In the early seventies, erotica and fantasy were big popular book genres. Now it seems the trend is back, with the ubiquitous campaign for EL James’s sub-dom smutfest ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ paying off with remedial readers who are prepared to plough through its English-As-A-Second-Language prose and finish several tree-baiting volumes of so-called ‘Mommy-Porn’. The books are being flogged via a massive ad campaign that’s trying to whip up enthusiasm for a genre I thought had died out with the end of Forum magazine.
But when it comes to entertainment, the popular market always runs in cycles.
Right now there’s a a new generation of writers delving into some intriguing subjects. They include loss of identity, fear of failure, powerlessness, technology, body dysmorphia, difference, disconnection, apocalypse,the cult of celebrity and the surreal pattern of modern life. These are all powerful motors for plots, but publishers aren’t putting them out.
Recently, I talked to a young writer who was genuinely amazed that his zombie/vampire crossover novel couldn’t get a deal. He seemed to be unaware that in an economic downturn publishers don’t take any chances by presenting readers with stories that may bring them low returns.
In a way, though, I was rather surprised that he couldn’t sell it. During times of financial hardship people seek the comfort of the familiar. There has recently been much talk about ‘the New Cosy’. Fashion is suddenly all about knitwear and sensible shoes. Singers like Adele and Ed Sheeran are probably too strait-laced and dull for your grandparents. Movies are almost entirely reliant on brands, which is why a cod-Victorian film about an ass-kicking adventurer can’t star a newly minted character but must be shoehorned into a Sherlock Holmes format. The argument goes that the public know and like Holmes, and won’t pay out for something new and risky.
I’d love the experimental cycle of the sixties to return to books. BS Johnson took experimentalism to an extreme. Frustrated by linear storytelling, he rejected the limitations of the novel. Perhaps he was born too early; he would have loved the playfulness of the internet. I first encountered his work in my late teens, in ‘Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry’. Malry attempts to run his life on a bookkeeping system, but discovers that life debits far more than it credits, and resorts to acts of terrorism in order to keep his account in balance.
Johnson’s ‘House Mother Normal’ describes a shocking evening in an old people’s home from the perspectives of the eight inhabitants, the events repeated in in decreasing order of their lucidity. It’s still astounding. ‘The Unfortunates’ is the infamous ‘book in a box’, its chapters presented unbound so that the reader can choose them in any order. ‘Albert Angelo’ has a hole cut in some pages that reveal a future event in the book. We need to be tested by such writers.
The beauty of books, of course, is that readers can choose whatever they want to read without censure. What makes me feel frustrated is that publishers push trends at them regardless of quality. And yes, someone has already written a parody called ‘Fifty Shades of Gay’.