I fielded a question from a reader the other day about genre: “Why do some books do extremely well (like this Hunger Games series)… that are in a genre that doesn’t usually go “mainstream”?”
Good question. There’s been a lot of Hunger Games buzz this week. I think that something which sells well, and for long enough, will re-define mainstream. Take vampire novels. We all know what vampires are… don’t we? Bram Stoker defined the genre for the western world over a century ago. The dark, evil guy that shatters the norms of social etiquette and has to be knocked off by the vengeful vampire hunters. A twentieth century cliché, nicely lampooned since by Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tapes
Suddenly Anne Rice comes up with something utterly different – the vampire romance with sensitive, new age and caring vampires. Well, multi-dimensional characters anyway. It shouldn’t have worked But it did, and she re-defined the genre along the way. (‘Come back Vlad, all is forgiven…). Enter Stephanie ‘Twilight’ Meyer, of whom Rice had this to say.
I got an object lesson in just how far SNAVS (sensitive new-age vampires) had been mainstreamed a couple of years back when I was invited to a Random House publisher party. A fun event. I got talking to various members of the editorial team and found out that just about all of them were reading recreationally – guess what. Let’s just say novels that were was sensitive, new age, and with bite…
What’s more, as far as I am aware, New Zealand’s richest author (a former lawyer) writes in that genre – she’s been on the New York Times best-seller lists.
Joanne Rowling’s another good example of mainstreaming something that started off as fringe. Who, in a million years, would ever have thought that a mashup between quintessentially English boarding school stories and all the old cliches of wand-and-spell magic would transform kids’ literature for the twenty-first century?
So how does a fringe genre suddenly go from zero to hero? What makes a sub-genre suddenly something that everybody wants – and, more to the point, how can you do it yourself? Good question. Publishers have been trying to second-guess it. So have authors.
Social trend is a curious beast. There are reasons why the reading public suddenly latch on to a book, and it’s not that we don’t know the mechanisms. The problem is controlling the details and trying to anticipate the next trend. Sometimes it works. Luck often plays a part in the specifics. Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan read Tom Clancy’s Hunt For Red October, which was then a fringe novel in a fringe genre, published by a small house. A few words of endorsement from the President – and pow. Clancy became a New York Times best seller. But it wasn’t just Reagan’s comment; that was simply the catalyst. At that time, with the Cold War entering its last dangerous spasm, and with ‘high tech’ a buzzword, America and the reading public were well primed for a thriller built around both ideas. Overnight, the techno-thriller emerged as a mainstream genre.
Today we’re captivated by vampires, by post-apocalyptic horror stories – by Hunger Games and Battle Royale, both of which explore the way survival instincts overcome the veneer of civilisation, presented as post-apocalyptic reality entertainment. Unfortunately fought out via teenagers; but maybe that’s part of the secret. Who would have thought an updated, dumbed-down version of Sir William Golding’s Lord of the Flies might be the Next Big Thing? Not me. And yet in hindsight, it’s obvious; the theme plays to the deepest fears of our society – the war between civilisation and beast.
So are there techniques for actively working up a best seller? Making a great e-book of it? Getting your stuff out there? Sure, and I’m going to explore those on this blog over the next few weeks. Meanwhile – what are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012