A Disquisition on Bestsellerdom
The Boom: The Blockbusters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
The simultaneous emergence of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Thomas Tryon’s The Other on the bestseller lists in 1971 necessitates a further discussion of the phenomenon of the bestseller, as it is something we shall have to face throughout the rest of this book. Bestsellers have been curiously understudied in academic literary criticism, perhaps because highbrow critics disdain them out of hand while the advocates of “popular” fiction are reluctant to face the obvious but uncomfortable conclusion that such writing has little if no correlation to aesthetic merit.
Popular fiction can only be said to have emerged in the later nineteenth century, and was the result of a fortuitous concatenation of factors—chiefly, the increasing literacy and increased income of the working classes, causing them to be purchasers of books and other “entertainment” products (as they were conceived) for the first time. Popular writing prior to this period really did not exist. The standard counter-examples—Shakespeare and Dickens—prove to be nothing of the kind. Shakespeare’s plays were popular not because of his actual literary merits—his remarkable insight into character and his ability to express that insight in language of high poeticism—but because his plays were entertaining spectacles for the peasants who flocked to the Globe Theatre. Dickens did appeal to a slightly wider audience than the tiny proportion of the educated public of the period, but it is a plain falsehood to say he appealed to a “mass” audience. Book sales of David Copperfield during the years 1851—53 averaged only 1500 copies a year; even the initial issuance of this book in “parts” averaged only about 20,000 copies—a far cry from the two million copies that Lew Wallace sold of his bestseller Ben-Hur (1880). It is telling that Alice Payne Hackett’s book on bestsellers begins with the year 1895.
As I have stated, the pulp magazines fostered the development of what came to be called genre fiction—mystery, horror, science fiction, romance, the western—but books of such writing did not generally appear on the bestseller lists until well after the demise of the pulps in the 1950s. Even Rosemary’s Baby was only no. 7 on the cumulative 1967 bestseller list, while The Exorcist and The Other were no. 2 and no. 9, respectively. In all, The Exorcist remained on the New York Times bestseller for a total of 55 weeks in 1971—72, while The Other appeared there for 24 weeks in 1971.
The simple fact is that these books, along with the later books by Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, and others, were in many instances calculated to appeal to a mass audience that generally did not read horror fiction—and the appeal was based on those qualities that either constitute the lower ranges of literary skill or are altogether subliterary: fast-paced narrative to keep the pages turning; contemporary settings (replete, in King’s case, with familiar brand-name articles) to engender readers’ associations; relatively bland, ordinary human characters to whom the average reader can relate; an equally bland, easy-to-read style that doesn’t tax the reader’s intelligence in regard to diction or syntax; happy endings that neatly resolve the myriad crises elaborated upon in the text; and, perhaps most significant of all, a relatively conventional supernatural scenario, frequently drawing upon the Judaeo-Christian tradition, that does not strain average readers’ credulity or expand their imagination in the manner of Lovecraft’s extraterrestrials or Blackwood’s occult mysticism.
For the plain and brutal fact is that the average reader is intellectually and aesthetically incapable of distinguishing popular rubbish from literary merit. Of the eighty-one books that were No. 1 bestsellers in the years 1895—1975, no more than six can be said to have entered the American literary canon. Virtually all the others have been deservedly forgotten; and they have been forgotten not because of some conspiracy on the part of highbrow critics to suppress “popular” writing but because these works are in fact inferior products that have no lasting appeal or resonance. Accordingly, the suspicion that bestsellerdom largely equates to aesthetic ineptitude is not an unreasoned prejudice but a conclusion impelled by the facts of the case.
The emergence of horror as a bestselling phenomenon was, as we have seen, not a sudden or unexpected event, but one that the preceding decades had nurtured; it only took the right circumstances—chiefly, the increasing intersection of popular writing and blockbuster film—to bring it about; and it was, in some senses, an accident that The Exorcist and, to a lesser degree, The Other were the triggers. It could well have been other books. The fact that horror was a bestselling phenomenon only for a period of roughly two decades—the “boom” being largely over by 1990, the result of an appalling tidal wave of rubbish that seemed finally to exhaust even the most devoted horror maven—suggests that truly meritorious writing in this field has always, and should always, appeal to the few.