scott particularly champion body-positivity!) and there’s fewer virginal heroines, but more virginal heroes (again, ‘The Shameless Hour’ and now Kristen Callihan’s ‘The Game Plan’ both of which feature inexperienced men, and women with healthy sexual appetites). Now I know you wouldn’t think a flip of the “traditionally” virginal roles is that progressive, but you’d be surprised, particularly in college-settings.
Funnily enough, one of the positives I find of New Adult is also one of the reasons so many readers unfairly malign the genre (and refuse to even try it) – and that is the young age of the protagonists.
I’ve heard of romance readers who resoundly refuse to read books featuring heroes/heroines in their 20s. A universal dismissal of young protagonists is kind of insulting, I mean – we were all young once, right? But I have found so many readers who’ve only ventured into the romance genre because of New Adult – they’re mostly carried over from Young Adult, and I think that’s wonderful. The new influx of romance readers was evident at the recent Fictionally Yours Melbourne event, which featured a heavy line-up of New Adult authors and consequently had a huge number of attendees in the 20-30 age-bracket; an (purely personal, anecdotal) indication that New Adult is helping grow the romance audience generally.
I’m also changing my mind on teen readers discovering New Adult romance … but generally I think teens would benefit from reading more romance that combats the disturbing trends found in pornography. Romance explores relationships between consenting adults and emphasises mutual attraction and respect, sexual positivity and in particular female satisfaction (versus the degradation of women in pornography). If teenagers are coming into romance via New Adult well, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing – let them discover the wonderful broader community via gateway books from the likes of Australian C.J. Duggan, and her wonderful ‘Paradise Road’ and ‘Paradise City’.
Look, I think some of the negativity around New Adult comes down to the mockability factor (which I also did in my KYD piece: “what’s next – Geriatric Adult? Sub-Adult?” Gosh. You could play a drinking game by that article. Sorry!). But mostly I see people hating on NA because they don’t read it, and refuse to try it. It’s an infuriating stubbornness, and you’d think those in the romance community would be especially aware of the irony in rejecting an entire genre out of hand – since our community gets enough of that from those who still think romance is strictly bodice-rippes and Fabio-covers.
I’m here to tell you that I was one of those stubborn readers, who not that long ago resoundly rejected the newfangled New Adult and its seeming plethora of books about the illegal underground college fight scene. I joke – but I was quick to judge and it’s only from reading, and reading widely, that I’ve found my romance world expanded. I’ve also discovered a wonderful new community of romance readers – some veterans and some newbies – to geek out with, over this genre that’s refreshingly challenging and diverse.