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Are Fictional Tastes Shaped by Societal Trends?

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?

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Carradee July 12, 2011, 9:06 AM

    I think it’s more that different events (and weather) trigger different emotional responses, which affect what folks want to read or watch.

    Readers can also get burnt out on a particular genre because it’s insanely popular. I have a friend who won’t read anything with vampires in it, no matter how much I think she’d like a story. (She knows she likes my writing, and she won’t even read my vampire story.)

    I’ve been reading a lot of urban fantasy in the past years, and I’m still enjoying particular authors, but I’m more reluctant to try new authors of the genre than I used to be, more critical of the sample pages I do read.

    In my case, though, I’ve also noticed a connection between what I want to read and what I’m writing. I’m currently working on a traditional (high) fantasy novel, so I want to read things that’re fairly comparable to what I’m writing. (That’s harder to find than it sounds.)

  • Geoff July 12, 2011, 9:37 AM

    Worst news of the day: “2011 is ripe for a cozy renaissance.” God help us!

  • Anna July 12, 2011, 10:02 AM

    I’ve always considered the human race a violent race. Prolonged peace prompts the violence to come out in other ways. Look at all the video games these days, and the popular ones contain a good deal of blood and guts, even it such graphics aren’t included. Stagnation is boring and a stagnant book won’t sell, whatever mood the reader is in.

  • Kevin Lucia July 12, 2011, 10:02 AM

    how often have you dismissed something on the grounds that you were not in the mood?

    All the time. And my moods are verrrrrrrry random. Or maybe not so much. After reading tons of dark, brooding horror, I’ll be apt to pick a recent Dean Koontz or T. L. Hines for the “pick-me up”. If I’ve been reading very literary, stylistic horror – Charles Grant, T. M. Wright – then I feel like picking up the pace with a Repairman Jack novel, or something by Travis Thrasher. Then, I’ll want to experiment a bit with a writer I’ve heard lots about but have never read. Then, usually, back to the brooding horror.

    Better yet, as a writer, is there a way to tell what readers are in the mood for?

    No chance. At a convention a few years ago, an editor for Putnam spoke of this – that current trends will be different within two or three years, ironically enough how long it often takes to a get a book out of the gates, depending. So even if a publisher really liked my genre-blending urban fantasy paranormal romance, even though that’s big now…maybe they’ll be reluctant, because by the time my title makes it of the gates, things will have changed. Or, maybe publisher won’t want my hardcore crime/noir dark fantasy, simply because they don’t to take the chance…

    In my case, though, I’ve also noticed a connection between what I want to read and what I’m writing.

    Carradee, this happens when I switch to writing short stories. I usually time it, so when I have a short story percolating or deadlines nearing, I’ll shift to collections of shorts, to get my brain in that mode.

  • Jill July 12, 2011, 10:05 AM

    World events don’t affect me because I’m the most nihilistic person I’ve yet to meet, but I suspect they do affect the market. Nihilism being my general world view, I’d have to say that cozies/chick lit/romantic comedies are about the most hopelessly depressing/depressingly hopeless books on the market. Have you read Bridget Jones lately? She’s a woman with no skills and little intelligence, who saves her sorry life through shagging a rich lawyer. Shopaholic? Same gist. (romantic comedies –> recession) Christian feel-goods may leave out the shagging, but they are no less depressing. They’re all MEANINGLESS!!! Oh, God, they make me want to crawl in a dark hole.

    Okay, now back to work.

  • xdpaul July 12, 2011, 10:09 AM

    There is something very metapoetical about the fact that Donnie Darko — a movie about rip in both time and the fabric of society, involving passenger jet disaster and how most people never see the hero — was able to sneak into the underground due to, of all things, a real world rip in both time and the fabric of society, involving passenger jets.

    What a great movie. Sometimes, the best art really is unappreciated at the time. Is there such a thing as art that hits too close to home?

    I think the cyclical nature of things demonstrates why it important for writers to remain consistent and self-directed. The writer of “cozy” will experience peaks and valleys in readership (if this theory is true) but will hit the peaks when they come around. Likewise for the horror novelist. The one who chases trends will misfire: printing horror in a horror trough, switching to cozy on its downturn, and so on.

    That’s not to say you can’t be a Joyce Carol Oates and write what you like, when you like. Just that the writing career is (hopefully) a lifelong thing: stay true and eventually the business cycle will reward the steady output.

    • xdpaul July 12, 2011, 10:40 AM

      This also explains, in small part, why “The Next Stephen King’s” such as Clive Barker, Robert McCammon, Peter Straub, and so on, never achieved their promise (though many have found plenty of success in their own right): even Stephen King couldn’t have been the “next” of him. The peculiar strains of the 70s and early 80s made them a heydey for King’s brand of “cozy” horror.

      He vaulted those early classics into his empire: everything he has written since then don’t come close to the collossal mass-market phenomenon the earlier ones did in capturing and speaking to the zeitgeist. That doesn’t mean his later stuff isn’t good. It is good.

      Later works like Under the Dome, Full Dark, No Stars are excellent books in their own right, and rival in quality his cultural cornerstones: The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, It, and the Stand.

      But ask a an average reader, or even non-reader to come up with the title of a single Stephen King book, and they’ll invariably name something from 1986 or before. 1987 if they remember that the Misery movie was from a King book.

  • Kevin Lucia July 12, 2011, 12:35 PM

    I’m going to disagree with you on Peter Straub – in that, while he didn’t become the “Next Stephen King”, he instead became Peter Straub – although some wonder if that would’ve happened had he not co-written two little books called The Talisman and Black House with Stephen King. Ironically enough, SK used to be my favorite, and while he’s still a “go to” guy, I enjoy Peter Straub’s work far more.

    Robert McCammon’s an interesting story, and here’s something for trying to guess the “mood” of the readers, the publisher’s whims, and a writer’s desires – he basically bucked the system and took himself out of the game because of that. After Boy’s Life – which is one of my ALL-TIME favorites – publishers really just wanted him to go back to that Stephen King, 80’s “horror novel”. He balked, wanted to write historical supernatural fiction, different things, and publisher’s wouldn’t run with that, he basically quit and went home.

    He’s back now, because he works through a very reputable smaller press called Subterranean Press who understands that some writers need to write what calls to them, not try and guess what the consumer “mood” is. His latest, The Five, is one of the best things I’ve read since Boy’s Life. Which also illustrates the important role a quality small press can play, versus a larger, market-driven house.

  • Kevin Lucia July 12, 2011, 12:36 PM

    And I guess I totally missed this in your post: though many have found plenty of success in their own right. My bad….

    • xdpaul July 13, 2011, 7:42 AM

      That’s okay! Missing the point just makes you “the next xdpaul!”

      I’m kidding – and your follow-up is very good – I didn’t know McCammon’s next was out now, and yeah, the correct response from publishers following his Boy’s Life would have been to publish whatever he felt like writing forever and ever until he died even if they had to subsidize his work to the point of their own bankruptcy.

      I think Barry B. Longyear has the right insight on the only trend a writer needs to follow religiously is the trend of story. When he writes that “One thing you’re doing wrong is trying to get published. Most important is the story.” What he’s really saying is that the publishing industry is worse than a crapshoot (in that a crapshoot at least has rules) but, oddly, is a wonderful ride for those who really find joy in discovery, and aren’t caught up in all the wrong reasons to write.


  • Tim George July 13, 2011, 2:49 PM

    This is one of the problems we as writers have when it comes to reading the tea leaves of the mood of readers. The best bet for a writer is to write what he or she naturally find within themselves. Everything else is cyclical and the odds are the mood of enough readers will align itself with what you are writing sooner or later to put your genre back in the spot light.

  • Alan Oathout July 13, 2011, 6:15 PM

    First, kudos for having the courage to list IQ as one of the elements that influence reading preferences. I’m doing a series that touches on that now, because it’s an obvious factor that we rarely discuss due to its controversial nature.

    My take on your questions: As a writer, I think forecasting these things would be harder than day-trading stocks. As a reader, they don’t consciously shape my habits…but then again, to the extent these effects are real, I imagine they would operate outside of our conscious awareness anyway.

  • Bob Avey July 13, 2011, 8:29 PM

    I believe fictional tastes of readers follow social trends. However, I also believe authors, like most artists, reflect in their art their view of society at the time. It kind of goes both ways. Something, which I find disturbing, is the apparent willingness, or desire of readers to identify with the negetive or dark side of things, where the protagonists of stories are at best anti-heroes.

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