Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On the nature of Literary Hype: Part 1 – Vampires, Billionaires and the Rise of Dystopia



Every once in a while I ponder why some books go viral and what it takes for a temporary obsession of a literary hype to take over even the most resistant and skeptic of us.



Until of late I was one of those hype-resistant types.



I was a university freshman back in the early 2000s Russia, a country rising from the ‘91 socio-political fiasco followed by the ‘94 default, when nearly everyone around me was going nuts about Harry Potter. Some people I knew were even learning English just so they could read Harry Potter in original (by contrast, in the 1970s Soviet times the main reason for learning English was John Lennon as an obscure Russian song suggests).

 



Magically immune to the Harry Potter-induced insanity, I remained lukewarm to the hype: I still watched the movies though, but wasn’t impressed (mostly due to atrocious Russian dubbing which made the stories incomprehensible). Besides, I was going through a Castaneda phase back then, so maybe it protected me from the Harry Potter craze. 


On a side note and for the purposes of full disclose: I’ve finally read the HP books not long ago and re-watched all the movies (un-dubbed). I mostly found them aesthetically pleasing. I’m now a proud owner of a pen-wand. Yes. 

Now, more than a decade after my freshman year, I feel I’ve become a lot more susceptible to literary hypes. Maybe it’s because I live in Australia where, just like in the rest of the 'Western' world, things like the latest book-provoked mass hysterias spread like bush fires, making big waves over the mass psyche. Or maybe it’s just because I write fiction and therefore am innately curious (as anyone who aspires to go writing pro one day should be) about what’s going on in the book world.


Literary agent Kristen Nelson blogged about what she called a type of cultural zeitgeist  – surprising common themes arising from the agency's slush pile of manuscript submissions. And Nelson is not just talking about the ‘next big thing’ provoking a new wave of imitators (like Twilight re-igniting the vamp-love or the success of the Hunger Games generating many a literary ‘tribute’ to the YA dystopian). No, she’s taking about “storylines that suddenly start popping up that are potentially outside of these trends but for some reason, the stories all hit our submission inboxes around the same time.” Think, fairy tale retellings (that I personally LOATHE) or ‘man vs machine a la Terminator style’ scenarios.

Could this be that we are all connected psychically on some level and hence collectively fall prey to these trends from time to time, and go on reading sprees that only end when our cultural zeitgeist-affected brains are released?


I’ve been observing the latest book hypes, and here I present some ideas on what makes a hype happen. In the first part of this hype/zeitgeist quasi-analysis post, I will discuss the obvious examples of hyped-up books-turned-franchises – Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games – before moving on to slightly more obscure examples of The Trylle Trilogy (and the phenomenon of ‘online sensation’ hype), Crewel, and the most recent to date – The Dark Heroine.


Twilight




I have blogged about Twilight before. Besides, there are countless articles out there, in their contents ranging from the interpretations of Stephenie Meyer’s novels as ‘allegory for Mormon marriage’ to applying feminist critique to the storyline in parallel to the author's public stances on matters of love, marriage and relationships.



What is really at the heart of the Twilight franchise, as I see it, is the story of a girl who obsessively builds her life around a boy, a controlling and possessive stalkerish boy, at that

While some disagree, stylistically, and all the purpose prose tendencies aside, the four Twilight books are not that bad, especially considering Twilight doesn’t pretend to be a literary fiction masterpiece but appears as it is – a genre YA book. The Twilight cover art is intriguing and enticing, proving again an old mantra true – less is more.


I confess, Twilight was my gateway read into the new YA paranormal genre craze. I mean, I've read a lot of horror and paranormal before, but then after I finished high school and went onto the 'New Adult' phase of my life, my reading tastes changed. I've read a lot of literary as opposed to genre books along with philosophical and historical volumes. As a result, by the time I, through Twilight, reintroduced myself to the paranormal genre, all my pop-culture knowledge about vampires was derived from Dracula, Subspecies and The Interview with a Vampire (movies, not books).

As I contemplate my experience reading Twilight and observing how it played (and still plays) a major role in changing the very core of contemporary YA literature, I have to say that whether you love it or hate it, Twilight turned on its head the way we perceive vampires (and paranormal, more generally) in YA fiction and in literature and pop-culture more generally. Whether this was a disservice to the genre or not is debatable, but the fact remains: Twilight is a literary phenomenon and there shall be many doctoral theses written about it in the decades to come.



Does Twilight send the wrong message to the young women readers out there? Yes, I believe, it does. But having said that, I did have a chance to talk to many girls who read YA paranormal as a genre at Richelle Mead’s book signing a few years back, and I have to say – there’s hope for us after all. Those girls are smart, well-read and are capable of seeing through the angst and melodrama of Twilight and the likes. They read these books for fun and then they grow out of them and sell them on Ebay and they move on to something else.    


Fifty Shades of Grey



While I approached the Twilight novels with an open mind (before reading the books, I only watched the first movie in the franchise. I was enticed by the broody imagery of the woods and the dark wintry beaches – I’m a sucker for gloomy rainy days), I did read a number of reviews of the Fifty Shades before I succumbed to the hype… I usually stir clear of reviews, but with Fifty Shades, it was a hard task not to at least glance at some. I’ve seen the Fifty Shades books (there are three of them, but I could only manage to read one) called ‘mommy porn’ and christened the next incarnation of The Raunchy Novel.

By the end of 2012, E.L. James’s erotica BDSM  about a love affair of a college student and a billionaire playboy sold 4 million copies in UK alone (plus reportedly15 millions between US and Canada) becoming the ‘fastest-selling book ever’ in both physical and ebook format’ and ‘the fastest selling adult novel of all time’ (that is, the novel which isn’t Harry Potter).

Having considered these symptoms of a massive hype, naturally I couldn’t resist, so I picked up the first book of the trilogy. From page one, I was appalled by the poor quality of writing, narrative, plot and character development. I’m not alone in my reaction. Call it sour grapes or righteous outrage, many agents and publishers alike are confused about Fifty Shades’ success. Agent Kristin Nelson describes Fifty Shades’ mind-blowing success as “a one-in-a-millionhappenstance of all stars aligning", and says that as an agent she wouldn’t be the one to spot this book’s “genius.” 
 
Perhaps the rise of the ebook is to blame in the Shades’ sky-high sales numbers (apparently, the Shades originally sold many e-copies hence provoking its physical publication) because “women who wouldn't be seen dead reading smut on the tube could read iton their Kindle, and this launched a whole world of sales.”


Whatever the true reasons behind of Fifty Shades-provoked hysteria, fortunately it seems to be easing off now. I guess, until the movie comes out.
 

The Hunger Games

This YA dystopian trilogy which has sold more than 36.5 million in 2011  has reinvented the genre, and spawned an army of clones – YA novels with strong female leads who are forced to survive in a regime-controlled society plagued with fear and injustice. The reality of this ‘Rise of Dystopia’ however is that once you’ve read The Hunger Games, everything else labeled as ‘The next Hunger Games’ or ‘The Hunger Games meets…such and such’ seems like a talentless rip-off (it usually is).
 


Compared to some of the recent hypes, I actually understand the appeal of The Hunger Games: it is different, it’s got kickass heroine who doesn’t need a boy to feel good about herself, etc. I think, The Games books are as close to stellar (both writing and concept wise) as it can get in YA fiction.  

As Moira Young analyses writes in an attempt to demystify the renewed popularity for dystopian fiction “books for young people set in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian worlds are not new. Three notable early examples are Madeleine L'Engle's science fantasy A Wrinkle in Time (1962), William Sleator's suspense novel House of Stairs (1974) and the politically intriguing The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry. Some of the big names of the new wave, along with Collins, are British-based American author Patrick Ness, Mortal Engines writer Philip Reeve, and young adult science-fiction novelist Scott Westerfeld.” 

I myself adored dystopian genre when I was a pre-teen/teen – I have devoured Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm and wanted more. Recently, I finally had a chance to read Brave New World, and my reaction to it was similar to when I was a teen – dystopian novel when well-executed can be rather fascinating.


Moira Young goes on to ask what it is about dystopian fiction that entices teenage readers. The opinions on that vary, one of the key views expressed being that society built on chaos or control appeal to a teenager’s realities. Young however, returns to the notion of zeitgeist as the main reason behind the current interest in dystopian books. “Adults write books for teenagers. So anxious adults – worried about the planet, the degradation of civil society and the bitter inheritance we're leaving for the young – write dystopian books. We create harsh, violent worlds. These are dark, sometimes bleak stories, but that doesn't mean they are hopeless. Those of us who write for young people are reluctant to leave our readers without hope. It wouldn't be right. We always leave a candle burning in the darkness.”

The Hunger Games’ overwhelming success is yet to be replicated. I can’t think of a single recent YA dystopian that came even close to the strength of a narrative and plot of the Games. Now that the dystopian genre appears to be over-saturated (many literary agents now make a point of requesting ‘no more dystopian’ in their submission sections), we are all ‘holding our breath’ in anticipation of the next big thing.








No comments:

Post a Comment