A story reported widely in the British press last week caught my eye: ‘Crime pays,’ read the headline in the Telegraph; ‘thrillers and detective novels now outsell all other fiction.’
According to data by Nielsen BookScan shared at the London Book Fair, sales of crime and thriller novels in the UK last year were up 19 per cent since 2015, to 18.7 million. This compares to 18.1 million copies sold of general and literary fiction, which has been the bestselling category for some 20 years.
Crime and thriller novels represented 36 per cent of book sales; general and literary fiction 35 per cent; and my own genre, romance, 10 per cent.
Why the increased interest in crime and thriller? Two main theories were put forward in the media:
* That the development of the psychological thriller has pushed sales – claustrophobic, tense novels, often told in the first person by an unreliable narrator, that penetrate the psyche (think Gone Girl and Girl on a Train).
* That the political landscape leads people to find satisfaction in the genre. Crime author David Baldacci writes: ‘People inherently don’t like folks who do bad to get away with it. In real life they do. But in novels, evil is punished and the good guys mostly win.’ (Source: the Telegraph.) The crime and thriller publisher for HarperCollins told the BBC: ‘in the end, right wins out. There’s some comfort in that. Those sorts of stories tax your brain a bit but they’re not miserablist. In the end they make you feel better.’
I’m intrigued by this idea that readers are gravitating to such dark and disturbing books. The BBC article cites two novels that sold very well in 2017: The Couple Next Door, ‘about Anne and Marco whose baby goes missing while they’re having dinner with neighbours’, and I Let You Go, in which ‘a boy slips out of his mother’s grasp and runs into the road – and is knocked down by a hit-and-run driver’. So, two of the bestselling books of the leading genre in 2017 feature a child going missing and a child getting killed. I find that quite depressing.
Of course, everyone must be free to read whatever they choose, and of course, it is wonderful that when it comes to books, there is something for everyone. But I can’t help thinking: Why is the bestselling genre one of the darkest? What does that say about how people are feeling?
I wonder: How would it be if romance were the top genre; if many of us turned to feel-good fiction rather than fiction to induce nightmares?
The obvious takeaway from this news for any writer is that it pays to write crime. No wonder authors are shifting to the genre. (Did you know that the author of Girl on a Train, Paula Hawkins, published four rom-com novels under the pen name Amy Silver before turning to ‘the dark side’?)
But I won’t be writing a crime or thriller novel anytime soon. There is always a little darkness in my novels to be overcome, for that is true to life; but ultimately I choose to write about what we yearn for: warmth, beauty, exhilaration, self-development, hope, unity, passion… love. Always love.
I am reminded of these words from EM Forster’s A Room with a View: ‘We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm – yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.’
When I write, I never want to to do harm – to disturb or distress my reader – and I endeavour always to face the sunshine. I like to think of my readers stepping into that sunshine with me and feeling its warmth; that my fictional world may be a pleasant escape. I like to think that my writing can give the reader comfort, solace – and hope, that this world is, after all, full of light.