Years ago, New Adult (NA) was proposed as a new age range for marketing books. It would be marketed towards those adults who wanted to move on from reading about teenagers. Instead, they wanted to read about characters in their 20s who were attending college, graduating college and getting started on a first job, and dating. The label, however, quickly gained a reputation for being YA but with explicit sex. That is, so much of NA was erotica, that people assumed all NA was erotica. Because NA did not offer a variety of genres, people apparently stopped buying it and it never took off as a marketing label. Sometimes people still use the term to describe a book, but it is not an official label used by publishers or bookstores and, outside of the book blogosphere, it can be difficult to find anyone who knows what NA is. Now, however, users on Twitter seem interested in resurrecting NA as an age category. I am not convinced we need it.
The age labels publishers use now generally indicate two things: that a book will likely be of interest to a certain age group and also that it is developmentally appropriate. So middle grade books talk about death, drugs, romance, and other “mature” topics, but in a different way than YA books do. Readers in their 20s, however, have no real need for books that are developmentally appropriate. They are adults and generally will be ready for any content that a reader in their 30s, 40s, or 80s could read. So the only reason for a NA category is that a book will likely be of interest to a reader in their 20s.
The driving argument behind creating a NA section in bookstores is because readers in their 20s can “relate” to the characters. But this is not how readers really read. Readers in their 20s do not only need to read about characters in their 20s. Readers in their 40s do not need to read only about characters in their 40s. And readers in their 70s do not need to read only about characters in their 70s. Why would we increasingly divide adult books up into different decades so people can only read about characters “just like them?”
The difficulty here is, of course, that people in their 20s are not all the same, even though the current conversations about NA often suggest that they are. There is, for instance, an emphasis on college and graduating college in discussions of NA, even though not everyone attends college and not everyone who attends will graduate. There is also an emphasis on “new” experiences such as one’s first job or on dating and maybe finding “the one.” Few people ever seem to suggest NA about characters who have been working since their teens, characters who are single parents, characters who are married, or characters who are not experiencing various types of “firsts.” The, probably unintended, implication is that there is one “correct” way to move into adulthood–other experiences are not welcome, or at least not worth reading about.
The current conversation around NA seems like it is geared towards fulfilling a very specific need for a very specific type of reader–the single, college-attending (or recently graduated and job-seeking) reader. Even readers in their late 20s, who are beyond college and who have been in the work force for some time, are not included in the current suggestions for “relatable” 20-something-year-old characters. I am not convinced there needs to be a separate label or section for this very specific type of book. Rather, it seems to me that readers are asking for more books about characters in their 20s or in college and that this need could be fulfilled simply by writing and publishing such books under the current adult label. Setting aside specific shelves for readers to find these books is not necessary, either, as booksellers and libraries could simply periodically display “reads for recent graduates” or “recommended reads for new college students.” The type of NA being called for simply is not expansive enough for it to warrant its own section for all 20-somethings who want to read primarily about other 20-somethings.
I understand that readers who enjoy YA are often unenchanted with many of the adult books available. “Books about divorcees” is how I have heard some people describe adult books. They do not relate to disillusioned characters and want books about young adults who are hopeful about the future, not mired in despair about a broken love life and terrible job. But I still think this simply means writers of adult fiction need to expand the types of stories they are telling. Adulthood does not have to equal disillusionment and sad books are not “deeper” or “more artistic” than joyful books. Maybe it is time more literature reflected a broader definition of adulthood; we do not need a devoted new adult label to do this.