Monday, May 8, 2017

Is the psychological thriller dead?

I was listening to a podcast today in which a traditionally published author asserted that the psychological thriller is dead—at least as far as the major publishing houses are concerned.

A bit of background is in order here: For roughly the last five years, the publishing industry has enjoyed a highly successful run of psychological thrillers, that are set mostly in the suburbs, and that feature a witty but damaged female protagonist. While not romance novels, these books have mostly been targeted at a female readership.

Recent bestsellers written in this mold include Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, and Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret.

But now, according to industry sources, this kind of book is no longer “hot”, and publishers are looking to move on to something else. What gives?

While I can’t claim to have read every psychological thriller published in the last five years, I have read the above three. 

While Gone Girl was clearly the best of the bunch, I also found The Girl on the Train highly enjoyable—if a bit formulaic. 

The Husband’s Secret, meanwhile, just didn't work for me. It was too drawn out for my tastes; and the characters’ dialogue struck me as self-consciously ironic…But what do I know? Liane Moriarty has sold a boatload of books, and then some.

But what about the psychological thriller being “dead”? My response, in a word, is: poppycock.

The psychological thriller is an art form that long precedes the recent run of “girl” thrillers. The psychological thriller, moreover, has a timeless appeal, because it speaks to a fundamental human emotion: the fear of other people’s motives.

Watch some of Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers in which the motives of everyone around the protagonist are in question: Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and Vertigo. These movies—made mostly during the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras—are just as watchable today as they were when they were first released.

Herein we see the peril of “hot genre chasing”, an issue that I’ve touched upon in recent posts. 

Both publishers and writers fall into this trap. Dan Brown had a big hit this year, so everyone wants to publish (or write) a thriller about high crimes and historical conspiracies in the Vatican. 

Or…in the above case, for a few years everyone wanted to publish or write a psychological thriller with a witty but damaged female protagonist. 

Chasing trends in publishing is a risky form of arbitrage, because a.) you’re likely to pursue work best left to others while denying your own unique storytelling strengths, and b.) there is a good chance you’ll be late for the party…as might be the situation if you’re hoping to sell a Gone Girl knockoff to a major publishing house this year.

What about me? I have written at least one psychological thriller with a female protagonist: Our House. But I assure you, you’ll find it to be nothing like Gone Girl.