In the days when I took small children on resort holidays, I’d make a point of reading at least one of the novels on the bookshelves. Some of them were terrible: frowsty clogs-and-shawls sagas, saucy doctors and nurses fantasies and oh so many dogeared Dan Browns. But that’s how I got to know about Danielle Steele, Marian Keyes and Julia Quinn, to name just three. And guess what? They’re still there, hugging the top of the sales charts, and helping to drive a 20% increase in fiction sales over the pandemic year.
By far the biggest rise was in “romantic fiction and sagas”, sales of which leapt by 49% to nearly 6m. Even though that’s only a third of the number of “crime, thriller and adventure” novels devoured over the year, it adds up to a lot of fluttering hearts. And, given that in literary rather than sales terms, “romance and sagas” is another way of saying women’s fiction, while crime, thrillers and adventure are three genres with universal appeal, rather than just finding their readers from one half of the population, those figures seem all the more astonishing. So what is going on?
The sales blurb for the latest from Marian Keyes points succinctly to one answer: “Fed up of being a grownup? Get away from it all …” However, the Irish author has long been promoted out of the generic ghetto of genre fiction as a National Treasure, and her novels have never been simple exercises in escapism. The best known of them, Rachel’s Holiday, threw serious drug addiction in the way of its happy ending. I discovered it in Corfu in the early 2000s and secretly enjoyed it rather more than the novel I’d brought with me – Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which would go on to win the Booker. I’ll definitely be reading Keyes’s sequel, which is due out next month.
On the other hand, I’d completely forgotten about the American romance author Julia Quinn until the series based on her books, Bridgerton, popped up on the TV. But yes, I was seduced by the dazzling Regency confection of The Duke and I – one in the series – during an unseasonably wet break, also in the early 2000s when one or other of us kept having to take to bed. The forgettability of romantic fiction is part of the point: it’s like a holiday romance with no strings attached, or the fleeting treat of newspaper-wrapped fish and chips on the pier with the sunlight on your back. And sometimes that’s just what every reader needs.
Interestingly, the only two fiction categories that declined in value to publishers during the year were “short stories and anthologies” and “horror and ghost stories”. It may be that the previous year’s sales were bolstered by a handful of high-sellers, but my unscientific take is that the former are too much like work, while – frankly, in this of all years – who needs more horror?
We have, though, needed books to read in bed. Though I’ve never been a fan of Mills & Boon (a publisher that has become a genre all of its own), I can see the appeal of its fanciful capers of bounty hunters and fugitive billionaires when lockdown has driven you back under your duvet and your fantasies are constrained by living in a household of bored and depressed others. Mills & Boon efficiently parcels its romance into six categories: modern, medical, historical, heroes, true love and desire. And even before the pandemic, a Mills & Boon novel was said to be sold every 10 seconds somewhere in the world.
Undoubtedly, more prosaic issues have also contributed to this boom, not least that the bestsellers are sold through supermarkets, which remained open, while all else was forced to close. With fewer things to distract them, and fewer ways to spend their money, perhaps the British buying public turned to what was literally on the shelf in front of them.
But there’s a serious point here about the place of books in popular culture. A wise colleague of mine once said, if the book was invented today it would be hailed as a piece of technological genius. It’s cheap, fits in a bag, doesn’t run out of battery and can easily be passed from hand to hand. It’s also surprisingly indestructible. Fun fact: there are still as many as 2m individual medieval manuscripts in existence – although I don’t know whether the mass-produced pulp airport novel would endure so long. Time will tell.
Claire Armitstead is associate editor, culture, for the Guardian