The Harry Potter books. The Da Vinci Code. The Twilight series. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and sequels. There have been literary sensations before these, but not of the same magnitude (disagree if you will, but provide counter examples). Stephen King has pumped out close to fifty bestsellers, but there was never a single one that people just wouldn't shut up about. Same with John Grisham's output. And Tom Clancy's. And Agatha Christie's.
Now consider this - those books I listed all had serious strikes against them, in terms of finding widespread mainstream success. If Stephen King had, in the last ten years, put out a novel (or series of them) that blazed its way into the awareness of pretty much everyone you know, whether they'd read it or not, that would be understandable. He's Stephen King. He's got decades under his belt of successfully divining what masses of people want to read. But JK Rowling came out of nowhere. And the Harry Potter books were written for and marketed to kids. No one expected they'd catch on with adults as well, much less to the extent that they have. Stephanie Meyer came out of nowhere. The Twilight series was written for teens, and similarly found an unexpected adult audience. Dan Brown (virtually) came out of nowhere. He'd written a few books, and Angels and Demons was a bestseller, but nothing he'd done presaged the success of The Da Vinci Code. And that book challenges the chief story of the Christian religion, and was likely to be rejected by many conventionally minded readers for that reason alone. Stieg Larsson came out of nowhere (Sweden, to be specific)(north of nowhere). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and sequels) is translated from Swedish. The books are set in Sweden. The characters have Swedish names. They're full of references to Swedish place-names, holidays, magazines, books and elements of that country's culture entirely unfamiliar to ethnocentric North Americans.
Another strike against these books is that they're thick. The first three Harry Potter books are short enough, but the fourth one is 640 pages long. The fifth is 768. The sixth is 608. The seventh is also 608. The Da Vinci Code clocks in at 454 pages. The Twilight books are 544, 608, 640 and 768. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo weighs in at an impressive 841 pages, the sequels coming in at 576 and 724. These books aren't dense - they're known as page-turners, but to pick them up off the shelf for the first time, they seem to demand a real commitment on the reader's part to burrow through such formidable collections of pages. And isn't everyone texting, tweeting, Facebooking, talking on their iPhones, punching the buttons on their blackberries, playing online solitaire and scrabble, scrolling through newsfeeds and endless links, bouncing from one website to the next, following saucy pictures and provocative headlines, bailing on paragraph three of any blog entry that threatens to take more than thirty seconds to read? Why are people gobbling up these thick-enough-to-stop-a-bullet genre novels written by unknown and unproven writers, in such unprecedented numbers?
I think it's precisely because we live in a world of quick cuts and never-ending, always streaming fast food information. As Stephen King describes in his book On Writing, reading a novel plunges you into a world it takes days, or even weeks to get to the other side of. You carry that world around with you for those days or weeks, no matter what else you're doing. It's an experience you don't get any other way. Therein lies its appeal. Our accelerated information age world overfeeds us on blips and sound bites, and all of a sudden, immersing ourselves into eight hundred pages of singular story seems more appealing than it did thirty years ago.
So we bend in one direction, and then snap back in the other. And back again. Progress develops in a caduceus, a double helix, ever spiralling, one side reacting to the other, feeding the other, egging the other on. Eight years of George W. Bush paves the way for the election of Barack Obama. Barack Obama begets the Tea Party Movement and the continued public prominence of Sarah Palin. Taylor Swift wins the Grammy for Album of the Year, the next year Arcade Fire gets it. Jon Stewart rises, Glenn Beck rises. Reality TV and HBO shows. Walmart and Whole Foods. The war in Iraq and government subsidized healthcare. The obesity epidemic and yoga. Louder and more hardline fundamentalist evangelical Christianity and the replacement of the phrase "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays" by businesses, schools and governments. Hundred million dollar special effects extravaganzas and independent films, vying for Oscars and audiences, neither side consistently dominating. Ellen Degeneres dethroning Oprah as daytime TV's most popular personality, and the "move to defend traditional marriage." The Humvee and the hybrid. Increasing corporate profits and soaring CEO wages, and the free culture of the internet. The epic literary series and the tweet.
It'll keep going like that. Just watch.