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.”
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!