An assessment of the reading rates and the types of readers of any country could be metaphorically imagined as an itinerary from train-station kiosks to bookshops. From literature understood as a pastime to reading thought as something adding meaning to one’s life. Indeed, I think we should look at reading from this angle where it becomes something else rather than just the processing of information contained in some pages.
The latest account developed in Spain on reading habits points towards this direction by saying that ‘reading might be understood as a wide set of cultural practices or as an activity reduced to something much more specific’ (FGEE: 2017, 81)—I agree with this conception of reading as something that might be lived in other ways beyond paper. Actually, I believe most part of the reading we do daily doesn’t happen through books.
The approaches to literature that don’t share this base used to favour the awkward reputation that surrounds reading sometimes. Let’s think of those who believe with pride or complexity that books aren’t about them; or, on the opposite extreme, people considering themselves part of an intellectuality that nonetheless refuses certain forms of culture appearing under a fixed level. Both factions are accepting an unsolvable distance between reading and the essence of human life, but literature is about multiplying the experience of life further than the limits of our persons. Thus, reading is about being able to live in situations that otherwise, we wouldn’t have come across probably.
So, as we begin walking from the best-seller counters at train kiosks towards bookshops, we see that the historical novel is the undisputed dominant genre. The high demand meets requires a correspondingly huge supply. I would say that historical fiction is the most democratic genre in terms of authorship since lots of people with previous knowledge in the field like university professors or scholars, dare to shape it often into a novel format. But as the most democratized and spread out of genres, it will certainly be the one that will require more filtering in the future. Indeed, the danger of such a practiced literature is that sometimes half of the pages don’t manage to impart something significant other than historical data—in the best of cases. Most of the best-selling writers in the sector are simply entertaining but there is little else in literary terms. If in the international scene, Dan Brown and Ken Follet are the best-known names, then the usual national hits come from authors such as Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Ildefonso Falcones, and Julia Navarro. However, the historical novel has also given us during the 20thcentury some of the finest examples of literature in the works of, for instance, Robert Graves or Marguerite Yourcenar. The Spanish scene has found lately a similar talent in the work by Santiago Posteguillo on the history of the Roman Empire. Posteguillo makes of history something autobiographically relatable for readers today.
After the historical novel, the second best-selling genre in Spain is the thriller. Together with the already classic Scandinavian authors: Henning Mankell and Camilla Läckberg, we find this year two Spanish thrillers that have been best-selling in all categories. They are penned by two women, Dolores Redondo’s All This I Will Give You and Eva García Saenz’s The Silence of the White City. Both stories are set in northern Spanish regions, Galicia and the Basque Country respectively. Both are also set within the context of traditionalist societies full of secrets and superstitions that play a key role in the stories. Similarly, the series of Lorenzo Silva has a legion of followers that especially praise the easily relatable atmosphere of the plot, set within the institution of the Civil Guard, with the agents Bevilacqua and Chamorro in the leading roles.
Despite the occasional enjoyment of historical fiction, I can’t help finding the thriller genre more appealing. I think the reason is that while historical literature borrows situations from the past which, when not treated well, can end up building a detached and boring narrative, the thriller instead is born from a much closer premise: a psychological vocation. Its spirit links more directly with the feelings and concerns of the reader today.
Moving from train stations to bookshops, there is the occasional oddity among the best-sellers. Books that without a best-selling profile gain circumstantial fame. Such is the case of Homeland, by Fernando Aramburu, which has been a sales-leader since 2016. Patria, in Spanish, is a story on the coexistence between victims and executioners after the stand-down of the terrorist formation of ETA in Basque Country. The book has the merit of having gained an almost unanimous opinion among readers. It manages to tell a hard episode of Spanish history through a story thread, characters, and events, rather than through lecture-like dialogue and information dumps. It’s an interesting phenomenon considering that having been set in the context of another conflict it may not have raised the interest that it has had. Surely Spanish literature was missing a well-written and aseptic work on this chapter of its recent history.
Stepping into the readings of a more critical or trained public, in the past months the works by Yuval Harari, Homo Sapiens andHomo Deus, have been probably the best-sold titles within this group. Nonetheless, as readings within this sector become dimmer, I prefer to focus on a general behaviour shared by different publishing sectors, which is how feminist literature gradually occupies the foreground. This approach is happening through disclosure works, republished classics, or circumstantial hits. An example of the latter is the international success of the HBO series The Handmaid’s Tale and the consequent upturn that Margaret Atwood’s novel is experiencing everywhere.
On the 90thanniversary of Generation of ’27 – a group of writers and poets that include the likes of García Lorca, Aleixandre, Dalí, Alberti, Cerunda and so forth – the work of their spouses or lovers, a group known as ‘Las Sinsombrero’ was published. These women were named after an incident where one dared walk around in Puerta del Sol (main square in Madrid) without a hat on. Most of these women were also the co-authors or editors of their partners, as well as writers in their own right. Nevertheless, when Dámaso Alonso had to write an anthology of his generation, he didn’t count on the works of their female mates. However, the much-anticipated anthology on the female side of Generation of ’27 has been finally edited.
We exploration of reading patterns could be deepened further into the different subgroups of trained public where we would find a much higher number of essays and specialized reading. But ultimately, as an overview, I think the situation of reading today in Spain shares some main features with the international panorama such as a clear division of the public – among pastime or trained readers – and the paramount of the historical and thriller novel (in Spain for sure). I wonder whether they aren’t precisely the defining genres of our time.
Gabriela Giménez (1992) is a Spanish Art Historian currently living in Spain. She is Master in Contemporary Art History and Art Criticism. After having been working within some main Contemporary Art institutions in Venice, Berlin, and Madrid, she is currently working in private book collections, and writing as a freelancer.
Federación de Gremios de Editores de España (FGEE), Informe sobre la lectura en España, 2017. Ministerio de Educación Cultura y Deporte, Madrid, 2017.