Several months ago I wrote here about how an aspiring author had approached me for ideas about The Next Big Thing. He figured that if he could predict what the cultural zeitgeist would be like two or three years from now, he’d be able to hit—or even the start—the trend. He wanted to discuss things like the Tea Party movement (would that mean readers are yearning for freedom from perceived tyranny?), or a counter movement (would readers be concerned about the rise of extremism?), or any number of other things. This guy had consulted political science professors for their predictions, and now he wanted mine.
I knew it was a silly idea right away, of course, and I told him so (gently)—but then I immediately fell into a related trap. I wrote a blog about dystopia, trying to explain why it had become so hot. My preferred hypothesis was that high school was dystopian, so YA readers could relate strongly:
“Dystopian fiction is almost always about oppression and control, and there is no group of Americans who views themselves as more oppressed and controlled than teenagers…. They are in a very structured environment, moving every hour at the ring of a bell to a different room where they learn things they’re required to learn, whether they want to or not. Depending on their school, they might not be able to wear what they want, sit where they want, or even set foot off campus during a certain period of time. After school they may work at a job which gives them responsibility, but still no real choices–they can use their minimum wage salary to buy some consumer goods or some fast food, but they can’t use that small amount of money to change their situation in life. At home they have to follow their parents’ rules, continue studying things they don’t appreciate, and do chores–forced labor–for a system they have little or no say in (kind of a taxation-without-representation scenario).”
And I referenced my brother’s blog on the topic, where he hypothesized:
“Dystopia is huge right now, especially in YA. This is probably due to the fact that we live in one–or, more correctly, this is due to the fact that YA readers are finally paying close enough attention to realize that we live in one.”
And I referenced author Paolo Bacigalupi:
“I suspect that young adults crave stories of broken futures because they themselves are uneasily aware that their world is falling apart.”
All of these things make sense, and are perfectly reasonable explanations about why we like dystopian fiction. But I think they also leave out one huge point: Why Now?
My explanation about high school makes some sense, but haven’t teenagers been in that sort of situation for centuries? Sure, you could argue that maybe there’s more dystopian electronic surveillance these days, but schools are also a lot less strict than they were even thirty years ago.
Dan’s and Paolo’s hypothesis—that the world is becoming more dystopian—is also kind of questionable from a “Why Now?” perspective. The Cold War felt pretty dystopian, always living in the fear of war and apocalypse. And while the 90’s may not have seen as much foreign conflict (well, American involvement in foreign conflict) there were still the daily freak outs about gang wars (which share common themes with a lot of current dystopia). So while we may now feel like things are worse today (which may or may not be true), we’ve always felt that things were pretty terrible. So, why is dystopian big now?
The answer, of course, is that there’s no good answer. I think my hypothesis is fine and Dan’s is fine and dozen others are fine. A lot of it probably has to do with The Hunger Games being a really great book—readers and authors weren’t so much feeling the sting of dystopian sentiments, but just wanting to relive the experience of The Hunger Games (though that leads to the question of why The Hunger Games was written and published). And there are probably hundreds more tiny, untraceable influences.
The thing that’s got me thinking about this subject—about our inability to conclusively explain (and especially predict) trends—is an amazing new book I read, Everything is Obvious: *Once You Know The Answer. The premise of the book is captured succinctly in the subtitle: “How Common Sense Has Failed Us.” The author, Duncan Watts, lays out the case (in painful detail) how common sense is great at helping with the ‘here and now’, but trying to apply common sense to larger, complex issues—like business or politics—can often lead to spectacular failures (due to all manner of cognitive biases and logical fallacies and misinterpretations of data).
The book is fantastic, and I want to talk all about it. Reading it is almost a religious awakening—you realize how little you really know, and how many mistakes you make ALL THE TIME. I’ll have to save most of it for later, but the part that got me thinking about trends is this: The Mona Lisa.
Watts discusses how the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world, and currently the highest valued (currently estimated at as much as $700 million dollars!) and yet its fame and value was completely unpredictable. From a skill perspective, it’s certainly high quality, but no higher than other da Vinci masterpieces (or higher than works by some of the other masters). As for subject matter, it’s just a portrait of an anonymous woman—mysterious, yes, but there are hundreds or thousands of portraits of anonymous women, even by other masters. So what accounts for it?
The book explains a bit of the rise to fame, particularly that it was stolen in 1911—it was considered great at the time, but certainly not as much as today—and how that theft sparked notoriety and nationalistic fervor. As its notoriety grew, it became the subject of parody, and then the target of political vandalism, all of these little events snowballing until the Mona Lisa became the most visited painting in the world.
And Watt’s point is this: just because we can kind of explain this popularity doesn’t mean we could have predicted it. The same goes for Harry Potter or Twilight or The Da Vinci Code—or dystopia: With the benefit of hindsight we can look back and try to hypothesize how something became popular (though even that’s mostly speculation), but when we authors are in the writing trenches, it’s virtually impossible to predict what will be hot two years from now.
So what’s the takeaway? Two things: First, write what you want. You’re not going to predict what will be big, so you might as well write what you enjoy. Second, get it out of your mind that there’s a magic publishing bullet. That was the whole mindset of that aspiring author I mentioned at the beginning: That he could outthink the publishing industry and skyrocket to fame—that his idea/theme/genre would guarantee him success.
Just write a good book.