Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction
After reading John Sutherland’s Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press , 127 pp.), I really did feel like I had a better sense of bestsellers: key names, characteristics, where they came from and where they are probably going. Everybody is familiar with bestsellers, of course, and has probably read a few. This book takes a closer look at this (rather recent) phenomenon, both from a book industry perspective and from a (quote-unquote) literary perspective.
Sutherland’s book offers a wide take on bestsellers (common traits, audience expectations, market strategies that propelled them) as well as a more detailed, nearly decade-by-decade account of American and British bestsellers. These types of chapters read very differently, moving from a more structural to a chronological point of view. In fact, it seemed that these were two different books compacted uncomfortably into a single introduction.
Having said that, interesting ideas and witticisms dot the entire book (a sampler follows). The differences between the American and British book markets (America had a wider reading public, the Brits had a much more regulated boys’ club built around the selling of books) are described. The book ends with some predictions on the future of bestsellers (national bestsellers will give way to group preferences guided by blog buzz, the Internet, and nuanced product placement).
Sutherland’s book is, surely, an introduction. It feels like a tour of a huge coastline with two-minute stops at several beaches. Not all VSIs produce this impression. One cannot blame the author, though, for delivering what the title promised.
Here’s a handful of interesting quotes from the book (do read them, to get a taste of both the tone and the ideas):
- “The great literary work may be, as Jonson said of Shakespeare, ‘not for an age but for all time’. The reverse is, typically, the case with the ‘best’ bestsellers. They are snapshots of the age” (3).
- “There is no advance in the merchandising of books […] that America has not pioneered and brought to perfection” (4).
- “Without the minting press and the printing press - and the currencies of wealth and ideas they put into circulation - the modern world would not have happened” (23).
- “There are so many novels that even if one dedicated one’s whole life to reading them, and doing little else, one would - novel in hand one’s deathbed - only have scratched the surface of the fiction mountain” (25).
- “It is tempting to see the bestseller in a polar relationship with ‘canonical’ fiction […]. But even their select contents are subject to tides (albeit slower tides) of fashion” (27).
- “There is no copyright in ideas, scenarios, or narrative gimmicks. Even highly original (seeming) bestsellers can often be found, consciously or unconsciously, to be formed by what in the book trade is called ‘me-tooism,’ or what, in more censorious areas of intellectual life, would be called plagiarism. And, within this zone of free-for-all, there is much recycling” (39).
- “The huge market opened up by the genre/pulp fiction factories was looked at, both enviously and disdainfully, by the ‘literary’ sector. William Faulkner (later a Nobellist) composed Sanctuary (1931) by asking himself what would sell 10,000 copies, then ‘invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks.’ The tale of sadistic rape and violence duly sold its expected quantity. Less cynically, Ernest Hemingway (another future Nobellist) absorbed an idiom strikingly like that of the ‘hard-boiled’ crime writers into his fiction” (58).
- “[David] Seltzer [with The Omen] […] made the novelization (as practised by such masters of the art as Alan Dean Foster) critically respectable” (77).
- “In the future, there will not be national bestsellers but ‘group preferences’ organized around web-connected readerships, supplied by web-retailers attentive to the group’s taste. This is the optimistic ‘long tail’ thesis - a sophistication of the mechanisms of choice which will render the ‘old-fashioned’ bestseller, and its last-century machinery, obsolete. In the future, readers will increasingly refine (or mature) their preferences, and suppliers will increasingly profile and satisfy their idiosyncratic needs” (111).