The New Adulthood

Emily Landau explores the emerging world of New Adult (NA) fiction, a genre featuring characters who “are attracted to the siren song of freedom but wilfully naive about the associated responsibility”:

Perhaps … the new-adult craze is more than just publisher-spun hype. Take [K.A.] Tucker’s Ten Tiny Breaths, for instance. In sun-kissed Miami, the orphan sisters move into a down-at-the-heels Melrose Place complex, where the elder one, Kacey, assembles a surrogate family from their motley crew of fellow tenants. The pair hold Hannah Montana dance parties in their apartment. Kacey takes a bartending gig (as much a party as a job), and she engages in uninhibited laundry room hookups with the hot guy down the hall, making out on top of a vibrating washer. In NA, the characters are rarely uncomfortable, and if they are, it is but for a brief, shimmering moment, more exciting than traumatic. There is always some quick fix, a reward in the form of romantic love or professional success—or, in Kacey’s case, both. She ends up going back to school and settling into a committed relationship with her laundry room lover. Unlike capital-L literature that covers similar territory—Girl, Interrupted, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, even Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations—new-adult novels categorically depict the transition from childhood to adulthood not as a threshold, but as a cushiony holding area, a never-never land without parents or responsibility.

Irresistible, right? If stories of emerging adulthood have always existed, surely they have never been so culturally resonant. What the NA publishing phenomenon demonstrates is that, jeering aside, millennials are not the only ones being lured to that paradise. It has also become a destination for the teens who have yet to experience new adulthood, and the adults who have let it slip away. As NA continues to colonize bookshelves, the horizon of adulthood grows further and fainter. Pretty soon there won’t be any grown-ups left.

(Hat tip: Thomas Beckwith)