What Fuels Literary Trends?

Christian Fantasy

The Hunger GamesFor hundreds of years, novels have followed distinct trends as genres and styles rise and fall in popularity.

These literary trends might appear in the form of stylistic movements like romanticism or stream-of-consciousness writing, the emergence of new genres like the Gothic novels of the late 1700s, or interest in certain subjects or themes (vampires, anyone?).

One movement sparks another, and when a certain type of book meets with great success, many similar tales will follow in its wake.

The Impact of Culture

So what fuels these literary trends? While many factors play a role, ultimately cultural forces propel literary movements. The popular books and the trends of certain genres or styles reflect the dreams, desires, and fears of a culture. Combined with current events and world circumstances, literary movements are born.

In our time, a number of cultural forces have impacted speculative fiction. We see pessimism growing with every report of disaster, deception, and corruption in the world around us. At the same time, there’s a search for hope, for something to believe in beyond the troubles of the world.

These desires and fears have helped support two distinct (and very different) subgenres:

Retold fairy tales

Although they’ve always been popular, the burgeoning number of fairy tale novels and the numerous fairy tale inspired films and television shows demonstrate the current level of high interest in these stories, which I believe reflects a desire to find hope. People want to believe that all will be well–that in the end good will ultimately triumph over evil. And however dark the retelling, most fairy tale stories support this view of the world. That’s why Edward Kitsis of Once Upon a Time wanted to create a fairy tale themed show–because he felt through exploration of these stories he could convey a sense of hope.

Dystopian stories

The soaring popularity of The Hunger Games and the appearance of a number of other dystopian novels on bestseller lists highlights the rapidly growing interest in this subgenre. In some ways, this trend reflects opposite side of the desire for hope. People need hope because they’re disenchanted with the current state of the world. Dystopian literature captures a bleak view of the world and its corruption, and it carries this view to an extreme, offering a cautionary look at where we might be headed as a society.

Do you have anything to add about what might be heightening interest in these subgenres? Have you noticed other ways culture has influenced literary trends (of any kind)?

Image credit: @heylovedc

Comments

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    April 5, 2012 - 12:55 pm · Reply

    I agree that the “dreams, desires, and fears of a culture” show up in our literature, but as you say, there are many factors shaping those dreams, desires, and fears. It’s interesting, I think, to ask, Does art shape culture or does culture shape art?

    I think is some regards, art shapes culture and culture shapes pop art.

    Behind the scene of culture are thinkers — philosophers and theologians and the like — who set out a system of beliefs, or in postmodernisme, an anti-system of beliefs. From those thoughts, artists give voice to the practical workings of these beliefs, giving shape to dreams, desires, and fears. Those that are embraced then turn into the block busters.

    So my theory is, look to today’s academy award winning movies to see what shape our culture will take tomorrow.

    Becky

    • Sarah Sawyer
      April 23, 2012 - 3:09 pm · Reply

      Becky, excellent thoughts! It’s good to take a step further back and look at the way the thinkers of an era shape the desires and beliefs of a culture. It’s often easier to see in times earlier than our own–such as how the naturalistic thinkers like Darwin shaped the beliefs of an era, which lead to a movement of naturalism in fiction.

      I think both “art shaping culture” and “culture shaping art” are true to an extent. Cultural beliefs propel artists to create, but then their creations in turn shape the perspectives of those who engage with their art.

      Often artists have a specific philosophical or moral agenda to advance, one that they hope will change culture…but this agenda usually springs from the perspectives advanced by the philosophers of an era. It’s rather cyclical.

      Of course, I hope that Christians aren’t driven by the culture around them, but that they create from a Biblical worldview that will impact the dreams and desires of a people. 🙂

  • TheQuietPen
    April 21, 2012 - 10:02 pm · Reply

    Becky — great thoughts, but I don’t know, the Academy often makes choices that go directly against the sway of culture, out of an idea to preserve past glories. This year’s best picture winner, “The Artist”, is beautiful, and beautifully acted, but I don’t see it affecting regular culture–I see it as Hollywood loving pretty nostalgia.
    Actually, the idea of the extremely limited pool of academy voters shaping the whole of creative culture is mildly frightening.

    On the other side of the coin, there’s the philosophy that the consuming masses shape culture, because they drive the demand for certain things, which the market tries to fulfill. This is the theory behind why YA hardbacks still sell out like hotcakes while all manner of literary masterpieces languish on bookshelves (with the exception of book club favorites). Young adults have extra cash, loads of time to spend on the internet, and an increasing presence and self-awareness of their leverage in the commercial market. Teens are also feeling (a) a distinct cynicism with the world–hence dystopian or “authentic” novels and (b) a desire for a return to romance to serve as a balm for that cynicism–hence fairy tales.

    Combine a fairy tale with a dystopian plot and voila! Bestseller!

    Or at least that’s one theory.

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