Monday, May 18, 2015

New York Times Bestsellers: Genres, Then and Now

Sorting Out Genre.

I have pored through the 598 novels which made it to the number one position on the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller list between 1960 and 2015 sorting them into genres. This was a mind-numbing task with many judgment calls, so take the results with a grain of salt. When is a romance book also a mystery and, if a mystery, is it suspense/thriller? To categorize the novels, I used the publisher's descriptions, the summary descriptions in WorldCat or, occasionally GoodReads summaries along with my own impressions for those novels I had read. Many authors who are known for one genre appear in another, for example, The Black Mesa by Louis L'Amour, is science fiction.

I gave each book at most two classifications or else one classification and a sub-genre. A romance could be a mystery-romance or a suspense-romance, but not mystery-suspense-historical romance. A lot of the decisions came down to word-parsing. I chose the term suspense over thriller, it seemed to be more inclusive and was used more often in descriptions.

Since I allowed two descriptors per book, this means the cumulative classifications total up to be over 100%. 

I chose one or two of the following categories.
  • General (high and low literature that is not primarily genre).
  • Fantasy
  • Horror
  • Mystery
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction
  • Suspense (including Thrillers)
Or else one of the above categories and one of the following subgenres.
  • Epic
  • Erotic
  • Historical
  • Domestic
  • Humorous
  • Inspirational
  • Political
  • Detective
  • Legal
  • Spy
  • Western
I avoided some subgenre terms such as International (usually spy, politics or else just location), Psychological and Adventure (placed under Suspense). 

The Big Picture

One lesson I learned while putting this together is that publishers like the word suspense. For the entire set of number one novels between 1960 and 2015, Suspense was the ruling genre with 265 entries (44.3%). This included mystery/suspense, romantic suspense, techno-thrillers, resurrected dinosaurs and invincible spies (although no resurrected invincible spy dinosaurs). Mysteries and Suspense overlapped, sharing 109 entries. Spies accounted for 40 novels and Suspense/Legal for 25.

Mysteries comprised 203 entries (33.9%). As mentioned above, this category greatly overlapped with Suspense (109). After Mystery/Suspense came Mystery-Detective (40) and Mystery-Humorous (21).

General literature.
General literature, often drama, comprised 113 entries (18.9%). Among these, historical literature made up 39, and domestic fiction 25.

Romance accounted for 100 novels (16.7%). Most commonly these were suspense or else domestic in theme.

Fantasy/Horror/Science Fiction (18.9%)
Fantasy accounted for 64 novels. Many of the 36 horror entries could also be placed in this category. Science fiction accounted for 13.

Recent Times.

Since 2010 there have been 141 novels in the number one position on the NYT Adult Fiction Bestseller List. The top genre is again Suspense, this time just eking out Mystery.

There have been 70 novels with Suspense as a primary category. These have totaled 116 weeks in the number one position.

Sixty-nine Mystery novels have made it to the number one position. They have stayed on top for 125 weeks with the two top sellers being Girl On A Train and Gone Girl. Mysteries are the shortest of the genres averaging 104,161 words. Twenty two of the mystery novels were under 80,000 words.

Romance has 25 entries for 67 weeks. Erotic romance is not a subgenre limited to Fifty Shades of Grey. Since Grey's debut another five erotic romance books have topped the list.

Fantasy/Horror/Science Fiction
These categories total 28 books, led by 18 Fantasies. Five epic fantasies (typified by Sanderson and/or Jordan and Martin) and two historical fantasies (Garabaldon) make up the lengthiest subgenre, averaging 393,757 words.

General literature
Thirteen general literature books took the number one spot, remaining in place for 42 weeks. The two most popular subgenres were historical and domestic.

Bottom line. Each category of genre fiction has increased or held its own while General literature has decreased.Mysteries have increased to the greatest degree.

Two categories were allowed for each book, therefore total percentages are greater than 100.

Continued with Ages of Authors.


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