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Airport novels represent a literary genre that is not so much defined by its plot or cast of stock characters, as much as it is by the social function it serves. An airport novel is typically a fairly long but fast-paced novel of intrigue or adventure that is stereotypically found in the reading fare offered by airport newsstands for travellers to read in the rounds of sitting and waiting that constitute air travel.
Considering the marketing of fiction as a trade, airport novels occupy a niche similar to the one that once was occupied by pulp magazine fiction and other reading materials typically sold at newsstands and kiosks to travellers. This pulp fiction is one obvious source for the genre; sprawling historical novels of exotic adventure such as those by James Michener and James Clavell are another source. In French, such novels are called romans de gare, "railway station novels", suggesting that writers in France were aware of this potential market at an even earlier date.
Meeting the reading needs of travelers
An airport novel must necessarily be superficially engaging, while not being particularly profound or philosophical, or at least, without such content being necessary for enjoyment of the book. The reader is not a person alone, in a quiet setting, contemplating deep thoughts or savouring fine writing; the reader is being jostled and penned among strangers, and seeks distraction from the boredom and inconveniences of travel. Similarly, the reader is not in a position to consult reference works, scholarly papers, or the author's previous works. The writer of an airport novel must meet the needs of readers in this situation.
The realisation that this niche market for mass market paperbacks had given rise to a new genre was slow in coming. Perhaps a defining moment in the history of the genre came in 1968, when Arthur Hailey published Airport, an airport novel that used the commercial flight industry to frame an adventure yarn about a disaster in an airport. Hailey's other novels, soap opera tales with complex plots of adultery and intrigue featuring business characters, using a number of other industries as backdrops (e.g. The Final Diagnosis (hospitals); Hotel (hotels); Wheels (automobile industry); The Moneychangers (banking) represented an emerging genre.
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Airport novels are always paperback books of a small but thick format. These books are seldom made to last, printed on inexpensive newsprint, and they often begin to fall apart after one or two readings. Their titles are often printed in a gilded, silvery or vividly scarlet finish, which more often than not starts very quickly to dissolve and stick to the reader's fingertips. This is not a problem for their intended purpose; they are made to be bought on impulse, and their readers often discard them when finished.
Airport novels are typically quite long books; a book that a reader was able to finish before the journey was done would similarly be unsatisfying. Because of this length, the genre attracts prolific authors, who use their output as a sort of branding; each author is identified with a certain sort of story, and produces many variations of the same thing. Well-known authors' names are usually in type larger than the title on the covers of airport novels, often in embossed letters.
Airport novels typically fall within a number of other fictional genres, including:
Whatever the genre, the books must be fast paced and easy to read. The description "airport novel" is mildly pejorative; it implies that the book has little lasting value, and is useful chiefly as an inexpensive form of entertainment during travel. Airport novels are sometimes contrasted with literary fiction; so that a novel with literary aspirations would be disparaged by the label.
Writers of airport novels
Writers whose books have been described as airport novels include:
- Peter Benchley
- Dan Brown
- Tom Clancy
- Clive Cussler
- John Grisham
- Arthur Hailey
- Robert Ludlum
- Jodi Picoult
- Gérard de Villiers
- Lee Child
- James Patterson
- Matthew Reilly
- Michael Crichton
- Ian Fleming
- Stephen King
- David Baldacci
- Thomas Harris
- Nicholas Sparks
On this theme, the animated television series The Simpsons included a joke in the episode "The Joy of Sect", in which an airport bookstore is named "JUST CRICHTON AND KING". Hans Moleman asks, "Do you have anything by Robert Ludlum?" and is immediately told by the clerk to get out.
- Harper-Collins French-English Dictionary, (Harper-Collins, 2007), ISBN 978-0-00-728044-5
- Sarah Vowell, Fear of Flying at salon.com, byline Aug. 24, 1998, accessed Mar. 26, 2008.
- Michael Cathcart, Airport art: what is it?. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, byline July 17, 2000, accessed Mar. 25, 2008.
- Bridget Kulakauskas, Genre: Airport novel at illiterarty.com, no date; accessed Mar. 26, 2008.
- "Peter Benchley Obituary". The Times (London). February 14, 2006. Archived from the original on 1 June 2010. Retrieved April 23, 2010.
- "The Da Vinci phobe's guide". BBC News Magazine. 2006-05-16. Retrieved 2010-01-01.
- "Bestselling Spy Author Tom Clancy Has Died". The Atlantic Wire. Retrieved 2013-10-03.
- "Valhalla Rising Review". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2013-10-03.
- "Genre: Airport novel". Illiterarty.com. Retrieved 2011-12-05.
- John Williams, Robert Ludlum: Prolific thriller writer whose conspiratorial plots of unimaginable evil defined the airport novel, in The Guardian, March 14, 2001 (online version accessed March 25, 2008)
- "Book review: Perfect Match by Jodi Picoult". Illiterarty.com. Retrieved 2011-12-05.
- Schofield, Hugh. Get out of Afghanistan: France's million-selling spy writer. The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 7 oktober 2007.