Focus on cult books: why do they obsess us?
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The thing about cult books, fiction or not, is that reading them changes you forever.
Back in the days when I was, as Britney wisely put it, not a girl but not yet a woman, I fell head over heels in love with Francesca Lia Block’s books. You couldn’t tell me that these books had flaws, because their whimsical and detailed descriptions of life in Los Angeles were addicting. Block created a neon colored world that I desperately needed; streets populated by dreamy and diverse people on their way to have ice creams and knishs for the whole night, breathing an air scented with jacaranda and lemon trees. The characters became fairies and ghosts’ best friends, formed intense girl-to-girl friendships, and made wishes that magically came true immediately.
I was so obsessed with Block’s books that I shared them with everyone, introducing Weetzie Bat and Witch Baby to my family, friends and my first partner. Even when I sold most of my book collection to pay rent, they sat firmly on my shelf. They also survived several moves across the country, then to the UK and back. I was faithful.
And this loyalty and devotion is often the effect of cult literature on its faithful devotees.
Cult literature is not a genre, because it can be science fiction (Frank Herbert’s Dune), fairy tale (Angela Carter’s Good children), campy (Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls), or comic (Joseph Heller’s Catch-22). Some of them are blockbusters with movie adaptations (the Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien); others are niche titles talked about in the halls of creative writing departments at universities (A confederation of dunces by John Kennedy Toole). Because these books generally fall outside the scope of easy classification, they can be an entry point for readers interested in exploring a new genre.
The main thing that many cult books have in common is that they have inspired continuously devoted fans for years to come. According to a 2011 American Library Association article by Barry Trott, it is “groundbreaking literature, whether in prose style or subject matter.” When a publisher publishes an innovative book, the rest of the industry and readers begin to pay attention. And that’s when dedicated fans emerge. Going back to my example, Francesca Lia Block’s cult novels were groundbreaking because they gave me things I needed: (1) gay characters in romantic relationships and (b) strong female characters in complex relationships.
Thomas Reed Whissen, author of Classic cult fiction: a companion to popular cult literature, writes that cult fiction can actively change and influence people’s behavior. He also suggests that cult fiction tends to have certain literary elements like “alienation, ego strengthening, behavior modification and vulnerability”. The books are often about disgruntled characters who don’t fit in. The story invites us to relate to the other protagonist while encouraging us to see them as a hero. Because we view the character as heroic while also connecting to his status as an alien, it reinforces the idea that we are heroic too.
When Pocket Books published Stephen Chbosky’s book Charlie’s world in 1999 he introduced readers to Charlie, an introverted and traumatized teenager unlike many teens in other popular works. Because of that same connection Whissen refers to, Charlie’s successes in the book are passed on to the readers who relate to it. And, of course, the link doesn’t have to be exact – Katherine Dunn’s. geek love focuses on a family of circus performers, mutated by experiments involving drugs, insecticides and other nasty chemicals. Write about the cult fiction classic on Wired, Caitlin Roper explains that the attraction is about “the idea of a character’s strangeness as the source of their strength … the monsters of Fabulon are all misfits, each with a unique skill.” As a child, I wanted to have a special power. I wanted to be like everyone else, but also, in a way, secretly special and indomitable.
Whissen suggests that by linking the character and the reader, the stories reinforce the fact that it’s good to experience the world in a less conventional way. Trott writes that these elements make cult fiction “remarkably appealing to adults in their twenties and thirties as well as to teenage readers.” After all, people are still actively formulating their belief systems around this time and are much more malleable; it is the extreme reaction to a book that makes it worship.
The appeal doesn’t necessarily have to do with the quality of the writing either – Fifty shades of Grey has definitely achieved cult status, but you won’t see much of it touting its literary merits. (That’s probably why his devotion didn’t last the same.) It was revolutionary for showcasing a graphic BDSM relationship, and this aspect, a taboo curiosity for many, caught people’s attention.
I worked in a book department when 50 shades was first published, and for weeks we sold next to nothing except this book – I sold it to young moms, older adults, sneering teens, couples, to book club members and the entire makeup department of the store. Word of mouth sells books, and in this case there were a lot of mouths with a lot of words. But it didn’t hit people the same way, so interest waned.
Are you wondering which cult book could really be aimed specifically at you? Trott shatters some of classic cult fiction and genre non-fiction categories. And if you’re a nerd to discover more obscure titles, take a look at Jessica Doyle. listing rare and enigmatic cult books.
So whether you’re looking to rock your worldview or just want to grab a book that has inspired others, some cult books can be as easy to find as heading to the classics section of the bookstore. . You may have to hunt down others like a private investigator, but they are out there waiting for you.