The subject matter of this year’s Costa first novel winner (and now overall 2013 winner), The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Fileris mental illness. Hurray! (Because publishers so often swerve when they see one of those coming.) And hurray for the Borough Press for not swerving. I hope this win will help, as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time have helped, to persuade readers (or more to the point, publishers) that there’s nothing to fear when they publish fearful things. In fact there’s everything to gain. Readers will be engaged, touched, moved and want to celebrate the courage of the characters and of the author. They’ll buy the books because what these novels deal with is real to so many of us (Mental Health UK say 1 in 4 people will suffer ‘Some kind of mental health problem’ in any one year).
Fiction that deals with the things that matter to us the most, and one of those things is the mental health, or lack of it, of those we love, will always find a wide audience if only publishers would publish (and publicise) more of it. It helps, obviously, if the novel has a light touch, knows the world it inhabits well, is well-written and is, at times, funny, to shed a little light into its dark corners. But readers are not afraid to read a good book that addresses difficult things.
Speaking of Love addresses mental health, as do Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted; Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and so many more: here’s the Goodreads mental illness shelf of 27,727 books. But, just for comparison, the Goodreads romance shelf lists 100,000 books, almost four times as many. We need more well-written fiction about our mental states so we can understand ourselves better, something that good fiction is so good at helping us do.
And here’s the thing I would like to have made in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite. I would like to have written The Readers Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction by Joyce G Saricks:
She wrote it to help librarians recommend books to customers who said they wanted to find new authors who ‘Wrote just like an author they loved’. The thing I love about the book is the way Saricks has divided the genres. It’s much more interesting (and much more human) than the usual romance, historical, thriller, crime, literary, science fiction etc., divisions because what she’s done, it seems to me, is to understand the reader as a human being with psychological tendencies and preferences, rather than as a library visitor to whom she must attach genre categories. Saricks came up with these genres:
Adrenalin Genres : adventure, romantic suspense, suspense, thrillers – all of which ‘Appeal to readers who appreciate intricately detailed stories told at a pace that moves almost more quickly than they can turn the pages’. It’s the pacing and the multiple plot twists that matter the most to these readers.
Emotions Genres : gentle reads, horror, romance, and women’s lives and relationships. ‘All appeal primarily to the emotions of the readers [and] create a strong emotional pull’.
The Intellect Genres : literary fiction, mysteries, psychological suspense and science fiction which ‘Present puzzles which engage the mind’. For people who enjoy using their brains to work things out. These books ‘Inspire thoughtful consideration and rumination’.
The Landscape Genres : fantasy, historical and westerns. Fiction that concentrates on an intricately described background, whether it’s real or imaginary. Fiction that ‘Creates worlds and sets readers in them’.
Obviously these genres cross-pollinate and the book goes into far more depth and detail than I can in this summary. And it’s an expensive book (it’s written for academics, reference libraries etc., and not for a general readership, but you can find it on Google Books : among many other good things there are lists of writers you might like based on the ones you already like). But the idea that the way we read is the most useful indicator of what we might like to read next, rather than what we read, is – now that Saricks has spent so many years researching and writing on the subject – so very obvious isn’t it? Like all the best ideas.