Today’s USA Today features an article by Bob Minzesheimer and Anthony DeBarros which looks back at the past two decades of best selling books and tries to draw some conclusions about what it says about our culture.

They found that the late 90s was something of a golden age for self-help:  “Of the 25 most popular books from the list’s first era (1993-98), nine offered self-help or other advice.”

More recently, however, fiction has ruled the roost.

In 1998, 56% of the books in the list’s top 150 each week was fiction. That’s the same year the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal propelled The Starr Report, the investigative account by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, to the top of the weekly best-seller list. (Maybe it was just one of those stories that even a novelist couldn’t imagine.)

Since then, fiction is on a roll — up to 68% of best sellers in 2002, 77% in 2010, and to an all-time high of 81% so far this year.

What interested me was their conclusion as to why fiction has become more popular in recent years.  Their answer: escapism.

“People today are looking for escape,” Fitzgerald says.  (Carol Fitzgerald, founder of the Book Report Network of websites.) “Fiction provides that. In the ’90s and early 2000s, we were in a different economic time. People were living the dream, not just dreaming it. ”

Is it right to assume that fiction is, first and foremost, escapism?

I would like to offer an alternative theory.

In the late 90s we were in the middle of an economic boom. It was based on some pretty flimsy foundations, but we didn’t know that yet.  The system seemed to be working well for most people.  People believed in a certain cultural mythology.  A rising tide lifts all boats.  All you have to do is work hard and play by the rules and you too can prosper. Think and you can grow rich.  What people wanted to know was how to be one of the winners.  It seemed easy. You just needed to follow the steps in the latest self-help book.  People were firm believers in what social science author F.S. Michaels calls the Monoculture, an economic framework for understanding what it means to be human in the wold.

“Monocultures, though overwhelmingly persuasive and pervasive, aren’t inescapable. In the end, the human experience always diverges from the monoculture and its master story, because our humanity is never as one-dimensional as the master story says it is. The human experience is always wider and deeper than a single narrative, and over time, we become hungry for something the monoculture isn’t speaking to and isn’t giving us — can’t give us. Once you know what the monoculture looks like, you can decide whether it serves a useful purpose in your life, or whether you want to transcend it and live in a wider spectrum of human values instead — to know it so you can leave it behind. In our time, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the monoculture isn’t about science, machines and mathematics, or about religion and superstition. In our time, the monoculture is economic.”

After the economic crash in 2009, a lot of people had a crisis of faith in the single story of our culture.   They didn’t want to know How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or Who Moved My Cheese, thy wanted to find new ways of looking at the world and new perspectives.  That is what fiction can provide.  Through fictional characters, we learn about the entirety of the human experience.  It is the only window through which we can view another person with all his complexity and frailties and ambiguities and inner life.  Only fiction allows the reader to see inside another person’s mind, to travel to another era, another country, another culture and to see the landscape from another vantage point.

Of course there is fiction that is pure entertainment and escapism, but that is not the only function of fiction.

We are constantly creating the story of what it is to be human in the world, how we relate to one another and what it means. Different narratives appear and dominate for a time and then new ones become dominant.  When we reach a crisis point in society the old narrative doesn’t seem to work any more and people go looking for a new one. One of the first places they look is in the pages of the novel.





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