Thursday, February 12, 2009

Best-Selling Women

Daphne Du Maurier

In troubled economic times, books and movies are necessary forms of comfort and escape. I’ll be doing a couple of posts about movies in the weeks ahead as we head toward the Academy Awards; but now I’m going to look at what Americans were reading during the 1930s—the era of the Great Depression, and which of the bestselling books of that decade were written by women.

As everyone knows, what makes it to the best seller lists these days is not necessarily what endures and is most often not literature. I had no idea what to expect when I explored the lists of top 10 best selling novels for each of the years of the 1930s, but what I did find floored me! At least forty percent of the 100 top selling novels of that decade were by women authors, and of those, many have endured and have indeed become classics. Others were by authors whose names are perhaps less familiar now, but who continue to be well regarded, and perhaps now underappreciated. Ellen Glasgow is one of them.

Take 1931. The #1 selling novel is The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. At #2 is Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather. The #3, #4, and #5 novels were also by women, but whose names were not familiar to me. #5 was Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes. This won the year’s Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. The following year, The Good Earth remained at the top spot, and Pearl Buck also occupied the third spot with another novel titled Sons.

In the years to come, the names that grace the top-selling fiction list, both male and female, are literary legends: Isak Dinesen, Edna Ferber, Rebecca West, Daphne Du Maurier, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. And get this: Virginia Woolf made the list in 1937 for The Years. Do you think that, with its dense, complex language, a Virginia Woolf novel would make it to today’s best seller list? I would bet against it. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was the #1 novel both in 1936 and 1937.

Just to give the men their due, some of the names on the 1930s lists include Aldous Huxley, Thornton Wilder, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, and George Santayana.

I don’t think that there’s a dearth of good fiction these days, but the best novels are not necessarily those that are read by the public in droves. What makes it onto the top-selling lists is awash with formula fiction by both men and women. I went through the list of top 10 novels for each of the years 2000 through 2008. Compared to the 1930s, what a letdown!

The percentage of the top-selling novels by women is less than 25%. Taken as the sheer number of women, it would probably be even less, since a few of the women appear multiple times—Patricia Cornwall, Janet Evanovich, and, sigh, Danielle Steele. Cornwall and Evanovich write crime/mystery novels, and I haven’t read any, so I can’t be judgmental, but it seems safe to say that they will not be handed down to future generations as classics. By the way, women authors are currently an even smaller minority on the non-fiction bestseller lists than they are on the fiction lists. Some of their bestselling male counterparts who appear multiple times on the 2000-2008 lists include Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, and Tom Clancy. Lots of formula fiction from both female and male authors.

Notably absent from this decades lists was J.K. Rowling, due to some “rule” made about who can or can’t be on the list. No doubt, she has been the top selling female author of this decade, or indeed any decade. Of all the books on the current lists, I would bet that she would be the one of the only, if not the only, authors whose works will endure.

The few non-formulaic female authors appearing on this decade’s list include Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones, one of my least favorite books), and Sue Monk Kidd (Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair, both of which underwhelmed me). No one is nearly in the league of Virginia Woolf or Isak Dineson, and no books are nearly as compelling as the more accessible yet wonderfully written Rebecca or Gone with the Wind. We can’t entirely blame the publishing industry for this. They give the public what they want. It’s painfully apparent that the paths of literature and commercial fiction are nearly completely divergent.

I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this post!


Ursula said...

There's a further metric I think you need to consider: just how many copies of the bestselling books were sold, and what was the population of the U.S. in those years. It might lead to some interesting speculations about the changes in marketing strategies made by publishers, including a push towards broader-appeal formula fiction.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your excellent commentary!

For a few years, I have been reading the classics. I have found them to have more substance, better story as a well as character development.

I admit to spending time (in the past) reading Danielle Steele, Judith Krantz because I was working long hours and they were good stress busters. It is a fantasy read or some may say perfect beach book reading.

Some of the modern mystery serial detectives are quite interesting. I do admit to being surprised that the "alphabet series" is still going although I do see most of them hitting the bargain racks in rapid time.

I sense it comes down to lifestyle and changing taste. With the current economic crisis etc. I have found a deep longing to read books from a different generation and a more comforting time.

Anonymous said...

I think the publishing industry is under a tremendous state of flux and running scared. They're only interested in putting out books they know will sell and sell well. A few might go for less mainstream works but, in my opinion, it's a money game. It will be interesting to see how the current economy affects this already troubled industry. Maybe Danielle Steele will be the only one left in print!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading all the books and authors from an era gone by. I especially love the 20's and 30's, though it was my grandmothers time. I loved their style of dress. Just seemed a much sassier time to live in. Except of course, when the Great Depression overwhelmed them all.

Gnewvegan said...

Hi Nava. It is nice to see you blogging again. This post took me back to Florence , Italy. I remember when I was there the first time and was mesmerized by the beauty and complexity of the architectural works around me. Why did I not learn this in school I wondered. And what a shame we do not see work like this now. The intricate details so defining of the era of the artist. Maybe books are in the same class of representation of the times. The movies and books that are classics have detail and a drawing pull to the audience to withstand time. As one of the other readers said yes it is nice to read a book that takes you into a fantasy, to relieve stress, and take you for a ride you may need. Maybe with the times being so troublesome people need that. But then again troubled times are not an unknown happening and classics were born. So, we are left to ponder on these thoughts and turn to PBS when we need that classic genre we can watch or go to the library.

Anonymous said...

Nice blog.
I was quite surprised that in Best Selling Women, you did not mention the work of the Nobel and Pulitzer prize winning author, Ms. Toni Morrison, or of Ms. Alice Walker. For writings from the 1930's, try "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston.
Thanks for the blog, and the really good and enjoyable cookbooks.

Nava Atlas said...

Dear MzB,

I was looking at the most recent bestseller lists, which did not include the powerful and amazing Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. But you're right, their novels usually do make those lists and they are quite the exception, almost a nod to the past in that they are both literary as well as popular. I do love Zora Neale Hurston. It's sad that she did not live to see the wider appreciation her body of work so deservedly received. She lay forgotten in an unmarked grave until Alice Walker so graciously resurrected her literary reputation.