I missed it, but there was a conversation on Twitter last week about whether or not to include college-age protagonists in the Young Adult category. From the sound of it, people were evenly split–and since this is something I was already pondering, I know exactly where I stand.
“Young Adult” is a book category featuring protagonists in the 15-18 age range. Although YA fiction is enjoyed by young and older adults alike, it’s often geared toward teenage readers. However, what truly defines YA isn’t so much the age of the characters or target audience, but the novel’s issues and themes. High school drama, first love, increased independence from parents, discovering self-identity, blossoming sexuality, and facing peer pressure, are just some of the subjects tackled by YA fiction. But now something funny is happening…
The increasing popularity of YA fiction has given rise to a wealth of YA genre novels. Instead of being set in high schools or summer camps, these stories take place in fantastical kingdoms, aboard spaceships, or in terrifying dystopias. These protagonists aren’t students, athletes, or babysitters–they’re war-hardened soldiers, talented hackers, skilled space pilots, and brutal assassins. No one’s stressing about getting a summer job or passing AP chemistry, because they’re too busy fighting zombies, overthrowing dystopian governments, and fleeing arranged marriages. These characters more or less know who they are, even if they’re not entirely sure where they belong. They’ve racked up experiences, acquired skills, and built reputations that require years. Yet they apparently hit the ground running at age nine, because we’re told they are sixteen–maybe seventeen–and it’s just ridiculous!
What’s going on here? Why are these characters, who are so clearly in their late teens/early 20s, being aged down? Why aren’t they just being marketed toward readers in that age range? Ten years ago, the answer would have been, “because that age category doesn’t exist.” But for years now, the “New Adult” category has been flourishing in the indie publishing market. Unfortunately, the traditional publishing industry has yet to embrace this category, so writers are pressured to age their characters down to fit into the next closest thing.
So, why hasn’t New Adult taken off in traditional publishing? From its indie popularity, you’d think it would–and there’s a need for it. Just like Middle Grade and Young Adult, New Adult comes with its own unique set of themes and issues common to that time of life, regardless of the setting. Not all high schoolers are interested in reading about twenty-somethings taking down corporate villains or ditching forced marriages in favor of starting a new life. And not all twenty-somethings want to read about summer camp frenemies or boarding schools for vampires. There’s a reason these categories diverged in the first place, and it makes more sense to embrace that than to force square pegs into round holes.
The problem is that NA has gained a bit of a spicy reputation. Right now, the spotlight shines strongest on only one New Adult genre, which is sensual romance. This genre does very very well in the indie market, but its popularity has also defined the category. “New Adult is just super-sexy YA” is a constant refrain, but one that isn’t remotely true. This can be frustrating for authors and readers alike, because there are quite a lot of New Adult titles that don’t focus on romance, or don’t even contain it, and they span a variety of genres from supernatural and fantasy to contemporary and mystery. The trouble is, no one seems to realize they exist.
This is why it’s so important that we keep young adult characters in YA and new adult characters in NA, and let the readers go where they want to go. Most will probably read both. Then, we can put our effort instead toward re-defining what “New Adult” actually means. As writers, we have to be honest about who our characters really are. If my protagonist is a decorated major with battle experience and the scars to match, does it really make sense that she’s seventeen? Would a sixteen year old be interested in marrying his unicorn-turned-human boyfriend? (Well, maybe. I mean, unicorn…) And we have to be bold when facing industry pressure to age our protagonists down, because a place exists for novels with college-age characters. The industry just has to be willing to put them there.
More than any of this, as both authors and readers, we have to do more to widen the spotlight so that it covers not just sensual romances, but everything else in New Adult, too. Because there are some amazing stories out there in New Adult territory, and not all of them involve scantily-clad sixteenth-century Scotsmen or super steamy love scenes in luxurious Paris hotel rooms. Those are great, but there’s so much more to be discovered in NA.
Whether traditional publishing wants it or not, New Adult exists and it’s here to stay. So it’s time to embrace it and focus on re-defining what it means.