The Magazine

For the Madding Crowd

The rise of the bestselling novel.

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Bestsellers
Popular Fiction Since 1900
by Clive Bloom
Palgrave Macmillan, 292 pp., $60

I'M NOT SURE who started the rumor--it may have been Sam Goldwyn or, more probably, Marshall McLuhan--but somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, people came to believe that books were doomed. The future belonged to film and television, it was assumed, the prevailing media in an increasingly visual age: Queen Victoria read books, but we will watch video screens.

It didn't exactly turn out that way. The book lives: Just visit your local Waterstone's or Borders or Barnes & Noble. Romances, mysteries, thrillers, sea stories, ghost tales: All of the old genres are alive and well, along with travel tales, illustrated novels, erotic novellas, and a seemingly endless supply of spare-no-details memoirs and autobiographies.

The very technology that was supposed to kill off the written word brought about this current profusion. Word processing, that elegant term, democratized writing by making it easier: Two decades ago, writing a book required endless retyping--a task nearly as tedious as chiseling in stone. Meanwhile the spread of college-sponsored writing programs did much to reduce authorship's ancient mystique.

Back in the 1980s Esquire magazine ran a cover showing a chimpanzee sitting at a keyboard above the caption: "Is anyone out there not writing a screenplay?" Substitute "memoir" for "screenplay" and the same cover could run today. As Clive Bloom reminds us in "Bestsellers," his history of popular writing, more books "are consumed by a greater number of people who speak and read English than at any other time in history." We may no longer live in an age where print is "the supreme expressive form," as Bloom puts it, but "we do live in an age where print is more pervasive than ever and where authorship is very big business."

Bloom, a British professor of English and American studies, concentrates on popular fiction--still one of the publishing industry's most profitable categories. The fictional bestseller is a rather hot critical topic of late: Michael Korda's "Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller" appeared last year, and this summer John Sutherland's "Reading the Decades" was published in Britain to accompany a BBC series of the same name. Bloom's book is an overview and the least engaging of these. It offers little analysis of individual authors. It's also slowed by academic prose: Pretentiously placed words and phrases--raison d'être, vox populi, ab initio--occasionally clog the way. Still, it's a good starting point for considering the presence and influence of fiction that, as Bloom puts it, "most becomes its period and which is most caught in its own age."

Of course, "bestseller" is hard to define. Publishers don't publicize precise sales figures. And though "bestseller lists" purport to rank the week's top sellers, the best-known lists focus almost exclusively on mainstream writers while drawing on sales reports from mostly urban locales. The hugely influential New York Times bestseller list has long ignored both religious books and most genre fiction. And it relies on what one reporter recently described as "a statistically weighted formula that's as secret and closely guarded as the recipe for Coca-Cola."

BLOOM HAS CONSIDERED publishers' records, library records, and booksellers' accounts as well as bestseller lists in his effort to measure Britain's most popular novel writers of their day (many of whom were Americans or enjoyed success, however ephemeral, in the United States). But his study doesn't include the likes of John Updike, A.S. Byatt, or Umberto Eco--"art novelists" who have long enjoyed strong international sales. He's interested in authors who have consistently appealed to mass market tastes. This means Jeffrey Archer, Michael Crichton, and Sidney Sheldon. It means such mystery writers as Dick Francis and Ruth Rendell, as well as Danielle Steel and Judith Krantz, specialists in the varied forms of "women's romance."

Surveys consistently show that women read far more fiction than men--a fact publishers grasped long ago. Bloom points to the career of Marie Corelli, who, like most bestselling authors of years past, is nearly forgotten today. The author of such books as "The Sorrows of Satan" (1896), Corelli found, near the turn of the twentieth century, a formula for the romance novel that remains, in essence, widely used today. Corelli's novels, "beloved of ordinary shopgirls," mixed "exoticism, eroticism, spiritualism, and anti-materialism." She also published non-fiction books establishing her authority "on healthy, spiritual well-being and moral uprightness"--as someone "whose views on life would be as important as her words on the printed page." With Corelli, writes Bloom, "the cult of the author had arrived."

It continued with Elinor Glyn, whose publishers also recognized that, at the end of a long day, most shopgirls don't want to curl up with Dostoyevsky. They want love, adventure, temptation: vivid dramatizations of their own adolescent daydreams. As the late publisher Alan Boon recognized, they want heroines whose lives and lovers are more glamorous than their own. Boon, who cofounded Mills and Boon, still Britain's leading producer of romance novels, put it this way: "Our heroes are always what we call Alpha men--strong, mentally and physically tough, intelligent, tall and dark. The Honest Joe type of man may make a good husband, but he's not exciting enough for our readers."

Glyn, who died in 1943, also wrote advice books; but she was more determinedly modern--and secular--than Corelli, whose late-Victorian sensibility still turned to religious and temperance themes. Glyn was packaged and promoted as a woman of the world, open-minded and self-assured. She called herself "a writer upon psychological subjects which interest the average citizen": the Dr. Phil of her day. Never sexually explicit, Glyn nonetheless made clear her belief that Victorian notions on the subject were badly worn. My own, battered copy of Glyn's "The Philosophy of Love" (1923), fished from the bargain bin in a second-hand bookstore, is hailed on its jacket as "The Most Daring Book Ever Written!"

After 1918, what Bloom calls "consolatory and spiritualist" books, big sellers during the war years, continued to do well. But "daring" became a publishing byword during the 1920s, as reading became "a popular and regular form of mass leisure entertainment" and sales of books soared. New genres appeared, including the thriller, to exploit war-related subjects and themes. In England, William LeQueux, Edgar Wallace, and Herman McNeile ("Sapper") largely invented the thriller--with debts to Jules Verne and the early H.G. Wells. As thrillers still do today, these early examples featured good guys thwarting bad guys bent on evil conspiracy; they also concerned both the wonders and perils of modern technology. Le Queux's heroes in "The Terror of the Air" (1920) battle "a great pirate aeroplane" that "terrorized the world, destroying aircraft and shipping, bombing London, New York, and Paris, and spreading poison gas, disease germs and other horrors over its helpless victims."

MUCH POPULAR FICTION continues to depict the conflict of good and evil, as the enduring success of the detective novel suggests. Although Arthur Conan Doyle made Sherlock Holmes famous during the 1890s, the detective novel came of age during the 1920s, as the careers of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Nagio Marsh, among others, began to form. For many readers, these years between the First and Second World Wars remain the Golden Age of mystery writing, when the genre was fresh, and fictional detectives were individualistic, not interchangeable. Sayers's Lord Peter Whimsey wore spats; Christie's Poirot is described by another character in Christie's first novel, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" (1920), as a man "whose neatness of attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound."

BUT THE 1930s brought notable changes to British mystery fiction, as more violent crime novels, influenced by the American pulp magazines, began to appear. In his 1944 essay "Raffles and Miss Blandish," George Orwell identified James Hadley Chase's bestseller "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" (1939) as a particularly grim forerunner of things to come. Orwell compared Chase's book with E.W. Hornung's "Raffles" novels published in the early 1900s. Raffles is a crook, but he's also a gentleman. He avoids violence and confines himself to lifting jewels. Moreover, the Raffles novels, wrote Orwell, offer "very little sensationalism--very few corpses, hardly any blood, no sex crimes, no sadism, no perversions of any kind." And Raffles effectively pays for his crimes by dying in battle, for Britain, during the Boer War.

But "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" is replete with violence. Featuring--in addition to eight murders--a series of floggings and rapes, it takes for granted "the most complete corruption and self-seeking as the norm of human behavior." In the old-style crime story, Orwell observes, one left "dull reality" for "an imaginary world of action." But with Chase's books, one not only enters a realm of "cruelty and sexual perversion," but is invited to identify with the criminal's depraved view of the world.

As the paperback grew in popularity during the 1940s and 1950s, so did the market for sensational fiction. The American writer who sold more books than anyone during this period was Mickey Spillane, who like Chase mixed noir settings with prurient sex. Spillane's disposable novels were sold everywhere--stacked in racks with other cheap paperbacks in train stations, supermarkets, and drug stores. A 1951 edition of Spillane's "The Long Wait" calls him "the record-breaking mystery author whose books have sold over 28,000,000 copies to fans who like rugged sleuthing, screaming tension, and savage, hard-hitting action."

In his limited way, Spillane had a notable gift for slick, colloquial dialogue. His readers, one assumes, were overwhelmingly male, attracted to Spillane's hero--Mike Hammer--because he so bluntly embodied so many adolescent male fantasies of power, revenge, and seduction. For the Hammer-like hero of "The Long Wait," an appealing dame waits behind nearly every door, "oozing out of a bikini suit like tooth paste out of a tube."

As Bloom notes, genres tend to endure, but heroes must change with the times. By the late 1960s, Spillane's over-the-top tough guys were passé, and they survive today mainly as figures of parody. A similar fate befell Ian Fleming's James Bond. The Bond movies continue to roll on, each more magnificently vapid than the last. But Fleming's novels--huge bestsellers in the early 1960s--are no longer widely promoted or read. Fleming is too Anglophilic and Bond too effete for contemporary tastes. His Bond is a gentleman-adventurer of the old school, a spy with a cultivated eye. In "Diamonds are Forever" we find him alluding to Pavlov, ordering fine French wine, and thinking about adding a piano version of "Avril au Portugal" to his record collection. In the movies, Bond is stripped of his aesthete's eccentricities, left with only a smoking jacket and a fondness for vodka martinis.

Of course sex still sells, a trend that grew as the 1960s progressed and the presence of various watchdog groups--including the League of Decency and, in Britain, the Catholic Association--waned. In 1960, a British court permitted Penguin to publish an "unexpurgated" edition of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," prompting the revision or removal of obscenity laws in both Britain and the United States. (Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three..., wrote Philip Larkin in one of the funnier moments in his poetry, Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles' first LP.)

AS A RESULT, by the late 1960s--and throughout the 1970s--a growing number of bestsellers included scenes and themes that would have been prosecutable only a decade before. Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" and Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying" were in the first wave of these, long topping the sales lists in both Britain and the United States. Although Roth's book was part of the era's pervasive critique of middle-class values, it was also comic, and as shockingly rude as a Lenny Bruce routine. But "Fear of Flying" was, in its way, deeply earnest, the first of many often unintentionally comic novels to equate sexual liberation with social rebellion and--as Jong herself put it--personal "authenticity."

By the early 1970s, the paperback, now fully respectable, came to dominate the book market. In 1975 Peter Benchley's "Jaws" sold ten million copies in paper, while its hardcover edition sold a mere fraction of that. Meanwhile publishers, like movie makers, turned to more wide-ranging promotional methods for their products, which meant that--even before they became movies--novels like "The Godfather" and "The Exorcist" reached unprecedented numbers of book buyers made curious by the pervasive promotional buzz. By the early 1980s publishers also sought to establish their most popular and prolific authors--including Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum, and Stephen King--as brand names, the producers of products that were, in their way, as consistent and reliable as Betty Crocker's or Uncle Ben's.

AND DURING THE 1980s, newspapers and magazines began filling more pages with features and soft news, which meant more coverage for authors and their books. As John Sutherland noted in his own "Bestsellers," a 1980 study, "Jaws" earned "America's highest popular acknowledgement--front-cover commemoration on the Time-style magazines. For one week (and this during the Vietnam War's critical aftermath), a film centered on Bruce, the plastic shark, was certified as the single most important news story in the world."

Sutherland noticed other publishing trends that persist today, including the rise of such global disaster novels as "A Fire in the Sky," "Deluge," and "Ice Quake"--forerunners of a continuing series of apocalyptic titles, including the recent "novel of medical suspense," "Final Epidemic," in which the earth is threatened by a viral plague. Other popular titles of the era found catastrophe stemming from human pride and greed, playing to fears and anxieties spawned during a time of information overload and rapid technological change. Back in 1968, Arthur Hailey's "Airport" had reminded readers of the lurking dangers of commercial flight. Robin Cook's 1978 potboiler, "Coma"--now back in print in a "25th anniversary edition"--darkly suggested that, beneath its high-tech façade, the modern hospital was a murky zone of bungling and terror.

But such popular fiction brought other things than fright. Hailey's "Airport," "Wheels," and "The Moneychangers" promised not only insight into the way big industries really work, but a privileged, tabloid-like look into the private troubles of the powerful individuals who, Hailey implied, really run the world. Even "The Nanny Diaries," a current bestseller, is blurbed as offering "an incredibly voyeuristic thrill" that comes with a glimpse "behind the thick stone walls of those Park Avenue apartment buildings and into the excessively rich families who live in them."

Bloom observes that "the most popular genres at the end of the twentieth century were virtually the same as at the beginning--an overwhelming percentage of fiction concentrated either on crime detection and mystery or on women's romance." Think only of Nora Roberts, herself a one-woman book industry with over one hundred novels in print, many of them bestsellers. Roberts's books now define the romance genre, while polishing up every stock plot and clichéd character ever to appear in popular fiction.

One of her latest, "The Villa," is set in the Napa Valley and features several generations of a wine-making family. Its heroine recovers from her broken marriage to a cad when she meets a rich, handsome, even-tempered Alpha man who never forgets to bring flowers.

All's well in this world; the syrup, like the wine, just flows. Meanwhile new genres and subgenres continue to appear. Bloom himself notes that the division between books for children and adults has notably narrowed--witness the popularity of works by Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling. Such works succeed, of course, because--as Bloom puts it--"young people and adults now share a simultaneously experienced popular culture" that, in a host of ways, fosters both precociousness and nostalgia.

ONE COULD ALSO NOTE the rise, in the 1990s, of certain "niche genres" aimed mainly at readers in their twenties and thirties. Bloom doesn't use the term "Chick Lit"--now widely employed in the book trade--but he does mention the "neurotic modern career woman" novel perhaps best exemplified by Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones' Diary." In some ways, these books burlesque the romance genre by sticking their heroines with bad jobs and comically flawed men. And then there is "Bloke Lit," as it's called in Britain: novels such as Nick Hornby's "Fever Pitch" and "High Fidelity" that tend to deal with unmoored single men looking for love and solidarity in an age of moral confusion and uncertain gender roles.

Studies show that reading habits have changed over the years as books continue to compete with video rentals and the Internet as well as television. Last year, a survey commissioned by one of Britain's better-known literary awards--the Orange Prize for fiction--found that, on average, adults spend only six hours a week reading but twenty-four and a half hours watching television. Fiction gets just eleven minutes a day. And yet, the fact that so many people continue to buy books at all suggests that reading provides a particular kind of pleasure that no other medium can provide. Reading is solitary, meditative, and--when undertaken at bedtime--can induce sleep. Not surprisingly, the same survey found that most people read in bed.

If the survey had asked the question, it would have also certainly found that most Brits, like most Americans, turn to the more mindless forms of popular fiction for the same reason they watch television--to escape dull, trying reality. In romance novels, women vacation in the tropics where they find sensitive, attentive lovers awaiting them beneath the palms; in thrillers and adventure novels, otherwise average men rise to vanquish enemies, save the world, and earn the regard of beautiful women along the way.

Very popular fiction succeeds, in other words, for the same reason that Danielle Steel is not Anton Chekhov. It provides neither surprises nor tragedies; it avoids baffling complexities of human character and never dwells on the small griefs and lingering regrets that adults living in the real world must inevitably face. A headline in this summer's Buffalo News, heralding the latest crop of would-be bestsellers, probably said it best: "Summer Solace: It's Time to Find Comfort Between the Covers of a Book."

Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Baltimore.