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New Adult: It’s not about the sex (but don’t be afraid...

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Now that NYTimes has acknowledged that there is a sub genre called New Adult, I guess it’s legitimate.  St. Martin’s Press introduced the phrase back in 2009 and authors have been involved in writing and promoting those books since then, facts not mentioned in the NYTimes article.  But ignoring the origins of the origin isn’t the Times’ first mistake or the most important one. The NYT focus is that this new sub genre just sexed up books about young people.  I’m not sure if this sex first concept is pushed by publishers given that the Independent said that British publishers are looking for 50 Shades or an easy way for media book sections to define something that isn’t easily categorized.

The NYTimes article mentions books like Slammed by Colleen Hoover and Easy by Tammara Webber or even Cora McCormack’s Losing It as typifying the overly sexed young adult books.  The problem with the NYT article is that it does two things. First, it conflates what one author, Abbi Glines, has done with the rise of New Adult genre.  Let’s unpack.

Abbi Glines wrote a YA book called The Vincent Boys about two cousins in love with the same girl. The female protagonist has sex with one cousin while her boyfriend was away and then lies to her boyfriend when he returns. Ultimately, the truth is revealed.  Glines’ The Vincent Boys was hugely popular and she sold the series to Simon Pulse reportedly for seven figures (along with another series).

Recently Glines offered an “uncut” version (which makes me cringe because given the title, I keep thinking circumcision) which features open door sex scenes and a new ending.  The additional scenes comprised approximately 10,000 words for which you pay $9.99.  One publisher, per NYTimes, suggests that it may begin to offer a clean version marketed to YA crowd and an explicit version for the adult readership.

From the original version of The Vincent Boys:

I bent back down over him and kissed him again before pulling back enough to whisper, “It doesn’t get any better than this Beau.”

His hands cupped my bottom and shifted me so I could feel the pressure of his obvious arousal against the warmth between my thighs.

“Please Beau,” I cried out not sure what I was begging for but knowing I needed more. His hands gripped my waist.

“Hold onto me baby. I’m going to take care of you.” The raspy need in his voice only made me more desperate.

The Uncensored version adds this (under a spoiler code)

[spoiler]His hips rocked against mine one more time, causing waves of pleasure to pulse through my body from the friction between my legs. Beau reached up and cupped his hand behind my head and pulled me down until my mouth covered his. This was what I needed. This connection. A raw, needy, honest attraction. Not something controlled and careful. I needed reckless.Beau’s tongue slid between my lips and began to taste every dark corner of my mouth like I was some exotic treat he wanted to savor. This was the feeling I’d always longed for. In one swift move Beau rolled me over and hovered over me before pressing a trail of kisses across my chest. I needed more. Wiggling I reached for his hair and tugged on the short strands impatiently. A low chuckle rumbled against Beau’s chest before a warm hand slid between my legs and slowly made its way up my thigh.

I couldn’t keep an anxious sigh from escaping my mouth.

“You’re beautiful, Ash,” Beau whispered as his hand reached its destination. One long finger traced the outside edge of my panties and I whimpered, wanting more. “I love it when you make those sweet little noises. Drives me crazy,” he murmured against my neck.

….

“Please, Beau,” I begged, needing him to move his fingers. Once he slipped one then two inside me I lost all thought and cried out. I didn’t know what I was saying but I knew I was begging him. I didn’t want this to ever end. He began pumping his fingers in and out as his free hand pushed my other leg back, opening me up completely to his view. The naughtiness of what we were doing sent me over the edge and just like earlier today my world shattered into a million colorful intense wonderful tremors.

[/spoiler]

What does Abbi Glines’ oversexed YA have to do with New Adult books? Not much.  Her story involves teenagers who live at home and go to high school. The tropes in The Vincent Boys are no different than those you’d find in contemporary YA romance books. The Vincent Boys, however, represents an issueless YA contemporary romance.  By issueless, I mean that many YA books deal with a social issue and Glines’ books do not present any difficult moral quandary.  This is not a book that takes a serious look at cheating and the repercussions or an examination of fidelity and morality.  It’s unserious and largely represents a fun escape.

New Adult, however, is not just sexed up YA, but an exploration of a time period in a character’s life.  The post high school / pre responsible time period.  Easy; Slammed; Point of Retreat; Sea of Tranquility are books with suggestive hints of intimacy but involve largely fade to black love scenes.

If publishers are just looking for sexed up YAs, the New Adult lines of those houses will ultimately fail much like the erotic romance lines of those houses failed in the past.  In the mid 2000s, after the success of Ellora’s Cave and Samhain, publishers all trotted out their erotic romance line: Aphrodisia, Avon Red, Berkley Heat, NAL Heat. SMP dabbled with a few titles as well.  Today, what is left? Berkley Heat and, on a very limited scale, Aphrodisia.

The success of the Berkley Heat line is because Berkley focused on selling romantic relationships while the other lines were filled with swingers, fantasy sex islands, emotionless threesomes and scary bondage books.  Erotic romance became more about how many people you could fit in a bedroom or how many ways a woman could be whipped and tied up.  Readers turned away.

Agents began saying that erotic romance didn’t sell.  The appetite for erotic romance hadn’t died, though, but instead had been diverted.  One of the biggest mistakes publishers made post 50 Shades is thinking that the book was about BDSM. Harlequin was one of the biggest offenders of this pushing one of their new authors hard as a 50 Shades substitute.

50 Shades was naughtier that many books the mainstream may have read, but it wasn’t the sex that people enjoyed. How could it be? There is actually very little of it in the trilogy. Let’s not forget that Anna actually cures Christian of his BDSM and the most extreme thing that goes on between the two is some spanking and pain.  Readers weren’t responding to BDSM in the form of Anne Rice’s series, they were responding to an intense emotional connection shared by Anna and Christian.

In New Adult books, readers aren’t responding to teens having sex, although for adults reading these book  a more explicit love scene is just something that they may be used to. New Adult is a time period and a feel — a newly emancipated person on the cusp of discovering themselves, where they fit into life, what allowances they will make, and how they relate to others.  Their whole world is their oyster.  The future is a bit more nebulous.  The space for experimentation exists and the cast of characters varies widely, not just limited to the over the top billionaire but has room for the pierced, tattooed, low income, and all those in between.

The publishers who seek out just sex in these books are going to find a disappointed readership.  It’s always going to be important to create a strong emotional connection between characters. Unrequited love, forbidden love, are strong drivers of emotional connection, some even manipulatively so.

The idea that sex is the only thing that sells or sells better than any thing else is proven inaccurate by a thousand datapoints. Take, for example, Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series or even Nicholas Sparks.  If sex and erotic romance were the be all, end all of books, then why are all these former mainstream erotic publishing lines limping along or dead?

This is not to say that teens having sex in books is something to be avoided.  Teens have sex.  Teens don’t have sex.  I read Harlequins when I was in my teens and was 14 when I read Whitney My Love.  I’m not certain, any more, what the danger is to teens if there is sex in books.  Is it that we worry that the girls will become more promiscuous and value themselves less? Are we inciting an unreasonable image of love and sex by presenting good sex within the confines of a romantic relationship?  I’m more aghast at the presentation of irresponsible choice being rewarded than I am about the explicitness of sex.

What I would not like to see is the requirement of explicitness in all books.  In other words, if Abbi Glines wants to write explicit sex scenes in her books, great; but publishers shouldn’t force other writers like to do so if that isn’t what they want to include in their stories. In other words, I want New Adult books to focus on the characters and their emotional connections, not the physical ones.  And judging by the success of these non explicit romances, other readers aren’t just buying books for the sex either.

 

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

32 Comments

  1. Hell Cat
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 04:22:07

    You said exactly what I wanted to say about New Adult. I love the subgenre because it takes that very strange, chaotic, breathless part of life that is the after and before: after letting go of a parent’s daily control but before you’re really out there in the real world with big, huge commitments you can’t easily toss away like two-week-old pizza crumbs. I love that. I devour those I can find. I’m older than that now but there’s an emotional connection based on life experiences at the moment.

    And I don’t read it for the sex, sex, sex. Heck, I avoid sex in most romances when the actions become page filler. I dislike when established journalism combines the wrong elements to make a misguided attempt at truth. It’s not sexed up YA. That’s still YA. NA’s a different place in life entirely. And thanks to book blogs like this and Smexy and all those others I read, I was able to nail down some of the confused labels I had in my Creative Writing class. I found at least 2-3 NAs when the authors thought they were YA. (Based on age alone, not gonna happen there.) Heck my own fell in the NA but on purpose.

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  2. Ros
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 05:36:53

    In what world do publishers think that teens aren’t going to want to read the sexed-up versions of these books, if they publish both? I mean, I could see that being a sneaky marketing trick – the equivalent of the books sneaked around the common room at school with a different cover.

    I think it’s amazing how often publishers just don’t get it. People want stories. They want romance in their romances. It’s not about the sex or the BDSM or the latest new fad. It’s about the story telling.

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  3. Jo Ramsey
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 07:40:23

    Thank you for this post. To me, “New Adult” is the age range of the characters, not how much sex they have. I write young adult, and I’ve had debates with other authors about how much sex should be in YA, whether there should be any, whether I’m doing my readers a disservice by not including explicit sex, etc. There’s room in the world for books in which teens and post-teens (“new adults”) have sex on page, and for books in which the sex is fade to black. Sexual content shouldn’t be a requirement for New Adult, because not everyone in that age range has sex and not everyone wants to read about it.

    I read Sea of Tranquility based on the review here, and was impressed with it as a whole, including how the author handled the love scenes.

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  4. KT Grant
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 08:40:22

    I’ve asked that same questions. What is the point of having erotic love scenes in New Adult that has a tone like Young Adult? Does it further alone the story in anyway or do they think by adding suped up sex scenes, it will lead to more sales? Do these authors and publishers think more graphic sex is needed because the audience are adult women who so need to read: “The naughtiness of what we were doing sent me over the edge and just like earlier today my world shattered into a million colorful intense wonderful tremors.”? Do teens between the ages of 13-16 really want to read erotic sex? I thought it was all about the beauty of falling in love and the emotional connection between the hero and heroine and not all about the physical aspect that leads to a passing 10 second orgasm when all is said and done.

    I also wondered how oral sex will be described in these books. Are we also going to get graphic descriptions of that also because in some adult romances, it’s show in detail?

    Also many of these authors now writing New Adult are better known for their Young Adult. How will library shelve these books if there is graphic sex in them, especially since most Young Adult books in nature seem to get banned based on the level of sexuality in them?

    Or maybe I’m just too old now to understand this all?

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  5. Jane
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 08:54:13

    @KT Grant: I disagree with some of this. I don’t think the question starts with sex or how graphic it is. I think the question begins with do the characters fit the feel and time period. If the book calls for graphic sex (and I’m not sure why graphic oral sex is worse than other type of sex), then that is what should be in the book.

    Take, for example, Uses for Boys which has become something of a lightning rod book on Goodreads in discussions about Young Adult books and explicit sex. Many readers are unhappy with the explicitness but the book is all about how a young girl who has no love in her life – not from her mother (who is likely doing the same thing the girl is doing) and not from her father who abandoned them early on – seeks out love and affection from boys. Because the first warm and affectionate touch she has in a long time is from a boy and she chases after that feeling.

    There are graphic scenes in that book of the girl having sex, being touched and touching and it makes sense. It’s not gratuitous because each movement that the girl undertakes is painful for the reader. You know she is looking for something, longing for something and doesn’t understand that what she is doing isn’t going to be fulfilling.

    So the actions and explicitness fit the story. The question for me then isn’t whether explicitness is age appropriate but whether it fits the story. Is it gratuitous? Does it belong to further the story?

    If you start with the dividing line being sex and the explicitness, it is actually the opposite of the argument that I was making in the piece. YA or NA or adult romance isn’t about the sex in the story or we would be saying that Nick and Norah’s Ultimate Playlist is not YA and Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series is YA.

    The story makes or defines the genre. Not what about of sex is in the story.

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  6. KT Grant
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 09:02:34

    @Jane:

    Ah I see. But my big question is, why the need to add more descriptive sex scenes to books already published like The Vincent Boys if it worked already without it? Does this new long, descriptive sex scene further along the plot or is it the author and publisher’s way to give what they think the readers want?

    I think in a way the same rules apply to adult romance. Some romances don’t need descriptive love scenes and can do fine without them, but they’re added regardless if it furthers the plot along. It makes me wonder now where this New Adult genre is headed. Should be interesting to see and if it will succeed in the years to come.

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  7. Cindy
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 12:29:37

    I’m still very confused about the new adult genre, but that may be because I read/write mostly historical romances. Just about every hero/heroine fall in that age group but I’ve never found out that with the age group if the historicals belong in new adult. The only reason that I wonder is because I’m starting to actively write and I’m trying to figure out where to place my stories genre wise.

    As for the sex, there was a big discussion on another message board earlier this year and most of the members stated a book was not a romance if there were no sex scenes because that made it romance for me. I started feeling a bit out of place because after all of these years, I tend to skim or skip right over the sex scenes (even in erotica). There’s only so many ways lol. And the story that I wrote during NaNoWriMo (the one I’m trying to categorize beyond steampunk western), I had a terrible time finding a spot to insert this supposedly coveted sex scene because I like the emotional side of the relationship more. And a bit of foreplay *grin*.

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  8. Nadia
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 14:37:23

    I think you hit the nail on the head perfectly. I just finished reading a p2p fanfic arc that was categorized as romance and was completely bored with the gratuitous sex they put in there. The characters had no development, there really wasn’t a relationship outside of sex, and I couldn’t even get through the book that’s how much it dragged on. I agree with what you said about any book, with or without sex, needing to have plot and character development. I think publishers forget that in their pursuit of the next holy grail of hits.

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  9. Carolyne
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 16:25:57

    @Cindy: I was just thinking the same thing about an historical I’m just finishing up. I wonder if calling something “New Adult Historical” would interest/attract readers–reading about what it was like to step out into the world at their age in different eras. Exploring what exploring sexuality meant in different eras can be part of the equation, though hopefully not the entire story.

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  10. Kaetrin
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 18:24:16

    I agree completely Jane that the story comes first. The emotional connection is what makes the sex in books satisfying for me. It’s why most erotica doesn’t work for me – unless there is a relationship in which I can see two people becoming closer, sex is kind of “meh”. A publisher isn’t going to sell me on any book just because it has sex in it – what will sell me is the relationship, the story – and the sex has to fit that. In Pushing the Limits (mild spoiler) for example (which possibly straddles the line between YA and NA?) the sex wasn’t explicit and wasn’t fully penetrative – and that suited the story exactly. I would have been disappointed in more because it wasn’t where the story or the characters needed to go – but the emotional connection of Noah and Echo more than satisfied my need for witnessing intimacy.

    My memory of Easy is that it had more than fade to black sex, but it wasn’t explicit in the Sylvia Day sense – more like the Robyn Carr or SEP sense – there but not graphic.

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  11. Pam Keener
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 19:43:59

    Thanks for this discussion. I had never heard the term NA. I immediately googled it and got a better understanding but this discussion helps. I am also one who will skim over the sex scenes if they get too graphic or are drawn out. I always read for the character driven stories. I want to be entertained and enlightened when reading.

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  12. Evangeline Holland
    Dec 26, 2012 @ 00:18:23

    I like Diana Peterfreund’s take on the “New Adult” genre here.

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  13. Lia
    Dec 26, 2012 @ 02:10:25

    Thanks for this interesting and well written article, Jane!

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  14. Anne
    Dec 27, 2012 @ 01:38:58

    My problem is why can’t the second version of that scene not be in YA? I mean, it’s very tame, not exactly well-written and quite a bit cheesy, but at least it is sex-positive. And it’s really nothing a 14 or 15 y/o couldn’t deal with. Or at least, if properly educated at school and by parents, should be able to deal with.

    The ubiquitous availability of hardcore porn on the other hand is destructive, and personally I’d rather have teenagers get positive alternative mental versions of what happens, than base their expectations exclusively on hardcore porn. That’s one reason why I consider relatively explicit, sex-positive and informative sex in fiction read by or aimed at teenagers a good thing.

    I agree with those who state that emotions and emotional connection between the characters is something which is needed, particularly in YA. I also agree with who said that New Adult is more abou the age of the fictional characters than the age of the readers it’s aimed at.

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  15. Jennifer Comeaux
    Dec 27, 2012 @ 08:28:59

    I’m not sure why Slammed and Point of Retreat are always mentioned in the sex discussion because the only “fade to black” moment doesn’t even occur until the very end of the series. Those are two completely tame books, and I appreciated that they focused more on the emotional issues than being all sexed up. Great article, and I hope readers continue to look at New Adult for the deeper issues and not just with the expectation of seeing more explicit scenes.

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  16. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 27, 2012 @ 09:11:31

    @Anne: Totally agree. I was trying to make this point on twitter and failing. Porn is readily available but not sensitive, realistic or girl positive. Even articles in female-centered magazines like Cosmo focus on how to “blow his mind.” Maybe these YA/NA sex scenes will encourage girls to consider their own pleasure instead of his.

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  17. cleo
    Dec 27, 2012 @ 20:21:48

    So, here’s where I’m confused. YA books are written FOR middle school or high school age readers, even if they’re also read by adults. Is NA written FOR college age / early 20 somethings or just written ABOUT them?

    @Evangeline Holland: Thanks for the link to the Peterfund blog post

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  18. Lynn M
    Dec 28, 2012 @ 10:36:27

    @KT Grant:
    I wonder if it’s not really a matter of “adding in” the sex scenes, but rather having a “director’s cut” version, if you will, in which scenes that were removed from the book for whatever reason are put back in. As a writer, I may write a scene that is deemed too explicit for a certain demographic and thus might need to be removed in order to be considered for publication. But when I wrote the story, that scene meant something. Having the chance for my work to be read as I had intended it is a wonderful thing, IMO.

    I write YA and I often struggle with the amount of open-door I feel I should show. Nothing I write is gratuitous – any love scenes in the book are intrinsic to the story and crucial to the development of the relationships between the characters. However, as a reader – an adult reader – I hate when I’ve invested a lot of emotion in a building relationship only to have the door closed in my face when the couple has finally managed to connect. I’m not looking for explicit descriptions, simply to be allowed to share that moment in a small way. So when it comes to writing YA, I pull back from explicit but feel that fading to black is cheating the reader from part of the reading experience.

    This New Adult seems to bridge that gap – allowing readers to fully experience all aspects of a growing relationship while still enjoying the newness of experiences that make YA books so compelling.

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  22. Laura Resnick
    Feb 20, 2013 @ 17:07:31

    Good essay. In fiction, the concept of “form over function” doesn’t really work. For example, the same type of misconceptions you’re analyzing here would translate in my own genre, fantasy, into assuming that the success of Robert Joran and George RR Martin means that what readers want are THICK book, that THICK books are what readers are seeking and buying, that THICK is what satisfies fantasy readers and draw new readers into the genre. Go THICK!

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  23. Nevaeh
    Feb 21, 2013 @ 08:36:05

    Hey, great article! I wanted to see if I could reprint (giving you full credit, of course) on my blog, which reviews only New Adult genre books. I also like to discuss the genre from time to time and I think you raise some great points. Let me know if that’s okay or not….thanks! :o)

    ReplyReply

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