By Laura Franks
I’m going to start with something very controversial: I don’t like Sally Rooney’s work. I know, I know, very gauche of me. But I found Conversation with Friends tiring and unrelatable, and I thought Normal People was an indulgently voyeuristic depiction of mental illness and self-harm. Different strokes for different folks, but the problem is that I really, really wanted to like Rooney’s writing; it’s become somewhat of a figurehead for the modern new adult movement. But it’s kind of contributing to a bigger problem: people find the new adult genre pretty underwhelming.
New adult (NA for short) is far from a new thing; Weezie Bat, cited as the first notable NA work, burst onto the scene in 1989, 20 years before the phrase ‘new adult’ was even coined. It had all of NA’s characteristics – older characters, character driven plot, raunchy sex, substance abuse – but it was marketed as crossover YA fiction because the NA market didn’t quite exist yet. Even after St. Martin Press called for ‘new adult’ submissions (thus naming the genre) in 2009, there was a distinct lack of answer to their call. But if you’re willing to watch me connect some dots, what really got the NA ball rolling was Fifty Shades of Grey. And I think this is where the reluctance to recognise NA as a legitimate genre began.
Fifty Shades of Grey contained all of the hallmarks of NA. It focused on characters in their early twenties; was very much character driven; and contained substance abuse and, of course, raunchy sex. It resonated with a lot of people, many of whom are the target market for NA: women in their early twenties. This highlighted a big gap in the NA market. But don’t forget – Fifty Shades is an erotic romance. Naturally, businesses looked at Fifty Shades, and at that particular gap in the market, and made the logical conclusion: people do not want a nuanced depiction of what it’s like to live in their early twenties. Instead, they want ethically dubious sex, and a lot of it. Now – you tell me – do most people regard erotic romance as a noble literary pursuit? Do we see a lot of erotic romances in the running for a Nobel Prize in Literature? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not criticising the validity of the genre. But when I (and most people, I suspect) want a relatable, emotional read, it’s not the go-to.
So, Fifty Shades blew the NA gap wide open. Suddenly, we were drowning in fiction about attractive young twenty-somethings finding themselves in incredibly unlikely but (sometimes) enviable positions, both financial and sexual.
Enter: Sarah J. Maas. If you’re unfamiliar with Maas’s work, her fantasy novels feature romantic plots with very strong erotic elements, and also fulfil the aforementioned criteria of the NA genre. Maas published her first novel in 2012 – a year after Fifty Shades of Grey – and it’s largely regarded as NA fantasy.
(No, I don’t like Maas’s work either, by the way. Put the pitchforks down, please – I promise I’m not a prude.)
Flash-forward several years: market interest in erotic romance has died down a little, but the NA gap remains. In 2017, Rooney’s Conversations with Friends was published. While far from an erotic romance, it still has a fixation on sex and power, and it contains some very unrelatable situations. According to Wikipedia, Rooney has since become the most popular millennial writer of our times.
The fixation on sex in NA is one of the fundamental reasons the genre wasn’t being recognised as legitimate. Publishers were also wary of what they saw as just a trend. There’s been some movement forward with the larger publishing houses; in 2012, Random House established an imprint focusing on NA fiction called Flirt (doesn’t really imply they’ll be publishing nuanced, emotional reads, does it?). But it’s for ebooks only, and there was a distinct lack of other presses following suit. I have yet to see a NA book that doesn’t heavily lean on sex to hit it big. And until one does, I feel like that’s all NA is going to be – young, tragic, attractive people having sex amongst their daily dramas.
Where’s the NA that’s true to what it’s actually like being in your twenties? Where’s the moment where you understand your parents are not in fact an authority on everything and are crushingly flawed people, just like everyone else? Where’s the moment where you think a little too much about how you don’t measure up to who you thought you’d be, when you were ten and didn’t know any better? Where’s the crushing ennui of eating tuna and rice for the sixth time that week?
This is all a very longwinded way of saying: if you have any good NA recommendations that include romance as a subplot at best and characters that aren’t all very sad (but are still going through it a little), drop the Goodreads link in the comments below.
Laura Franks is studying her Master of Creative Writing, Publishing & Editing at the University of Melbourne. When she isn’t doing that, she’s working her way through a pile of books that has, frankly, gotten a little out of hand.
Cover photo by Shayna Douglas.