Best sellers: looking backward

Best sellers are not what I was planning to write about for the Monday post. But catching up on my NYT alerts, one of which is “Books and Literature,” I wandered into John Williams’s straight-faced but riveting report on the Norwegian guy’s appearance at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn last Wednesday.

I have zero interest in the best-selling My Struggle, since I have plenty of my own struggles without getting involved in his, and anyone who feels entitled to call his novel My Struggle is suspect (sort of like a movie star calling her book My Life, sort of in the “Are you kidding?” category). However, I have a lot of interest in the concept of best-selling books.

What intrigues me is how readers of all persuasions accept the fact that the majority of best-selling books will be pop-lit. It’s not rocket science: to become a best seller, a book has to appeal to a lot of readers, and (usually) that means pop-lit, not Literature. The phenomenon is a function of business.

I have caught myself thinking, with irritation and a certain amount of despair, that this situation is recent, so on Sunday morning I went to a quirky website called Hawes Publications to look at lists of past NYT best sellers, both fiction and nonfiction, by date.

The starting date I chose was 1964, fifty years ago, and the top slot on the fiction list for most of that year was occupied by The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré–but by the end of the year Saul Bellow’s Herzog was at the top. What?

A few nonfiction #1’s for 1964: Hemingway’s A Moveable FeastReminiscences, by Douglas MacArthur; and Markings, by Dag Hammerskjold. (Does everyone remember Dag Hammerskjold? Think United Nations, not Kon-Tiki.)

Now let’s jump ten years and see what 1974 has to tell us about best-selling fiction: John Le Carré again, with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Two others in the top spot that year: Watership Down, by Richard Adams, and Centennial, by James Michener.

Was that the beginning of a more pronounced drift toward pop? Maybe. Maybe not.

1974, #1 best sellers in nonfictionPlain Speaking, by Merle Miller (stories about Harry Truman); You Can Profit from a Monetary Crisis, by Harry Browne (money always a fave); All Things Bright and Beautiful, James Herriot (animals ditto); and the kicker: All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein.

1984, #1 best sellers in fictionuh-ohWho Killed the Robins Family, Bill Adler/Thomas Chastain; The Aquitaine Progression, Robert Ludlum; Full Circle, Danielle Steel; “…and Ladies of the Club”, Helen Hooven Santmyer; First Among Equals, Jeffrey Archer; The Fourth ProtocolFrederick Forsyth; The TalismanStephen King/Peter Straub.  Not much capital-L literature in that lot.

1984, nonfiction list-toppers were heavily biographical: Mayor, by New York’s Ed Koch and a co-writer; The Kennedys: An American Dream, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz; Iacocca, by Lee Iacocca and a co-writer; and Bob Woodward’s Wired, about John Belushi.

1994 fiction best sellers, more uh-ohDisclosure, Michael Crichton; Accident, Danielle Steel; The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield; Remember Me, Mary Higgins Clark; The Chamber, John Grisham; and books by Tom Clancy, Anne Rice, Stephen King–and another Danielle Steel. Now we’re well into airport books.

1994 nonfiction best sellers certainly made for strange bedfellows: Couplehood, by Paul Reiser, and Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man, by Tim Allen; The Book of Virtues, by William J. Bennett, and Crossing the Threshold of Hope, by Pope John Paul II; Barbara Bush: A Memoir, by B.B., and Nicole Brown Simpson (the ex-Mrs. O.J.), by Faye D. Resnick and a co-writer.

And now the fiction best sellers of 2004: Welcome to the Airport Bookstore. Grisham, Patterson, King, Evanovich, Grafton, Cornwell, Roberts, Baldacci, and DeMille. And some of these pop-star authors appeared more than once.

Nonfiction 2004: big, big change. Less candy, more meat–sort of. Lots of politics, both sides of the aisle. The Price of Loyalty, Ron Suskind; Deliver Us from Evil, Sean Hannity; Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward; My Life, Bill Clinton; Unfit for CommandO’Neill and Corsi; America (The Book), Jon Stewart and two co-writers. David Sedaris appeared; a couple of women showed up–Kitty Kelley (more Bushmania), and Lynne Truss, with Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Which brings us to the first half of our own 2014: In fiction, more of the same sort of airport books, with the surprising addition of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. In nonfiction, the surprises are Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind and Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by French author Thomas Piketty. And there’s Malcolm Gladwell’s new David and Goliath and Arianna Huffington’s Thrive–though we shouldn’t be surprised that those are best sellers.

Taking this survey in ten-year bites has meant leaving out the Harry Potter years, the chick-lit years, the years when the Twilight novels and other vampire and fantasy hits achieved best-sellerdom, and a lot more.

So okay, mine is a sketchy and oversimplified history of best sellers. But would adding the missing categories and bookstars really change the look of the fifty-year trend? Or maybe there’s never been a time when capital-L literature was the best-selling equal of pop-lit, and I’m just grumpy about it.



 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee WI

Watchung Booksellers, Montclair NJ

Flintridge Bookstore, La Canada CA

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