In her short novel, or novella, Bellwether, Connie Willis speculates in a sort of Josephine Tey manner on how fashions change, and who changes them. The question could be reframed as, can we recognize what it is in the Zeitgeist that makes a particular piece of work take fire so much that everyone gets drawn in? A bit over 100 years ago one of the Hot Novels of the Future Generations dwindled gradually to the villain’s name, Svengali, entering the surging sea of detached metaphors whose origin is long lost. At the time, though, many touted Trilby as enduring literature.
How can we tell at the time if the work is going to become an enduring part of literature or a bright but relatively brief-spanned comet of popularity—all but forgotten the next generation down?
That might be related to this question: when does a work change from being popular for itself to a social fad, that is, you have to read it, or pretend to read it, in order to seem part of the in crowd? We all can name books from childhood or adulthood when this was true.
This isn’t to say that Harry Potter is popular primarily for social reasons, though there are definitely levels to engagement, I discovered over the past few years as a teacher using the books in the classroom: there are of course the passionate readers, then there are the kids who don’t read much but did read Potter, then there are the kids who don’t actually read the books—though they own them—but wait for the movies, and the kids who don’t read them or see the movies but like to talk about the story with other kids. These last subsets don’t explain away a readership of 80 plus million, of course. There was definitely something in the Zeitgeist through the late nineties and early 2000s to make the books resonate so powerfully. At some point, yes, I suspect they became de rigueur but before then, there was a readership both vast and dedicated.
I have this deeply intellectual and academic theory I call zing. I see zing as that moment of visceral thrill (which includes physical reactions—terror, vertigo, eroticism, grief, laughter, etc), the joy of recognition, the shiver of the new, the echo of longing, the glimpse that widens the universe in a single flash, which in many human beings can be defined as gnosis. Current brain theory states that some are born with that, some aren’t, but for those who are, a work that resonates with that level of meaning can strike so far down in one’s psyche as to cause tectonic shifts in paradigm.
Zing is often personal (Pride and Prejudice has zinged me all my life, but it left Mark Twain utterly cold all his life) but culture is made up of individuals, and sometimes books have a cultural zing, which happened to Harry Potter.
The Harry Potter story zinged with a lot of readers for whom all the elements of the story were new: the boarding school story, the lonely orphan who turns out to be special, the fights with evil adults when everything seems to be about the orphan…and of course the magic. Rowlings’ magic was so clever, her witty exchanges so fun between the main characters, that longtime readers for whom these elements were not new got charmed into the storyverse. Does this particular zing have the staying power to last for generations? My guess is, no. But none of us can be sure unless we actually survive that long.