IN MAKING THE LIST, his 2001 book about best sellers, former Simon & Schuster editor in chief Michael Korda recalls that the publishing house once commissioned a study of which books made the most money. After a detailed presentation, the consultant said to the editors, "Do you guys realize how much money the company would make if you only published best sellers?" He might as well have told them that they'd do better playing the lottery if they picked the right numbers. Trends come and go, but the best seller remains essentially serendipitous. An editor can be no more certain of finding the next one than a writer can be assured of writing it. "As a rule of thumb," writes John Sutherland, an English scholar who has studied the phenomenon, "what defines the bestseller is bestselling. Nothing else."
The term best seller has always been a misnomer. Fast seller would be more appropriate, since the pace of sales matters as much as the quantity. The first list of books "in order of demand" was created in 1895 by Harry Thurston Peck, editor of the trade magazine The Bookman. Publishers Weekly started its own list in 1912, but others were slow to follow: The New York Times did not create its best-seller list until 1942. Now, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today also compile national lists, and each of the major regional papers has its own—all generated in slightly different ways. The Times bases its list on sales reports from around four thousand booksellers, which it declines to name (a column by the paper's public editor a few years ago said only that they change constantly). The Wall Street Journal used to track only sales in major chain stores but now bases its rankings on data from Nielsen BookScan, an authoritative industry source that includes as many as three-quarters of the nation's bookstores, around eleven thousand. IndieBound surveys only independent bookstores. Amazon.com offers its own list, updated every hour, but—like all the others—it is based on orders, not actual sales (since returns are not taken into account). Thus a writer with a carefully timed marketing blitz can push his book to a relatively high Amazon ranking for a day or so, allowing him to claim that it was, say, a "top ten Amazon best seller." The system's vulnerability to manipulation has resulted in the perception that, as Eliza Truitt wrote in Slate, the term best seller on the cover of a book means "about as much as the phrase 'original recipe' does on a jar of spaghetti sauce."
From the start, Peck seems to have had mixed feelings about the arbitrariness of the mechanism he had chosen to anoint books. "The period during which a popular novel enjoys favor is growing shorter all the time nowadays," he wrote in 1902, lamenting "the flood of fiction that is being placed upon the market and vigorously promoted practically every month in the year." While there has never been a defined threshold for making it onto the list—there is no guarantee that a book will be a top ten best seller if it sells fifty thousand copies, one hundred thousand, or even five hundred thousand—both the level and the pace of sales have increased exponentially. (For the sake of simplicity, the statistics in this essay are drawn mainly from the annual ranking of hardcover fiction by Publishers Weekly, which is the most comprehensive historical source.) During the list's first few decades, No. 1 best sellers typically sold about a quarter million copies in the first year after their release. The first superseller, the picaresque novel Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen (1933), sold six hundred thousand copies over its first four years. Its record was promptly beaten by Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936), the first book to sell one million copies in a single year. In 1956, Peyton Place by Grace Metalious—still one of the best-selling novels of all time—sold sixty thousand copies within ten days of its publication: It was at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for fifty-nine weeks. Now, each of the top five novels easily sells one million copies in hardcover. The best-selling novel of 2010, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Swedish crime writer Stieg Larsson, sold nearly two million copies last year.
No possible generalization can be made regarding the 1,150 books that have appeared in the top ten of the fiction best-seller list since its inception. There are literary novels by Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir, J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, and John Updike. There are social-problem novels, such as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939). There are war novels: Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (one of the few German novels ever to make the list, in 1929), The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer, 1948), From Here to Eternity (James Jones, 1951). There are religious novels ranging from Lloyd C. Douglas's The Robe (1942) and Leon Uris's Exodus (1959) to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach's 1970 allegory about a bird who yearns for a higher plane of existence. There are westerns by Owen Wister (The Virginian, 1902) and Zane Grey (who published nearly a novel a year from 1915 to 1924). There are sex novels: Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber (1944), with the tag line "Adultery's no crime—it's an amusement"; Peyton Place, which graphically depicts rape and teenage sex; and Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls (1966), in which sex comes in second to tranquilizers as a source of pleasure. There are horror novels, with Rosemary's Baby (Ira Levin, 1967) and The Exorcist (William P. Blatty, 1971) paving the way for Stephen King's current domination of the field. There is spy fiction and science fiction and—currently the most popular genre—crime fiction. "The bestseller list, from day one, has always represented a reliable mixture of the good and the bad, of quality and trash," Korda writes.
The best seller is caught in a peculiar paradox: Its popularity can be understood as both proof and negation of its value. If the only attribute inherent to the best seller is sales, then any book that is popular runs the risk of being lumped in with the rest and tossed aside like a candy wrapper once finished—as Jonathan Franzen's angst over whether to accept the imprimatur of Oprah's Book Club for The Corrections unwittingly illustrated. (The book was a No. 5 best seller in 2001.) For certain elite readers, the best seller is valuable primarily as a means of calibrating literary taste: We know what is good in part by knowing what is bad. But the sheer ubiquity of the best seller makes it impossible to disregard so easily. If some books are good (read: literary) because they don't sell, others are just as likely to be judged good (read: entertaining) because they do. "If I'm a lousy writer, then a hell of a lot of people have got lousy taste," Metalious once said.
"In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is 'good,'" wrote George Orwell, who was never a snob on literary matters. "Nor is there any way of definitely proving that—for instance—Warwick Deeping is 'bad.' Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion." After reading my way through a century's worth of best sellers, I'm inclined to disagree. Even if we are taught to appreciate Shakespeare in a way that we're not taught to appreciate Deeping (whose stories of life in Edwardian England made him a household name in the late '20s and '30s), it's nonetheless easy to distinguish their literary worth. Deeping's works are crudely characterized and bombastically written—qualities we have come to associate with the best seller. But the high melodrama still draws us in. The impulse behind rubbernecking at a car accident is the same one that keeps us turning the pages: We want to watch the disaster unfold.
Best sellers sell, after all, because they provide pleasure, even if it's mainly the kind of pleasure that comes from the satisfaction of a craving. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed a number of the books I read—from the high Christian camp of The Robe to the desperate sleaze of Valley of the Dolls. Orwell called books like these "good bad books," writing that "the existence of good bad literature—the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously—is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration." At other times I couldn't help but conclude that Metalious had it right: In some cases, a hell of a lot of people really did have lousy taste. (The once-beloved Anthony Adverse was the only book I found utterly unreadable.) But even the books that hold up less well retain interest as cultural phenomena. If people look to literature to explain themselves to themselves, then the popular novelists of the past, whose books once lined the shelves of every well-appointed middle-class home, can tell us a lot about the preoccupations of the people who read them. The story that emerges from the novels that triggered national obsessions constitutes a map of the mainstream—and its changing boundaries over the years.
Up through the '50s, each generation of best sellers was dominated by a few "mainstay" writers working in traditional categories: historical fiction, mystery, romance. In-offensive but rarely illuminating, their books, a somewhat obvious barometer of popular taste, have by and large dissolved into history. It is the outliers—the one-hit wonders, the dynamos that suddenly shot to the top of the list while the mainstays languished in the lower digits—that remain most readable and relevant, both for the skill of their storytelling and for their surprising revelations about social mores.
During the years before World War I, the most popular genre was historical fiction, much of it by Winston Churchill—not the British prime minister, but an American novelist who shared his name. He had eight titles on the list, starting in 1899 with Richard Carvel and continuing through A Far Country in 1915, a maudlin prodigal-son story that seems to have been intended as an allegory of the American condition. Readers in the 1900s and '10s also favored the works of George Barr McCutcheon (who wrote a series of historical romances set in the fictional eastern European country Graustark) and Gene Stratton-Porter, best known for A Girl of the Limberlost (1909). While these mainstays offered bland escapism, the outliers of the decade—including Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, which appeared on the list in 1905 and 1906—gave portraits of real life in America's urban centers. The story of Lily Bart, with her elegant parties and numerous suitors, has some of the trappings of the conventional romance, but Wharton's depiction of her fall from grace is stubbornly unsentimental. Like some of the novels examining the female condition that would follow over the next few decades, The House of Mirth is a kind of antiromance novel, a cautionary tale about how badly things could go wrong for a woman trying to negotiate the complicated arrangements that constituted marriage at the beginning of the century. While the specifics have significantly changed, the social and financial pressures that Wharton explores still feel familiar.
The mainstay of the '20s and early '30s was Orwell's detested Deeping. The author of sixty-eight novels, he saw seven of them reach the best-seller list, starting with Sorrell and Son in 1926. Set in England after World War I, this melodrama tells the story of a down-on-his-luck veteran who must raise his son alone after being deserted by his wife. The novel's most striking quality is its misogyny. The female innkeeper who first tortures Sorrell is all the more sinister for her sex appeal; his estranged wife, when she reappears, is materialistic and greedy: "a vampire," Sorrell calls her, "a woman, who, having all the satisfactions she desired from men and sex, was seeking other satisfactions . . . [in] the young vitality of her son." The ease with which these cruel portraits were accepted would seem to be a depressing indication of the era's attitudes toward women.
But then consider Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the surprise sensation of the '20s, which turns a caricature of a gold digger into a bumbling but amusing heroine. Anita Loos writes that the idea came to her during a long-distance train trip in which she watched the men in her car falling over themselves to assist a voluptuous blonde while leaving the petite brunette Loos to lug her suitcases alone. Subtitled The Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady, it is breezily written by a young woman calling herself Lorelei, who describes her misadventures with men in hilariously understated language studded with malapropisms. The novel, which sold more than one hundred thousand copies within six months of its release in November 1925, bursts with the irrational exuberance of the mid-'20s, the unparalleled prosperity that would soon end with a crash. It laughs at Lorelei, but it mocks equally the foolish and arrogant men whom she so easily separates from their money. "Kissing your hand may make you feel very good," she purrs, "but a diamond bracelet lasts forever."
Religious novels by Lloyd C. Douglas took hold of the popular imagination during the mid-'30s and '40s. The former minister inaugurated his stretch on the best-seller list in 1932 with Magnificent Obsession, an unsurprisingly preachy tale about a man who devotes his life to medicine after his rescue from a boating accident costs a doctor his life. His follow-up, The Robe, embellishes a historical fable with contemporary language and psychology. A young Roman soldier stationed in Palestine comes into possession of the robe that was Jesus's last garment, and his discovery of its mystical powers eventually leads him to accept Jesus as the Messiah. The appeal of this story at the height of World War II—it entered the best-seller list at No. 7 in 1942 and held a top position for the following two years, selling a million copies—undoubtedly owed much to Douglas's consoling vision of Christianity as a religion of peace and tolerance. The story unfolds with a certain amount of swashbuckling verve, but today the novel's pseudohistorical trappings give it a campy feel—a cross between Spartacus and Ben-Hur.
As if to prove that anyone could make a fortune at that particular historical moment with Christian-themed novels, Sholem Asch, a Polish-born Jew, became the first Yiddish writer to hit the best-seller list with his own trilogy about the life of Christ: The Nazarene (1939), The Apostle (1944), and Mary (1949). The irony of a Jewish writer promoting Christian subjects in the midst of World War II was not lost on The Forward, which barred him from its pages. But the outlier Gentleman's Agreement, Laura Z. Hobson's snappy 1947 tale of a brash young magazine writer who poses as a Jew in order to expose anti-Semitism in America, came at the national preoccupation with religion from a different perspective. As with similar "problem novels" like The Jungle and Lillian Smith's Strange Fruit (1944), there can never be any doubt that Hobson's primary purpose is didactic. Anti-Semitism—which ran explicitly counter to the popular perceptions of Christian tolerance—was a taboo subject in postwar America: The original ad copy for the book quoted a letter in which Hobson warned her publishers that she had an idea for a novel that "the magazines will never look at, the movies won't touch, and the public won't buy." Though the novel artfully depicted the manifestations of prejudice in social life, the book's positive message helped it go down more easily than Hobson expected: As in The Robe, good wins in the end. (Mein Kampf, bizarrely, appeared on the nonfiction best-seller list in 1939, but one imagines this was a sign less of American anti-Semitism than of a desire to know the enemy.)
The war novels that were a mainstay in the '50s offered a greater challenge to the boundaries of taste. James Jones's down-and-dirty From Here to Eternity, which takes place among a company of soldiers in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, was criticized for its grimy portrayal of army life, including its liberal use of profanity and its bald depiction of adultery at the base. Jones's daughter recently revealed that the original version of the novel went even further: The publisher made him cut scenes of homosexuality among the soldiers, which Jones believed was "a natural condition of men in close quarters." His debut novel, the book is raw and unpolished, but its lack of literary pretension suits this story of down-and-outs in Waikiki. In contrast, Herman Wouk's soberly written third novel, The Caine Mutiny (1951)—which knocked From Here to Eternity off the top of the Times best-seller list and stayed there for two years running—was praised for eschewing Jones's crudity, but in comparison it feels glib. It is no less damning of the military, however, in its depiction of the court martial of two naval officers who take command of their ship from a captain who has lost his mind. For the first time, big novels were exposing the sinister side of authority in one of the nation's most hallowed institutions.
Peyton Place, Metalious's bitter saga of depravity beneath the prim surface of a New England village, demonstrated similar rumbles of disaffection with the establishment. One of the best-selling novels in America for decades—by 1975 it had sold more than ten million copies—the novel was heralded as a daring exposé of the hypocrisy of Puritanism. "The late Sinclair Lewis would no doubt have hailed Grace Metalious as a sister-in-arms against the false fronts and bourgeois pretensions of allegedly respectable communities," the New York Times reviewer wrote, suggesting that Metalious would have a promising future if she could "turn her emancipated talents to less lurid purposes." But the episodes of graphic sex and violence are notable less for their shock value (which they retain today) than for their relentless focus on women's exploitation by corrupt and deceitful men. In its indictment of masculine power, Peyton Place—appearing a year before Betty Friedan began conducting the surveys that would lead to The Feminine Mystique—probes a deep vein of female frustration that would resonate again in feminist best sellers like The Stepford Wives (1972) and Fear of Flying (1973). And its unsympathetic portrayals of the town's wealthy points to the undercurrent of sympathy for the working class that would soon burst forth.
The '60s are often thought of as the golden age of the best seller, and indeed a higher percentage of literary books made the list then than in any other decade. But in retrospect this seems to owe less to a sudden change in the reading public's taste than to serious writers' increased willingness to take on topics that had once been limited to the pulps. Prostitution went literary in Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, the subject of an obscenity trial on its US publication in 1961. If Miller's language was obviously more artful than Metalious's, his detailed descriptions of sexual exploits were similar in their effect—and in their shattering of taboos. Similarly, it seems no accident that Portnoy's Complaint (No. 1 in 1969), notorious for taking masturbation to unforeseen extremes, is the only novel by Philip Roth to make the list to date. The decade's outlier, Jacqueline Susann's sob-fest Valley of the Dolls (No. 1 in 1966), returns to the lament for the female condition. The book's three heroines make terrible decisions regarding men, but they are portrayed as victims of their culture and its expectations of them, not villains. Susann's famous quip that she'd be happy to meet Roth but wouldn't want to shake his hand is normally taken as a masturbation joke, but it might also have been meant as a dig at his misogyny.
The book business began to change in the '70s. Literary novels were still a regular feature during this era, with Ragtime, Sophie's Choice, and Humboldt's Gift all appearing on the list. The big hits—Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Exorcist, Jaws, Love Story, and Fear of Flying—each sold more than one million copies within their first decade, which seems relatively modest today. These books are diverse in style and subject—the pattern of mainstays and outliers was starting to break down as publishers ceded control of the list to Hollywood. (The Godfather was by far the biggest hit of the '70s, selling ten million copies over the course of the decade—credit to the excellent film adaptations rather than to the clunky, overlong novel.) But if the list was not yet as mass-market-heavy as it would become in the '80s and '90s, there was nonetheless a marked decline in the literary level that reflects the changing marketplace.
A combination of factors brought about the homogenization of the best-seller list that began in the late '70s and continues today. First, consumers' shopping patterns changed: Readers who had once depended on the Book of the Month Club to supply them with popular fiction now could find discounted hardcovers at mall retailers like Waldenbooks. Then the "superstores" pioneered by Barnes & Noble began to edge independents out of the market, which made publishers less inclined to publish the quirkier fiction in which the smaller bookstores specialized. Meanwhile, the conglomeration of publishing houses under larger and larger umbrellas meant that profits were often managed by distant executives who prioritized the bottom line over promoting literary culture, making editors less likely than ever to take risks on anything beyond the mainstream. The result was that for a new author, making the best-seller list was more like winning the lottery than ever before—in terms of both payout and probability.
In the past, it was common for a novelist to have a few hits and then fade from view. Deeping, for instance, never made the list again after 1932, though he continued publishing through the '50s. Now, by contrast, there began to emerge a core group of writers who could regularly sell a million copies in a year and then come right back the following year with a new best seller—a trend that continued through the '90s and shows no signs of abating. More than half of the fifteen writers who have appeared on the list ten times or more started publishing within the past forty or so years. Danielle Steel—who published her first best seller, Changes, in 1983—holds the current record with thirty-three. Stephen King, whose first hit was The Dead Zone in 1979, comes in second with thirty-two. John Grisham, who started with The Firm in 1991, is third with twenty-three. Rounding out the list are the prolific newcomer James Patterson (seventeen), Tom Clancy (thirteen), Patricia Cornwell and Sidney Sheldon (eleven each), and Michael Crichton and Robert Ludlum (ten each). Some of these writers are stronger than others—both Clancy and Crichton have at least produced readable books—but none approaches the stature even of a Wouk or a Uris. The middlebrow, represented now by writers like John Irving and Garrison Keillor, had become a minority. Meanwhile, the only new literary novelists who made the list in the '80s and '90s did so with the help of movie tie-ins (Umberto Eco) or assassination threats (Salman Rushdie). The "flood of fiction" that Peck lamented in 1902 had become a tsunami drowning out outlier voices.
With the regulars bringing out a new book every year or so, the number of open slots naturally decreased. And so a novel by a new writer has a smaller chance of becoming a best seller today than at any other time in history. Korda likens it to "finding an empty seat on a commuter train that's packed with regulars." In 1987, only two novels on the list were by nonregulars: one by the legal-thriller writer Scott Turow and the other by Keillor. In 1988, there was only one book by a newcomer: a collection of Grimm's fairy tales illustrated by Maurice Sendak. In 1990, there were no nonregulars at all. The multiculturalism trend in the '90s brought success for a few nonwhite writers, who have historically had very few best sellers: Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale), Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate), Amy Tan (The Kitchen God's Wife), and Toni Morrison (Paradise). (Women of color, it would seem, have to either score movie deals or win the Nobel to make the best-seller list.) But during 1997 and 1998 Danielle Steel dominated the list with three new novels each year. The story remained the same through the 2000s, which saw the pendulum of the mainstays swing back to the religious novel: The phenomenally successful Left Behind series and Mitch Albom's treacly musings about the afterlife were on the list for several years running. There's only one indication that America spent the past decade embroiled in two wars: the popularity of the Afghan American writer Khaled Hosseini, whose novel A Thousand Splendid Suns surmounted the Grishams and Pattersons to become No. 1 in 2007.
Scandinavians are sociopathic, but brilliant and technologically advanced. The justice system might be sentencing innocent people to death. A lot of white people employ black maids, or once did, and feel conflicted about it. You can find new love after making mistakes in your past, but you will have to confront them first. The war on terror will be won by secret intelligence services and brave special-ops commanders. Vampires are scary, sexy, and endlessly fascinating. Marriage is complicated and kind of dull, and the temptations of past lovers can be too much to resist. We really wish that dogs could talk. This summary of our current preoccupations, via the most recent best-seller lists, is arbitrary—if not entirely incorrect. But the question of what our best sellers say about us now seems less important than who says it. Regardless of what the books contain, a list composed almost entirely of mainstays is a depressing marker of national conservatism and complacency. The outliers—those "good bad books," in Orwell's words—are the ones that can make change. As his prime example of the type, Orwell gave Uncle Tom's Cabin: "an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents . . . [but] also deeply moving and essentially true." It was all those things, and it was also one of the most influential books in American history. And it was a best seller.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at the New Republic. Her book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, was published by Oxford University Press last fall.