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Tired of Trends?

giphy (26)

Whoever said variety is the spice of life obviously knew nothing about the publishing industry.  For women’s fiction (that infuriating term) it seems the pendulum has swung wildly to the opposite extreme from the nineties Chick Lit obsession, to a dark and disturbing landscape of Grip Lit, full of domestic violence, rape, child abuse and murder.  It seems writers (or is it publishers?) are going for the most controversial themes and pushing them to their limits, with stark covers and blurbs that will grab you by the throat.  And it would appear that the demand is limitless, as was seen at the recent London Book Fair.

Many publishers were less happy with the continued demand for psychological thrillers, or “grip-lit” in the mould of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard. Across LBF’s packed halls, editors and agents were agreed that the genre has peaked.

One agent, who did not want to be named for fear of upsetting lucrative clients, said: “We really needs to move on, but no one has come up with anything to replace it.”

But agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown was pessimistic about the prospect of readers becoming bored of grip-lit any time soon. Working 18 months ahead of what book buyers see on shelves means publishers are always first to call the end of a trend, he said: “Readers still want psychological thrillers, even though we’re all really tired of them.”

The Guardian

But what is the attraction?  And why does it feel as though someone has lifted a stone and millions of psychological thriller writers have emerged, blinking and dazed, into the daylight?

Let’s start with the readers.  “If you cry, you buy” is another trite dictum used by Geller to explain the demand for the ‘weepfest novel’, the only other game in town, equating tears with cash.  He has me there though, I love a good old cry.  The emotional release is oddly pleasing and I imagine it’s similar for fans of crime fiction and the disturbingly titled ‘domestic noir’.   It’s clear that we love a bit of a scare every now and again.  Horror movies, ghost trains at the funfair, European politics – they all serve to give us the feeling of fear, but in a controlled environment.  It’s okay to read a scary book because if it gets too much, you can just close the covers and throw it under the bed (or stick it in the freezer like Joey with The Shining).  Fiction gives us the means to explore the things that scare us… but only as far as our imaginations and our experiences allow.  I’m not sure what current trends say about society, or readers, or women (if anything), but perhaps it’s a way of confronting what are very real issues (violence against women in our culture), but at a safe distance.

It’s all a far cry from the young women we were all addicted to reading about when Chick Lit was at its height.  These were bright-eyed career women, making the most of the opportunities and freedoms that the previous generation were denied and we couldn’t get enough of it.  It was all about girl power and finding an equal footing with our male counterparts, although the plots tended to disintegrate into a search for Mr. Right. But, as it turns out, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  Once again the insatiable appetite of the reader and the publisher’s determination to keep them fed flooded the market with inferior, copycat books that ultimately sounded the death knell for the genre’s popularity.  Which is a pity because people still want to read contemporary romance with humour, and writers still want to write them, but they no longer fit the trend which is more towards violence than Valentino.

So what about the authors?  What’s their excuse?  Were they secretly grip lit authors all along?

There will always be people who attempt writing to trends.  The success of 50 Shades of Grey unleashed a plethora of writers who, in their desperation to be signed to a publisher, tried their hand a bit of slap and tickle.  I’m not judging (much).  I mean, why not?  It’s worth a punt.  No-one was more surprised to find out that women enjoy reading erotica than the publishers and they struggled to keep pace (ahem).  The irony of all this is that it is the publishers and agents themselves who advise writers not to write to trends.  I see this all the time on submission pages and yet the majority of new authors signing to the Big Five are grip lit.  Hypocritical much?  There are also suggestions that new authors are being shoe-horned into the genre, demonstrating once again that publishers simply want the same thing, only different.

Another reason why some female writers choose a darker subject matter could be that they don’t want to risk their book being wrapped in pink paper (the dreaded swirly font) and in order to be taken seriously.  Kate Harding wrote a fantastic article all the way back in 2010 entitled “Women’s fiction:  All misery and martinis”  While this article refers to Misery Lit, which was probably a bigger trend in America, it follows the same reasoning for the switch from Chick Lit to Grip Lit here and in the UK.

If an unusual number of female novelists “have resorted to the tactic of choosing themes that are as dark and miserable as possible,” it’s probably because “[w]e are sick to death of the assumption that because we are women we must be writing CHICKLIT.”

Jessica Duchen, author

“American writers in particular are often anxious to be perceived as ‘serious,’ which they tend to equate with a mournful solemnity. Like most attempts to appear grown-up, it just makes you look childish. Comedy is as essential a lens on the human experience as tragedy, and furthermore it is an excellent ward against pretension.”

Laura Miller, critic

Obviously, not all writers are contriving to write something dark in order to be taken seriously.  For some writers (thankfully) this is their natural home and they have made the genre what it is today.  But before you purchase a Grip Lit for dummies guide, in an effort to jump on this over-crowded band wagon, just remember, for every trend that sweeps through the publishing landscape, there are  readers seeking out an alternative for when blockbuster fatigue sets in.  I can’t count the amount of times I’ve heard people say they need something different to read, after an onslaught of mind-bending, plot-twisting, gruesome and violent grip lit reads.  Most readers enjoy variety and look for something that will appeal to all of their emotions.  Not that being trendy is a crime (ha-ha, oh).  It’s popular for a reason, people like it.  But when a trend looms so large over the industry, it stifles diversity and makes it harder for any new voices coming through.  In fact, novels that don’t fit into either camp are almost considered ‘fringe’.  I find it hard to discover new books outside of the trendy genres because, well, they’re not being published in any great numbers and it’s interesting to hear that even publishers are growing weary of the sameness.

One thing these trends do highlight, however, is the narrow definition of the role of women in these books.  We’re either ditsy wannabes, ‘having a go’ at a career, sex objects to fulfill someone else’s desires, or victims of violence and abuse. Obviously, this is fiction and fiction is escapism, but wouldn’t you wonder about the kind of world we’re choosing to escape to?  If the writing is good, I don’t care what genre I’m reading.  It takes a talented writer to tell you a story you didn’t think you wanted to hear, to make you laugh or cry against your better judgement.  Maybe they don’t always have to find Mr. Right, or even look for him, or end up being choked to death by him either!

 

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19 thoughts on “Tired of Trends?

  1. I think that you have to keep variety on your to be read books. I could read Girl on Train and after that read Megan Maxwell..
    In fact I prefer to heard and read different opinions than mine.. as you can see in my blog!

    Liked your blog post

    1. I’m exactly the same – I’m always looking for something completely different from what I last read. If I read one or two historicals, I have to find something contemporary to read next. Thanks for you comments 🙂

  2. I’m with you, Evie. It would be wonderful if a whole new branch of ‘women’s fiction’ (I hate that term too) came along – hopefully one that didn’t need to have ‘girl’ in the title.
    I’m so relieved you said a weepy novel is still in demand. An early (male) reviewer of my book said it should have been written on plastic paper to stop the print being ruined by tears, and my publisher was delighted. But I was a bit worried it would put readers off. Reading your post has put my mind at rest – thank you!

    1. Thanks Sara, hell to the yes as far as weepies are concerned! Look at The Light Between Oceans – people loved that because it was so heart-achingly sad. People want to be moved by a story. And that’s just it, we have a whole range of emotions that we want to experience in our reading list and I can’t imagine getting stuck on one genre (namely the one that keeps you in a terrified state of suspense!) is very satisfying. I think we all have our favourite genres that we return to, but I do believe that in general, people enjoy a bit of variety. A bit of a weep here, a giggle there, the odd fright or science fiction story over there. But when I walked into my local bookstore the other day, I was just faced with a wall of dark covers, big writing and murderous plots. Meanwhile, readers are still looking for alternatives and writers are writing them, even if it does feel out of fashion. Plastic paper could be the next big thing though!

  3. Good article! Watched a programme on BBC not too long ago Val McDermid was in it) about Crime Fiction and there was a mention that statistically in times of hardships, wars etc, we readers as a whole tend to go more for crime fiction than any other genre. So maybe a sign of the times – austerity, various scary media and news stories and such like?

    Caryl x

  4. Regarding Grip Lit and the trend toward rape, violence, etc. — I wonder if third wave feminism has anything to do with it?

    Here in the U.S., third wave feminism is very big. Lots of talk about rape, abuse, the patriarchy and who we, as women, should Hate. This is much different from first and second wave feminism, which focused more on abilities, equal rights and what ‘femininity’ truly meant. Hence Chick Lit of the 90’s? We all loved Bridget Jones. I think of Cyndi Lauper- style feminism, girls just wanna have fun. But now it is different, girls just wanna complain. (I say this because obviously, in the US and the West in general women really DO have a lot of equality, as opposed to say, countries under Sharia Law.)

    Anyway, trends are really annoying. I’d love the return of some good smart Chick Lit. (Maybe we should not have named it after chewing gum…) Great Post, Evie! Very thought provoking. I really enjoy your blog 🙂

    1. Thanks so much Christine, I really appreciate that and you’ve raised some very interesting points. I do wonder where feminism fits in here – on the one hand, these books seem to represent women as victims, suffering violence at the hands of men. On the other hand, these were very taboo subjects in the past, especially in white, middle class societies. So perhaps these stories are encouraging a more open discussion around these issues. Either way, it would be nice to see a bit more variety in popular fiction in the future, in which women are more broadly represented.

      1. Yes, I’d love to see more variety too. It seems everything is a bit of a pendulum swing… and I suppose publishers are reluctant to step outside of a known ‘safety zone’.

  5. You speak the truth (as always!) I read all different genres, it depends on my mood! I don’t like to read anything too dark or depressing, enough of that in the news sure!
    I love a bit of chick lit when I need a break from horror 🙂

  6. Personally o good it very disturbing that so many people seem to enjoy stories of such violence and abuse, usually against women and often where children are the victims. Yes, human beings like solving puzzles, but does such nastiness have to be the context? And why is it so much less frequently a man who gets abducted, raped, de-entrailed etc?

      1. Absolutely Jessica, great comment. As you say, if it wasn’t EVERY book with a woman being victimised or abused – but nobody seems to want to go against type. It seems to be a winning formula (disturbingly) so I’m glad I’m not alone in questioning why this is. (Not ditzy, just cryptic! :))

  7. By the way, I liked your essay in the Irish Times. But moving on, I also like this post because (frankly) I don’t like trends. They remind me of Lemmings (which don’t really run off cliffs) and people who can’t pick up a book without waiting to hear somebody smarter than they are (apparently) telling them it’s okay to pick up the book. I like readers who think for themselves even though some publishers and some reviewers make that hard for them to do.

  8. Love this article, Evie! And, oh God, it used to be that all my ‘also boughts’ were family dramas and sagas, but because my books are a little bit darker than the average family drama, now they’re all ‘The Girl Next Door With The Missing Child On A Train And Gender Twists And A Plot Twist That Will Make Your Eyes Pop Out’. Complete with dark cover and person silhouetted in distance.

    I’m so aware of trends since I started this self pub thing (nearly 6 years ago). Back then, it was all vampires and chick lit. Now the chick lit writers are jumping on the bandwagon. Wonder how they’ll fare when the trend moves on? The good thing about not worrying about whether or not you can call yourself a best selling author is that you can write what you want. I’ve moved on from dark family angst (which I’ve always written) to a global pandemic. Right off trend. But I don’t care. Though, admittedly, it’s got quite a lot of family angst in it 😉

    1. Thanks so much Terry 🙂 You’ve touched on a really interesting point there – most good reads are made up of lots of different genres. You can’t have a global pandemic without focusing in on the personal struggles of the individual and their loved ones. When I think of blockbuster movies like Independence Day, it’s not all blowing up aliens, there are personal relationships, lots of humour and a bit of politics, science fiction and (maybe I’m stretching this) existentialism! When I think about it, genres are really there to help readers find their preferred reads, they shouldn’t be pigeon holes to restrict authors from (as you say) writing what they want. That’s the real issue with trends, it sucks the imagination out of the story when you have such strict guidelines to adhere to. Speaking of Also Boughts, I read a great article by David Gaughran recently about how they can adversely affect your sales, but honestly, I’ve got enough to worry about without adding that to the mix!! Still makes an interesting read though 😉

      1. Oh yes… the man who writes about how to sell lots of books, but his fiction hardly sells. His only bestsellers are his books about how to sell books. Seriously. I read Let’s Get Visible ages ago, and then looked at his own fiction, and laughed. My review has 20 ‘helpfuls’! There is another review expressing this, too.

        Totally agree with all you say, btw (as usual!). All disaster films, etc, are good because you care about what happens to the people. End of!

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