Sometime in the last century, an economist whose name I couldn’t be bothered researching put forward an argument that women’s hemlines mirrored economic health.
When times are good, said the economist so famous for the theory that nobody could be arsed remembering their actual name, hemlines go up; when they turn bad, skirts plunge below the knee. When times are terrible, the most fashionable fight recession with ankle-skimming layers, as though a mere glimpse of thigh might frighten the most fragile of economies.
The same could be said for popular fiction, where the most popular genres of the day move in line with economic booms and busts.
Although certain genres always sell, whatever the weather (crime, romance, horror, cookbooks and celebrity autobiographies), what’s changed in the post-internet market are the crossover sensations which are read by everyone – especially people who wouldn’t normally read that genre.
And unlike hemlines, these crossovers are what mirror, or flip, our daily reality. Whatever we’re going through, we want to read about its opposite.
Now, I don’t know if anyone’s said this before, but I may as well claim it, because this is the internet, and anyone who said anything truly original was scared offline a long time ago. But still, a short history of the last couple of decades is enough to make this argument irrefutable (just like all my other arguments, only more so, obviously).
A Short History of the Economy (In Books)
Consider the noughties economic boom up until 2007, which saw a surge in popularity of the Misery Memoir; Lee Child’s Jack Reacher going small town, and getting revenge for the little guys in America’s heartland; and John Grisham’s hotshot young lawyers hitting the plutocrats where they hurt.
Then came the global financial crisis of 2008-2012 which spawned the political dystopia of The Hunger Games, the wide-eyed albeit well-heeled innocence of Twilight, and another thousand vampire romances read by young and old alike; along with E.L. James’ copycat billionaire fantasies, and a surge in celebrity lifestyle bibles which showed emerging social media addicts how the increasingly richer other 1% lived.
From 2013 to now, in an age of growing political uncertainty, pending economic storms and ongoing incredulity regarding who has all the power and how the hell that happened, what are we clamouring for? Up-lit, that’s what. The love songs to local community which were Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and A Man Called Ove might have started it, but it’s far from finished.
Why We Like The Books We Like
The emergence of the popular book genre never been more prevalent than in the age of viral sensations.
Even though the big publishers still have a lot of influence, they don’t have half the influence they used to, when they and only they decided what was going to be on our To Be Read piles. Nowadays, something can take off from nothing and become an overnight sensation in just a few short months.
Once the internet and word of mouth took over, we got zeitgeist fiction: stories which captured what people were thinking and feeling right now, as opposed to just more of what sold very well last year.
This works out particularly well for indie authors, who have a far shorter lead in time to market, and can often capitalise very well on whatever’s hot right now.
The “Hey, Authors! Gimme What I Want!” Bit
So whatever’s on the menu right now, I have a special request for the kitchen.
Even the internet can’t argue against the fact that readers have always wanted to escape into a world which is far removed from the reality in which they live.
I know I do. I really need a good reason to stop reading the news. And I think as a species, we’re long overdue a virulent dose of the kind of all-encompassing celebration of unique human connection we commonly call romance.
This means Big Romance, now, mind you. This means good romance with another story involved; romance with a twist, with the twist being that hook reeling in the reader who doesn’t normally read romance.
This is romance with crime, or horror, or thrills, or fantasy, or even politics. But still, romance first, and not the plodding, forumalic, meet-cute kind either.
But first, we’re going to need to stop being so afraid of romance. When did you last hear a literary thought leader interviewed, who said that they adored a good love story?
It’s like we’re not even allowed to defend it nowadays. And you have to wonder if, traditionally, this is because of its association with women’s fiction, which I’ve ranted about before in I Hate Women’s Fiction and I’ll Tell You Why, and We Need To Stop Justifying Women’s Fiction Now.
This train of thought says: if women are the main audience of a particular genre, that means it’s lesser, right? It’s not as worthy. It’s not as important.
This is also why we’re not allowed to call books like Sally Rooney’s Normal People, or Colm Toibín’s Brooklyn romances. In fact it’s considered very naughty to do so. Because these books about romantic relationships and choices are not romances, apparently. Only a literary philistine would suggest it.
But consider this, also. Whoever that economist was, talking about hemlines mirroring economic cycles, nobody was thinking ‘well, if it’s to do with women’s skirts, there’s no real merit in that.’ No, indeed.
Instead, it was immediately hailed as a brilliant analogy. An idea which became so ubiquitous, it became the sort of throwaway quote which nobody even bothers attributing to a single person anymore, precisely because so many people have requoted it.
Hemlines matter. Women’s Fiction matters. Human connections matter. And what are human connections, without romance? Just give me a good love story, and I promise you: it will matter.