Genre is a funny thing in the book trade: almost essential as a marketing tool, yet used too strictly, or taken as a metonym for too wide a range of titles, it inevitably attracts ire. The nom de guerre currently in vogue is “grip lit”. Whether one objects to the term and its use or not, it has, like every other fiction trend to have snowballed in recent memory, accrued an aesthetic all of its own.
If I refer to the characteristics of novels said to be in the genre loosely, it is with deliberacy: after all, when has a shorthand term ever ably encompassed the content of a work that is, by its very nature, tens of thousands of times as long as its descriptor?
But “grip lit” is more often than not female-led (and frequently authored) fiction with a psychological and/or emotion-led hook, often revolving around a crime and, more often than not, it is not unlike a “thriller” . . . “grip” should be gripping after all, right? The bestseller lists are dotted with such titles, often with the female protagonist/instigator/narrator in question forming part of the title; a Girl that is, for example, Gone, on a Train, in a Red Coat, with a Dragon Tattoo.
All of which is unlikely to be news. But what of the genre’s appearance, and how does it conform to, or subvert, conventions?
The stereotypical Crime Fiction cover needs little introduction to any reader with more than a passing familiarity with a bookshop window—be it a physical or online version. Shadowy, sparse landscapes; figures retreating into the background; bold, often tightly-tracked sans-serifs and all-caps typography.
The most noticeable impasse between this and the “grip lit” livery is… well, its near-polar contrast. The imagery used is often blurred, obscured—likely deliberately so. There is little hint of a crime at work, no less a culprit, and the illustration is more open to interpretation as a result. One hypothesis could be that it is less focused on a misdeed and more interested in the perception of it; or to be blunt, the aforementioned “psychological” aspect.
Yet the striking difference (at least, this reader’s perception of it, at any rate) is in the typography, where the “grip lit” aesthetic is rooted, and where the best attempt to explain it lies. Given the genre’s subject and audience (two-thirds of “grip lit” buyers are women, Nielsen estimates), it is little surprise that it is in opposition to male-led/authored crime books’ type treatment, as alluded to earlier. A cursory search for books by, for example, Lee Child, Stuart MacBride or Michael Connelly shows little by way of lower-case letters; they are predominantly ranged-right, with tight letterspacing and, at times, non-existent leading. (Presumably with the aim of cramming so much in, in such loud, shouty letters, as to convey how literally action-packed the book is.)
“Grip lit”, on the other hand, is frequently centered type; lower-case serifed letterforms; with generous letterspacing and leading—the wide lead means the reader is invited to “read between the lines”, so to speak—another invitation to perceive an event and its impact subjectively. Of course, it could also be used simply to distinguish itself from its more “masculine” near-neighbour, the (frequently alcoholic) police procedural; those with a deeper knowledge of type design may wish to ponder the implications of its mentioned uses and intended audience, but that’s one for another article. For it is the centring that appears the cornerstone of the “grip lit” genre, with The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl being two of the more bestselling dissenters to my lower-case thesis.
So why does the centered type abound? One hypothesis (it is my best and only guess) is to think of it calligrammatically; type is usually set flush left because it is the easiest for Western readers, who read left to right, to stomach. The lines begin at the same point, and with regular and sensible leading in line with the height of the typeface, it is the easiest on the eye, which is able to locate the beginning of the subsequent line with the greatest ease. Which perhaps goes some way to explaining the exaggerated gaps between each line of the title type, as it adds to the sense of disjointedness created by the centring: the reader is thrown not only by the beginning of the type in its horizontal location, but its vertical position, too. (Arguably more so when the letterforms are obscured, blurred or digitally warped, as is often the case.) It may be an almost indiscernible hesitation, and as an argument it certainly sounds far-reaching.
Yet one began wondering if this was “a trend” after seeing not only the title type, but the type of title being treated. For, with alarming regularity, the titles are comprised of a series of single, short (remarkably often single-syllable) words. The Girl on the Train. The Girl in the Red Coat. I Let You Go. In a Dark Dark Wood. An expert in linguistics may be better placed to remark upon the staccato rhythm of such titles, especially when set on separate lines, situated as individual units rather than as a unified line of text. It seems, to me, to create an isochronic, almost onomatopoeic (“drip, drip, drip”) rhythm that creates suspense in itself, and one that seems inkeeping with the majority of “grip lit” titles’ narrative suspenseful arcs. In a genre that thrives on concealing information and obscuring a “twist”, it seems a superb method of alluding to the content while disclosing very little.
Alternately, this could be conjecture—I am exposed to a fair few book jackets, after all, and it’s interesting to speculate as to their own narratives, relationships, psychologies. So, tell me:
Danny Arter is creative editor at The Bookseller.