Harriet Walker: Could a taste for crime fiction over romantic fiction add up to social decline?

 

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Given the explosively pungent mix of economic disquiet, social unrest and general misery, it's little wonder we're burying our noses in books. You'd think we'd all be ramming on the rose-tinted spectacles and pretending we live in gentler times, but the Public Lending Right reveals that the 10 most popular library books of last year were crime novels.

Topped by Dan Brown and shot through with James Patterson (who accounted for five of the top slots), it's a clear indication of our changing tastes. But why so grisly? And whither Catherine Cookson? Perhaps it's simply that gritty reality now differs so entirely from the parlours and ballrooms and coquetting crinolines of romantic fiction that it has become unrecognisable and irrelevant. There's no will-they, won't-they in our minds any more – they always will, and they'll regret it in the morning.

It's a sad indictment of our imaginative capacity that we can no longer relate to a zeitgeist that is not directly in front of us, whether on Twitter, Facebook, The Only Way is Essex or the pages of a whodunnit. Perhaps our tastes for plot have been so wrecked by populist pandering as to ruin the romantic genre forever: thrillers can maintain a suspense quite apart from our endless quest for a happy ending, while romance doesn't have quite the same hold once you've figured out who is Mr Right.

In his new novel, The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides argues that a turn away from romance and nuptials in fiction indicates social decline; a society that does not see marriage as the endpoint is morally bankrupt.

Or perhaps it's just a phase. The crime genre was born of civil unrest, and revolution, let's not forget. The parallels between the Arab Spring and 1848 are well explored, but why shouldn't our literary tastes reflect them, too? That year saw people swap Northanger Abbey for Wuthering Heights and take to the mysteries, scandals and murderous plot twists of writers such as Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens. Now we have Sarah Lund, but our first British fictional 'tec, Inspector Bucket of Bleak House, was born of a similar public curiosity and anxiety.

Not much has changed: when humans experience hardship, they want to know more about it, not to read about the lucky few whose lives all worked out. These days we know we can't rely on "happily ever after", and our library cards reflect it only too well.

h.walker@independent.co.uk

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