Wikipedia describes “New Adult” as “a developing genre of fiction with protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket. The term was first coined by St. Martin’s Press in 2009 when they held a special call for “…fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’.”
Without going into a long rant about this emerging genre (and whether it’s really necessary or just a marketing fad), I can’t help noticing that yet another genre is defined through the age of its protagonists. While it’s understandable that a book for kids may have an eight year old protagonist, I simply don’t buy the whole age of readers = age of characters (or the good old YA rule: “your characters should be a few years older than the target audience because the kids read up”). In a way, I understand why this is happening, but I think it’s very limiting. After all, you can have a very adult book with a 5 year old protagonist. Also, as much as teens (or readers in general) like to read about characters who are “like them” I do not buy the idea that readers are so narcissistic to only want to read about characters who are in the same position as them. If we go this road it can easily slip into a belief that readers want only to read about people who share their gender, race, ethnic group, sexual orientation… see where I’m going with this?
The problem with YA and New Adult genres is a different one, but it still operates under the assumption – a false one, I’d say – that readers only want to read about themselves. The whole publishing world and marketing operates under this idea, and it drives the industry. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There is also another problem when it comes to the New Adult genre. On the surface, it basically deals with protagonists of a certain age and common issues in this age group. The thing is, some of the issues such as sexuality, identity, finding your place in the world – they are all common in the teen/Young Adult group, too. Perhaps not in the same way, but they are present. I have a feeling the emerging new genre only makes a sharp difference at the arbitrary line that is 18th birthday/high school graduation. While it’s true many people’s lives change after high school, it is a transition and not a clear cut.
Having genres so clearly divided is not productive because once you start thinking about the necessary age you need to give to your protagonists, and about the issues you can (and can’t) explore, it becomes limiting, and it is never a good thing with fiction. I admit, I understand the need that books for children should be limiting in this sense (if nothing else, because of your readers’ reading level) but I don’t see it for other genres, including Young Adult or New Adult.
In the basic sense, it is limiting because you can’t just have a book that will follow your protagonist from the age 14 to 20. If you want to market your book, you need to either make it YA (and stop at high school graduation) or a general book for adults – but in this case, the tone and voice of your novel must be different. Similarly, you can’t have a mixed group of characters aged 15 (your POV character) to 25. It just breaks the genre rules.
I am sure you can all name some successful books that easily break these rules. But it’s still true that rules exist for marketing reasons and these reasons are not always beneficial for writing itself. They are limiting without a reason. Because God forbid that a teenager might want to read about a character in her 20s.