Well-worn themes

Cover imageA few years ago when I was running the reviews section of a magazine which included children’s books, YA novels were awash with vampires. Then suddenly dystopian fiction seemed to be the thing – as if teens don’t have enough to angst about. It seems that publishers find bandwagons hard to get off, no matter how overcrowded they become. Two current well-trodden paths in adult fiction are post apocalypse (closely related to dystopian) and the demented protagonist.

The first has a long history – lots of it around in the Cold War years, for instance, including what’s now come to be a classic of the genre: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seemed to spark off a new post apocalyptic trend with the likes of  Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse not far behind and now we have Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, both longlisted for the Baileys. Cover image

The first example I can remember of the dementia theme is Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version. Then there’s Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness, and more recently Sue Peeble’s Snake Road,  Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, Fiona MacFarlanes’s The Night Guest, Lisa Genova’s Still Alice and Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves.

Not hard to see what’s triggered either of these trends – climate change and the financial crash seem to have contributed to the first while we’re all terrified of the dementia spectre – but they feel a little over-exposed to me. I’m sure you can think of other well-worn themes, not to mention many books I’ve failed to include. Let me know what your pet likes or dislikes are.

13 thoughts on “Well-worn themes”

  1. Well, there’s the ‘anything with girl in the title’ trend. I do feel for authors who may have worked for years on a book, only to have it hijacked when another, similar, one comes out first and they appear to be just following on in the wake of it.

    1. Susan Osborne

      I do know what you mean, Sarah, and that ‘girl’ theme is becoming overworked, for sure. Maybe we can look forward to a ‘boy’ theme, soon!

  2. I’ve been thinking about the number of dystopias published recently – there’s also The Ship by Antonia Honeywell, The Bees by Laline Paull – and I agree as to the cause of them but I think dystopias are a constant really, they just have peaks and troughs of ‘trendiness’. I think humanity’s always concerned about its own end.

    I don’t mind trends if we’re talking about a group of novels with a similar theme that happened to have been published at the same time. I don’t like the hardcore manufacturing of them in the style of everything’s the new ‘Gone Girl’ until it becomes the new ‘The Girl on the Train’ (I’m doubly annoyed with that one for the use of the word ‘girl’ when they mean ‘woman’) and then books that are nothing like the initial successful book are marketed as similar to it.

    For me, I’m looking for a book that does something different with an existing genre/theme (after all, how many genres/themes can there be?). It’s why I’m so enamoured with The Country of Ice Cream Star, Newman’s taken a well-trodden path, flipped the skin colour of the characters and written it in a futuristic version of AAVE; it’s a real feat of imagination and you have to be a bloody good writer to get readers to buy into something so different from their own reality.

    1. Loved, loved, loved Riddley Walker! Dystopian fiction has long been with us (e.g. We by Zamyatin from 1924 which inspired 1984) – as Naomi says, it comes in and out of being in fashion – usually in response to the latest hit one though…

      I too loathe that publisher’s hype ‘the new Gone Girl’ – but it sells on the supermarket shelves – which is where it’s really aimed at. As were the black covers of all those vampire books – where are they now? Not a fang in sight!

      I am a bit worried about the trend for suicide-lit in YA books though and have blogged about this – some of the novels are really well handled and our over-stressed young teens are using these tough issue-based novels to know that they’re not alone.

      A more fun trend is the oldies behaving badly – like the 100 year old man – and the many that have followed… but then again, there’s always been novels like Kingsley Amis The Old Devils on that theme too.

      What comes around, goes around.

      1. Susan Osborne

        I hadn’t heard about the suicide theme in YA fiction, Annabel I must have missed that post. I remember being concerned by what seemed like a trend in novels about eating disorders quite some time ago. As you say, if handled well it can be very helpful but if not there’s the potential for putting thoughts into readers’ heads.

        I think we’re all agreed on that pesky ‘girl’ theme!

          1. Susan Osborne

            Excellent post, Annabel. Have you also come across a trend for self-harm in YA fiction? At one stage I felt that this was being given so much publicity in the media that it was in danger of leading to copycat behaviour. We need to know about it but there’s fine line between keeping the public informed and coming close to almost glamourising it.

    2. Susan Osborne

      Absolutely agree with the over-marketing of a theme which I think does writers a disservice, particularly as it often continues long after readers are readers tire of it.

      I know you’re a champion of Newman’s novel which does sound as if it takes an imaginative approach to the dystopian theme. I’ve yet to read it but it sounds a little like Riddley Walker in its use of language.

  3. I think there’s a distinction to be made between cynical marketing ploys (not just publishers, writers as well jump on the bandwagon) and actual ‘something in the water’ which makes people preoccupied with certain themes at certain times.

    With the latter, I’ve noticed in the history of science, for instance, that at some point all the physicists or chemists were working on similar topics and making discoveries in the same field. Call it trend or fashion, but they were building on each other and were on a roll. That happens with art (all those schools of painting), so why shouldn’t it happen with literature? I don’t have a problem with it if it’s not a copycat/fanfiction approach, if it really takes the trope and does something different and interesting with it.

    1. There is a real cross-fertilisation between scientists – they rarely worked in secret (well some of the time) and as the enabling technologies come on-line, some simultaneous ‘discoveries’ are inevitable. I’d suggest it’s rare in literature as a true phenomenon, more often manufactured (I’m such a cynic!)

    2. Susan Osborne

      Fair points, all, Marina. I do sometimes wonder how directly publishers/agents influence writers in terms of what they see as commercial trends.

  4. The ‘Secret Life’ of just about anything!! No more! Take them away! I remember when the dreaded Fifty Shades of Grey set off the supermarket erotica trend, too. Bloggers argued with me that the extra revenue might mean publishers would then take a risk on exciting new literary authors, but cynically I think they just poured their meagre resources into a lot of lookalikey books. The accountants tell us that the sequel to a big success is always worth pursuing – but artistically I can’t really agree.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Me, neither. I remember going into W H Smith’s on Oxford station and being faced with a wall of Fifty Shades lookalikes which made up their bestsellers for that week. Although, I did the same last Monday and found hardly any books on sale at all, and those were hidden away.

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