SOMETIMES MY MIND wanders and ponders upon the history of writing, of what has gone before and what is yet to come. Publishing is widely said to be an unpredictable business, literary agents and publishing houses alike struggle to identify what will make one book hugely successful over another. A big name writer always helps sales and in essence they can release something like Breathless (the alternate title being How Not to Write a Thriller) and still get to number one bestseller (I may bash Dean Koontz’s book for some time yet).
But what about the debut authors? Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and The Martian by Andy Weir are two contemporary examples that have been successful beyond imagination. One an urban murder mystery, the other a survival story set on Mars – Weir’s story is hardly genre specific. I’m a 100 pages deep into Hawkins’ debut and it’s nothing exceptional so far. So what gives?
In publishing it seems that certain genres are untouchable through the ages. Murder and mystery have been the backbone of writing for well over a century, think Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Poirot to Keigo Higashino’s Detective Galileo series. Romance while still popular was once a major mover with serious prose dedicated to it, and love is still at the core of many a book. In a way that’s no surprise; death and love are the drivers of humanity, we all experience them in one way or another, good or bad. I don’t doubt thrillers, murder mysteries and romance will be written about until the end of time, a guaranteed seller.
What about the outliers? Frequently a trend breaks out and dominates for a succession of time. In the last fifteen years we’ve had zombies, vampires, superheroes in all their incarnations and dystopian books take centre stage at one point or another. Why? If I could pinpoint the reason I’m sure I’d have a very high paying job somewhere… But whatever the reason their rise to prominence was unpredictable. Any movie tie-ins are sure to raise the profile of course like The Hunger Games, World War Z and the dreaded Twilight series which in turn spawn interest, but the books preceded all of them. Is there something in the zeitgeist that leads to certain themes being popular? A theory of mine is that the YA dystopia genre gained popularity due to the generation reading it, a generation raised on the meat grinder of social media and constant attention of cameras and video means it’s a dog eat dog world, so the idea of teens fighting for their lives against other teens and so on feeds right into that psyche.
As the old saying goes, don’t write for money: and don’t write with the intent of making it by bending your writing to current trends. Trends are phantasmagoric anyway, by the time they hit, the chances are the best books in that category have already been written and are being marketed. I won’t say write what you know, because that’s nonsense, it’s trite, a throwaway quote that sounds good on the surface. I don’t know about 90% of the things I write about. In this ramble I guess I’m saying that certain genres will never stop shifting copies whereas others are contenders to be the next big thing, but the vampire-romance ‘yeah, like Game of Thrones in space (with battling cats)’, may not be it, but you never know. All I know is that quality writing engages and if you write with a passion for the craft that cannot help but come across on the page. And with self publishing opening the market, I think genres are there to made and moulded in new ways in what should be a creative boom.