The Decline of the American Bestseller
Some hold to the idea that a greater proportion of the population in the past read higher quality fiction than they do now. I’ve put together statistics that support that belief.
Let me first give a sketchy definition of what, for me, “literary fiction” is not: it’s not shallow; it does not pander to the reader’s base desires; it does not slavishly follow a much-used formula for success; its characters and situations are not phony concoctions. It rises above all that; it can rise far above it, to the celestial heights, or it can merely settle securely in one of the lower aery spheres, where there’s a touch of late afternoon smog in the air.
My definition is meant to spread a wide net. Literary fiction cannot be an exclusive club, allowing in only behemoths like Moby Dick. Reader-friendliness is a virtue. The man or woman in the street who can respond to quality writing and be willing to pay for it must not be excluded. Only they will constitute a substantial readership.
A rosy picture of a past with a more discriminating reading public is considered by some to be a myth. In a way they are right; people have always been attracted to those “nots” I noted above. But it’s a matter of degree. Included with the shoddy novels being read in the thirties through the seventies, there’s a lot of quality work. This is not the case in the eighties, nineties and the first years of this century.
I got the material to support the decline theory from a book called Making the List by Michael Korda, editor-in-chief of Simon and Schuster. He gives the bestsellers in every year from 1900 to 1999, as compiled by Publishers Weekly. These PW lists are available for your perusal on the internet (my information for the years from 2000 to 2007 comes from that source).
I have great respect for Thornton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination (1935), Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (1951), Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools (1962), and Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1974). I searched through the lists for the years that follow and I cannot find one book that has their combination of richness and readability. (I would have included Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, but it missed the top ten cut; it was number 12 in 1987 and number 11 in 1988.)
So you have a sense of my taste. I also appreciate more lofty work, but it doesn’t usually reach the bestseller lists. Or it does so for the wrong reasons (Lolita and Tropic of Cancer being prime examples).
To get this down to simple numbers, I looked at the titles and their authors for each year and assigned (or did not assign) them to the category of literary fiction. Though seeming at first to be wildly subjective, I don’t think my choices should be an area of contention. That’s because I’m not judging a specific book (most of them I haven’t read) but their authors (most of whose work I am familiar with). An example is John P. Marquand, who has six novels on the list; I’ve read two books by him, and both were excellent. In the case of Edna Ferber, I think it can be agreed that she wrote fiction that had scope and purpose and was done with craftsmanship. Anyway, there’s a tradeoff. I include Ferber in the thirties and forties, but I include Jean Auel in the eighties and nineties. In exchange for Marquand you get Michael Crichton. I believe that, if I’ve erred in my choices, it’s in favor of the more recent years (1980-2007).
Among the authors in different decades that I passed on are the mystery writers Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mary Higgins Clark. There was a large audience in the thirties and forties for historical and religious novels; I excluded the likes of Kenneth Roberts and Lloyd C. Douglas, but I also left out the omnipresent Stephen King and John Grisham, because now there’s a large audience for horror and legal thrillers. These six authors, though adept in what they do, mostly limited themselves to a successful formula. As does Ann Rice with her vampire novels.
The authors mentioned above, past and present, have something in common: they geared their writing to the popular taste. But among the bestselling authors in the earlier decades I find many names that occupy the higher spheres of literature. Included in the thirty-two who made my list for the thirties are Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, Isak Dinesen, Thomas Wolfe, George Santayana, Virginia Woolf and four Nobel Prize winners: John Galsworthy, Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck. In the nineties I can come up with only one name in that league: Toni Morrison.
After sampling the depth of the thirties, it’s instructive to look at all eight authors of literary fiction I selected from the nineties. Besides Morrison (for Paradise), they are Jean Auel, James Michener, Laura Esquival, Michael Crichton, Anonymous (Joe Klein), Charles Frazier, and Tom Wolfe (for A Man in Full, his disappointing follow-up to Bonfire). Instructive indeed . . .
Below are the numbers of authors of literary fiction who wrote at least one novel in a decade’s top ten bestseller list. The numbers represent different authors; those who wrote multiple bestsellers in a decade are counted only one time.
1930's – 32
1940's – 30
1950's – 36
1960's – 37
1970's – 28
1980's – 16
1990's – 8
2000-2007 – 5
Michael Korda gives a commentary on each decade. A sentence from his book’s last paragraph sums up the situation: “At the end of the day, the bestseller lists of the nineties made for relatively depressing reading, except to accountants.” At least to those accountants of the publishing conglomerates that had a Tom Clancy or a Danielle Steel in their stable.
These lists support the already-existing opinion that literary fiction is on life support. Blame it on TV, home videos, computer games, the bossanova. Or the new ways people’s minds are wired (short attention span and all that). Some point the finger of blame at authors, MFA programs, editors and publishers, even booksellers. Or an educational system that fails to foster a love of literature.
But why suppose this and that? The simple truth is that a cultural shift has occurred, and literary fiction has been elbowed aside by less demanding forms of entertainment. My original premise is actually pie-in-the-sky thinking: the man and woman in the street no longer have the least interest in reading novels of quality. There is no interest in any of the arts. Entertainment that is nourishing to the intellect and the spirit is no longer a part of most people’s lives, nor is its absence felt. As a nation we are culturally-starved, though we feel glutted.
(Originally appeared, in a different version and under a different title, in Monsters and Critics)