I have been accused, on occasion, of lamenting the success of Twilight. Why shouldn’t I? It reads like a poorly scripted soap opera, it’s characters are shallow at best and it has no lasting value in regards to the human condition…and aren’t we already tired of seeing vampire books? Most publishing houses are currently using a push broom to sweep away the billions of submissions by Twilight fans who want to write their own sappy supernatural melodrama or by writers jumping on the vampiric bandwagon. The truth is (as history shows) this vampire fiction fad, like all fads, will die down in time. Currently the dystopian future books are flying off the shelves because of the success of the Hunger Games trilogy, but eventually that will die down as well when some new best seller takes the public by storm.
But what will happen to these novels when their praises are no longer sung by fans, say, in ten or twenty years? Let us look at a few best sellers to better inform our opinion.
1. The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough wrote this sweeping romantic novel about the life of a woman living in Australia who has a secret and forbidden love affair with a catholic priest. It contains the magical component for making it a best seller: the forbidden love triangle. It sold something like 30 million copies and was even adapted into a well received mini-series on television starring Richard Chamberlain, but when was the last time anyone thought about this novel? The reason could be that it is simply about the life of one woman who was unhappy in love and pined for the love of someone her society deemed off limits. Forbidden love alone is not a strong enough theme to keep a novel in the memory of the public. I would argue that this theme is at the core of the Twilight saga.
2. Shogun – James Clavell’s massive tome about Englishman John Blackthorne’s adventures in Japan sold 15 million copies worldwide, inspired a memorable mini-series on television, and started a movement of interest in America toward Japanese culture that has only grown with time, but the novel has been unfortunately lost to memory. If you read Shogun (as I did) you will never forget the experience. Clavell’s description of feudal Japanese society is interesting and thought provoking as well as painstakingly researched. The culture clash is something that draws readers into this novel, from the crucified peasants who dared to question their place to the samurai ordered to commit ritual suicide. However, the novel’s only lasting contribution is the interest in Japanese culture that has now inundated us with mounds of Japanese Anime and Manga, which is only a microscopic part of the rich culture of Japan.
3. Little House On the Prairie – Everyone remembers the series with Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert, but no one remembers the best selling novels by Laura Ingolls Wilder that started it all. The novel sold 60 million copies and swept the world like a firestorm in the 1930’s. The novels are based on the true account of Ingolls Wilder and her family settling in Osage Indian Territory (and the Osage did not take well to them, forcing them to leave). It has adventure and suspense, humor and real human struggle, and it lived on only because the television show became so popular, but the novel has been lost to time. Once in a while a grandmother will try to get their grand-daughter to read by locking her in a room with this book or maybe Anne of Green Gables. The genre is lost on our current generation of readers.
4. Exodus – Published in 1958, this novel written by American novelist Leon Uris tells the stories of several protagonists who experience the formation of the nation of Israel in 1948. The novel mostly follows the actions of protagonist Ari Ben Canaan, who leads a group of refugees from a British detention camp in Cypress to Palestine. The book sold over 7 million copies in the U.S. and became a sort of “underground bible” for Soviet Jews. In 1960 the flight from Cypress in the book became a major motion picture starring Paul Newman. Lately, however, it has been criticized as being inaccurate and omitting several key facts about the founding of Israel. It has been lost to mainstream culture because it is about Jewish history and only crossed over to mainstream culture because the founding of Israel was so close in people’s memory.
5. Roots – Alex Haley’s best selling book about the plight of African slaves and the history of the ugly bruise it has left on our nation is something that sticks in my memory at least, but lately it is not mentioned outside of cultural circles. This book, in my humble opinion, was a very memorable book in that it shocked me so terribly when I read it as a teen. I felt awful about the horrors in the novel and was angered that human beings could be seen as nothing more than cattle. The novel inspired a well received mini-series that launched the careers of several African-American actors including LeVar Burton, Louis Gossett Jr. It put the subject of slavery into the social conversation around water coolers everywhere and held the ugly face of it before the faces of Americans so that we could come to terms with the truth of our history. However, this novel was written at a time in which it needed to be written. It was published in 1976, just as the civil rights movement was reaching a plateau. It was also a time when Black exploitation films were in their heyday and many negative stereotypes were being portrayed on television. The novel enjoyed great success, selling over 1.5 million copies, but if it were written today it might not have the same impact it had originally.
The point I am making is that even though some of these novels were well written and enjoyed great successes, they did not do enough to stay in the minds of the public for long. Twilight or The Hunger Games or even Harry Potter are novels that a generation of teens will read as they grow up. Once they do grow up, they read something else. Many authors on the above list could not escape the hype and fervor of their best selling novels to write anything else that matched that success. The trick, I suppose, is to become a novelist whose name says “best seller”, such as Stephen King, John Grisham or Michael Crighton. J.K. Rowling is trying to leave Harry Potter’s shadow with her newest novel The Casual Vacancy, and is off to a good start selling 125,000 copies in the first weekend, but only time will tell. I think she will do well with her new focus. She has achieved the best selling name. But then there is the pressure to sell millions again. I don’t know if I would want that.
What makes a great novel that endures the test of time is a novel that comments on the nature of the human condition. This is true of all great literature. Just because a book is a best seller doesn’t mean that it will remain with us, which is why I don’t care if my books ever reach the best seller list. Writers write about what they know, and for me, I’ll stick to writing what I love to write.
I live in a culture of American Christianity, of which I am a loud critic. I see the dangers of supporting political candidates who use good Christian people as a mule to further a greedy pro-corporate political agenda, a herd of status quo believers who go to church on Sunday because it is what they “do” and then live like they want the rest of the week, or a so called “Christian” leader who stands up and beckons millions of Christians who DO NOT READ THEIR BIBLE or THINK FOR THEMSELVES down the pied piper path of destruction. It all makes me lividly sick. I want change. I want Christians to let Christ live our lives for us and get US out of the way. This is what drives what I write.
If that makes me a narrow niche writer or a writer who never enjoys a best seller, then so be it.