Genre giants: Agatha Christie and Isaac Asimov

The Independent recently published a piece on novelists whose fiction sells hundreds of millions of copies. Inevitably, it was given the subheading: ‘Reading is far from dead, as these mega-selling authors prove’. Well, it’s been a while since I heard anyone say reading was dead, or even under the weather. But the list is revealing in other ways.

Here are some of the novelists named: Dan Brown, Stephen King, John Grisham, Ken Follett, Nora Roberts, James Patterson, Stephenie Meyer, Danielle Steel, RL Stine and Robert Ludlum (quite an achievement, since he’s been dead 16 years). No surprises there. From thrillers to romance to horror, it’s genre fiction right across the board. (Paulo Coelho gets a look-in, too, but he took everyone by surprise.) What is it about genre fiction that makes it so irresistible?

If I could answer that question with some sort of mathematical formula, I’d be a jillionaire. When I consider the bestselling authors of the last century, though, I begin to get an idea.

Much more than murder

Take Agatha Christie. Her 66 novels have sold roughly 2 billion copies, each emblazoned with the title her publisher dreamed up: ‘Queen of Crime’! It was a great marketing gimmick, but it did her a disservice. Christie was terrific at writing crime stories, but she had other interests, too. Many of her novels aren’t really murder mysteries at all.

The Man in the Brown Suit is one of her adventure stories, in which a young, impoverished governess with a taste for danger gets caught up in a sinister cross-continental plot, complete with diamonds, ambushes, sinister functionaries and handsome ne’er-do-wells. There’s a body on the tracks early on, but you get the feeling it was dumped there to satisfy the publishers. Christie soon gets her heroine away from grey old London and into a whirlwind escapade that rollicks along so quickly, you hardly notice the ludicrously improbable coincidences.

She loved to write romance, too, and few of her books don’t have some sort of love interest. Sad Cypress, a Poirot mystery, is one long love triangle; the true ending comes not when the murderer is revealed, but when the heroine rests her head on the right fella’s shoulder. That book was published right after And Then There Were None, which should by rights be filed under ‘suspense’ or ‘thriller’. Despite its high body count, its main strength is the unrelenting, claustrophobic tension she generates. (Even now, to our jaded eyes, it’s pretty gripping.) Later in her career, she had a brave stab at the psychological novel, delving inside the heads of a traumatised family in Ordeal By Innocence. And there’s humour, too: she has fun with all sorts of characters, especially high-handed old ladies and jovial Americans who say things like, ‘Sure, son. Put me wise.’ In other words, she didn’t limit herself to the confines of the genre that made her famous.

Gags in space

The same can be said of Isaac Asimov, who made as big a name for himself in the science fiction universe. He’s often described as writing ‘hard SF’ – that is, the science in his science is very, er, science-y. But that’s not a very good descriptive term, because it makes it sound as though his books are all about aliens firing rayguns at robots. In fact, Asimov’s genius lay in his ability to focus both on the big picture – the organisation of complex future societies – and on the small: the subtle shifts in human relationships within those societies.

The Naked Sun, one of his Robot series, is as much murder mystery, psychological novel and sociopolitical thought experiment as it is SF. It takes place on a planet so sparsely populated that solitude has become habitual, to the point where people have panic attacks if they get near someone else in the flesh. Asimov gets us to appreciate the full weirdness of such a set-up not by filling his pages with descriptive writing, but by sending in an Everyman, Elijah Baley, and letting us see it through his eyes. Like Christie, Asimov mixes in humour and flirtation to leaven the tension. Baley is investigating a very futuristic mystery, but he finds time to ogle girls, make fun of the robots, worry about his wife and generally knock about in an entertaining way.

What does all this lead to? Clearly, people love genre fiction, as the bestsellers’ list shows. But I believe they love multi-genre fiction even more. Look at Star Wars – it’s got everything: adventure, love, humour, space. These sorts of entertainments light up our brains like pinball machines, with every emotional centre dingaling-ing. And what could be more fun than that?

Isaac Asimov's I, Robot
Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot

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