What are Readers Actually Reading? Fantasy in America

Hobbit 2012 movie posterBestseller lists can tell us a lot about the books people buy, but they might not tell us as much about what books people actually read. Genre fiction, from Fantasy to Mysteries to Romance, is typically off the radar of bestselling lists because, I think, readers roam through the crowd of authors in their genre rather than just touching the hem of the bestseller’s garment. Moreover, good readers are likely to pick up the latest meme book–even if they don’t get around to it–or purchase a classic or lit fiction book that they should read it, like we should eat broccoli (you can see my confessions here and here).

That’s why I’m intrigued by the Barna Group’s recent approach to understanding readers. The Barna Group is an American evangelical organization that does sociological analysis. In January 2013 they did a survey of Americans to find out what they were reading and yesterday released a report about their findings. The article focuses especially upon the relationship between books and films–need I mention Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, the Twilight saga, the reboot of Narnia interest, and Peter Jackson’s Tolkien recreations? In an infograhic Barna notes the relationship between reading and movie going.

Barna books to filmWhat struck me about the list, though, was the dominance of “other world” fiction–of fantasy. Where are James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, John Grisham, or Jodi Picoult? Wasn’t 2011 the year of The Help and Water for Elephants, the year of the novel? The Barna Group created another intriguing infographic on book readers that shows a real shift of trends:

Barna Who is reading WhatIt’s clear that the list doesn’t include all the most popular books (I didn’t have the money for the full report!), and Nicholas Sparks and Dan Brown are dominating Spring 2013.

But look at the trends. 50 Shades of Grey was the book story of 2012, overshadowing the success of The Hunger Games in its screen translation or J.K. Rowling’s move to the novel. My blog, 50 Shades of Bad Writing, was something I threw together one day. Yet in the last half of 2012 through now it has received almost twice as many hits as any other of my blogs. This soft porn bestseller is a hit of hits.

Yet… do the numbers tell us something? I scored my copy of 50 Shades from a 20something woman afraid to admit she bought it and totally ashamed at the quality of writing therein. And only 9% of Americans actually read it in 2012. Even when you factor in the gender distribution, it is beat out by The Hobbit–a complex fairy tale written by an Oxford don in the 1930s–and The Hunger Games–a futuristic dystopic teen fantasy novel.

Setting aside precise numbers, I think the big story here is the fantasy genre. While we tend to scoff at Twilight–which I did, in fact, read–Stephanie Meyers continues to write contemporary fantasy that strikes a chord with teen girls and young adults. The Hunger Games and its companion books are stock apocalyptic fiction, but they are historically interesting, centred around an intriguing character in a consistent fictional world, and have jolted young readers out of vampire fiction (for a spell). Finally, The Hobbit is still well read, and is the progenitor of 20th and 21st century epic fantasy and faerie books.

And then there is George R.R. Martin, and the continued success of Harry Potter, and even strong sellers like Rick Riordan and Robert Jordan. What no list can show, I think, is how much and how widely epic fantasy readers enjoy their stories. The ePub industry is filled with a diverse array of fantasy lit that is selling well, completely unnoticed by New York Times or the Amazon lists. Even Dan Brown’s Inferno is a genre-bending novel that hints at the fantastic. It isn’t a true fantasy novel, but in recreating medieval stories in contemporary settings Dan Brown draws from the same wells that fantasy writers frequently visit.

At the end of the news release there are some findings that the researchers find interesting.

1. Americans are increasingly craving a multi-media way to enjoy their favorite stories. The large crossover between those who have read and seen The Hunger Games, Twilight and The Hobbit suggests that movies and television propel books and vice versa. Having fiction translated onto screen also aids serialized content by helping people “get the story” without having to read all of the installments of the novels.

2. Despite the emerging digital landscape, the research also suggests book reading is not dying out. Especially surprising from the data is that young adult readers—generations that Barna Group labels Busters and Mosaics—make up the primary audience for most of the books assessed. Even for a “very old” book like The Hobbit, the majority of readers were under the age of 50. The exception to this came with a few of the Christian books, … which all skewed toward Boomers and Elders.

3. Another unmistakable pattern in the research is the power of stories—namely, fiction—in propelling the publishing industry. Even though both genres (fiction and non-fiction) have tens of thousands of titles that are published every year that do not reach critical success, the best and nearly only chance for breakthrough, culture-making book-form content is through fiction. Perhaps this indicates that Americans are hungry for media that provides some sort of escapism from stressful and uninspired lives. But it also harkens to something Jesus himself modeled: people resonate with and learn through stories and parables.

Books about heaven and biographies of Steve Jobs dominated shelves for 2011-12, and there is some concern that the “middle class writer” is disappearing–that the industry only has space for bestsellers and eBook evangelists. But it seems the health of fantasy genres continues to be strong. Moreover, it seems that fantasy translates really well to screen. I suspect that the rest of the Hunger Games Trilogy will excel on film, The Hobbit will continue to be huge, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret was an absolutely gorgeous adaptation. I think things look good in the days ahead for fantasy.

Now, to edit my own epic….

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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9 Responses to What are Readers Actually Reading? Fantasy in America

  1. Mike says:

    Good news!


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  3. Todd Turner says:

    The problem I find is that with all the hype, my gifted 8 year old wants to read them. She is reading the first one. I am fine with that but then comes the movie. Does anyone else feel that it’s ok to read the books but the movie might offer too much intense imagery? I am afraid that she would have nightmares.


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