New Adult: Defining it in Art and in Life

By Trai Cartwright
Part Three of a Six-Part Monthly Series

If you haven’t already heard, the writing world has a Hot New Thing. It’s called New Adult, and everyone’s after it – but no one can agree on what it is.

I’ve been known to take a poll or two, collecting data until there are enough consistencies to connect the dots, draw a conclusion, feel well-informed. You know, the old-fashioned way to self-educate, before memes explained everything in tell words or less.

So I’ve been polling all the writers, agents, and editors I meet lately and ask them: What is New Adult?

Here are some of the answers I’ve gotten:

  • New Adult, or “NA,” is a relationship-driven story in which said relationship has transformative healing powers.
  • NA is about 18 – 24-year-olds who go to college. Or get their first jobs.
  • NA is any story about a person aged 18-35 who is doing something in the Adult World for the very first time (so marriages, new home ownership, zombie apocalypse, world travel, world travel during a zombie apocalypse…).
  • NA is Chick Lit from 10 years ago.
  • NA is YA with sex.
  • NA is YA, basically, but with a sophisticated writer’s voice. Like, a story about a 16-year-old, but with a voice that isn’t quite literary so only oldsters would read it, but isn’t glib and chatty or texty or slangy like much of YA.
  • It’s rooted in the real world. If you do all of this in scifi or fantasy, don’t call it New Adult Fantasy, just call it Fantasy or Scifi.

Egads. Does the publishing world even know what they’re all so fired up about? I even saw one contest seeking to award a New Adult manuscript but the contest rules didn’t even define what New Adult was to them!

Then it occurred to me that a great place to look for NA models was TV and the movies. Hollywood has been doing New Adult their entire existence, updating as the audience got more diverse, sophisticated, and/or more morally corrupt.

Here’s a five-second list of on-screen New Adult titles:

Johnny Got His Gun

Veronica Mars

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in the last seasons, it seamlessly transitioned from YA to NA)

Rocky

Norma Rae

Alien

Silkwood

Wall Street

Badlands

Bonnie & Clyde

A billion action movies staring some hot young stud / studette who is at the top of their car racing / parkour / psychic / super- / computer hacking / spying skills.

Any war movie ever

And perhaps the most definitive New Adult movie ever:

Risky Business

Here’s the dots I’m connecting across all mediums:

  • School of any kind may or may not be a part of the main character’s world, but it’s not a key component. Mostly these protagonists need lessons school can’t teach. They often leave their school at the mid-point.
  • They are newly-forged adults in a world that hasn’t laid out a red carpet for them to take their place in it. And our main characters may not want or care about that red carpet (golly, I wonder if this ties in to all the anti-hero stories we’re seeing…?).
  • The main characters are all under 30. Because apparently if you haven’t figured out how to start working the system by then, we cast you out of our society and/or start writing mid-life, book club-bait dramas about you.
  • There absolutely is Scifi and Fantasy with new adult qualities. Tons it, actually. They practically forged the genre. But yes, the publishing world really does just call it Fantasy or Scifi. (Or Horror.)
  • Unlike YA, in which the young person who, no matter how heartily she rebels, still realizes that in the end, she needs a community to survive, and must tamper down that rebellion and take her place in society, New Adult isn’t about finding your place in society. It’s about surviving the reality of being responsible for yourself in a tricky, dangerous, complicated world.

So here’s my conclusion: while it might well include a grab bag of other components from above, in general New Adult fiction is about:

  • Young people facing graphic adult issues. Like sex, violence, domestic issues, disease, addiction, job loss, etc., but it’s not a “rite of passage” to adulthood. It’s just part of their world, and it might be all of that stuff, all at once.

Because sometimes that’s what being an adult is.

Now swim.

I almost feel a responsibility to write New Adult now, to give guidance to our young people graduating high school and trying to get out of their parents’ basement and not completely fall to pieces. It’s a scary world and a lot is expected of them. The least we can do is pass on what we know. And maybe if it’s packaged just right with a shiny new genre title, the young ‘uns won’t mind that it’s an oldster telling them.

Any books you’ve read that you think of as New Adult? Any components or definitions you’ve heard for New Adult?

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Trai Cartwright HeadshotTrai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.

11 thoughts on “New Adult: Defining it in Art and in Life

  1. Julie Luek

    My daughter has dipped into a few books I would consider this genre. She’s 17 and a senior in high school. I think, depending on the book and degree of graphic content, she’s really enjoyed them. As you said, they’re a little less glib and “young” sounding but not quite mom’s books either.

    Reply
  2. Patricia Stoltey

    After hearing more about this genre at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference, I might try writing something for this audience. If I try real, real hard, I can remember what it was like to be 18-25…sort of.

    Reply
      1. Patricia Stoltey

        I just now saw this, Julie. You do say the funniest things, and that’s good because a good laugh in the morning makes the whole day better.

        Reply
    1. Trai Cartwright

      I’d absolutely agree with that, Julie. Marketing is always looking for a new spin, even if it’s just “the same ol’ thing.”

      Reply
  3. Karen Duvall

    Great post, Trai. My writer friends here in Bend have frequent discussions on this topic, but they never last long, lol. :) We’ve made our conclusions about what it is and site certain television shows that offer a good example. Take “Revenge” for instance. Lots of melodrama, relationship issues, dealing with the responsibilities of new adulthood, secrecy, deceit, fidelity, etc. The one movie I can think of that epitomizes NA is the 80s film “Saint Elmo’s Fire” starring the newly grown-up bratpack. I haven’t read any NA books yet, but I did buy a boxed set of them when they were on sale for 99¢.

    Reply
    1. Trai Cartwright

      Karen, yes, “St. Elmo’s Fire!” And it was weird, marketing-wise — the studio didn’t know what to do with it. It’s not teens, it’s Rat Pack all grown up — who wants to see that? Turns out all the other RP fan who’d grown up.
      Let me know if any of those NA books are any good!

      Reply
  4. Teresa Funke

    How ironic that many of the classic books we all knew and loved fit this category. Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, and so on.

    Reply

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