There are two reasons why Boomer lit is going to be the Next Big Genre:
(1) the potential size of the market
(2) the quality of the content.
The baby boomer market, as everyone knows, is huge: 77.5 million in the US alone, twice as much if you consider the rest of the world. It would seem to be a no-brainer to argue that a genre that puts boomers at the heart of the story should come out a winner.
Not so. Size is not enough. It's a necessary condition but not sufficient. More is needed.
Quality of writing is what's needed to make it a sure sell.
And quality is something Boomer lit has, no doubt about. By its very nature, because of the kind of stories it tells, Boomer lit attracts professional writers. These are people who know how to write, they have mastered all the different forms from novels to poetry and they are on top of all the writing techniques. In addition - and this is very important - they bring to their writing a lifetime of experience, memories that have enriched them and deepened their understanding of the human condition. They are often boomers themselves though not exclusively, the genre attracts younger talent too.
To illustrate my point, I'm going to take a look at a recent quintessential Boomer book that was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize (but didn't make it) yet was a global success and compare it to another global success, a Pulitzer Prize winner supported by the whole marketing power of Big Traditional Publishing (in this case Alfred A. Knopf). One is Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and the other is Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad.
If you hop over to Amazon, you'll see Jennifer Egan's Goon Squad presented in bold letters as:
National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist
A New York Times Book Review Best Book
One of the Best Books of the Year: Boston
Globe, Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, The Miami Herald, The
Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Newsday, NPR's On Point, O, the Oprah
Magazine, People, Publishers Weekly, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle,
Seattle Times, Slate, Time, The Washington Post, and Village Voice
Then you get a rousing two-line description: "Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha
is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan
brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of
other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing
on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption."
How can you resist heart-thumping adjectives like "Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals...blah blah", "music pulsing on every page", "a startling, exhilarating novel".
Wow! After that, what can one add?
Now go over to Rachel Joyce's Harold Fry page. You get a sober two-line book description: "When Harold Fry nips out one morning to post
a letter, leaving his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he
is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no
hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone.
All he knows is that he must keep walking. To save someone else's life."
Here the tone is subdued, no excess, just the story in a few, well-chosen words.
This is followed by two simple comments:
By contrast, Harold Fry got very strong and positive support:
"This is a wonderful first novel, the characters feel very real, such an unusual story and very well written" (Teresa Pietersen/130 reviewers made a similar statement)
"I found it very satisfying in the end." (L.N.Sims/ 69 reviewers made a similar statement)
"Harold isn't a character you can soon forget --and his journey of loyalty, redemption, friendship and love will stay with me for a long time." (Megan Snider/ 113 reviewers made a similar statement)
Clearly Harold Fry wins out, and I also made a review (see here) that flows in the same direction. Still, in my opinion, Jennifer Egan's book was very well written, perhaps over-written: one often got the impression that the author was exhibiting without restraint her (very real) talent for words. This of course annoyed a lot of readers (myself included) when all one wants from an author is a good read, not a display of literary pyrotechnics, including a chapter famously written in a PowerPoint style.
So, in spite of all the marketing propaganda, Jennifer Egan's book sank.
While Rachel Joyce's novel is rising.
What is extraordinary about Rachel Joyce's novel is not simply that it is an unusually successful debut novel. What is arresting is that it has achieved this phenomenal success in spite of dealing with issues of disease, retirement, suicide and death, not to mention that the two main characters (Harold Fry and his wife) are both boringly mature, run-of-the-mill and over-the-hill. In short, nothing here that would appear at first glance to have any sort of mass appeal. By contrast, Jennifer Egan's book is far less somber (though it too flirts with tragedy), has some exotic travel destinations like Italy and has several youngish characters, in particular Sasha, the "passionate, troubled young woman" of the book description, surely a character guaranteed to have mass appeal.
This shows that marketing gurus in the publishing industry didn't see the Boomer lit phenomenon coming. All the pizzazz around Jennifer Egan's book in 2011, the innovative writing (including PowerPoint!) couldn't save it. The market knows what it wants. And a large slice of the market - baby boomers - wants Boomer lit! A simple story about an "old man", retired and unremarkable like Harold Fry, can be inspiring and attract thousands, nay millions, of readers over time.
Now that's what makes Boomer lit a totally new phenomenon on the publishing scene, far more unexpected and meaningful than the success of erotic romance à la Fifty Shades of Grey - ok, we know it sold an astonishing 70 million copies and has over 18,000 customer reviews on Amazon, but, please note, with an average of only... 3.3 out of 5 stars! So quite a lot of people didn't like it. Besides, erotic romance is obviously pap for everyone (porn sells, nothing new here) and its success, if anything, is a testimony to the effectiveness of e-readers and other electronic devices in hiding the book cover from everyone around you. Nobody knows you are digging porn when you click shut that Kindle...