Jun 12 2014 3:30pm

What Can Romance Learn from New Adult?

Love Show by Audrey BellNew Adult, as it matures, is finally being accepted as a genre/subgenre that affects the romance community. Its crossover appeal to romance readers has become plain, as evidenced by its presence on the ebook bestseller lists. With so many New Adult books getting published and pushed to romance readers, it begs the question: what is it about New Adult that makes it important for the romance genre?

New Adult books don’t read like the traditional genre romance novels we’ve come to know and love, but they don’t read like their other close cousins, young adult novels, either. New Adult as an appearing genre has a few things that romance could learn from. Not all of its differences are bad; some of them could very well be the answer to some of the staleness come romance readers have commented on over the past few years.

Live in the Present

The difference between present and past tense is one that gets noted between these two genres all of the time. When you read books like Audrey Bell’s Love Show, you immediately get pulled into the story because of the first-person present tense. New Adult books live heavily in the moment. While many readers find first-person present tense a difficult tense to do well, it’s a staple of the New Adult genre.

Traditional genre romance most often uses third-person past tense. It creates a situation where the story is past—nothing has the same sense of emotional immediacy. Readers know the ending of the story because, from the beginning, it is told to them as something that is finite with an anticipated happy ending. New Adult books make the reader work for the happy ending because they are constantly thrust into present situations without reassurance of a positive outcome at the end of the novel. Readers are forced to emotionally go along with the narration, questioning if the protagonists will be able to overcome the situations as they emotionally deal with them.

Genre romance lacks that immediacy and level of questioning. While it provides an atmosphere that allows the reader to feel comfortable, it also makes the reader have to go through different pathways to become emotionally invested. Immediacy, if done right, makes the reader feel an emotional attachment to the story’s couple right away. How else could readers find New Adult to be such a cracktastic genre?

Do the Unexpected

Beautiful Disaster by Jamie MaguireGenre romance is built upon a series of formulae and tropes that have been proven successes for readers. Whenever we see story lines like Friends to Lovers or Secret Babies, we know what we’re going to get. The differentiation of tropes usually gets bookended by consistent aspects. Some of those involve a total lack of infidelity or sex outside of the canon romantic relationship; others involve keeping the worst of the issues presented within backstory. A hero or heroine can be labeled “bad” as long as the they somehow get reformed or act differently towards their love interest.

New Adult gives no shits about those established genre norms. Many New Adult books successful with readers have built fan bases upon characters, both heroes and heroines, who go against genre norms as a part of their romantic arcs. Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster is infamous for how its hero is a blatant asshole. S.C. Stephens’s Thoughtless trilogy involves a heroine that cheats on her boyfriend for the hero in the first book only to deal with the aftermath in the subsequent ones (though the hero, Kellen, also gets questioned with his fidelity).

The genre also has characters actively dealing with emotional traumas that normally get regulated to backstory, or lingering, traumas in genre romance. Addicted to You by Kristie Richie features a heroine that struggles with a sex addiction; Deeper by Robin York has a heroine who is a victim of revenge porn; Easy by Tammara Webber has a heroine who is a victim of sexual assault. These books actively place the characters in situations that cause the reader to question their ability to move forward. Unlike traditional genre romance, there isn’t an emphasis on the character having these events in their past. The present focus of the events makes New Adult books much more challenging in terms of the relationships they show.

While both genre romance and New Adult have their genre aspects that work, New Adult came out of a consumer desire for something fresh in the market. Its heavy crossover with romance is no coincidence. These two genres can coexist—and maybe, as time goes forward, genre romance as a whole can become a bit more adventurous because of the influence of the New Adult genre.



John is a student, reviewer, and editor with a taste for social justice.  He's queer/LGBTQ and has always loved a good romance novel.  A current student at Ithaca College, he is majoring in Integrated Marketing Communications and trying to pick up a creative writing minor on the side. If you observe him in the wild, you may see him reading—or find him watching reruns of The Golden Girls while sipping his first/second/third cup of coffee for the day.  You can find his reviews on his blog, Dreaming in Books, and listen to his random musings on Twitter @DreamingReviews

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1. Kadiya
I'm not sure that the present tense is such a good thing. I read a lot of NA, review a lot of it too. An author has to be really good to sustain it properly and a lot don't. Plus that first person present tense needs a really good protag with a POV that the reader can actively get into. The vast majority of the ones I have read read and feel contrived in that tense.

I'm totally with you though on the "actively dealing with emotional traumas". In fact, that's the one thing about NA that I love, love, love. These aren't whitewashed characters. They own the pain; they own their f'ed up-ness. The garbage that happens - it's all out there for everyone to see. It's a kind of emotional intimacy between reader and narrator(s). I think that's why it really has taken off both with younger readers and with older adults (like me).
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
When I read some of the first NA books that popped up on my romance radar (not saying they were the first ever of their genre), I loved how fresh they felt, and how many risks they took. I liked that the characters were damaged, or had current issues. I've definitely burned out on some aspects of NA, but am excited that NA authors have begun to surge over the heretofore well-protected lines of romance defense (awkward metaphor, I know). I'm looking forward to seeing more authors playing with some of these blurry lines.
3. Torifl
I adore NA though the current trend seems to be seeing just how dark and abusive can we make these characters lives. I do like the chances NA seems to take and the expectation that there doesn't have to be an HEA or at least not a conventional one.
Amber McMichael
4. buriedbybooks
Nope. I loathe first person-present. Which is why I tend not to read NA or YA. It scrapes at me and pulls me from the story every time. If a romance is written in 1st-present, I won't buy it or read it.

I don't find that either POV has an edge regarding emotional immediacy. That is where a strong storyteller shines. You can be dragged along through emotional turmoil in either tense.

I do agree that romance can and should push boundaries, but I think many romance readers adore the genre precisely because it is so safe. You really don't have to look very hard *outside* the genre to find all of the disfunction you could want. Lit fic thrives on it. There's no dearth of gritty stories out there. Finding optimistic stories on the other hand? Much more difficult.

tl:dr I like the tenses and the lack of trauma in the genre just fine.
5. Scarlettleigh
I am not bothered by first person but I just not into a lot of angst. I want books that make me laugh. Kadiya says they "Own The Pain" and that is what keeps me from reading NA.
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