Thrillers are king of the publishing world right now. Or should I say queen, since so many of them are written by, about, and for women?
In 2017, 18.7 million crime and thriller books were sold, up 19% since 2015. General and literary fiction titles, which for the last two decades dominated the market, slipped into second place with just 18.1 million copies.Women are propelling this wave, having bought 53% of crime and thriller books in the last 12 months, according to Nielsen BookScan.
I think there’s a reason for this.
I don’t have to tell you that the world is in disarray right now. No matter which side of the Atlantic you hail from—or where on the political spectrum you fall—powerful emotions are engaged. I think people are reading thrillers and crime novels for the same reason they’ve driven Bob Woodward’s Fear and Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century to the top of international bestseller lists: they’re trying to make sense of the chaos around us.
But in a different way.
Nonfiction satisfies our need to try and get the facts—okay, who laughed?—straight.
Thrillers satisfy emotional requirements that are more primal.
Why thrillers and crime? Why not comedy? Romance novels? Why are today’s reader’s dying (ahem) to escape to such dark places?
Because, boy, are they dark. Characters, mostly women, are being threatened by horrific fates. Kidnapping. Rape. Dismemberment. Torture. Abuse. Why?
As a writer of gloomy thrillers myself (reviewers like to call my work “dark and quirky”), I can tell you from a writer’s point of view that it can be extremely cathartic to get these stories and images out on paper. Yes, I’m often asked by readers (and friends and family): how can you spend so much time in these horrific worlds? But it doesn’t feel that way to me.
I can’t speak for other writers, but for me, it’s all about giving physical shape to some of the nameless terrors I have. Don’t get me wrong. My fiction is fiction. It’s all
made up. But it comes from a deeply emotional part of me that I only have access to when I’m writing, and that part of me is apparently terrified.
I believe the same is true of a lot of readers. They want to escape the very real horrors that face us—terrorism, hatred, violence, intolerance, a dying planet…you name it. Yet some things are too difficult to look in the face. And so we escape into thrillers and crime because the fears there are containable—and, if not fixable, at least solvable.
Readers might not be able to face the truth of what’s happening in the real world any better after putting down one of these thrillers. But at least someone has captured a kind of kissing cousin to the fear in their hearts and manifested it on the page in a way that makes it safer. Because—in most cases—the protagonist prevails. That’s one of the tropes of this genre. She (it’s increasingly a she) gets to win. And face it, as women, we’re not doing a lot of winning these days.
The anger among us is growing. I would say that reading these thrillers helps make that okay. We get role models for righteous anger and—for us women—brave and unfeminine behavior that we need right now.
If I’m right about this, sales of thrillers and crime novels are only going to continue rising. After all, every epoch gets the art it needs to survive. As it turns out, my next novel is a black comedy. What does that mean? I don’t know. Ask my shrink. I’m only the writer.