Popular fiction, as with other elements of pop culture, like music and movies, changes with the times. What was popular at a certain point in time gives a good indication of the state of the society at that particular time. It also provides us insight into the moral character of those times. In this article, I trace the changes in popular fiction from the 1980s to the current times with an idea of understand how societal changes have influenced the reading habits and popularity of certain authors.
The author who had the most influence on the younger lot during the late 70s and early 80s was Enid Blyton. Many parents encouraged their kids to read her books. The first book of Enid Blyton that I read was a book in the Secret Seven series. She has written a wide range of books for children. Her books used to be color coded based on the age group the book was targeted for. Enid Blyton’s British world was very different from my Secunderabad world. It was exotic and attractive. That small kids could be detectives and can solve big cases kindled the imagination. The first Secret Seven paved the way for me to read the other books in this series. Then I followed the inevitable Enid Blyton trail: Famous Five, Five Findouters, Young Adventurers and so on. ( Ofcourse I did not touch the books which were supposed to be read by girls, like Mallory Towers.) I dropped Enid Blyton from my reading list around the 10th standard.
When I observe the reading habits of the current generation, I find that they get over Enid Blyton very soon i.e. if they pick up Enid Blyton at all. At most they give up Enid Blyton by the time they enter their teens. Enid Blyton’s books are insipid compared to the choices available to them today. Enid Blyton had her ‘heroes’ eat lot of lunches and dinners before they solved a minor mystery towards the end of the book. The characters were not very colorful or memorable except for one or two. (I may be able to name one or two characters from Enid Blyton books like George or Freddie but I can’t remember even a single villain from these books.) The same can be said for the other mystery books aimed at teenagers like ‘The Hardy Boys’, ‘Nancy Drew’ etc.
Contrast this to Harry Potter books, which the children start reading from an early age. The Harry Potter series is more magical, it has more memorable characters, has an unforgettable villain (who shall not be named) and is epic in scope. It is easy to understand why Enid Blyton and other authors of the 80s are no longer a factor today when it comes to children books. J K Rowling creates a far more bewitching world than that of Enid Blyton. The other author who is a favorite amongst those who read J K Rowling is Rick Riordan. His Percy Jackson series has a great following amongst the youngsters. Combining Greek Myths with imaginative story telling, the Percy Jackson books are a treat to read. (Percy Jackson series inspired my elder daughter to dig deep into Greek Mythology).
Both Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series have been made into books, with Harry Potter being more successful at the box office than Percy Jackson. The book plus movie combination has a strong bearing on the reading habits of the youngsters. Some regular readers love a book and are thrilled when it is made into a movie. The movie attracts non-regular readers to read the book and the next book in the series starts getting more readers and so on. This combination is helping both the book industry and the movie industry while keeping the youngsters engaged with the characters in the book. (The movies have also kindled interest in readers for books of an earlier era like those of C.S.Lewis’s “Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe”.)
With the growth of middle class in urban centers and their constant interaction with foreigners has changed the morals of the society to a large extent. In earlier times a strict watch was kept on what was being read for appropriateness. Even now a strict watch is kept but what is appropriate has changed considerably. A school student reading a book which had a kissing scene would be considered inappropriate. Hence, Enid Blyton — who was very Victorian — was recommended. If you wanted to go beyond Enid Blyton you had to read books secretly. Whereas kissing scenes, whether in books or movies, is inevitable in the current context and parents don’t feel uncomfortable watching these scenes with their children.
The change in morals has led to the popularity of a newer genre termed as Teen Romance, specifically targeted at teenagers. ‘Twilight’ and ‘Hunger Games’ are excellent examples of this genre. Almost every youngster I have met has read these books and has seen the movie. (My personal feeling is that these books are more popular among girls than with boys but I can be mistaken). These books are a heady cocktail of teen romance, werewolf, killings, games and more. Coupled with the Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series, they have dictated the reading habits of teenagers. To a large extent books like ‘Hunger Games’ indirectly talk about the competitive nature of the society. The oft repeated ‘Dog Eat Dog World’ seems to be the basis of these novels. The ‘Twilight’ novels are also a reflection of how the urban society has changed over the years. The intermingling of boys and girls is taken for granted and there is naturalness in their interaction whereas in the 70s and 80s there was awkwardness in the interaction. The ‘Twilight’ series kindles the idea of romance in teens and does it using Werewolves, which has caught the imagination of the teens. Their love for this series is immense.
From Enid Blyton, Hardy Boys and other children mysteries we graduated to adult crime novels. The most popular crime novelist of those days was James Hadley Chase. He wrote lots and lots of novels and they were quite popular. His novels had the standard crime novel mix of bank robberies, deadly villains, moles, blonds and a smattering of sex. Parents and teachers did not encourage youngsters reading Chase since the novels contained lot of crime and also — gasp — sex. Chase fell on wayside as time passed by. He was replaced by people like Sidney Sheldon, Jeffery Archer etc. Nowadays no one I know reads Chase, least of all the youngsters. There are lot of crime novels in the market and the crimes keep getting heinous by the day. Movies and TV also provide youngsters with more than the requisite amount of crime drama. Chase must be a very dull read by today’s standards.
Crime and law are closely interlinked. While Chase took care of crime, Earl Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason took care of law. He was the most popular fictional lawyer of the 70s and 80s. Perry Mason was an iconic figure and I think in the US there was a TV show of Perry Mason. Courtroom drama, cross examination, ‘objection my lord’, ‘object sustained’, habeas corpus and Perry Mason’s breaking down of the guilty person’s defense in a thrilling climax were the main ingredients of these books. Each book almost followed the same pattern and every client that Perry Mason represented was innocent. It was from Perry Mason’s novels that we learnt a lot of legalese. The interesting aspect about the Perry Mason books were the covers. Most of the covers of Perry Mason novels – which were published by Pocket Books – contained a semi nude woman, mostly carrying a gun. (My father was very upset when he saw me reading Perry Mason books because of the cover. The truth was that Earl Stanley Gardner was as Victorian in his morals as Enid Blyton)
I don’t think the younger generation reads Perry Mason any more. I keep seeing the books in Railway Station book stalls. My guess is it is still read by middle aged people while the youngsters have moved over to John Grisham, David Baldacci, Steve Martini etc. The crimes of this age go beyond the common man. Every author is interested in crimes which end up involving someone high up in the government, including the President himself/herself or involving the head of a large conglomerate. The rapid growth of private corporations in India and blatant display of crony capitalism are fertile ground for many conspiracy theories. The military-industrial complex with its own agenda and the impact this interaction across the world is another issue that many of the modern crime authors deal with. Against such a backdrop, the concerns of Perry Mason look trivial. The modern day lawyers take on the mighty people of the land. A brief glance at the top courtroom dramas as per this GoodReads list :https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/courtroom-drama reveals that Earl Stanley Gardner’s ‘Perry Mason’ is not a factor with the current generation.
Along with Perry Mason came Alistair MacLean. His initial novels were war novels and spy novels. Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare and Ice Station Zebra were very popular and became successful movies. He had first hand knowledge about war and ships, having served in the Royal Navy during World War II. He used his subject knowledge to great effect in his initial set of books. His prose was held as an example of good English writing by many. As with Perry Mason, MacLean was also a prude when it came his novels. there bring no explicit love scenes in his novels. In his best books, the plot lines were clear, the pacing was perfect and the action thrilling. He slowly became very cinematic and his later books were boring.
MacLean’s form dipped and he fell out of favor with the later generation, which shifted to the loud novels of Robert Ludlum. Once again the global scope of conspiracy, secret agents of the cold war, world domination ambitions of villains, growing menace of terrorism: all these aspect in the newer spy capers from likes of Ludlum and Tom Clancy captivated the audience more than the novels of MacLean. The thriller author of those times who maintains a decent readership is Fredrick Forsythe. His ‘Odessa File’ and ‘Day of the Jackal’ are still famous. (I should also say that the first spy novel that I read and enjoyed was ’39 Steps’, an acknowledged classic. It was thrilling to read a story of an ordinary person mistaken for a spy and getting drawn into a world of intrigue. In later times this lot would form the basis of a zillion Hollywood movies. The ’39 Steps’ was made into a movie by Hitchcock. The ending was different from that of the novel.)
Arthur Hailey had this unique formula (unique for those times) of taking an industry, giving us lot of factual details about that industry and building a story around it. ‘Airport’ — Airline Industry, ‘Wheels’ — Automobile Industry, ‘Overload’ — Power sector, ‘Final Diagnosis’ — Hospitals and so on. People liked this concept where they could increase their knowledge while reading the novel. For this reason even teachers encouraged youngsters to read Hailey’s novels. (I think teachers themselves did not read these novels for many of them had explicit sex. This would have shocked the teachers. I personally felt that though Hailey’s research was good, the story telling was weak and I found most of his books boring)
A danger such novels face is that each of these industries is constantly evolving. The industry of the 70s may not be an attractive setting today, especially if the story is not gripping. The loss of relevance means loss of readership. Arthur Hailey’s novels have dated feel when you read them now. Hailey’s novels gave way to more hi-tech novels which speak about issues relevant to current times, like cyber crime. Novels such as Dan Brown’s ‘Digital Fortress’ fall in this category. Youngsters are more interested in reading about the current hi-tech industry than about the industries of the 70s and 80s.
Crime and Sex are closely related, at least in books. Two authors who were very popular because their books contained explicit sex were Harold Robbins and Nick Carter. Nick Carter was a James Bond like figure, a super spy who could do almost anything including seducing all the women. The difference between Nick Carter and Ian Fleming’s novels was that Nick Carter gave out all the details of his sexual activities. (Wikipedia says that no single author has been credited for this series.) Harold Robbins books were seen in every library but only the very brave took them out. Harold Robbins would insert explicit sex scenes in all his novels and that was the primary attraction for the youth. There are people who swear that Harold Robbins wrote great novels and sex was incidental.
Nowadays sex is available in abundance over the net and in books. Fantasy books like ‘Game of Thrones’ have more than enough sex in them. Youngsters don’t have to look hard for this aspect and they get to read lot of books with explicit sex in them without having to fear anyone. ‘Game of Thrones’ has been made into a TV series with almost every episode having a girl in nude. Given the visual gratification of sex, there is no need for the youngster of today to go in search of Nick Carter or Harold Robbins.
A genre that completely vanished is the American ‘Western’ genre. American Wild West once gripped our collective imagination but it has no impact on the current generation. Those were the days when ‘Western’ novels and films were famous. The number of films based on the Wild West was tapering down even in those times but Clint Eastwood and John Wayne films were very much in demand. The lone ranger with a fast draw and a heart of gold was the standard archetype and Clint Eastwood played this to perfection. On the novel front Louis L’amour was the most famous author and he wrote lots and lots of novels. ‘Sudden’ series of novels by Oliver Strange were also in great demand. (The hero had the nickname sudden for he could draw his gun very fast, faster than your eye can blink. I have read almost all the novels but don’t remember the plot of even a single one of them.) Then there were the novels of Zane Grey. We did not mind reading unknown authors when it came to the Western novels. The outlaws, the sheriff, the unknown stranger who comes to help the sheriff, hunt for gold, shootouts, quick draws: all these fascinated us. (Infact the Western genre fascinated our film makers as well and we had lot of western based films in Tamil and Telugu. Krishna being the hero in Tamil and Jai Shankar in Telugu. It never bothered us that the hero and villains wore typical outfits of American West whereas heroes parents wore traditional Indian dress like dhoti and nine yard saree.)
The Western died a natural death both in films and novels. I cannot clearly understand the death of this genre but it was not a sudden death. It was more like a person slowly fading away and all his body functions stopping one after the other slowly. Maybe the current generation is obsession with fantasy and the cyber world has led to the demise of ‘Western’ novels.
Some of the authors have been able to still capture the attention of readers. The two authors who are still popular are Agatha Christie and P.G.Wodehouse. I am not sure if they are as popular as they were earlier but their books are seen in all the bookstores and libraries in large numbers. Both of them were British and both wrote a lot of books. In popular imagination Agatha Christie was held to be the Queen of Mystery and Wodehouse is held to be the king of humor. Typical hyperbole. I personally find Agatha Christie’s novels vapid. The prose is lethargic and in many cases a few pages after the murder is committed you can guess the criminal. I had given up reading Agatha Christie quite some time ago. With the advent of the Scandinavian crime novelist, there is no chance that I ever pick a Christie again.
Like Christie, Wodehouse too wrote a lot of novels. The first novel of his that I read was ‘Summer Moonshine’ and I thought it was hilarious. I have read a lot of his novels and was fascinated by his Blanding Castle and the Psmith series. Jeeves never impressed me though people talk of this series as if it were Wodehouse’s best. His grip on the English language, his ability to create embarrassing situations (funny for us) for his characters and his ability to keep the humor intact throughout the novel were his key assets. For various reasons I slowly started drifting away from Wodehouse and nowadays cannot get myself to re-read him.
Another phenomenon worth noting is the rise of the Indian writer of popular fiction. We did have R K Narayan but he was a classic writer even in those times. Later there were famous names like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth but they operated in the realm of literature and not in pop fiction. Indian popular fiction came into its own when Chetan Bagath entered the scene. His books sell well and he has a large following. (I have heard many uncharitable remarks by many people about his novels. I have personally read any of his novels yet.) Amish Tripati’s series is also a big hit. This trend can be seen as a reflection of India finding its feet and becoming a known name across the world, mainly due to the IT revolution. Along with Indians starting to win medals in Olympics, become head of US Corporations, become successful entrepreneurs, the success of these novels also indicate a resurgent India to the urban population. (The sentiment may not be shared by everyone but there are many urbanites who believe strongly in ‘India Shining’)
Popular fiction of today reflects the current state of our society, a society where morals are changing, competitiveness is high, technology has taken hold of lives and the globe is shrinking fast with wars at one end affecting people at the other end of the planet. It is this society that popular fiction addresses and it has been doing a great job till now.
(As you can clearly seen, the article is written from a male perspective. This could take a different shape when written by a woman. The Mills and Boons, Barbara Cartland and others have given way to Chick-lit. Only a woman can document these changes effectively. Only a woman can give us an idea of how changing societal mores has impacted the reading habits of women.)
Edit: My friend Kalyanaraman (@kalyansc) pointed out a few authors I had missed: R L Stevenson, Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Leon Uris and Irwin Wallace. I will leave out Dickens and Carroll here because they would fall in the ‘Classics’ category. The influence of R.L.Stevenson’s books was quite high especially because he was part of the English syllabus. I am not certain what is part of English syllabus now but it was R L Stevenson who introduced us to pirates in his famous ‘Treasure Island’. Many of you would know him for the famous ‘Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde’.
Irwin Wallace was generally a later read for many of us. We took him up in our undergraduate days. He did some effective research and combined it with conspiracy theories. (Does that remind you on one author called Dan Brown?) His ‘R Document’ and ‘Second Lady’ fall in this category. He also anticipated a Black American taking up the top post in America in ‘The Man’. He wrote about sex in literature and censorship in ‘The Seven Minutes’. Irwin Wallace novels were thick and many were put off by the size of the novel. I would say that he anticipated Dan Brown. Unlike Wallace, who can be boring at times, Dan Brown in his best novels keeps the thrills alive. People may criticize Dan Brown for various reasons but his novels are more fun to read compared to Irwin Wallace novels.
Leon Uris was also widely read during those time. Unfortunately I have not read him and hence cannot comment on him. His ‘Exodus’ and ‘Topaz’ were very famous novels. I am not sure if he is as popular now as he was in the 80s. Probably not.