"New Adult" — Specious category or market opportunity?
November 20, 2009

There has been chatter lately of a new category in publishing, something that people refer to by the breezily condescending handle of "New Adult." If you haven't come across New Adult in your daily grazing of the blogs, there was a discussion of it during a twitter YA lit chat a week or so ago, a transcript of which you can read here. (You'll have to scroll down to 11 November at about nine pm). And there is a pretty cool contest for new writers being run by the brilliant Dan Weiss's new team at St. Martin's that ends today, and which you can read about here.The short of their proposal is this: A "new adult" category of books for high-teen readers through mid-twenties. The distinguishing elements of books in this category? They are concerned with the lives and challenges of this age of readership, but share with Young Adult literature a lightness of style and superficiality of tone and concerns. (Let me be clear: I love teen literature. It's where I've labored for two decades. But teen literature has more modest aims than straightforward adult literature, and that is as it should be.) This audience, it is reasoned, reads a ton of teen literature (they're the ones who have made the Twilight Saga and the Gossip Girl books crossover successes), and also may find the vast mix of different kinds of literature in general fiction to be too intimidating. They're the readers of Twilight, sure, but also Catcher in the Rye, and some would argue The Group and Bright Lights, Big City and The Bell Jar and any other book that vaguely fits this new catch-all genre.But why stop there? Champions for this category are happy to include any book they believe will lend it street cred, so they tap Lorrie Moore and Michael Chabon, but may as well just sweep in the early novels of Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, Ann Patchett—we can go on and on. Any book, basically, that may speak to a reader in her early twenties. There is even talk of a special section in bookstores for "New Adults," where timid readers will be able to go and maximize their shopping time, being spoonfed literature that won't challenge them too much, won't strain their newly-developing frontal lobes.This is a slippery slope, of course, and it's easy to imagine an absurd Balkanization of bookstores. "Elderly and Disgruntled." "Stories for Shut-Ins." "Masculine Asses." "Pre-Feminist Thinkers." "Boobs Who Believe Ayn Rand Is the Shit." Is this really the way we want to infantilize a nation of readers? Isn't part of growing up about developing your own tastes? About learning what you like and don't like by being brave and crazy enough to read a book that might not be pre-approved for you? About testing the limits of your comprehension and pushing yourself into books that are uncomfortable? Sure, you'll escape that Walter Abish novel eventually and go back for a bracing dose of P.C. Cast, but the sampling of stranger things in the general fiction category, why, that's always seemed to me to be a safe way to sample life itself.I am all for marketing to early twenty-somethings. There are examples of books that hit that audience like an arrow to a bull's-eye, such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, from the otherwise less-enormously successful MTV Books imprint. But to ghettoize such books in their own category? I know how I would have responded to such a thing as an early twenty-something: I would have run far and fast the other way. Back then, I was deciding for myself at last what was best for me, and I didn't need any sort of bookstore category to do my thinking for me, thank you very much.