Image: Matthew Loffhagen
‘Culture’ is a strange concept, an attempt to define a group by attaching a consistent attitude to their art. Some argue that it’s something you understand on an instinctual level, while others claim it’s nothing more than a construct created by powerful commercial and political influencers.
However it forms, there’s no denying that a group’s culture is incredibly difficult to define from within. As much as we can look at other time periods, or other societies, and believe we see a consistent mode of thought, identifying the culture of our own group can seem impossible. How, then, does an author write something that their culture will embrace?
I’m going to try my best to answer that question and will begin by looking at how authors can use everyday trends to write something that sells, and then moving on to some stranger theories that offer the opportunity to write culture-defining work.
Before that, however, there’s an important question that needs to be answered…
How can trends exist?
One of the things that many people find insulting about the idea of a widespread ‘culture’ is how little it accounts for the individual. Individual people have their own unique tastes and opinions, and even those change over time – how can a whole society subscribe to one culture when a single person doesn’t like the same thing from one year to the next?
The answer is that culture is not a mixture of all the art of a group, but a representation of the most widely appreciated art. Imagine two people trying to choose a movie: person A loves sci-fi while person B would rather watch a documentary – in the end they watch a historical drama since it’s something they can agree on. Scale this up to a civilization and it’s easy to see how cultural trends can emerge despite individual preferences.
In the video below, pop culture critics ‘The Film Theorists’ apply a keen mathematical eye to the Oscars. Their assertion is that by identifying the common factors of movies which have won an Academy Award, they’ll be able to design a ‘perfect’ movie which will be guaranteed to win.
They make a convincing argument, and the reasoning behind it is that reviewing the Oscar judges’ choices over a long enough period reveals a clear set of common preferences.
This video shows two key things. First, that a trend can exist even though some popular art doesn’t fit within it: the award doesn’t always go to the same type of film, but a certain type of film does have a better chance of winning the award. Second, that identifying a cultural trend can be used as a ‘hack’ to achieving renown.
While the dominance of shared preferences does explain how a group of individuals can create a shared culture, it’s not the whole story. Another important factor is the idea of culture as a constantly changing thing. The prevalence of a theme or genre in culture can influence individuals, encouraging them to ‘join in’ with a trend.
For a perfect example of this, look no further than the current spate of superhero movies. Marvel have made no bones about the fact that each of their movies is designed to create hype for the next. The success of Marvel’s movies has had a knock-on effect, prompting comics company DC to launch their own ambitious line-up. Companies like 20th Century Fox and Sony have tried to get in on the action with their own properties, meaning that most of the big-budget movies launched for the next few years will feature superheroes. The average person is now more aware of superheroes than ever, even if they had no interest in the works that incited this trend.
It’s this combination that creates a trend – dominant preferences allow them to form, with subsequent success guaranteeing their growth. If this all sounds a little fanciful then hang on, because this has a direct impact on what the reading public are looking for in a book.
The incredible popularity of illuminati vampires
Trends begin with a work that catches the public imagination, but that isn’t where they stop. Identifying a forming trend can help you sell your work in a myriad of ways, many of them far simpler than you might think.
Often a particular topic or concept will become a trend – something that can be seen in the last five years’ proliferation of zombie fiction. Identifying a trend like this can allow you to produce work for which there is clearly an enthusiastic and curious audience.
For those authors who are happy to engage with trends, this is a great method for producing work that will sell. While many writers may turn their noses up at the idea of joining a trend rather than creating one, it’s important to remember that there is a lot of room for originality even around a shared concept. Works such as Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the rom-com Warm Bodies and Robert Kirkman’s comic series The Walking Dead differ massively, but all benefited from the zombie trend.
Even if you don’t want to write for an existing trend you can still easily benefit from it. Linking your work to a trend is easily done, and once readers are interested your work can get down to winning their favor on its own merits. The height of appreciation for Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code saw a slew of similarly themed works, none more notable than Jennifer Lee Carrell’s Interred with Their Bones, which was released as The Shakespeare Secret in the UK in a seeming attempt to attract Brown’s fans. Even Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games relied on a trend to get ahead, with its early covers boasting a recommendation from Twilight author Stephenie Meyer.
As shown by the above examples, something as simple as a title or a recommendation can bring your work into line with a trend. Authors who are sincerely hoping to sell more books should be thinking about how existing trends can be used to promote their own work.
All of this advice is intended to help authors take advantage of day-to-day cultural trends to sell their work, but there is another level to consider. What if instead of keeping your eyes open for successful works, you could predict what people would want to read decades in advance?
The secret of the miniskirt
First presented by George W. Taylor, the ‘Hemline Index’ is a sociological theory which suggests that the hemlines of dresses rise in accordance with a culture’s economic prosperity. Good economies are marked by shorter dresses, while poorer economies see a trend in longer garments – examples being miniskirts in the 1960s and longer hemlines following the Wall Street Crash in 1929.
This may seem like an odd correlation at first, but the logic behind it makes perfect sense; the economic state of a country has a direct effect on the culture of its citizens. Economic hardship breeds conservative values while economic success encourages liberalism – both demonstrated in the Hemline Index through fashion trends.
The Hemline Index is comparable to a wider theory known as ‘Mummy and Daddy Politics’. This theory suggests that people tend to view right-wing concepts and organizations as possessing masculine qualities – those of overt protection – and left-wing concepts and organizations as possessing feminine qualities – those of nurturing and growth.
Traditionally, centre-left or centre-right parties have fared best according to whether voters are more concerned about ‘mummy’ issues (e.g. education, health, welfare) or ‘daddy’ issues (e.g. the economy, defence, immigration). It’s an incredibly crude measure, but one that may hold water.
– Roisin, ‘Mummy and Daddy Politics’
These theories suggest that the values and attitudes of a population are at least partially dictated by the world around them. From here it’s not hard to see how keeping abreast of the material world could show a writer the themes which will appeal to a large readership.
Still, identifying why a culture might favor left-wing or right-wing values only has so much practical use. Happily, the insight doesn’t end there.
Punks and hippies
Comic writer Grant Morrison is one of the biggest names in the medium, with Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth selling a reported 600,000 copies worldwide and becoming the most successful original graphic novel published in America. Morrison is notable for a shifting style that often deals with both fascist and psychedelic themes.
In the autobiographical Supergods, Morrison argues that this is no accident, and that the left-wing/right-wing priorities of the culture around him are central to his writing. Morrison argues that culture is constantly switching between two poles, most easily described as “punk” and “hippie”.
…punk maxima can be identified in a fashion vogue for short hair, tight clothes, short, punchy popular music, aggression, speedy drugs, and materialism. Hippie, as I’m sure you’ll have guessed, is associated with signifiers from the converse end of the spectrum, like long hair, loose or baggy clothes, longer-form popular music, psychedelic or mind-expanding drugs, peace, and a renewed interest in the spiritual or transcendental.
– Grant Morrison, Supergods
Morrison goes on to share an extensive list of examples from different time periods, citing The Matrix as a perfect example of “punk” fiction and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a work which regains popularity during “hippie” periods.
Here it becomes apparent how appreciation for the world around us can be put into use in fiction – “punk” periods favor aggressive works featuring themes that engage with authority and conservative values, often told in an easily digestible manner; “hippie” periods will favor stories focusing on less tangible subjects, often told in an experimental style and dealing with concepts of the supernatural, the spiritual and the environmental.
Of course, there will always be a market for almost any kind of story. People retain “punk” and “hippie” desires no matter what the form of the culture around them, and will always appreciate variety. In terms of cultural trends, however, this theory shows how authors can identify elements of storytelling which will lead to mass popularity.
Using this reasoning, authors can look at the culture around them and analyze its tastes – the needs of the people who make it up – to produce a best-selling work. That should be enough for anyone, but it’s still something rooted in an immediate understanding of culture. Earlier, I suggested that culture could be anticipated decades in advance, and it’s time to make good on that.
Fair warning, though, things are about to get strange.
The Sekhmet Hypothesis
If culture can be viewed on a spectrum with “punk” at one end and “hippie” at the other, then a key question emerges:
How can an author tell when we’re moving from one to another?
The simplest answer is economics. Capitalism naturally lends itself to what is often called ‘boom and bust economics’. This means that the nature of our economic systems is to vacillate between success and comparative failure.
Whatever nice runs of expansion and opportunity that did come, they always seemed to be coupled with a pretty cataclysmic depression right around the corner. Boom and bust, boom and bust – this was the necessary pattern of the American economy in its primitive state.
– Brian Domitrovic, ‘The Modern Cycle of Economic Boom and Bust’ from Forbes
There are many, many interpretations of this pattern, but for authors the important concept is that – if we accept that a culture is partially shaped by its economic situation – the journey from “punk” to “hippie” and back again is a continuous cycle.
If “boom” equals “hippie” and “bust” equals “punk” then an economic disaster begins a culture’s journey to the “punk” end of the spectrum. Economic recovery begins the journey back, with “hippie” values gaining in popularity as prosperity grows. It’s not just about identifying where your culture currently stands on the spectrum, but of using that to predict where it’s heading.
Of course economics are not the be-all and end-all, but curiously human psychology also seems to coincide with this journey. Since the move from “punk” to “hippie” is so slow, the absolute points often end up defining a generation. This means that the next generation tend to build their own culture in opposition to what they see as the culture of their parents. This concept is the bedrock of William Strauss and Neil Howe’s ‘Generational Theory’.
One reason why the cycle of archetypes occurs is that each youth generation tries to correct or compensate for what it perceives as the excesses of the midlife generation in power… Archetypes do not create archetypes like themselves, they create opposing archetypes. Your generation isn’t like the generation that shaped you, but it has much in common with the generation that shaped the generation that shaped you.
– William Strauss, Generations: the History of America’s Future
This isn’t a new idea, and was perhaps described best by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, who uses a “gyre” (or “spiral”) to represent a culture getting closer and closer to its most extreme form before springing away into its opposite.
The end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to its place of greatest contraction… The revelation [that] approaches will… take its character from the contrary movement of the interior gyre…
– William Butler Yeats, A Vision
Morrison points out that while this is a constant process, it happens slowly enough to go unnoticed.
If this seesaw sounds horribly predictable and repetitive, be assured that it will all seem fresh to the young people…
– Grant Morrison, Supergods
But Morrison doesn’t stop there. Tongue-in-cheek, he links this process to Iain Spence’s book The Sekhmet Hypothesis. Spence doesn’t stop at the economic or sociological, but believes that cultural shifts are the results of solar events.
Sunspot activity follows a twenty-two-year cyclical pattern, building to a period of furious activity known as the solar maximum, then calming down for the solar minimum… Spence suggests that these regular rewirings of the solar magnetic field naturally have an effect on the human nervous system, which leaves its traces most clearly in our cultural record – like a desert wind carving the shape of its passage into the dunes of fashion, art, and music.
– Grant Morrison, Supergods
This may be too far for many, and while it may not be completely convincing on its own merits it does at least coincide with the concept that the “punk”/“hippie” cycle is one which generally takes a few decades. Identifying where you are on the spectrum allows you to look ahead, perhaps even getting a good idea of what culture will be like in a few decades’ time.
Putting it into practice
So what does this mean for authors? Even at their most basic level, the theories I’ve outlined in this article suggest that culture is always moving between two sets of values. These values dictate the kind of fiction that will find popularity because they point to the concepts most relevant to a mass audience.
Keeping these values in mind can tell an author what people want to read about, the ideas with which they are longing to engage. It’s a way to consider the reader on a grand level, and to produce something that will sell well because it is needed.
None of the theories above are perfect. They deal with people en masse, and show broad trends rather than rules, but they’re fantastic tools for thinking about your readers and definitely offer some promising avenues to success. As Morrison points out, true or not, the people who subscribe to these theories tend to do well out of them.
Please remember that this is just a framework; a way of ordering information into meaningful patterns… but first bear in mind that I’ve used this predictive model to great effect and no small financial reward, and trust me when I say I’m passing it on as a tip, not as a belief system… Soon you’ll notice how many advertisers and trend makers are aware of this theory and have been applying it to product placement, design, and [fashion]… as I write, in 2010, Spence’s broad predictions are accurate still.
– Grant Morrison, Supergods
For more on how to turn your book into a bestseller, check out What Charles Dickens Can Teach Us About Book Marketing and Influencer Marketing: Why You Need It And How To Get It.
Do you see truth in the theories I’ve discussed, or do you think people are more difficult to predict? Let me know in the comments.