Defining and Redefining Popular Genres: The Evolution of ‘New Adult’ Fiction

Abstract

In The Merchants of Culture, John B. Thompson remarks on the difficulties of writing about a present-day industry, where its swift evolution renders any scholarship on it in danger of ‘immediate obsolescence’ (xi). This challenge is especially familiar to scholars of contemporary popular fiction, a sector of the industry which is in a constant state of flux, where scholarly work can go out of date soon after – or sometimes even before – it is published. This is a particular challenge when it comes to defining genres: how are we to construct genre definitions which account for the fast pace of development?

In this article, I address this question by modelling a ‘snapshot’ approach to genre definitions: that is, offering synchronic definitions at key points in time in order to create a fuller diachronic definition of a genre. The genre I have chosen to model this approach is ‘new adult’ fiction. Numerous forces – industrial, social, and textual (Fletcher et al.) – have influenced the development of this emergent genre label, which has, in the space of less than ten years, changed its meaning significantly. This article traces the genre’s evolution by defining ‘new adult’ at three key points: its inception in 2009, its period of peak visibility in 2011–2013, and the time of writing in 2017–2018. By doing so, I seek to illustrate that genres are in continual and swift flux, and that if we are to adequately define them, we must do so continuously, by tracing the forces which shape them.

‘Writing about a present-day industry is always going to be like shooting at a moving target’, John B. Thompson remarks in the preface to the second edition of The Merchants of Culture: ‘[N]o sooner have you finished the text than your subject matter has changed – things happen, events move on and the industry you had captured at a particular point in time now looks slightly different’ (xi). The fate of ‘[i]mmediate obsolescence’ Thompson describes is especially familiar to scholars of contemporary popular fiction, a sector of the publishing industry which is in a constant state of flux: no sooner has one published material than it has gone out of date (and, indeed, given the time lag common in academic publication, work can frequently go out of date before it is published). This challenge exists in tension with the scholarly desire to define the field of study – how…

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Published 3 December 2018 in Genre Worlds: Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century. Subjects: Genre fiction, Popular fiction, New adult fiction.

Cite as: McAlister, Jodi. ‘Defining and Redefining Popular Genres: The Evolution of ‘New Adult’ Fiction.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 4, 2018. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.0fd566d109.