The spirit of the times.
What defines a nation, a community, an era.
Our characters may be alive and poignantly human, our prose organic, our settings crisply three-dimensional, the tension and inherent conflict present on every page, the stakes masterfully escalated... But without zeitgeist, the work's shelf-life is comparable to that of potatoes.
Is a zeitgeist book necessarily a best-seller? Keruac's On The Road and George Orwell's 1984 are classics, and they certainly define their era, but they only became successful--sales-wise--decades after their publication.
Then there is A Tale Of Two Cities, which according to Wikipedia is the #1 bestselling book of all time (200 million copies). It was out of character for Dickens: the book lacks his classic humor, and has less characters and subplots than is usual for him. Still, the zeitgeist in the comparison of Jacobine France to industrial-era England is obvious--and must have contributed to the success of the novel's monthly installments when they were published in the 1850's.
That same Wikipedia article shows Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code as #9 in the bestseller list of all time. Of. All. Time.
I enjoyed the book (I did, I admit). Being anti-religious, I found the whole Jesus-married-Magdalene theory fascinating. I went and got Holy Blood, Holy Grail, read it front-to-back twice. I also thought Dan's handling of tension and conflict was fantastic, even when his characters are a bit two-dimensional (I'm trying to be kind here).
Does The DaVinci Code's enormous success mean it's a representation of our time, our era? Maybe--in the questioning-religion sense, or perhaps, more disturbingly, in its vapidness (sorry, Dan). But if we consider bestsellership as the sine qua non of zeitgeist success, that would make The DaVinci Code the best representation of our time, the best definition of our era.
I can't live with that.
The Catcher In The Rye, just two spots below Dan Brown's opus magna in the all-time bestseller list, would be easier for me to accept. Umberto Eco's The Name Of The Rose, at #19, would also make me feel better.
What does that say about me, though, and my own sense of zeitgeist?
What is the spirit of our times, then? Is there just one, a global one? Seems like there should be, in this age of globalization and immediate communication, instant gratification. Is that it? Globalization? The environment? Electronic media and cyberspace? Diversity? Withdrawal from the spiritual? Or its opposite, the new-age rediscovery of a pan-spirituality? The return to basics?
Google has a yearly feature, Google Zeitgeist, that attempts to "reveal the spirit" of a year by the searches conducted throughout it. The insights: top three for 2011 are Rebecca Black, Google+, and Ryan Dunn. Steve Jobs is also there, and iPad 2.
The search can also be done by country. Mexico's top search for 2011 was Facebook. Hmmm.
So, as a writer, if I wanted to imbue my Great Novel with zeitgeist, I'd have to write about Rebecca Black (who is she?) falling in love with Ryan Dunn (ditto) after a Google+ hangout about Steve Jobs, which both Rebecca and Ryan participated in via their spankin' new iPads.
How do we find zeitgeist, if not via Google? How do we bring it to our work?
Writers... we're a lonely bunch. We hibernate in front of our screens and go days without seeing another human being--sometimes not even another living thing. We live in our heads most of the time (did you catch Veronica Sicoe's post last week, 13 Warning Signs You're A Writer? MUST Read!). We interrupt heated arguments to take notes (sign #5), and we basically measure anything by the storyline potential. We're intense, moody, and no fun--unless you're another writer, in which case we'll have a blast.
But, see, this kind of behavior is not conducive to living, to the actual experiencing of life in all its richness, all its variety, its color. And without that experience, without getting in touch with "real" people and "real" problems, even "real" opinions, our chances of perceiving, absorbing, and transmitting zeitgeist are... yeah. Null.
#2 Be true to yourself.
Finding and harnessing zeitgeist does not mean "pander to the masses". If that were the case, we'd all be writing bad vampire/werewolf/wizard stories.
Oh wait--we are.
No one's riding to success on anyone else's coattails, people. Not to real success, anyway.
Zeitgeist, for me, boils down to the kind of writer you are--or want to be.
But if you aspire to zeitgeist, to write books that will survive the test of time, that will become an icon of our generation, that will inspire others to a better life, to a better understanding of their life... No vaping, people. No easy formulas, no pre-fab conflicts, no facile solutions.
Go all Aztec on yourself--crack open your chest with a midnight-black obsidian knife, pull out your own heart, and offer it to the Sun of literature to appease its hunger, to guarantee another day, another year, in the course of your creative life.
If you're a writer (books, short stories, blog, whatever), here's my A-Z-challenge farewell gift: find your zeitgeist. And then write the crap out of it.