Weekly Musing: Popularity Contest

Historical romance? Dystopian young adult sci-fi? Epic medieval high fantasy? Good old-fashion western? Cozy mystery set in New England? Whatever your favorite genre(s) is/are hopefully you can find plenty of books to keep you happy. Some genres, though, are always popular while others seem to cycle in and out of popularity. So why do some remain champs atop best-seller lists while others frequently teeter on the verge of being almost cultish in popularity?

The top-selling genres currently are romance, crime fiction including thrillers and mysteries, young adult, and sci-fi/fantasy. Within each of these are a myriad of subgenres, some of which are more popular. Romance and crime fiction have consistently been top best sellers for a very long time. Clearly people enjoy an escape to romance land as well as the gritty realism and heroics of solving a crime. With the rise in e-books this hasn’t changed. If anything it has probably increased the popularity of these genres because no one can tell what kind of book you’re reading if they can’t see the cover. Consider yourself a manly man but would like to read The Notebook but don’t want to carry around the physical book? Load it onto your cammo covered e-reader. Are you an above average intelligent woman curious if those bodice-ripper romances are any good but fear the librarian will judge you? Put it on your e-reader. No one will ever know!

I understand why romance and crime fiction are popular but what about young adult and sci-fi/fantasy? Both are incredibly new genres, both not popping up in publication until the 20th century. I think a lot of the appeal of sci-fi/fantasy comes for five reasons:

1) Man has always been fascinated with the stars and could there be anything out there
2) An entire generation grew up with the space race, eventually seeing man land on the moon and watching shows like Star Trek
3) Within these genres, writers and readers can explore age old questions about what it means to be human, what is compassion, what does humanity and mercy look like, racism, sexism, etc. through made up worlds
4) Every culture embraces mythological creatures and gods to help explain life
5) Much like romance these genres offer pure escapism.

The appeal of young adult I think is due in large part to better quality writing that elevates the genre to such a level that adults can enjoy them as well. There’s also more of an emphasis on presenting teenagers as real people with real problems. This is refreshing because I remember when I was in elementary, junior high, and high school reading what would be considered juvenile/young adult books, and not being that impressed. The characters, themes, and situations were often ones that neither my friends nor I could relate to. One could argue a series like The Hunger Games couldn’t be realistic due to its setting but when you think about the characters and themes they act and feel like real people more than say, Sweet Valley High. As a result, I gave up on young adult books deciding it probably meant I was old enough to move onto adult books.

What about those genres that have a niche audience? Why do they seem to be stuck with a relatively small but incredibly loyal following? Two genres that pop to mind are westerns and inspirational fiction. Brainstorming possible reasons I’ve come up with the following:

1) A finite amount of writers in each so there is less to choose from
2) Being too niched with little desire to expand appeal to the masses

Yet neither of these reasons makes sense to me. I have a hard time believing it could be because of any themes or tropes unique to each. There are popular historical romances set in the old West. The trope of the heroic lawman is something not exclusive to westerns. A main character guided by their faith or finding faith for the first time is not a theme popular genre fiction shies away from. Plenty of books incorporate these things.

Is it the style of writing? Perhaps, yet I hesitate to think that is an answer because each genre comes with a certain style many authors within employ. I’m sure there are just as many quality writers as the popular genres. It truly stumps me why either of these genres aren’t more popular. Seems rather unfair to me.

Us readers should be more willing to expand our habits to incorporate a new genre, might even discover a new favorite author, or perhaps the dark horse genre may wind up winning the crown.

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