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October 15, 2008

Fragile Popularity

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Yes, yes. I know. Just because something's popular doesn't mean it has high quality. And just because something has high quality doesn't foreclose it becoming popular.

Moreover, all things being equal, I think it's nice when a writer / painter / creative whatever finds fame, fortune or both during his lifetime. Still...

You see, there's this schadenfreude thing. I find myself pleased when one of those writer / painter / creative whatever types who happens to crank out garbage gets his comeuppance either in his own lifetime or his hereafter.

Such reputation-crashing gives me hope that many of those "creatives" who have been doing such damage to the arts will indeed "get theirs" once the wheels of history have finished their grinding. And this is not to mention my happiness when a worthy artist gets his reputation restored after having fallen from fashion's favor.

A complicated business all this. Murky, too. That's because everything aside from sales statistics (volume, price per unit, etc.) is opinion-driven.

Speaking of numbers-driven information, I thought it would be fun to list the top ten best-selling fiction book authors from 100, 80, 60, 40 and 20 years ago and let you mull them over and make observations. The lists were compiled by Editor & Publisher and can be found on Wikipedia pages such as this one.

Here are the lists, ordered from the author of the best-selling book to number ten.

1908: Winston Churchill (the novelist, not the politician), Rex Beach, John Fox, Jr., Harold MacGrath, Frances Hodgson Burnett, F. Hopkinson Smith, Mary Johnston, Louis J. Vance, George Barr McCutcheon, Gilbert Parker

1928: Thornton Wilder, Hugh Walpole, John Galsworthy, S. S. Van Dine, Viña Delmar, Booth Tarkington, Warwick Deeping, Anne Parrish, Mazo de la Roche, Louis Bromfield

1948: Lloyd C. Douglas, Norman Mailer, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Agnes Sligh Turnbull, Betty Smith, Frank Yerby, Ross Lockridge, Jr., A. J. Cronin, Elizabeth Goudge, Irwin Shaw

1968: Arthur Hailey, John Updike, Helen MacInnes, John le Carré, Taylor Caldwell, Allen Drury, Gore Vidal, Fletcher Knebel, Catherine Marshall, Morris L. West

1988: Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, Robert Ludlum, James A. Michener, Judith Krantz, Anne Rice, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Richard Bach, Leon Uris

For what it's worth (remember, I'm not at all a lit guy), I can identify only one author (Churchill) from 1908. If the list were book titles, the only familiar book name was The Trial of the Lonesome Pine (by Fox). Five names from 1928 are familiar to me, ditto for 1948, nine from 1968 and nine from 1988. The reason I knew most of names from 1968 and 1988 is because I was an adult then and the information simply seeped into my brain.

One puzzling item is the reason why 1908 came off so badly. Was it simply a blah year that randomly happened? As a check, here are the author names I recognize from the entire 1900-09 decade: Winston Churchill (the fiction writer -- and I did read his The Crisis), Elinor Glyn, Owen Wister, Arthur Conan Doyle, Booth Tarkington, Edith Wharton, Upton Sinclair, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and there are two or three other names I'm not sure of. That's only eight out of 90-some possible names (some authors appear more than once, so there are fewer than 100 possibilities). There must have been something going on in literature a hundred years ago that resulted in novelists not making the long-term grade.

Or might it be that the novels were good, yet simply fell out of favor as did Victorian paintings until recently. I have no clue. Perhaps some of you do.



posted by Donald at October 15, 2008


If you want to know why Booth Tarkington fell from favor, try reading "The Magnificent Ambersons". He won the Pulitzer for this. I couldn't finish it. But it was turned into a very good movie by Orson Wells. Go figure.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 15, 2008 7:26 PM

There aren't many writers --- even very good ones --- who remain popular after a hundred years. I'm not sure that the obscurity of someone popular in 1908 can be called a "comeuppance." They served their purpose in their era, and isn't that respectable enough?

I guess what I am trying to say is that, if hundreds of years of fame is your criterion for true artistic success, your standards are too high.

Posted by: James on October 15, 2008 8:48 PM

FWIW, both Joseph Conrad and Henry James were publishing some of their best stuff during that decade. Were they just not selling? Dang, if I lived back then I would have been camped outside the bookstore to open when they released a new work, sort of the way people wait for i-phones today.

Posted by: al on October 15, 2008 10:05 PM

"For what it's worth (remember, I'm not at all a lit guy), I can identify only one author (Churchill) from 1908."

Don't forget Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, which you're sure to know.

Why do these writers get out of favor? Some because they weren't all that talented, no doubt; but I see no reason to think this is the case of all writers who get neglected and forgotten. Perhaps they are just victims of bad luck? Or a difference in tastes from one period in time to the next?

Posted by: Alexandre S. on October 15, 2008 10:13 PM

Tarkington's Penrod, Penrod and Sam, and Seventeen are extremely funny, and his Rumbin Galleries is a favorite of mine. I have to agree, though, I never liked The Magnificent Ambersons - I don't think it aged very well. The old money versus new/advent of the manufacturing age drama must have been fascinating 100 years ago, at least enough to make up for a weak story. I'm surprised Donald didn't recognize Francis Hodgson Burnett - author of The Secret Garden and A Little Princess - must be another male/female thing.

Posted by: Julie Brook on October 15, 2008 10:23 PM

Fun looking over those lists. One thing I notice is how trashy the 1988 names look by comparison to earlier eras. I don't mean trashy judgmentally, btw -- just that Sheldon, Steel, Krantz and others were writing what would still be considered trashy fiction. (I sometimes like trashy fiction and have a lot of respect for authors who write compelling trashy fiction, so don't look at me that way.)

My hunch is that tons of good artists and entertainers come and go over the decades and centuries, and that there's often a lot of luck and happenstance that goes into long-term fame. I'm not at all sure that the people whose reps last for centuries are in every case "better" than some who have been forgotten. The few times I've really plunged into a period or a corner of the arts, I've always turned up cool and superb art that has been completely forgotten, even some that I'd rank higher than the un-forgotten stuff. "The judgement of history" often strikes me as pretty dubious.

Speaking of which, does anyone else remember Joyce Cary, an Englishman best known for "The Horse's Mouth"? I read maybe eight of his books -- he was really fab. Each and every one was better than good. Ambitious, fullbodied, excitingly written, shrewd about many things (try his African novel "Mr. Johnson") ... Yet in the States at least he's barely remembered at all.

I do need to get around to Booth Tarkington some day, darn it. Has anyone read "Alice Adams"? It's a great movie ... I wonder how the book is.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 15, 2008 11:26 PM

I've read Alice Adams, but its been so long, I don't remember much. One of the more melodramatic Tarkingtons, I think. I own it, if you want to read it. I never saw the movie though. (Okay, full disclosure, I went through a Tarkington kick some years ago, bought his books at used book sales whenever I saw them, so I own about 40 of them - I find it very difficult to get rid of books)

Posted by: Julie Brook on October 16, 2008 11:06 AM

I've heard of about half these people, but I like to roam libraries and second-hand-books-stores and look at old books. Rex Beach wrote manly adventure stories, and apparently was very popular for a number of years, but now is best known because two of his novels (THE THREE GODFATHERS and THE SPOLIERS) were made into movies, and the movies were re-made at least a couple of times each. I believe MacCutcheon wrote a series of "Ruritanian" style adevnture novels set in a mythical country called Graustark, which was the title of the most famous book in the series. I tried reading it once and didn't find it all that interesting, but apparently way back when both he and Beach provided a lot of entertainment for people.

Posted by: Bilwick1 on October 16, 2008 3:51 PM

Most pop fiction fades over time. It can be instructive to walk through a library fiction section and note the authors with 10 or 12 books on the shelf that you never heard of.

George Moore, for instance: best-selling novelist
and Irish literary lion of the 1880-1920 period. James Cabell had a great time making fun of the monumentalizing of Moore's twenty-novel oeuvre in the luxurious "Carra Edition". There was a set of these in my college library. As of 1995, none had ever been checked out, as far as I could tell.

Posted by: RIch Rostrom on October 22, 2008 6:55 AM

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