Apparently sales of misery memoirs have recently take a nosedive, which is something of a relief. I'm a big fan of misery, but I prefer it to be recounted with an understated, Jack Hawkins-like stoicism ('Bit of a bad show, really') and a dash of black humour, rather than the cloying, sentimental Poor Me school of writing. Self-pity is never an attractive quality, even if it is justified.
But I digress...
Reading about the demise of misery memoirs prompted me to recall some of the other publishing bandwagons I've witnessed over the last couple of decades. Here is my top ten:
- Environmental books. Do you remember the Green Party coming third in the UK European elections in 1988? Do you remember all of those t-shirts with 'ethnic' drawings of dolphins and rainforests, and the rather banal statement 'SAVE THE PLANET' underneath? It looked like the beginning of a quiet revolution and most branches of Waterstone's had a separate environmental section in the late 80s. Heathcote Williams' Whale Nation was a bestseller. Then suddenly, without any warning, the genre died and wasn't to be seen again until a few years ago.
- Aspirational travel writing. In the early 90s Peter Mayle - author of the Wicked Willy books - hit the big time with A Year in Provence. The book was so successful that Mayle's quiet little village quickly became a Mecca for middle-class, middle-aged Britons and he was forced to move. This book spawned a spate of imitations, in which middle-class, middle-aged British people wrote accounts of their quest for la bon vie, writing patronising charicatures of the locals. Some publishers were astute enough to resurrect out of print titles, notably those by Lady Fortescue.
- Aga Sagas. They bought The L-Shaped Room in the 60s, The Women's Room in the 70s, Virago in the 80s, but now many women of the baby-boomer generation wanted something that reflected the social mores of Middle England. Joanna Trollope seemed to appear out of nowhere and soon her entire backlist was in the Top 20. Her paperback jacket style, with muted watercolour images, became de rigeur for any tale of menopausal, market town angst and many similar authors (Kathleen Rowntree, Marika Cobbold, Angela Huth, Madeleine Wickham etc) were relaunched with sub-Trollope jackets. As a bookseller I remember creating a display bin with Joanna Trollope at the top and the others further down. I had to restock it every other day.
- SAS memoirs. First there was Bravo Two Zero, then The One That Got Away. After that, it seemed as if anyone who had spent more than five minutes in the Gulf War had an exciting tale of derring-do to recount. These books are popular with men who still live with their mothers.
- True Crime. This genre ticked along quietly until Sun columnist-turned-publisher, John Blake, released The Guv'nor. This memoir of a 'hard bastard' was a publishing phenomenon and launched a whole new sub-genre of criminal memoirs. The jacket design usually consisted of a grainy, close-up mugshot of a criminal with a tagline something along the lines of I'm completely mental and violent. If you don't like me, I'll pull your ears off, slowly. These memoirs were lucrative for publishers, but less so for booksellers as the titles were usually stolen by aspiring hard bastards. These memoirs were also inexplicably popular with women. (I remember seeing a young women with a black eye, sitting on a bus with her five-year-old daughter. In her lap she had a copy of The Guv'nor, which was open at the photo section. She pointed to various figures, saying to her daughter 'That's yer Uncle Kenny, that's Uncle Ron, that's Uncle Mick...)
- Diana books. Although there were a few Diana books in circulation before her death - most notably Andrew Morton's Diana and Anna Pasternak's lamentable Princess in Love - the posthumous mass hysteria amongst the normally cynical British public prompted a similar over-reaction in the book trade. For months, the Diana table was an obligatory fixture in many bookshops. Even after the Diana phenomenon waned, publishers continued to print memoirs and conspiracy theory titles, claiming that although they were aware that the craze was over, this book was different.
- Chic Lit. Blame Helen Fielding for the plethora of Bridget Jones imitations. Once this genre would have been called Romance, but that's too old-fashioned for today's feisty, independent, girl-about-town, so instead we have Chick Lit. Interestingly, unlike Joanna Trollope there has been no attempt to imitate the Picador Bridget Jones jackets. Authors in this category include Sophie Kinsella (aka Madeleine Wickham), Jane Green, Marian Keyes, Adele Parks and Katie Fforde. Chick Lit heroines are modern career women who still yearn for Mr D'arcy.
- Lad Lit. No prizes for guessing who the guilty party is in this case. Like Helen Fielding, Nick Hornby's writing is both modern and curiously old-fashioned. On the one hand we have a new man who isn't afraid to talk about his emotions. On the other, we have a writer who celebrates blokeishness and can be seen as part of the 90s backlash to the puritanical values of the 80s, when enjoying a Carry-On film was tantamount to admitting that you were a misogynistic fascist. Lad Lit can be a lucrative genre, but there is a price to be paid: Tony Parsons lost his credibility almost overnight with the publication of Man and Boy.
- Possessive book titles. Once there was just Flaubert's Parrot. I'm not sure what came next - either Michael Palin's Hemingway's Chair or Captain Corelli's Mandolin, but suddenly every other book seemed to have a possessive title: Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Fermat's Last Theorem, Galileo's Daughter, Churchill's Cigar etc. What is behind this trend? Is the possessive title a signifier of the sort of personal narrative that would have been frowned on once? I don't know, but it's rather annoying.
- Mind, Body and Spirit. 'Never give a sucker an even break', to quote WC Fields. This was a huge growth area in the book trade before and after the year 2000, but during the last few years sales have really dropped off. I wouldn't want to dismiss the genre entirely. Books like Joseph Hartmann's The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight is a laudable attempt to find spiritual meaning in a secular society, but sadly the genre is dominated by charlatans and mediocre intellects. Too many of the books place their emphasis on the you, instead of encouraging people to find a meaning through the traditional avenues - contemplation and good works.
But I may be completely wrong. It's amazing how out of touch you can get in such a short space of time.