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Sex and the 'new adult' novel: Teen fiction gets steamier

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Fueled by the successes of "Fifty Shades of Grey" and young adult fiction, publishers and authors are becoming far less shy about including steamier passages in novels for older teens.

In 1975, Judy Blume’s “Forever” rankled school librarians and protective parents alike with its frank depiction of teenage lust and love. Banned as pornography in some schools, “Forever” remains a frequent flyer on The American Library Association’s list of most commonly challenged books to this day.

But what shocked parents in 1975 (and made children clamor to get their hands on a copy) might not be considered so scandalous anymore. The book industry is in a post-“Fifty Shades of Grey” state of mind, and some publishers and authors say they won’t be shy about including steamier bits for older teens in a budding genre labeled “new adult” fiction.

The category contains stories for the reader who might be too old for "Twilight" but not quite ready for “Fifty Shades.” A typical “new adult” heroine is an 18 to 24-year-old coming to terms with the trials and tribulations of young adult life away from the security of home. Several of these stories have already found success as e-books or on sites like GoodReads.com, which has over 20,000 titles on its new adult "shelf." 


"It's about that time in your life when you're trying to assert your maturity and forcing yourself to grow up against the odds," Cora Carmack, author of the new adult novel "Losing It," told TODAY.com.

And then there's the sex. 

“Young adult has a certain perspective to it. If there is sex, it’s behind closed doors,” Pamela Spengler-Jaffee, a publicity director for Avon Books at HarperCollins, told TODAY.com. “New adult is going to help teachers classify books that have that same heightened level of emotion, but with an open door policy.”

In December, HarperCollins released two books in the genre: Carmack's “Losing It” and “From Ashes” by Molly McAdams. Carmack’s book deals with what the title suggests — a young woman trying to lose her virginity before graduating from college. The author first published the story online, and soon found publishing houses were interested. She says not a single one was troubled by her novel's descriptive sexual content.

“People have been talking a lot about sex in terms of new adult, and I definitely think there’s more room for it than in YA books,” she told TODAY.com. “There are plenty of YA books out there already with sex in them, but it’s more accepted in the ‘new adult’ genre. People who are not teenagers are more comfortable with people who are legal having sex.”

One major problem with the genre is that booksellers aren't quite sure what shelves these books belong on — "fiction" or "young adult." And while the intended "new adult" audience is aged 18 to 24, younger readers often buy books above their age range.

“Kids always read up,” Carrie Feron, an editor at HarperCollins told TODAY.com. “’Seventeen’ magazine is clearly read by 13 year olds. I think that’s normal and great.”

But parents may not be thrilled about their younger teens reading a novel with explicit sexual content — even if they are pleased to see them reading in the first place. Author Lauren Myracle, who penned a “young adult” Internet series for girls that includes titles like “ttyl,” “ttfn” and “l8r, g8r,” has received more than a few chiding emails over the years from parents upset by the sexual themes in her books, according to a recent New York Times article

“Sometimes I worry I’m writing ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ for teenagers, but I’m not,” she told the newspaper, though she admitted her books feature mature content. “It is sexually explicit. It’s sexy.”

Harper Collins

Publishers of new adult books hope to push the limits without outraging parents. At least one publisher has taken the approach of printing different versions of the same book to please different audiences. After Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing division released Abbi Glines’ “The Vincent Boys” and “The Vincent Brothers,” it published “uncut and uncensored” versions of the books in December.

“All those moments that faded to black no longer fade but you follow them right on through to the end. For mature readers only,” the book’s description reads on the author’s website. The uncensored versions are recommended for readers 17 and up.

Sexed-up fiction for teens has also found its way to England, where some publishers have dubbed the teenage romances “steamies.” Brenda Gardner, the founder of Piccadilly Press in London, said steamies are based more in the realm of romance than new adult novels, but publishers have purposefully stayed away from the term “erotica” because they don’t tread into “Fifty Shades” territory with descriptions of bondage or graphic sex.

“We looked at the sales figures of "Fifty Shades" and thought how can we do this? We knew that a lot of teenagers were reading it, and we asked how can we capitalize on it?” she told TODAY.com. “In a way, erotica has been around for ages. We were looking for what else we can do.”

Earlier this year, Piccadilly Press released "Irresistible," which features a 16-year-old heroine torn between two young men. Lines like “I cry out as a sweet explosion spreads from between my legs throughout my body, and as I do his mouth finds mine,” turn up the erotic charge of the novel.

Of course, sex in even “young adult” fiction isn't exactly new, though several authors said we’ll probably be seeing more of it in the future.

“Because of the influence of “Fifty Shades,” publishers are going to be more likely to take chances with sexually adventurous fiction, and encourage sexual situations in fiction,” Sarah Rees Brennan, a best-selling young adult fiction novelist, told TODAY.com. “Several authors I know, of both adult and young adult fiction, have been asked by their publishers to consider writing erotica.”

But some publishers say the “new adult” link to “Fifty Shades” doesn't really exist and fails to encompass the scope of this type of fiction, which speaks more to the time in these heroines' lives than their libidos. 

“There’s always been sex in books, especially in the romance genre,” Feron said. “'Fifty Shades' is fun, but it’s not the whole of publishing.”