A two-way street
The traffic of ideas between TV and popular fiction is a two-way street. Who started the vampire craze? There’s a perfect opportunity for a big ol’ chicken and egg argument.
My theory is that books are usually a bit ahead in terms of creative exploration because, basically, books are cheaper to produce. Plus, there are more of them, so the odds of a trend-setting dark horse are greater. A publisher can gamble on a book that costs thousands in hopes of another Laurell K. Hamilton among the thousands of books published in a year. A TV pilot costs millions, and there are only a handful of prime time spots available. Really, innovation has become part of a numbers game. There are, of course, brilliant exceptions—Jessa and Annette both mention Buffy—but the vast majority of new shows stay within a fairly narrow creative bandwidth. Those that stray tend to die fairly quickly, especially if I like them.
Of course, if a hot new thing gets legs, the replicas follow. It’s a miracle if the tender new shoot of an idea survives the flood of imitations, which often aren’t as good as the original. I’ve never been a huge fan of reality TV, but the early examples had some novelty value. Pioneer House was actually pretty interesting and Mad Mad House was a guilty pleasure. What was on this summer—not so much.
But how does TV influence popular fiction? TV has the advantage of speed—especially news magazines and entertainment shows—to pick up on what’s on the public mind from one day to the next. Because of the time lag between writing and publication, ripped from the headlines is a little more leisurely for the novelist.
In my opinion, where the influence of TV really comes in is as a testing ground for subject matter. Lots of stuff comes and goes—it won’t be long before we forget all about the boy in the balloon—but the media stories that persist iron themselves into our collective social consciousness. You can start counting backward when you see a big news story, a super-hot trend, or the emergence of a new archetype (a slayer like Buffy, or a hot spy like Jennifer Garner in Alias). In six months to a year, you’ll see their reflection on the bestseller racks.
In fact, I take a paranoia poll every so often. Walk up to any bestseller wall in a bookstore and read the back covers. What are people worried about today? Terrorists? Epidemics? Greedy entrepreneurs? What are they hoping for? Rags to riches, love, justice? Our hopes, fears, and aspirations are all there. Popular fiction is a mirror into our day-to-day minds—sometimes profound, sometimes banal, but I think more true than anything coming out of an academic think tank.
What do you think will be the hot topics a year from now?