IBack when I took young children on vacation, I made it a point to read at least one of the novels on the shelves. Some of them were terrible: sagas of frightened clogs and shawls, sassy fantasies of doctors and nurses and oh so many dog-eared Dan Browns. But that’s how I got to know Danielle Steel, Marian Keyes and Julia Quinn, to name just three. And guess what? They’re still around, squeezing the top of the sales charts and helping to drive a 20% increase in fiction sales in the pandemic year.
The biggest increase by far concerns “fiction and romantic sagas”, whose sales jumped 49% about 6m. Even though that’s only a third of the number of “crime, thriller and adventure” novels devoured during the year, that’s a lot of beating hearts. And, given that in literary and non-commercial terms, “romance and sagas” is another way of saying women’s fiction, while crime, thriller and adventure are three genres with a universal vocation, rather than finding their readership among half the population, these figures seem all the more astonishing. So what’s up?
The sales blurb for Marian Keyes’ latest succinctly points to an answer: “Tired of being an adult?” Get away from it all…” However, the Irish author has long been promoted out of the genre fiction ghetto and treated as a national treasure, and her novels have never been mere exercises in escape. The best known of these, Rachel’s Holiday, threw a serious drug addiction on the way to her happy ending. I discovered it in Corfu in the year 2000 and I secretly enjoyed it more than the novel I had taken with me – La vie de Pi by Yann Martel, which was to win the Booker. I’ll definitely be reading the Keyes sequel, which is due out next month.
On the other hand, I had completely forgotten about American romance novelist Julia Quinn until the series based on her books, Bridgerton, appeared on television. But yes, I was smitten by the dazzling Regency tailoring of The Duke and I – the first in the series – during a wet off-season break in the early 2000s when one or the other of between us kept going to bed. The oblivion of romantic fiction is part of the problem: it’s like an unconditional holiday romance, or the fleeting treat of a fish and chips wrapped in newspaper on the pier with the sunlight at your back. And sometimes that’s just what every reader needs.
Interestingly, the only two fiction categories that lost value to publishers over the year were ‘short stories and anthologies’ and ‘horror and ghost stories’. It may be that the previous year’s sales were bolstered by a handful of top sellers, but my unscientific view is that the top ones look too much like hard work, when – frankly, in all years – who need more horror?
However, we need books to read in bed. Although I’ve never been a fan of Mills & Boon (a publisher that’s become a genre in its own right), I can see the appeal of its whimsical antics of bounty hunters and fugitive billionaires when lockdown has pushed you back. under your duvet and your fantasies are limited by living in a household of other bored and depressed people. Mills & Boon effectively divides its romance into six categories: modern, medical, historical, hero, true love, and desire. And even before the pandemic, a Mills & Boon novel was selling every 10 seconds somewhere in the world.
Undoubtedly, more prosaic issues have also contributed to this boom, including the fact that bestsellers are sold in supermarkets, which have remained open, while everything else has been forced to close. With fewer things to distract them and fewer ways to spend their money, UK shoppers may have turned to what was literally on the shelf in front of them.
But there is a serious point here about the place of books in popular culture. A wise colleague of mine once said that if the book were invented today, it would be hailed as a technological genius. It’s cheap, fits in a bag, doesn’t run out of battery, and can easily be passed from hand to hand. It is also surprisingly indestructible. Fun fact: up to 2 million individual medieval manuscripts still exist – although I’m not sure if the mass-produced airport novel would last that long. Time will tell us.