When choosing your next read, how often have you dismissed something on the grounds that you were not in the mood?
- Not in the mood for comedy.
- Not in the mood for horror.
- Not in the mood for romance.
- Not in the mood for fantasy.
So what puts you in the mood for something? Better yet, as a writer, is there a way to tell what readers are in the mood for?
Perhaps it’s in the realm of chemistry, an intangible that we are not permitted to understand. Maybe it has to do with temperament, upbringing, IQ, or a combination of all of the above.
And maybe it has to do with the shape of society.
That was the suggestion floated by author / editor Ron Benrey in a recent NovelRocket post. In Whither Goest the Christian Cozy? he writes,
…there’s no doubt that the market for cozies does fluctuate. Some publishing gurus say that the shifting demand for cozy mysteries is a barometer of societal angst. Before you laugh, consider their argument: Cozies apparently do well in the aftermath of wars, during economic upheavals, and in times of widespread uncertainty. That’s when readers seek out novels that show good triumphing over evil, honor traditional values, and have tidy endings in which the world is put right again.
If this nifty theory is true, 2011 is ripe for a cozy renaissance. (emphasis mine)
It’s hard to dispute that the shape of society influences our reading habits. Societal angst, war, natural disaster, economic hardship, and political upheaval can all taint our literary tastes. But is that reality enough to suggest that the climate is ever “ripe” for any one genre?
- Are zombies more popular during times of peace?
- Are superheroes more popular during war?
- Are romantic comedies more popular during recession?
And should that matter to what we write?
Stephen King is his expose of the Horror genre entitled Danse Macabre suggests
Horror movies and horror novels have always been popular, but every ten or twenty years they seem to enjoy a cycle of increased popularity and visibility. These periods almost always seem to coincide with periods of fairly serious economic and/or political strain, and the books and films seem to reflect those free-floating anxieties (for want of a better term) which accompany such serious but not mortal dislocations. They have done less well in periods when the American people have been faced with outright examples of horror in their own lives. (emphasis mine)
Donnie Darko is now a cult classic, but seems to bear out King’s assertion. It’s a great little film, usually shelved under Horror or Sci-fi. Well, the movie flopped in the U.S. Its problem was not technical (poor craft) as much as societal (bad timing). Donnie Darko was released just after 9/11.
And the last thing Americans wanted to watch after 9/11 was Horror.
Okay. Maybe there is some truth to this idea of societal trends shaping fictional tastes. Maybe the economy, war, political strife, and natural disaster, put us in the mood for one genre and not another. Then again, even a terrorist attack did not stop soap opera viewers from demanding their shows NOT be preempted for Breaking News.
Some genres will remain popular no matter how bad things get.
Or will they?
So as a writer, is it possible to seize upon societal trends, to chart a course based on malaise, poverty, scandal, or impending apocalypse, to hold your finger to the air and gauge the literary winds? And as a reader, do societal conditions actively shape your reading habits?