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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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."