Book World 25th Anniversary

Historic highlights from Book World reviews of the:
1970s | 1980s | 1990s

Hardcover Bestsellers, 1972-1996

The Book World staff picks its favorites of the last quarter-century.

Editor Nina King ponders the vagaries of becoming a bestseller.

Jonathan Yardley, Carolyn See and Kunio Francis Tanabe write of their personal experiences as critics.

Marie Arana-Ward explores the relationship between publisher and critic.

Jabari Asim celebrates a flourishing of African American literature.

Michael Dirda comments on the state of fiction.

David Nicholson speculates on the future of books in a technological age.

Go to Chapter One

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Topping the Charts

By Nina King
Sunday, June 1, 1997

"These are parlous times," Book World editor William McPherson mourned in a letter to readers in November 1973. His immediate concern was The Post's proposal to save money on newsprint by replacing the tabloid Book World with four pages in the Style/Show section (a format that lasted for five years). McPherson saw this as part of a national picture of shrinking outlets for serious reviews, a trend that boded ill for writers, readers, publishers, booksellers and books themselves. "Will publishing become all carnival and circuses?" he asked. "Will the books that most of us hear about be the major selections of the major book clubs, the highly touted bestsellers, what George Plimpton is advertising on television, and certain sensational items like The Sensuous Woman?"

Substitute Oprah Winfrey for Plimpton and Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss for The Sensuous Woman, and McPherson's lament might have been written yesterday. Twenty-five years later the times are even more parlous, making the '70s look good by comparison. In a special issue on publishing this March, the Nation magazine denounced the curse of bigness: the dominance of eight huge media conglomerates seeking giant profits; the "overvaluation" of bestsellers beginning with the '60s boom in subsidiary rights; the flourishing of book "superstores" (in particular the "duopoly" of Borders and Barnes & Noble). Paradoxically, as these aspects of publishing get bigger, the number of those who share in the profits decreases -- particularly midlist authors, independent bookstores and small publishers.

The verse changes but the lament goes on. In this century as in previous ones, each new generation of book lovers has found cause to mourn a vanished golden age of good taste and high standards, when publishers were gentlemen and editors actually put pen to paper -- and not just on contracts. When writers wrote for art and love's sake, not just to please the vulgar taste of a mass audience. But here is the opportunistic young writer Jasper Milvain in George Gissing's 1891 novel New Grub Street: "Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic forces, your successful man of letters is your skilled tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly he is ready with something new and appetizing. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell he'll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters, magazines and newspapers and foreign publishers . . . our Grub Street of to-day is . . . supplied with telegraphic communication, it knows what literary fare is in demand in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, however seedy."

The truth is that the Good Old Days were often pretty bad. Fine literary work was ignored in favor of commercial pabulum for undiscriminating palates: Consider the fiction bestseller list (compiled by Publishers Weekly) that appeared in Book World on June 4, 1972. It offered a selection of fat family melodramas on big themes (World War II by Herman Wouk, a new version of the life of Christ by Irving Wallace, a Boston political dynasty and an international communist conspiracy by Taylor Caldwell -- wholesome fare perhaps but not memorable. It also proffered a variety of sleek thrillers, some by writers still active on the list, such as Michael Crichton and Joseph Wambaugh. Only two of the books on that 1972 fiction list merited serious critical attention: George V. Higgins's first novel about Boston lowlifes, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev, the story of a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who becomes an internationally celebrated painter.

Twenty-five years later, on today's Book World bestseller list, thrillers and mysteries hold sway. Included are John Grisham's latest legal adventure, The Partner, Mary Higgins Clark's hair-raiser about the Witness Protection Program, Pretend You Don't See Her, works by veterans Jack Higgins (who first made the list in 1975) and Nelson DeMille. Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman's first mystery makes its bestselling debut. There are books by Danielle Steel, Lawrence Sanders and Arthur C. Clarke -- nothing there to surprise or thrill either the reader of today or that of 1972. One notable exception: Thomas Pynchon's postmodernist meganovel about early U.S. history, Mason & Dixon.

The nonfiction list for June 4, 1972, offered a familiar mix of pop biography, self-help and inspiration. The list is topped, however, by a minor classic of baseball writing, Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer. (Oddly enough, Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull appears as "nonfiction" on this installment of the PW list.) Today's nonfiction list is heavy on celebrity autobiographies (Marcia Clark, Cal Ripken, Robert Reich). But it also includes Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, one of the most acclaimed memoirs in recent memory.

At Book World's request, Publishers Weekly compiled a list of the top fiction and nonfiction bestsellers for each year from 1972 through 1996. The fiction list certainly suggests a trend toward more copies sold of fewer authors. Three writers -- James Michener, Stephen King and John Gri-sham -- are responsible for a remarkable total of 10 of the 25 titles. (Grisham, as of this writing, is nudging at Mary Higgins Clark for the No. 1 spot for the fourth year in a row.) As for the quality of the titles, though King in particular has some persuasive admirers, only one book on the list was widely admired by critics as well as the general public: E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. The 1970s were ushered in by one of the wimpiest bestsellers ever -- Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the story of a bird whose love for flight becomes his ticket to self-actualization and to seagull heaven.

On the 25-year nonfiction list, only three authors appear for more than one title -- Erma Bombeck, Bill Cosby and Rush Limbaugh, with two bestsellers each. The majority of the titles are, broadly speaking, self-help books, offering advice on diet, investment and the opposite sex, and inspiration either secular or religious. There is some good journalistic writing represented here but no outstanding stylist.

Neither of these exercises in comparison suggests a clear-cut pattern of declining quality. Such judgments are inevitably impressionistic. There is no way to quantify quality, though one of the Nation contributors tries, tracking a decrease in the average sentence length from the bestsellers of 1936 to those of 1996, and arguing that this reflects a "dumbing down" of books for the masses. This seems dumb to me. Mightn't it just reflect the powerful stylistic shadow cast by Ernest Hemingway on modern American fiction?

Such judgments are a matter of opinion (informed opinion, we hope), and of taste. So are reviews. There is plenty of room for arguing, which we will be doing as long as there are new books to argue about. A long time, I trust.

Nina King is editor of Book World.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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