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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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.