ALA 2013: New Adult Fiction: What Is It, and Is It Really Happening?
On Monday at ALA, I attended the conversation starter about New Adult fiction. The term, first coined by St. Martin’s Press in 2009, refers to a category of literature aiming to fill the perceived gap between books for teens and books for adults. It’s generally understood to be about and for 18- to 25-year-olds who are dealing with college or first jobs, first serious relationships, and other trials of young adulthood. The session was led by Sophie Brookover, Kelly Jensen, and Elizabeth Burns.
Need some more background? Take a look at how the session started, with a song about NA. Also, check out this Goodreads list of NA titles, New Adult Alley‘s explanation, or St. Martin’s original contest that inaugurated the book category. Or read on.
Four years in, the consensus on New Adult is that there is no consensus. According to Goodreads and Amazon, it’s a thing. According to the naysayers, it’s a new kind of romance novel or a 21st century version of chick lit and therefore unnecessary. According to the librarians in the session, it’s a type of book that can’t be shelved anywhere. According to many twentysomethings (me, at least), it’s something with a lot of potential yet to be explored. But “it could be so much more if we looked at it that way,” Jensen said. And when I browsed the exhibits hall, I saw that Penguin was handing out New Adult Samplers, with chapter excerpts from some of their latest and upcoming titles that they are calling NA.
I’d venture to say that most of us at least agreed that there should be more well-written novels about young people who aren’t in high school. Whether or not that should encompass a new category is still up for debate. At the moment, the books coming out tend towards the e-book-only and/or self-published, which, as noted by the presenters, is interesting and a very democratic space in a publishing system that receives its share of criticisms for race, class, and gender issues. The titles are very inexpensive, which could lead to non-readers becoming readers, but the propensity of self-published titles and e-books could also lead to challenges for librarians looking to add the titles to their collections. There is also the lack of professional review sources looking at the titles.
So if you do buy some New Adult books, where are you going to put them? “I think they are legitimately adult books that have a definite appeal to teen readership,” Brookover said. So at least we don’t need to worry about Printz vs. Alex eligibility just yet. And there’s no need to put a sign up in your library just yet; the presenters suggested that the term “New Adult” is more useful as shorthand for readers’ advisory librarians than anything else, since the current offerings tend to share many characteristics, like romance, a “vicarious feeling of hotness,” drama or melodrama, street fights, and serialization.
One thing brought up during the panel that I haven’t seen addressed before in any of the myriad articles criticizing, misunderstanding, supporting, or disparaging NA was race. Currently, most titles available for download are about young white women. So I found it interesting when the panelists suggested taking another look at street lit and seeing how it fits in (or doesn’t) with New Adult, since it tends also to deal with post- (or instead of) high school drama but features more diversity in race, class, and ethnicity. And why is it all romance when some people just want college-set YA? The panelists said that many books that would fit that area tend to be submitted by professionally immature writers who are still in college, so they’re just not publishable yet.
So how can you serve your patrons with all of this inconclusive stuff? For those who are already reading NA, you’re probably not seeing them much in your physical library, so consider reaching out via social media, libguides, and more. Make sure you familiarize yourself with what’s popular. Amazon’s best selling titles might give you a hint, and even if you have to buy the titles out-of-pocket, they won’t set you back too much (most are $5 or under). Or talk with your supervisors about a policy for buying self-published books and making them available in your OPAC. For adults who like YA or for fans of romance novels, you can put together resource guides and do booktalks. For your teens who are growing older, consider some of the already-published titles being reconsidered as NA, like the Jessica Darling series by Megan McCafferty or self-published books being picked up and repackaged by traditional houses, like Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann — or just consider that for those not interested in romance, “New Adult” might just mean crossover titles. In that case, you have the Alex Award and plenty of selection lists to help you out.
Ultimately, say the panelists (and I completely agree), this is a literary category that is still forming itself, and it’s just “waiting for the Ursula Nordstrom of New Adult to come along.”
Brookover, Burns, and Jensen have also put together a resource list.
– Hannah Gómez, currently reading and listening to Charles & Emma by Deborah Heiligman