Few art forms have quite as split a personality as book publishing does. In the spring, the season of literary awards and prizes, we can read the lists searching for books that have
been read by most readers and find almost nothing. The prize-winners often languish in libraries and are assigned in classrooms, but remain unread by the majority of American readers. Instead it is genre fiction that reaches the mass of readers and enriches the authors who are lucky enough to reach huge popularity.
Today’s New York Times published an article about the phenomenon of a fantasy writer, Cassandra Clare, whose book tours, as the article points out, are more like those of a rock star than of a writer. She writes books that touch the lives of far more people than those of the authors whose books are reviewed in the newspapers book review section.
This is nothing new. The phenomenon of the author who has wild success with a so-called sensational book while a literary figure languishes in obscurity has been going on for centuries. Here are the opening lines of a book by a well-known 19th century American writer that I doubt you will recognize:
To and fro, like a wild creature in its cage, paced that handsome woman, with bent head, locked hands, and restless steps. Some mental storm, swift and sudden as a tempest of the tropics, had swept over her and left its marks behind. As if in anger at the beauty now proved powerless, all ornaments had been flung away, yet still it shone undimmed, and filled her with a passionate regret.
Does that sound like the staid author, Louisa May Alcott, whose books have been read by so many young readers over the years? Alcott did not stick to the sensational mystery stories she started out with but switched to writing family stories aimed at young girls. She found great success with these and was able to support her whole family for many years, but there is some evidence that she would have liked to write a different kind of book for adults. Unfortunately she was never free enough from economic and social pressures to do that.
Many women, over the years, have turned to genre fiction rather than aiming for high literary quality. Today’s romance fiction is dominated by women writers, and women readers too. It is one of the most successful areas of publishing yet it is almost never seriously discussed as literature.
Mystery stories are another highly successful form of fiction. Did you know that Agatha Christie, according to UNESCO, is the world’s most translated author? It is interesting to consider that while many prize-winning books remain unknown outside of the English-speaking world, Christie’s books have presented a version of English life to audiences around the globe.
Although the mystery genre is not as closely associated with women as the romance genre is, according to the organization Sisters in Crime, almost 70 percent of mystery readers are female. And if you look at the lists of mystery books published, you will find that about half of all mystery story writers are women. Of course with all the sub-genres of mystery story from hard-boiled detective to the cozy kitchen mysteries, some are associated far more with women than others are.
What does all this mean? Just perhaps that those of us who think of ourselves as avid readers ought perhaps to try different genres once in a while. We might find that the ones we have avoided all our lives may be just what we are ready for now.
And I’d like to offer a cheer for the British Library which has begun publishing a series of historical mystery stories that add to our knowledge about the history and background of mystery stories. Perhaps eventually they will do the same for other genre fiction.