The Wonder Genre

Wonder literature may be the most popular literature in the world. You probably don’t know that, because the truth is that the evidence to support this has long been obfuscated or overlooked.

Currently when we talk about stories, we classify them in a couple of ways. We may talk about the genre of the story—such as historical, romance, thriller, fantasy, and science fiction. But very often the tales are classified by the intended age of the audience—children’s stories, middle grade, and young adult.

But there is a genre that has never been acknowledged: wonder genre.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, when booksellers wanted to begin trying to sell books based upon their similarities, they hit on the idea of defining a type of book based upon its primary emotional draw. In short, if a book was meant to terrify you, we called it “horror.” If a crime drama was meant to get your heart racing, we called it a “thriller.” If it aroused the passions, we called it “romance.” Thus we get primary emotional draws like humor, mystery, and so on.

But there is one form of literature that is often more popular than all of the others, and it doesn’t even have a name. In the early 20th century the editor and publisher William Morrow wrote to bookstore managers and chains and publishers and tried to get them to create a new genre that he called “wonder.”

This would be a genre that would tout books that aroused a sense of wonder, whether the story was set in a science fiction or a fantasy universe, or even was just an adventure like Swiss Family Robinson that took the reader to a faraway place.

Since most children’s books are wonder literature, it might even include middle grade novels like Harry Potter or young adult offerings like Twilight. In short, it might well be the largest of all the genres.

But the publishers and bookstores resisted, probably fearing that children might easily be led into inappropriate adult fare, and so we don’t have an official wonder literature. Instead, for many years (until the 1970s) we had only science fiction as a genre, and even that had a rocky start. Fantasy was not named as a “genre” until after the staggering success of Terry Brooks’s novel The Sword of Shanarra in 1977. That’s when publishers decided that maybe their “science fiction” line should contain the words “and fantasy.

So if you think about it, wonder literature is pretty much divided into science fiction and fantasy. In some stores, those two aren’t even shelved in the same area. But wonder lit is also carved into various forms of children’s lit, and we don’t even count the adventure stories that transport us to another time and another place—things like the movie Titanic, or Last of the Mohicans, or Treasure Island. Very often these stories were clearly wonder literature in their day, and would be so now. This creates a false impression that the wonder genre isn’t very big. But think about this:

A recent survey asked people what kinds of books they had read in the past year. Statista pointed out that the most popular “genres” were

Mystery, Thrillers, and Crime –   47%
Historical –                                  33%
Biographicals/Memoir –              31%
Romance –                                  27%
Cookbooks/Food –                      26%
Science Fiction –                         26%
Fantasy –                                     24%

So the lowest two genres in their list of top genres were science fiction and fantasy. But wait. Those aren’t two genres, those are the same genre—wonder! And if you add the two lowest genres together, you’ll find that they sold better than this list’s largest genre, combining to 50% of all readers. That surprised me. There are a couple of other surprises in that survey. (For example, a couple of years ago there was a surge in romance reading of about 400% due to the popularity of 50 Shades and all of the collateral advertising that was being done on television. That surge seems to have subsided, and the thrillers are back on top of the list.)

Now, I don’t believe that the wonder genre is necessarily the bestselling of the genres. Surveys can be wrong and tastes often shift. For example, when Harry Potter was big, we saw a huge increase in sales in wonder literature, but it faded.

Still, I suspect that it is larger than people think precisely because it isn’t measured accurately.

I’ll leave you with one last thought: The big hits of all time have almost always been wonder literature—from Homer’s The Odyssey, to Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Shakespeare’s plays like A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe Tempest, and Hamlet. All of these were wonder literature, along with other such classics as Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, and The Jungle Book.

And I will make a prophecy: This year, the top ten bestselling movies will all be wonder movies.

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