What Is 'New Adult?' Romance Editors and Authors Tell All
"Losing It" by Cora Carmack. "Beautiful Disaster" by Jamie McGuire. "Reflected in You" by Sylvia Day. In the past year, New Adult novels have moved from the self-publishing realm to the forefront of major romance publishers, with their varied readership eagerly following. Thanks to word of mouth, these intense stories of first love between emotionally damaged characters in their mid-20s are filling a vacancy in the romance genre.
"I view New Adult as really bridging that gap between traditional young adult and contemporary romance," says Margo Lipschultz, senior editor at Harlequin. "Until a year ago, you didn't find easily available stories about kids in college who are experimenting with that newfound sense of liberation but also the heightened responsibilities that accompany it." Generally, the heroine is 18-24 years old, while the hero is 18-26. "A college setting is common but not mandatory," says Pocket Star editorial director Lauren McKenna.
Now that major publishers are releasing New Adult novels, many more contemporary romance authors are trying their hand at this liminal genre. What'll you get when reading New Adult? Bookish spoke with top editors and authors to pinpoint New Adult's key characteristics.
It's all about the angst
A term that comes up often when discussing New Adult is "angst." While angst has gotten a bad rap in the past few decades as it's been equated with whiny teenagers, editors and writers think more about its original German meaning of "fear or anxiety." Claire Zion, editorial director at Penguin's imprint NAL, characterized angsty NA protagonists as "people in very real, kind of dark situations," often due to alcoholism or abandonment. "They're not glamorized at all, which romance often is. I don't think that they're exaggerated bad situations; they're very real to common American experience. A lot of teens are growing up in broken homes or mixed families. Their parents have troubled pasts. People want to write about it, and people want to read about it."
While situations in New Adult lit seem more dramatic than in real life, they stop just short of being over-the-top. Avon editor Amanda Bergeron cites Lisa Desrochers' "A Little Too Far," which kicks off with the heroine sleeping with her stepbrother before leaving for study abroad--then, in her guilt, falling for an almost-priest who's only months away from taking his vows.
"What's fabulous about New Adult is often these authors are taking such risks," Amy Pierpont, editor-in-chief at Hachette's imprint Forever, says. "It's such a dramatic and emotional read, and it's such a dramatic and emotional time of life. Everything is monumental; there are no molehills, there are only mountains to be climbed."
Author Rachel van Dyken ("The Bet") had two contemporary romances and about 16 regency romance novels under her belt before she tried her hand at New Adult. "I love angst," she says, "and I love being able to write characters out of their current issues and bring them into maturity."
With that maturity comes dramatic emotional stakes that surround those who've just left their teenage years. "These people are so young and they're setting out on their own for the first time and feeling that first blush of love and that huge hormonal reaction," says Day, contemporary romance author (with an avid New Adult following) and President of the Romance Writers of America. "Your love was insane--you can't stop thinking about them, you're calling each other all the time... All of that--that whole overblown sense of drama--is what's in New Adult."
"I love NA because it's evocative," says "If You Leave" author Courtney Cole. We can write about relatable storylines--issues that 20-somethings really have to face--and we can do it without toeing that YA line of propriety. We can get as gritty as the story takes us."
Where does all the New Adult angst start? Family, quite often. Sure, most readers can relate to leaving the nest in one's 20s and learning how to be an adult outside of the childhood home. However, Pierpont says that in New Adult, "the family support system is often not a very good one. It's leaving the pain and baggage of the past behind, and out of that tragedy finding a hopeful future."
One or both main characters in a New Adult title typically is lugging serious emotional baggage. "Sometimes you have one character who's from the 'right side of the tracks' and one who's from the 'wrong side of the tracks,'" Pierpont says. "We've certainly read the story about the young girl who seemingly has everything: She comes from the good family, she comes from a place in society where she is respected and revered, and yet she's still got this deep, dark hole in her soul of feeling like she doesn't belong or she doesn't measure up. It's about that fear and that feeling of inadequacy that lives within us all." She cites novels like Jessica Sorensen's "The Secret of Ella and Micha," in which Ella tries to hide the damage from Micha but can't: "That's part of growing up: To face him means to face her own fears.... It's the very romantic idea of 'you make me want to be a better person.'"
"You'll find a lot of [New Adult] protagonists struggle with self-esteem and not feeling good enough," says McKenna. "Usually for the female protagonists, it's a time of self-discovery and coming into their own and really believing in themselves--this growth allows them to find and accept love."
First time for everything
"These characters do have more freedom [and] less parental supervision," Lipschultz says. "They're in charge of their own lives, but they're figuring out how to navigate those lives for the first time, and they're making mistakes along the way: trusting the wrong person, or falling for the guy that they know is bad for them."
Describing her "Crossfire" couple Eva and Gideon, Day describes countless New Adult love stories: "In many ways, they're still very much teenagers because it's taken them so long in their life to get to the point where they're experiencing that first love."
Let's talk about sex
According to the editors and authors interviewed for this piece, there is a common misperception that New Adult is "sexed-up YA." However, there's actually less bumping and grinding than media coverage suggests. What's key, say New Adult experts, is the sexual tension itself--the slow, delicious build-up that might mirror the first blush of puppy love yet has greater depth, now that the characters are older.
"There are certainly plenty of mature YA books that handle sex, but that doesn't make them New Adult," Lipschultz clarifies. "There are plenty of very successful New Adult books that really don't have that much 'on-screen' sex in them, and that are far less explicit than many books out there." In McGuire's "Beautiful Disaster," for instance, "they have sex [and] she loses her virginity to him, but it's tasteful, it's emotional. It's not about pages and pages of explicit choreography. It's organic to the characters; it's not sex for sex's sake."
Zion points out that New Adult couples may be less experienced in sex than their contemporary romance counterparts. "They're having their first sexual partner," she explains. "The 30-year-old sex is interesting and satisfying in a different way, but this New Adult sex is just so emotionally intense."
Regardless of how much sex is on the page, New Adult has inspired additional debate about how books depict sexuality. "We talk a lot in society right now about rape culture and having this idea that girls are asking for it," says Angela James, editorial director at Carina Press. "One of the things that I really like about New Adult is it does allow the heroines to explore their sexuality and their sensuality and to experience college or that New Adult way of life without being slut-shamed."
"Happy for now"
"Most of the [novels] I've read, the endings are, at least 'happy for now,' if not 'happy forever,'" Lipschultz says. "That's one of the trends that does differentiate New Adult from traditional contemporary romance: At the end, you don't necessarily see the couple getting engaged or pledging to be together forever or talking about having kids. That's not to say that those endings don't exist in New Adult, because they do. But you often just see it ending as a satisfying emotional resolution, where as a reader you trust that these characters will end up together--and that's as far as it goes."
A category in the making
"The development of the New Adult genre is not unlike the development of paranormal romance from years back; it came out of nowhere, and no one knew what the heck it was," McKenna says. Indeed, that's the subgenre that garners the most comparisons to New Adult. "It happened very quickly, and to sustain its popularity, authors have been changing all the time to really stay fresh and different."
"New Adult... needs to expand, because the parameters are very narrow right now," James says. "[If not,] readers will burn out on it because they don't want to read the same book over and over again.... [For] New Adult to continue to be a viable niche, we have to grow it outside of contemporary into paranormal, science-fiction/fantasy, maybe even historical--I think that's a little trickier." She points to "Defiance" by Stephanie Tyler as a daring take on New Adult, in which the heroine is part of a post-apocalyptic motorcycle club.
However, Bergeron isn't sure that historical New Adult can take off. "Things were so different for 18-year-olds back in the 1700s or 1800s," she said. "A lot of times in regular historical romance novels, heroines are about 20 years old or so. So, I'm not really sure it quite computes."
Sorensen actually switched from writing paranormal YA to contemporary NA. "I’d read a lot in the genre and completely fell in love with it and wanted to try it out," she says. "I instantly fell in love with it because it gave me the opportunity to explore my characters and their complex emotions more."