Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Garbage in, garbage out: 100 years of bestsellers

I found this pretty interesting. This guy, Matthew Kahn, is in the process of reading the Publishers Weekly No. 1 bestsellers of that last 100 years, and he’s noting some interesting patterns.

For a writer like me, what he’s learning proves that it’s a crappy time to be a literary novelist. Sometime in the ‘70s, the bestseller list went genre in a big way, pushing award-winning literary fiction down and casting it, I guess, with the stigma of “highbrow.” In other words, crime, mystery, thrillers, historical novels, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and maybe even romance began to dominate the bestseller lists. Used to be, the highbrow stuff was actually popular. In 1921, Main Street by Sinclair Lewis was No. 1. In 1939, it was The Grapes of (Frickin’) Wrath. According to Kahn: “In the first half of this list, there are about 10 years where the bestseller was also a Pulitzer Prize winner. There were a few years where the bestseller was written by a Nobel Prize winner. With Allen Drury’s ‘Advise and Consent,’ in 1960, that was the last time either of those things were true. It’s the last book on the list to win the Pulitzer Prize.”

Can you wrap your head around that one? It’s been more than 50 years since the No. 1 Publishers Weekly bestseller was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize! What does this mean?

Some good books have come out in that time, Pulitzer winners all: Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner), Humboldt’s Gift (Saul Bellow), The Color Purple (Alice Walker), Breathing Lessons (Anne Tyler), The Shipping News (E. Annie Proulx), Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides) — and many more. None topped the bestseller list.

Some of the No. 1 bestsellers?: Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Richard Bach), The Tommyknockers (Stephen King), The Rainmaker (John Grisham), The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown), and Fifty Shades of Grey (E. L. James).

That’s entertainment.

12 comments on “Garbage in, garbage out: 100 years of bestsellers

  1. sknicholls
    April 4, 2014

    Did you really think The Color Purple was a good book? The writing style was painful for me to try to read. I have read many Pulitzers and enjoyed them, but it surprises me that you only need fifty dollars and four copies of your book to submit.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 4, 2014

      I did think TCP was a good book. Innovative. Challenging, but rewarding. IMHO.

      Interesting about the Pulitzer. I didn’t know that!

      • sknicholls
        April 4, 2014

        You can enter and submit your own book. They prefer stories about American life. A group of readers at my local library sent in mine. I’m not holding my breath. They get approximately 2400 entries. I was honored though, that this group of eight readers thought enough to do that.

  2. John W. Howell
    April 4, 2014

    Not being in the Literary genre I feel your angst. I have to say for entertainment’s sake I would rather do a book than the TV pap. Good post.

  3. ericjbaker
    April 4, 2014

    Someday I hope to read a post of yours that says, “Well, Baker hit the bestseller list again, turning yet another paint-by-numbers pile of generic pabulum into an express train full of cash. What happened to taste and self-respect?”

    The mid-70s seemed to be a turning point in regard to the commercialization of entertainment. Look at the top movies form the first half of the decade vs the second half. However, I wonder if commercial fiction just means more people are reading? Did literary fiction lose its audience or did commercial fiction bring in a newer, bigger audience? That’s not rhetoric. I really wonder if there’s more to it than shifting taste.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 4, 2014

      I’ll be your biggest fan. Pabulum is good for the digestion.

      I think you’re right about the evolution of entertainment. Early ’70s has some real gems. Then came “Saturday Night Fever.” Ugh!

      But, just for the sake of argument, I wonder if it really matters that more people are reading if all they’re reading is vampire and zombie novels… Like Lays potato chips: Betcha can’t read just one!

  4. J. S. Collyer
    April 5, 2014

    Do a wider range of people read for pleasure these days? Books used to be more a luxury item?

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 5, 2014

      You know, I think people have been reading for entertainment a long time — certainly since the paperback arrived. That easily goes back to the 1930s, for mass-market paperbacks. I can remember stacks of James Bond books in my dad’s closet!

      I think the public conception of what books really are might have changed. Hard to say…

  5. P. C. Zick
    April 6, 2014

    Interesting information, and while I probably knew it on one level, it’s tough to read. My editor at a small newspaper once entered a series I wrote about drug abuse for a Pulitzer. Long shot, but at least he thought it Pulitzer worthy even if the powers that sit on high (or just plain high) in the tall buildings of NYC didn’t.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 6, 2014

      It’s all the more ironic that they couldn’t even select a winner in fiction last year! In other words, none of the thousands of novels published that year were worthy. Ugh.

      • P. C. Zick
        April 7, 2014

        That’s so true, Kevin. I forgot about that!

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