Young Adult, New Adult (???) and the Weird Business of Demographics

What in the world is a marketing demographic? They’re something that often seems so simple, so based in real-life logic about how humans grow and experience things, that sometimes you can forget how constructed they are. And how much our idea of what is suitable for a demographic of young people—or, even what a young person is—can vary from person to person, publisher’s office to publisher’s office. Where are those lines drawn, and who is holding the pen? Is it authors? Is it agents? Is it marketing departments? Is it a confusing disaster with no concrete answer??

All this is on my mind for a couple of reasons. First, Colleen of Colleen’s Manga Recs put out a great video recently attempting to unpack the genre differences between shoujo and josei. Shoujo is generally considered to be manga for teenaged girls, and josei generally considered to be manga for older women. I say “generally considered”, but even that’s possibly not broad enough—as Colleen goes into, there is industry-wide disagreement about what series fall into which categories.

Where lies the cutoff between “girls’ comics” and “ladies’ comics”? Is it something to do with the age of the characters? The “mature themes” present or the level of sexual content? You’d think it would be sorted out by nice, tangible criteria like which magazines host the serialised versions, but there are many cases where series that are run in josei magazines have won shoujo awards, and vice versa.

This was a fascinating insight, and I found it interesting how it echoed and mirrored some conversations occurring in the English-language (let’s be real, mostly the American) publishing landscape. Colleen’s description of these demographic conundrums nicely slotted into some discussions I had been having recently with the students in my creative writing for young people class. Each week, we ask the students to conduct “field research” and bring in a book that fits the demographic they’re learning about. If we’re studying the tricks and tropes of YA, we ask them to bring in an example of YA. This probably sounds simple enough, but things can get muddled.

Of course, you always have someone bringing in something like George Orwell’s 1984, because they read it in high school English class and that means it’s for teenagers, yes? Those are pretty easy to politely turn down. But there are other, trickier ones. For instance, one student brought in a Sarah J. Maas novel and sparked a whole conversation about, well… is that YA? Because, you see, no one can quite agree.

If I go to two different bookstores, I will find Sarah J. Maas in two different places. Some people shelve her books as YA, but some tuck her away in the general, adult fantasy section. And why is that, do you think? What is the distinction being made, and why are different people making it differently?

In this case—as with many others—the line seems to be drawn somewhere to do with the sexual content. The first couple of books are relatively tame, according to readers, but things get increasingly explicit the further along you go, prompting the supposed shift to “oh! We can’t sell this to teenagers!” Never mind the fact that the main character is apparently an assassin and there’s been on-page violence the whole way through—you describe sexual pleasure in any detail, that’s what gets you the higher rating (which, yeesh, is a discussion for another day). According to Colleen’s video, a similar thinking is often what divides shoujo and josei, though there are still some steamy series that find themselves marketed to teens.

“Is it YA?” is a zany game to play, sometimes. Is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief YA, if it’s narrated by the immortal figure of Death but mostly focuses on a young girl? Is Stephen King’s Carrie YA, if it deals so crucially in adolescence but is marketed as adult horror? Am I writing YA, if I do something unconventional like narrating in omniscient voice??

What are the parameters? It can’t be “fiction about high schoolers”, because there plenty of books—like Alice Oseman’s Loveless, Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick’s She Gets the Girl, and Claire Kann’s Let’s Talk About Love—that are set in universities and happily published as YA. It can’t be sexual content, at least not all the time, because there are plenty of YA novels with sexually active characters, often with frank discussions about sex and pleasure (Let’s Talk About Love again; or Amy Spalding’s We Used to Be Friends) and even depictions of it on-page.

There’s considerations of how much you “see” of course: in Joan He’s The Ones We’re Meant to Find, we do essentially get a sex scene that follows the characters from start to finish, but the details are somewhat vague. This vagueness, or a classic “fade to black”, are to be expected… but then again, you also get novels like Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin, which is both set in a uni and very much describes genitals and sex acts, and is generally accepted as YA. Upper YA, of course. Older YA. There’s a consensus that you wouldn’t give it to a thirteen-year-old to read, but, ya know. If it’s not YA, where else are they meant to put it?

Here we come to the conundrum of “New Adult” and the desire—from readers, if not from all publishers—for a specific demographic that fills the weird niche between YA and “adult fiction”. It’s funny if you think about it: demographics are so granular for children and teens, but then you hit age 18 and bwoof, you’re just in General Fiction for the rest of your life. People have been trying to carve this niche out for years, handily demonstrating along the way that demographics are, well, invented things.

As Jodi McAlister explores in her paper Defining and Redefining Popular Genres: The Emergence of ‘New Adult’ Fiction, “the origins of the genre category ‘new adult’ (NA) are artificial, not organic: it was made, not born”. And we can directly trace this invention, too. In 2009, St Martin’s Press held a contest. To quote from their own call for submissions, they were:

…actively looking for great, new, cutting edge fiction with protagonists who are slightly older than YA and can appeal to an adult audience. Since twenty-somethings are devouring YA, St Martin’s Press is seeking fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult – a sort of ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’.

Despite St Martin’s best efforts, New Adult hasn’t taken off in a significant way—at least, certainly not in a mainstream way. Some online spaces, like Goodreads tags or online shops, have a NA designation, but it’s certainly wildly uncommon to find a NA shelf at your local bookstore—as I mentioned above, leaving my local shops caught in a binary dilemma over where to put Sarah J. Maas’ body of work.

There are other shelving decisions that fall into this issue, too. I see Casey McQuiston’s books, One Last Stop and Red, White and Royal Blue, put in the YA section all the time, even though the characters are in their twenties. McQuiston didn’t write them as YA, and I can tell because McQuiston has a YA novel that feels distinctly different.

So I can’t help but wonder: guys, why? What marketing decision happened here that these books supposedly “make more sense as YA”—and what designates them from Maas, whom you moved? Aren’t you worried that some fretful parent is going to buy One Last Stop for their fifteen-year-old sight unseen and then launch a scandalised campaign against you, and the book, when they find out there’s cunnilingus in it? I know I am!

I can’t help but feel like this would be at least partway solved if we had a more accepted marketing niche for “older than YA, but only just” or “deals with the Quandaries of Youth, but specifically in a way that will resonate with post-high schoolers”. It feels especially relevant given that the parameters of adulthood are shifting so much, and what we think of as “coming-of-age” can happen at a later stage—and indeed there are plenty of “coming-of-age” moments that are unique to post-high school life. In queer fiction especially—like One Last Stopthe lines between youth and adulthood can blur, or become topsy-turvy, as characters only get the chance to have those big, pivotal experiences associated with adolescence later in life.

There’s heaps of room for the post-teen coming-of-age story. For example, Morgan Rogers’ Honey Girl, one of my favourite novels I read this year, is a story about falling awkwardly in love for the first time and trying to work out what to do after graduation… except the protagonist is twenty-nine and finishing her PhD instead of eighteen and finishing high school. It’s a hugely rewarding book that speaks to a really specific queer, adult experience. It would be fundamentally incorrect to shelve it as YA—again, the main character is nearly thirty—but it has those bildungsroman aspects that might compel people to consider it that way. So where does it go?

Demographics are weird. They are constructed things, made up by humans, and thus they come with all sorts of fascinating quirks that tell us a lot about the humans (by and large) who came up with them. As I have talked about before, the irony is that all this talk of adolescence has more to do with the whims and presumptions of adult industry professionals than it does with the lives of real teenagers… or those in their “new” adulthood.

What is a teen, anyway? As much as society can treat adolescence like a logical, biological section of our lives, the teenager is a social invention of the mid-20th century. So what the hell—who’s to say that in a few more years, our perception of the borders between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood will shift again? And, in the same way YA sprouted as a response to this new concept of “the young adult”, maybe genres and demographics will once again follow. Maybe one day we’ll agree on what the heck makes a shoujo versus a josei series, or where the good people of Dymocks should put One Last Stop.

For now, I regret to say I don’t have a solution. This is, indeed, a confusing disaster with no concrete answer. We live in a world run by marketing, which amplifies the human desire to stick things into boxes and neat segments, with little room for experiences or stories that blend the borders. It’s tricky business—as I said above, given how trigger-happy some people can be regarding “inappropriate” content in fiction for young people, I feel like where things get shelved and how they get discussed does matter in a very pragmatic way.

But it’s also just fascinating from a theoretical point of view, precisely because it’s a constructed mess. It’s more helpful to think of things like genres and demographics as helpful tools, rather than a sign of anything intrinsic about a piece of fiction, or the people who wrote it, or you as a consumer. They are shapes and arrows that we can use to help point us towards fiction we might like or not like, resonate with or not resonate with. Like all tools, sometimes they get blunt, or sometimes we hit ourselves on the thumb with them by mistake. Oh, I’ve spent too much time here in this particular brain spiral and my metaphors are getting out of hand.

Anyway… thank you for coming on this mind journey with me. Read Honey Girl.

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Filed under Archetypes and Genre

5 responses to “Young Adult, New Adult (???) and the Weird Business of Demographics

  1. As a teacher, reader, and writer I get asked this question all the time. Those who don’t read much view YA as children’s books, and those that do generally assume YA deals with some sort of coming of age topic, a faster paced story dealing with strong themes, or grappling with one or two adult themes only… it is certainly a muddy area. I tend to approach it with the opinion that YA is about a teen protagonist tackling a coming of age story and can deal with some adult themes – although in recommending a book to a reader (not based on marketing category) I take into account their personal tastes and reading level. For instance I know of a lot of teen girls read ‘bodice rippers’ romances and wouldn’t bat an eyelid at Sarah J Maas novels, but another reader the same age who may have only read assigned school text may find the content confronting. It’s releative to the readers involved and I think of the label of YA as a loose term to get a certain readers attention. A younger reader, a reader who’s young at heart, a consumer with more disposable income… it’s not overly important because most of the time we purchase books from strong recommendations of other like-minded readers, or we’ve read the blurb and decided it’s something we’re interested in.

  2. All this reminds me of Margo Lanagan’s “Tender Morsels.” It’s a book where you read it as an adult, and you think, “how did they ever publish this for kids?!” But from reading an interview Lanagan did with Jeff Vandermeer back in the day, she made sure to let the reader know what they would be getting into from the very first line, so they would know whether or not to continue:

    “Red Shift” is another interesting one, although that book feels less like a children’s book and more like a spaceship that crashed 100000 years ago in the children’s section

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  5. I need to add Honey Girl to my TBR pile.
    Also I find it funny how many different things “young adults” can mean. Young adults is the group of people I am studying in my research (in social sciences) and here we define it specifically as 18/20-30yos. Before that, they’re young people more generally or teenagers.

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