The Rise and Fall of the American Bestseller

Some hold to the idea that a greater proportion of the population in the past read higher quality fiction than they do now. I’ve put together statistics that support that belief.

Let me give a sketchy definition of what, for me, “literary fiction” is not: it’s not shallow; it does not pander to the reader’s base desires; it does not slavishly follow a much-used formula for success; its characters and situations are not phony concoctions. It rises above all that; it can rise far above it, to the celestial heights, or it can merely settle securely in one of the lower aery spheres, where there’s a touch of late afternoon smog in the air.

My definition is meant to spread a wide net. I can’t include only aspirants to the mantles of Joyce and Melville and Proust. If I do, I’m restricting myself to a small number of readers. I’m thinking of the man or woman on the street who can respond to a quality piece of writing, want more of it, and be willing to pay for it. Only they will constitute a substantial readership.

A rosy picture of a past with a more discriminating reading public is considered by some to be a myth. In a way they are right; people have always been attracted to those “nots” I noted above. But it’s a matter of degree. Included with the shoddy novels being read in the 1930’s through the 1970’s (though explicit sex was not allowed until the 60’s, and gore-for-gore’s sake came later), there’s a lot of quality work. Not so in the 80’s, 90’s, and the 2000’s.

I got the material to support the decline theory from a book called Making the List by Michael Korda, editor in chief of Simon and Schuster. He gives thebestsellers in every year from 1900 to 1999, as compiled by Publishers Weekly. These PW lists are available for your perusal on the Internet

I have great respect for Thornton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination (1935), Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (1951), Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools (1962), Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1974). And quite a few others in those decades. I have searched through the lists for the years that follow, and I cannot find one book that has their combination of appeal and artfulness. (I would have included Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, but it missed the top ten cut; it was number 12 in 1987 and number 11 in 1988.)

So you have a sense of my taste. I also appreciate more lofty work, but it doesn’t usually reach the lists. Or it does so for the wrong reasons (Lolita being a prime example).

To get this down to simple numbers, I looked at the titles and their authors for each year and assigned (or did not assign) them to the category of literary fiction. Though seeming at first to be wildly subjective, I don’t think my choices should be an area of contention. That’s because I’m not judging a specific book (most of them I haven’t read) but their authors (most of whose work I am familiar with). An example is John P. Marquand, who has six novels on the list; I’ve read two books by him, and both were excellent. In the case of Edna Ferber, I think it can be agreed that she wrote fiction that had scope and purpose and was done with craftsmanship. Anyway, there’s a tradeoff. I include Ferber in the 30’s and 40’s, but I include Jean Auel in the 80’s and 90’s. You may not think highly of James Hilton, a perennial favorite of the past, but you get Michael Crichton in exchange. It’s Good-Bye, Mr. Chips vs. Airframe. I believe that, if I’ve erred in my choices, it is in favor of the present.

Among the authors in different decades that I passed on are Margaret Mitchell and Anne Rice. Ditto with the mystery writers Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mary Higgins Clark. I don’t think any of them are literary. There was a great audience in the 30’s and 40’s for historical and religious novels; I excluded the likes of Kenneth Roberts and Lloyd C. Douglas, but I also leave out the omnipresent Stephen King and John Grisham, because now there’s a great audience for horror and legal thrillers; these four authors, though adept in what they do, mostly limited themselves to a successful formula.

All the authors mentioned above, past and present, have something in common: they geared their writing to the popular taste, to that man and woman on the street. But I also find many names on the lists for the 30’s that occupy the higher spheres of literature: Willa Cather, John Galsworthy, Isak Dinesen, Thomas Wolfe, George Santayana, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf (and at least eight others, including three Nobel Prize winners: Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck). On the 90’s lists I can produce only one name in that league: Toni Morrison.

After sampling the richness and variety of the 30’s, it’s instructive to look at all of the best-selling authors of literary fiction in the 90’s. Besides Morrison, they were Jean Auel, James Michener, Laura Esquival, Michael Crichton (with three books), Anonymous (Joe Klein), Charles Frazier, and Tom Wolfe (for A Man in Full, his disappointing follow-up to Bonfire). I declined to include Terry Brooks for Star Wars: Episode 1, The Phantom Menace.


Below are the numbers of authors of literary fiction who wrote at least one novel in a decade’s top ten bestseller list. The numbers represent different authors; those who wrote multiple bestsellers in a decade are counted only one time.

1930’s – 28

1940’s – 28

1950’s – 35

1960’s – 35

1970’s – 30

1980’s – 16

1990’s – 8

2000-2007 – 5

Michael Korda gives a commentary on each decade. A sentence from his book’s last paragraph sums up the situation: “At the end of the day, the bestseller lists of the nineties made for relatively depressing reading, except to accountants.” At least to those accountants of the publishing conglomerates that had a Tom Clancy or a Danielle Steel in their stable.

Depressing indeed. There’s a gloomy opinion that literary fiction is on life support. Blame it on TV, home videos, computer games, the bossanova. Or the new ways people’s minds are wired (short attention span and all that). But I wonder if the work being produced by today’s literary authors has led to the public’s disinterest. Has my broad definition of literary fiction been abandoned? Does it no longer attempt to appeal to the man and woman on the street?

As a nation we are culturally starved, even while we feel glutted. Just as junk food is nutritionally worthless, and makes you fat, the junk being consumed through TV, movies and books does not provide healthy fare. Authors may have a mission: to write novels of substance and quality that are palatable to the masses and that are nourishing – to the intellect, to the spirit.