Postadolescent or “New Adult” Fiction

As I have been given license by Dan to buy ALL THE BOOKS I WANT, I took him at his word and spent over $200 on novels last week. Many of these were for research purposes—to get a sense for the market, as it were—but let’s face it, the vast majority were books I wanted to read. There is something incredibly cathartic about spending that much on fiction without feeling the least bit guilty.

Firstly, I want to announce that submissions continue apace for the St. Martin’s New Adult Contest. Remember, contest is open until Friday, November 20, after which I will announce the winners of P.C. and Kristin Cast’s TEMPTED, as well as the writers from whom we’d like to see partials. We’ve received some really great submissions thus far.

Secondly, I want to discuss in a little bit more detail about “new adult” or postadolescent fiction and how the age of the protagonist isn’t necessarily the best factor in determining whether or not a novel is YA or adult. I read PREP by Curtis Sittenfield and ICE by Sarah Beth Durst over the weekend. PREP was published as an adult title, despite the fact that its protagonist is in high school, and ICE was published YA, despite the fact its protagonist is 18. Why?

PREP by Curtis Sittenfield

PREP by Curtis Sittenfield

PREP by Curtis Sittenfield

Lee Fiora is a young girl from Indiana attending a prestigious boarding school on the East Coast against her parents’ wishes. Lee feels awkward, gawkish, and unsure amongst these self-assured young men and women and withdraws into an isolated world of her own making—always on the periphery.

But then she meets Cross Sugarman, the most popular and desired boy in her class, and the two of them enter into a clandestine sexual relationship despite the social gulf between them that is less than a relationship but more than a fling. Lee struggles with her desire to be “one of them” against her self-perpetuated ostracism and wonders exactly where she fits in his life and in life at the Ault School.

Despite the fact that the plot sounds like it might fit in a YA novel, the book was published as adult and was a NYT bestseller. Now let us examine a YA novel with a plot that sounds more “adult”—with an 18-year-old protagonist dealing with marriage and motherhood.

ICE by Sarah Beth Durst

ICE by Sarah Beth Durst

ICE by Sarah Beth Durst

When Cassie was a little girl, her Gram used to tell her stories of the Polar Bear King. In one fairy tale, Cassie’s mother broke a promise she made to the Polar Bear King and was whisked off to the ends of the earth. As Cassie grew older, she understood it was only a pretty tale to account for her mother’s death. But on the night of her 18th birthday, Cassie encounters a bear on the ice who speaks to her and tells her that her mother is alive—and that Cassie is to be his bride.

Cassie then makes her own deal with the Polar Bear King: in exchange for her mother’s life, she will marry him and carry his child. Never intending to keep her promise, Cassie nevertheless finds herself increasingly unable to stay away from her mysterious husband. One night she uncovers a curse laid upon him and discovers just how far she is willing to go–east of the sun, west of the moon–for love.

Why is PREP adult and ICE YA? If not the age of the protagonist, then what differentiates YA from YA that crosses over into adult?

Perspective, Voice, & Lorrie Moore’s WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL?

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

One characteristic of adult literature is perspective. With the passing of childhood innocence comes experience, and with experience comes insight. With his/her adolescent years behind him/her, an adult can look back and see “what was then and what is now”. (No one, but no one, does this better than Lorrie Moore in WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL?)

This often comes down to voice. There is a YA voice and an adult one, and even if stories overlap, the adult voice has a sense of scope. What makes YA compelling as a read is its immediacy; a young person cannot write of him/herself from any perspective aside from “now” and “later”. With a YA voice, the past is less present, the present looms like a storm, and the future ever just out of reach. With an adult voice, there is a sense that the future has come to pass, the past is present, and the present encompasses all that has been and all that will be.

This is a fine line to walk. Certain YA novels have scope, like E. Lockhart’s THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS or Marcus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF (what I find interesting about THE BOOK THIEF is that it was initially published as adult in its native Australia). These are the “crossover YA” novels–children’s books that appeal to an adult audience.

Saukerl [an insult],” [Liesel] laughed, and as she held up her hand, she knew completely that [Rudy] was simultaneously calling her a Saumensch. I think that’s as close to love as eleven-year-olds get.

-Marcus Zusak, THE BOOK THIEF

But what about “postadolescent” fiction? That’s a bit harder to articulate. We, the “new adults”, have some perspective on our lives, but scope? We’re not old enough, we’re not experienced enough, we’re simply not grown-up enough. Our lives have immediacy, just as a teenager’s does, but we also possess the wisdom to understand that this immediacy cannot last for long. It’s a curious place in life and Dan and I feel that not enough fiction (or nonfiction) explore this nebulous time of life. The “quarter-life crisis”, if you will.

In the end, we’re simply looking to publish a good story well-told (like THE HUNGER GAMES or THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE). Keep on submitting, you guys!

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11 Responses to Postadolescent or “New Adult” Fiction

  1. Corinne Bowen 10 Nov 2009 at 2:57 pm #

    Thank you so much for writing about this issue! Now that I’ve finished the first full draft of my novel and I’m working on revisions while beta readers give feedback, I’m struggling to figure out where the book would fit in the bookstore. At first I thought YA, but my MC is in her early 20s and dealing with adult issues. I had never heard of “New Adult” until reading your blog. I searched for other blogs/websites discussing this genre, but no dice. Do you know of anyone else focusing on this genre? Can’t wait for you to discuss your insights more! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Cate Hart 10 Nov 2009 at 11:02 pm #

    Wow, I had read several other posts from both agents and editors talking about what makes YA and Adult different, but I think you really just summed it up beautifully. Like Corrine, I was on the fence about my own story. And I knew that the voice felt more YA than adult – the immmediacy of actions and repercussions and self-centered thought – but I also had things that the characters were dealing with that were above a high schooler’s scope. I’m so glad that you and Dan are considering this middle ground world between teens and adults. YAY!

  3. Kerri 11 Nov 2009 at 2:01 pm #

    Am I eligible for the contest if my novel opens when the main character is 15 years old, but for the bulk of the manuscript she is in her 20’s? It’s a very fast-paced coming of age story that covers fourteen years. I just want to make sure I follow the guidelines before I go ahead and enter.

    Thanks for this contest and thanks for the work you’re doing to fill this niche.

  4. Gareth Mottram 12 Nov 2009 at 5:34 am #

    Thanks for this – gives some clues to that elusive crossover market but as you say, “a good story, well told” has universal appeal.

    For marketing, the industry probably needs some sort of appealing term for this market/age group doesn’t it? How about XYA – “X” for crossover, obviously, but also with connotations of “X” rated – edgier, sexual elements, horror, adult issues etc? It might appeal to the aspirational (younger) teen readers as well.

  5. Meg 12 Nov 2009 at 7:00 pm #

    I’m wondering if you had considered the ageist implications of this genre or of making such statements as “Our lives have immediacy, just as a teenager’s does, but we also possess the wisdom to understand that this immediacy cannot last for long”

    So, at what age does immediacy run out? 30? 40?

    Moreover, as someone who is 25 and a married woman, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t speak for me. I don’t think I lack for being “grown up” enough. I don’t think I lack for scope in my life or my reading either.

    I also think you’re being rather offensive to your YA readers when you say books with their “voices” cannot see anything but “now” and “later”. I can point to a lot of people younger than I who have a great deal of scope on their lives and experiences and know damn well that youth is transient.

    This is rather ageist, so please stop using the “we”. You and your journey in life are your business, but do not presume that because you know when I was born that you know where I am mentally, emotionally, or literarily.

  6. pgm 13 Nov 2009 at 6:23 pm #

    I’d like to agree with this person, whole-heartedly. Speak your your*self*, thanks, because presuming that you get to make these remarks for others is ridiculous. Not to mention the sheer rudeness inherent in your condescending statements about young adults.

  7. Melony Pulley 18 Nov 2009 at 12:19 am #

    Thanks for your great posts about this Postadolescent genre! I’m so thrilled that the need has been seen and that you’re planning to do something about it! My question – as an author whose series is most suited for this new genre, Are agents going to recognize that when I’m querying them? It’s been a real problem for me trying to figure out who to query because they are either YA or adult and I just don’t think my books fit in either that well. So, when will we see agents who are looking for books for this genre? Thanks!

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  11. Becca 15 Feb 2012 at 8:16 am #

    Thank you for this post! I’m a “New Adult” writer and I was told by agents that my writing was “commercial in style” and that my story idea was “marketable” … BUT (there’s always a but, right?) my story wasn’t adult enough (could I add more sex and violence?) or young adult enough (could I put my character back to living at home and still in high school?) THEN my book would sell … to them, anyway.

    But they weren’t my audience. My book was New Adult and was intentionally written to be “in between”. So maybe I didn’t want traditional publishing bad enough or maybe I just wanted to stay true to my characters. I trusted my audience was out there.

    When I self-published my novel, I set the price at $2.99. In 2 weeks, I had over 200 sales. This is my 3rd week and I’m on track to sell 200 in this week alone. No, it’s no block buster help. Fine, maybe a traditional publisher would have done better. But let’s be realistic–a lot of traditional books aren’t selling 100-200 copies a week right now, and they have the marketing team that I do not.

    So to say that no one is interested in New Adult (as has been the word around the web) or that there’s no market for it … is SILLY! There is clearly a market for it. There are readers who are looking for this … and obviously they are having such a hard time finding it that they’ll even resort to spending money on my “amateur” offering.

    Publishers might get to dictate bestsellers (by spending thousands of dollars on marketing) but when it comes to the natural interests of the markets, I think St Martin’s Press is one of the few places being innovative by trying to cater to this existing-but-uncatered-to market. There will be resistance, of course, but I’ll bite my tongue on the reasons why. I’ll say this: keep up the good work.

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