Build A Better Memeplex

I must begin with an apology. There is no book review this week. This is not (solely) due to me being a lazy bum. I’m currently beta reading ARCs of books by three of my favorite authors. I am quite excited about this. But, since the books are not out yet, I can’t review them. (One of them will be coming fairly soon, though, so stay tuned…)

But, if I post nothing on the regular posting day, readers may be disappointed. Heck, you might even forget this blog exists if I go quiet too long. And who could blame you? I feel I owe you something for showing up here for the weekly Friday post.

So here goes: today, we’re going to talk about fashion.

No, not clothes! Sorry; I’m basically useless when it comes to discussing clothing fashions. If you want that, watch Karolina Zebrowska.

The fashions I want to talk about are less tangible. They are fashions in art, philosophy, literature, etc. I’ve written about this sort of thing before, in my posts about fin de siècle. Why did so much art in the 1890s share a common mood, and why was it different from the mood in, say, the 1820s, or the 1950s?

Actually, maybe fashion is the wrong word. There’s not really a word in English for what I mean. So we steal words from other languages, words like milieu and ethos and zeitgeist to convey the idea.

These concepts are describing something. But it’s hard to define exactly what “it” is. Indeed, “it” is usually the thing itself; a circular definition. The 1890s had a zeitgeist, an ethos. And so did the 1980s. And the two were completely different from each other, which makes them difficult to describe as the same thing.  As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said when discussing another phenomenon: “I know it when I see it.

My contention is that every era has this. Often, however, it is visible only in retrospect, or rather by comparing the spirit of one era with that of another, and seeing what’s different.

While it’s easy to see the spirit of other eras, it’s very difficult to see it in our own era. It strikes us as “just the way things are.” As Paul Graham once wrote, “It’s the nature of fashion to be invisible.” Or, bringing Karolina Zebrowska back into this again: “We are constantly shocked by the supposed stupidity of people who came before us, and at the same time impressed by how well-developed our society is. Except, well, as you probably guessed, neither is true.

When you watch a movie from the 1950s, the garish Technicolor is obvious. But when you watch a movie from the 2010s, the orange-and-blue palette isn’t… until you know to look for it, after which you wonder how you could have missed it.

Actually, I lied to you before. There is a word in English for this… sort of. It’s a neologism, but weren’t all words neologisms once?

The word is “meme.” Or maybe more precisely, the derived term, “memeplex.”

If you’re like me, when you hear the word “meme” you probably think of funny pictures of cats. But really, almost anything can be a meme. Broadly speaking, any concept that gets perpetuated among groups of people is a meme.

In fiction, we call common memes “tropes.” Stock characters like “The Evil Stepmother” or “The Hardboiled Detective,” for example, are memes.

A meme becomes a fashion when it starts appearing in a lot of places at the same time. The noir Hardboiled Detective meme seems to have been in fashion from the 1930s through the 1950s.

And obviously, some things go in and out of fashion. The youth fiction of a hundred years ago was mostly adventure and sci-fi. Now it’s dystopias and magic. Things come and go, be they shoes, literary archetypes, or cinema techniques.

Now, the question is: What makes a meme take off like wildfire? Or not?

The question is relevant to us because there are basically two ways to make it as a writer:

  1. Piggyback off the success of an existing literary memeplex
  2. Create your own literary memeplex

The distinction between the two is not clear-cut. H.P. Lovecraft is credited with creating a sub-genre of horror that now bears his name, yet he himself would admit he was influenced by Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany and many others in creating his fiction. Nothing is completely original. But some are more original than others.

Of course, I don’t have a perfect answer to the question. I do not know the exact formula, if one even exists. Alas, despite what you may have heard, there is no how-to guide to Create A New Cultural Phenomenon With This One Weird Trick!

But I have a theory. Or maybe it’s more of a wild guess. I have no proof that it’s right. I think it is, though.

My theory is that the key to creating a new literary memeplex is interaction with other creative people.

If you study pretty much any artistic movement, you find that the artists were influencing each other with their ideas. Sometimes as friends, sometimes as rivals, sometimes as fellow students of a craft. The point is, they weren’t just sitting by themselves trying to come up with new ideas in a vacuum.

My belief is that there is some critical mass of creative energy necessary to launch a meme with sufficient force that it can sweep through the general culture. Maybe there are some people who are such geniuses they can achieve this energy by themselves. But I think in most cases, it requires more than one brain working along similar lines.

This is why, if you’re bored of the current memeplexes, the best thing you can do is try to work on new ones. If there’s one thing I know about fashions, it’s that they don’t go away because people get sick of them. Rather, people get sick of them because they discover something new.


  1. Good points, Berthold, but I’m not sure anyone writes something with the intention of creating a new meme. It just sort of happens as the result of a happy conjunction of… something. Then a while later someone calls it a meme.

    1. I think you’re right. A happy conjunction of something is a good way to describe it.

  2. Before The Godfather, there were few Gangster books and movies, then came the flood. Harry Potter came and then the flood. Success breeds imitation.

  3. I think nothing is made in a vacuum. If you cane up with the solely most creative and original story ever told, it would probably flop because no one could relate to it. I like the tefm “zeitgeist”, so I’ll say the zeitgeist determines what people can relate to. I used to dislike finding out when someone had written a similar story before, but now I must simply revel in it. It means I’m human after all, and I can relate to similar feelings.

  4. A lot to think about with this post, Berthold, Memes in publishing I think are mostly a result of risk aversion. The business rests almost entirely on bestsellers, so that if a book becomes a best seller, finding books just like a proven best seller is a solid business proposition. Authors write and pitch their books as “like so-and-so bestseller but with (fill in the blank) or so-and-so bestseller meets this-and-that bestseller, or a retread of a classic story. You have to sell a book to the marketing department with a trendy hook. Not that indie publishing is much different. If you want to write books that sell, you have to discover what is selling and write a book like that.

    I suppose every decade has its breakout best sellers, be it “The Girl….” Harry, or Hunger, but those are the exceptions who spawn all the like The Girl… but with this twist.

    Fashions come around again and again, and history is said to repeat itself, so that there may be some similarities between distant decades, but a lot of changes are for keeps and seemingly always going to hell in a hand-basket — in the view of some people anyway.

    1. “Risk aversion”–exactly! Trad publishers are very risk averse, and that’s a big part of this.

  5. As I was reading this VERY interesting post, it suddenly hit me, Indies have already created a meme of sorts, and it’s ‘show don’t tell’. I’d never heard of it before starting to hang out with a lot of other Indie authors, and I’m still not a complete devotee, but I can see the influence it’s had on how we write, how readers respond to that writing, and how that reinforces the meme yet again. Fascinating.

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