The bestselling books of the decade tell a complex story about women

Sea change?
Sea change?
Image: Reuters/Marko Djuric
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A tweet caught our eyes over at Quartz. It comes from Anna Sproul-Latimer, a US literary agent who recently founded her own agency, Neon Literary. The tweet had been liked 6.2k times at the time of writing, suggesting that a lot of people agree with the analysis, and has numerous replies, some of which argue with Sproul-Latimer’s assessment that all the 10 bestselling books of the decade hinge on women suffering, dying, or being abused. But do they?

The list is a mixed bag in terms of quality, which should come as no surprise at all: It’s a list of bestsellers, not the best novels, and therefore reflects what people actually buy and read, not what we think they should buy and read. But the story it tells is much more complex than one of women as victims. In fact, what stands out from this list is how active and complex the women in many of these novels are, in sharp contrast to the popular books of many previous decades.

The Fifty Shades of Grey series confounds mainstream publishing and feminists alike. An originally self-published sensation, it’s badly written and has been deeply criticized for its portrayal of a woman “enjoying” an abusive relationship. What’s missed in that analysis is that the Fifty Shades series explores something very few novels have ever tackled, namely the enjoyment many women legitimately take in the suite of sexual predilections known as Bondage/ Discipline/ Dominance/ Submission/ Sadism/ Masochism, or BDSM. The Fifty Shades series isn’t great literature. It’s erotica, and—however much we might disagree with its methods—presumably the majority of people who read it did so not to improve their minds, but because it turned them on. The fact that such a problematic work was the only one available through which people could live out particular fantasies says more about publishing than it does about the role of women in society, or the way we see them.

The Hunger Games, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and Divergent, meanwhile, fall into another category, which could broadly be described as action-adventure. All the books center on female action heroes of one kind or another. Yes, they’re all radicalized by suffering (show me an action hero who isn’t), but they’re also all strong, active, narrative-driving characters that hold up the plots: A marked contrast to the roles women have been given—in everything from James Bond to the ever-popular crime category—as victims, sidekicks, sex objects, and helpmeets.

The previous decade’s bestseller list is characterized by a raft of male-authored crime and adventure, by comparison, and by the Harry Potter series, written by a woman, but centering on the eponymous male protagonist.

The Help and The Fault in Our Stars, though dissimilar, can both be seen as dealing with minority women: Black domestic servants in white households in one, and a teenager with cancer in the other. Princess Weekes points out that The Help, written by a white author, is the only book on the list with a non-white lead. There’s a marked diversity problem in the book list, for sure, but again, these are the books that sold most, not the best-written, most interesting, or, arguably, most important books of the decade.

Finally, The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl are interesting because they both have unreliable narrators, and in neither is the central women portrayed as straightforward or admirable. In Gone Girl the protagonist is arguably a man, Nick, whose voice we first hear. Without giving away the entire story, his wife is a brilliant, Machiavellian, central antagonist. Both books involve a murder, one of a man, the other of a woman.

The bestseller list is compiled by NPD Bookscan, which has received criticism from the literary world as methodologically imperfect. In its release, the service notes that although the bestseller list is all fiction, in the latter part of the decade sales were dominated by non-fiction works like Girl, Wash Your Face and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, both of which deal with the question of how to live a happy life.

The present analysis also falls short, of course. It doesn’t examine how many supporting characters are powerful women vs powerful men. The background to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the original title of which, translated from Swedish, is Men Who Hate Women) is troubling. The Fifty Shades needs a lot more unpacking. And why do three of the books refer to a grown woman in the title as a “girl”?

But looking at the list as a whole what I see is a picture of an industry in which women authors, writing books about women for a female audience, are succeeding. And they’re not doing so with the same stories that dominated previous decades, but with new tales about sexual desire, repression and resistance, punishing wrongdoing, and love.