Conspiracies often proliferate in troubled times. What are they and what can writers learn from them?
Let’s start by thinking about what a conspiracy actually is. These odd narratives take bits and pieces of observation and make them into a pattern. In this sense they are not so different to theories in science, or to stories which a reader enjoys by working out the bigger picture from clues and hints – as in a detective story, for example. But typically, while conspiracies make sense of what we see, they do so in a very self-centred way, reflecting and bolstering the views which are important to the people who create and believe in them. Conspiracies also tend to describe the secrets of shadowy and powerful authority, which are hidden from most people. This allows believers to enjoy a feeling of superiority that comes with special knowledge denied to others; and crucially, you get this supposed insight without working too hard. Why go to university to study a subject for years to win esoteric knowledge, when it is so much easier to get the same thing from a conspiracy? In keeping with a populist age which denies expertise, everyone can feel they are in possession of truths hidden from ordinary folks, just by going to certain areas of YouTube and watching videos about faked moon landings and the like. And the more out-there the conspiracy, the more special it makes an adherent feel. So, conspiracies provide a double whammy of self regard, making their adherents feel important by bolstering preconceptions and preferences, and by giving the illusion of rare insight into powerful authority.
So, what is a writer going to learn from this? Some, realising the influence of a conspiratorial narrative might try to simply reproduce it in book form. After all, a conspiracy is in effect the equivalent of a successful but trashy novel. Such novels might flatter the prejudices of their readers and, following a few puzzles, give them a sense of possessing special and powerful knowledge without working too hard for it. There are novels like that out there. I might, for example, mention the Da Vinci Code, with its dodgy history, fancy sounding but frequently inaccurate references to historical artefacts and architecture, and puzzles which reveal the workings of supposed hidden power. However, a good book won’t just flatter you with the illusion of special knowledge. You’re probably going to see things from different angles. Characters are likely to give varying perspectives on events. A good novel will be an exercise in empathy and openness. After all, reading a novel is to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. A conspiracy, by contrast, is only interested in seeing things one way. Everything will bend to that cause. If you see things as the conspiracy demands then you will fit right in. If not, you are out of the select group of believers.
In the weeks and months ahead we should read good books and ignore conspiracies.