Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Return of the Rumtopf and other Credit Crunch Predictions

So, we’re heading for recession like a runaway train, and the publishing industry is jumping aboard. Books on the global money market meltdown are the only growth area in the financial sector at the moment, as newly time-rich, cash-poor (well, it’s all relative: they might be cutting down to four holidays a year, selling the Porsche etc.) bankers decide to try their hands at a writing career.

Some of the books sound more interesting than others, and a few will go on to have a shelf life longer than yoghurt due to the quality of the writing and insight, but I can’t help wondering whether the appetite for most of these books may have waned by the time they’re published. Even when publishing moves really, really fast, how can they compete with Credit ‘Hunk’ Robert Peston and his hourly updates? The schedules of publishing mean that most of these books that are outdated before the cover design’s even been finalised.

But what about fiction? It’s a question raised by the Novel Racers and it’s something I was asked while I was on a panel at the Romantic Novelists' Association conference back in June, pre-Icelandic meltdown and the advent of trillion-dollar rescue plans. At the time, I mentioned the rise of the Bonkbuster: we have Lesley Lokko, Tilly Bagshawe, Olivia Darling and numerous others vying to become the new Jackie Collins (though the old Jackie Collins is, of course, still queen of the genre, her stilettos and shoulder pads primed for a fight).

During the eighties/early nineties recession, the blockbuster (not sure the word bonking was even invented at that point) was as popular as Dynasty and Dallas, the TV equivalents. Sex, rivalry, glamour: they had it all. Crucially they were escapist – and boy, did we need an escape. I was at school in the eighties: I’ve written about those grey days in The Self-Preservation Society. Not only did we face more-or-less assured Mutually Assured Destruction by neutron bomb, we couldn’t get proper jobs: I was living in the north-west of England when school-leavers’ only hope of a job was a Youth Training Scheme placement for twelve months. Then they’d immediately be replaced by another sixteen-year-old, government funded trainee. Then there were the miners’ strikes, the Chernobyl disaster and 'pop band' Dollar.

See what I mean about needing escapism?

So the argument goes: what appealed in the last recession will appeal again now. I do think the glamour and the larger-than-life appeal of the boardroom battles – the busting part of these books – has a real appeal in times of hardship. I’m not quite so sure about the bonking – the trouble with trying to write explicit and mesmerising sex these days is that we can all see whatever takes our fancy with a couple of clicks on a search engine, and so smutty scenes struggle to shock or stimulate these days. If this were my genre, I think I’d be focusing more on the story than the shagging.

But it’s a bit reductionist to say that because blockbusters were big sellers in the eighties, they will automatically be the big sellers now. I am sure some will do very well, but new sub-genres will also emerge. As Danuta Kean says on her website, publishers can be very good at tuning into the national psyche. Though actually in the case of fiction, I’d say that’s often because the foot soldiers – the authors and would-be authors – are the ones innovating and tapping into the elusive zeitgeist.

When I worked in TV ideas development, there was a much more regimented approach to trying to interpret what the viewer wanted: focus groups, trend-spotter presentations, audience research. Sometimes this worked well and sometimes it was a bit mechanical – and, as in publishing, the best breakthrough ideas usually came from Eureka moments by an individual rather than a group brainstorm.

So the breakthrough genres of this recession could come from an unknown author who spots something on the bus ride home tonight…or from a publisher deciding to target a market and finding the right author to deliver the book (remember, Bridget Jones came from a newspaper column commissioned by the Independent).

Predictions are a mugs’ game, but I’m going to make one anyway. And my inspiration for this prediction comes from the best-selling Christmas gift in the hardware/cookware store where I worked on Saturdays as an A level student in the last days of the recession.

Oi, Peston, get investing in rumtopfs.

It’s a rumtopf – an earthenware pot, made in Germany, where it’s apparently a tradition (well, so British consumers were told by the importers circa 1987) to add fruits and layers of rum or any other booze in the run up to the festive season, the result (also called rumtopf) to be consumed neat or with ice-cream when the time was right. If Nigella had been popular in the late eighties, she’d have had one, I reckon.

The rumtopf had the aura of a homespun, ‘crafty’ activity – yet filling one required no expertise whatsoever, unlike jam-making or macramé or making Clothkits pinafores to humiliate your kids. It’s only a guess but I’m not at all convinced anyone in the UK ever drank the soupy, boozy fruit that emerged but in a way that wasn’t the point. By slinging in some blackberries, sloshing in some rum and adding sugar, you were doing something authentic. If you’re an enterprising company looking for a niche product, a reinvention could be just the thing (and if you can’t wait for Alessi to design a noughties version, there are loads on eBay).

So the key to the rumtopf was authenticity. And that is my tenuous mental connection to my fiction prediction (see, I got here in the end).

I’m backing ‘echt escapism’ as a new sub-genre. Echt – meaning authentic, or real, and escapism…well, you know that one. I believe people might find that the books they like will be ones which begin in the familiar world, with familiar problems and dilemmas – the difficulties problems of keeping afloat in this strange new world of depreciating house prices and rising inflation that was unimaginable even two years ago – and then transport the characters somewhere else either physically or mentally. It may be a kind of heightened reality (our world, but more dramatic and extreme) or another country or universe. Think the passion and power struggles of the bonkbuster – or of the great myths – but featuring characters like you and me, people and issues we know to be true.

Or the authenticity and escapism may come from the past, showing us mirrored versions of our own struggles but in a completely different historical period: the Great Depression, perhaps?

I am as likely to be wrong as right. But whatever happens, people will keep reading fiction. As commentators at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair have suggested, the book industry as a whole tends to have weathered previous recessions fairly well because a book is a relatively cheap, long-lasting form of entertainment. And one potential positive for those of us who are not fans of the misery memoir, is that when people's everyday lives are pretty miserable, we will no longer want to read the more exploitative tales of abuse that have flooded the market..

Above all, remember recessions are creative times, as well as painful ones. May you live in interesting times may be a curse, but for a writer it can also a blessing.

Where do you think the crunch will take us, books-wise?

(P.S. the edits are going well, thank you very much)

Labels: , ,


Blogger Debs said...

Interesting post, as usual.

I personally believe that in the depressing financial climate like this one, unprecedented as it is, escapism is what most people will want fiction-wise.

I can't think of anything better than to forget everything by immersing myself in a fantastic novel.

8:05 am  
Blogger Jane Henry said...

I think good commercial fiction is very recessionary proof. Last time around I was publishing Point Horror and Scholastic were bucking all the trends in children's publishing and selling in the shedload when word on the street was that the market was dead and difficult. The mid range, not so good stuff tends to fall by the wayside, but the stuff which captures the zeitgeist (and Kate, think you're onto something there!) will continue to sell. Especially if it offers a cheery escapist alternative to the gloom and doom.

Great post. Am in awe of your perception and astute way of covering the subject. Ever thought of writing a book on these lines (in between the other three million you're writing of course!!!)

9:18 am  
Blogger Ladybird World Mum said...

So interesting and will definitely be back on your blog but in some haste...
on different note, my mother had a rumkopft ?? back in the eighties. and we had a lunch party with some relatives. Every single person became completely sloshed entirely due to alcoholic content of rumkopft (??) Quite unbelievably strong. Small children swaying and old aunts. Needless to say, the pudding never came out again. Good though for awkward moments in rather dull parties?

8:51 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home