Let’s say I spent the last few years stranded on a desert island and am only just now getting back to civilization.
A lot can happen in that cluster of months: wars, new presidents, new pop-culture in-jokes. But I’ve spent that time being cut off from society, making sand-angels and carving “all work and no play makes Lauren a dull girl” into trees.
Now that I’m back, it’s a bit jarring. Society has gone on without me, and I’m feeling a little lost. So I took a look at the current New York Times Bestseller list–as it is today, right now–to try to understand where our culture is right now. Because nothing shows the state of our collective mindset like the imaginary worlds we chose to lose ourselves in.
1. “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)
What this entry on the list leads me to conclude: the general public has had a sudden surge of interest in surly protagonists, a series of disgruntled and even surlier side characters, and detective stories involving fame and corruption. They also quite possibly expect Hogwarts to lurk within the pages, despite many assurances to the contrary. So, what this tells me about our culture is that we want to go back to Hogwarts and we don’t accept that it’s over. I’m with you on that, general public.
2. “The Redemption of Callie and Kayden” by Jessica Sorensen
What I can draw from this: we will never, ever be able to escape stories of tortured love. Just when you think the trend is gone, there will always be another one. Like the killer in a slasher movie, like the relentless moaning, brain-eating mobs in a zombie movie; just when you think you’ve finally got them, they’ll rise up again.
3. “Complete Me” by J. Kenner
What this leads me to conclude: jumping aboard a trend that has been commercially successful is also a staple of human culture and always will be.
In this case, an almost absurdly specific trend: A young, domineering billionaire with a dark past meets girl. Smoldering looks ensue between the two of them, then an unfortunate amount of references to girl’s nether regions jumping for joy in response to each smoldering look from the man, then mildly quippy dialogue, then stalker behavior on the man’s part and reluctant caving on the girl’s part. Finally, they jump into bed (but don’t forget the handcuffs and rope). Add in a sprinkling of misunderstandings and the inevitable moment when the man’s dark past is revealed; rinse, and repeat.
Is this oddly specific formula a trend of the moment or an enduring one? Only time (and perhaps how successful the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie is) will tell.
Also, if you’re wondering how I know what “Fifty Shades of Grey” is if I was on a desert island, people aren’t kidding when they say that book is everywhere.
4. “Three Little Words” by Susan Mallery
See the above two, except a bit more influenced by 80s movies with Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan in them.
5. “Inferno” by Dan Brown
What this leads me to conclude: much like stories with overwrought sexual tension, stories with overwrought and convoluted mysteries involving shadowy figures, mythology, and intellectual sounding jargon are a staple of human history, and writers will always jump aboard the trend. Why? Because “Dracula” was arguably the first story to do it well, and that worked out quite nicely for Bram Stoker. These stories work best if you connect them to a mysterious and intriguing current event. In Bram’s day, the event was Jack The Ripper–who, like Dracula, slaughtered beautiful young women and was cunning enough to blend into society and outsmart the police.
Today, Jack the Ripper may not be making headlines anymore, but religion always is. Secret religious cults are just as much a staple of modern sensationalist news as Jack the Ripper was back then.
So, take a current intriguing topical issue, throw in a beautiful sidekick and a manipulative yet shadowy antagonist, and it’s not that different than a summer blockbuster (except without a Hemsworth brother. And if you’re wondering how I know who the Hemsworth brothers are if I spent the last few years on a desert island, well, you didn’t actually think they were human, did you? My island had a prime view of the spaceship they arrived on).
As this is Dan Brown, the protagonist is naturally a handsome and well-educated middle-aged man with two or three defining traits, such as a zest for academia and a full head of hair, that are repeatedly referred to because no one has broken it to Dan Brown that that isn’t characterization.
Those are the current top 5 for print and e-book. My grand conclusion to account for their places on the bestseller list all is nothing new. More eloquent people than me have stated it, so I will shamelessly repeat them: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Maybe someone who has spent the last few years on a desert island wouldn’t understand late-night talk show jokes about “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but it certainly isn’t the first novel of its kind. The Marquis de Sade already had that topic covered–in a way that would cause E.L. James to blush–in the eighteenth century. And even Bram Stoker wasn’t the first author to write a labyrinthine novel exploring the public’s fascination with the secret underground layers of society. Matthew Lewis’s “The Monk” preceded it with a far stranger story that would cause Dan Brown’s perfectly combed (full head of) hair to stand up with shock and his tweed to unravel.
Is this to say that there is no such thing as a new idea; that everything has already been written already, so what’s the point? Of course not. Stories can always be re-invigorated with fresh new twists and angles. Sometimes they work out and produce something great and astonishing; sometimes they produce something astonishingly mediocre. The oceans of mediocrity can be discouraging, but they’re worth wading through for those instances you stumble across those pages of bright, shiny greatness.
If someone was isolated from society for five years, they would obviously miss a great deal; but at the same time, they wouldn’t truly be missing much. Is this depressing or strangely comforting? I think it’s a little of both.
**Disclaimer to any confused reader: My desert-island scenario was for the sake of drama. I wasn’t actually stranded on one and thus, if you happen to find yourself in that situation, I am not the person to call for advice. Try calling Bear Grylls. And possibly rereading your copy of “Lord of the Flies” that’s been gathering dust since 8th grade.