An award-nominated fiction writer and short-story contributor to EQMM, Kevin Mims is also well-known as an essayist. He has contributed several previous posts to this site, and today he offers some reflections in homage to Herman Wouk and the decade he helped to define. Herman Wouk died last week, on May 17th. —Janet Hutchings
Herman Wouk, who died on May 17, wasn’t a writer of crime or mystery novels, but his 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny was probably the greatest American legal thriller of the twentieth century, and so he deserves some mention here. The Caine Mutiny kicked off a vogue for serious, literary courtroom dramas and helped pave the way for such later titles as James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed, Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder, Meyer Levin’s Compulsion, and even Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, all of which were published in the decade following the appearance of The Caine Mutiny. Even the current best-selling novel in America, Delia Owens’s Where The Crawdads Sing, the climax of which includes a murder trial, is an heir of sorts to The Caine Mutiny—a serious literary novel enlivened by a thrilling courtroom drama.
As a writer, Wouk was many things, and it may take years for his measure to be properly taken. He was a bridge between the so-called “literary” fiction of a slightly earlier generation, a generation that included Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck, and the more reader-friendly authors who would come to dominate the bestseller lists of the sixties and seventies, writers such as James Clavell, James Michener, Leon Uris, Arthur Hailey, and Irving Wallace. Wouk (like Michener) won a Pulitzer Prize early in his career but seemed to lose the love of the serious literary set as his work became increasingly popular. Wouk was a Jew, a first-generation American, a sailor, a World War II veteran, a member of the so-called Greatest Generation, a comic writer, a dramatic writer, a Pulitzer-winner, and an author of popular bestsellers. It is that last designation that we are concerned with here. He had a long and distinguished career, but the 1970s was almost certainly his most triumphant decade. It was the decade in which he produced probably his best work, a two-volume historical saga in which World War II is viewed through the eyes of a single American family, the Henrys. The first volume in the Henry family saga, TheWinds of War, was the seventh best-selling novel of 1971 and the sixth best-selling novel of 1972. Its follow-up, War and Remembrance, was the second bestselling novel of 1978. Herman Wouk was probably the greatest of a group of writers whom I like to refer to as The Men Who Wrote the Seventies, and his passing is as good an excuse as any for reviewing what made the bestseller lists of that era so special.
The decade of the 1970s was the Golden Age of popular fiction in America. If you doubt me, you have only to take a look at a list of the best-selling books of the era. It includes a far more diverse group of writers and settings than you would find on the bestseller lists of the last quarter century. In fact, since about 1980, popular fiction in America has been written by fewer and fewer writers, has included fewer non-American authors, and has featured fewer tales set in real countries outside of America.
Only once, during the thirty years that comprised the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, did one author manage to land two titles on Publishers Weekly’s annual list of the ten best-selling novels of the year. It happened in 1972 when Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File and The Day of Jackal were the third and fourth best-selling novels of the year, respectively. During the 1970s, the year-end lists of best-selling novels displayed a wide array of novelists, and the names could change entirely from one year to the next. For instance, none of the ten best-selling novelists of 1970 (Erich Segal, John Fowles, Ernest Hemingway, Mary Stewart, Taylor Caldwell, Leon Uris, Jimmy Breslin, Victoria Holt, Graham Greene, and Irwin Shaw) appeared on the 1971 list (Arthur Hailey, William Peter Blatty, Irving Stone, Frederick Forsyth, Harold Robbins, Helen MacInnes, Herman Wouk, James Michener, Thomas Tryon, and John Updike). Likewise, none of those 1970 top-ten novelists appeared on the year-end list of bestsellers in 1975, and only one of them (Mary Stewart) appeared on the decade’s final list, in 1979.
Compare that with the list for the year 2000. The best-selling novel of 2000 was John Grisham’s The Brethren. The year 2000 was the seventh consecutive year in which the top spot was held by a Grisham novel. The second and fourth best-selling novels were both produced by the writing team of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. The third bestselling novel of 2000 was Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon. It marked his tenth appearance on a year-end best-selling-novels list, going all the way back to the mid-1980s. Danielle Steele held both the sixth spot and the tenth spot on the list. James Patterson held the eighth and the ninth spot. The list for 2000 was typical except for the lack of a Stephen King title. In the 1980s, King missed the year-end list of best-selling novels only once. The same thing happened in the 1990s. But he made up for those omissions by frequently landing more than one title on the year-end list. In 1983 both Pet Semetary and Christine made the list. In 1987 The Tommyknockers, Misery, and The Eyes of the Dragon all made the list. In 1990 he landed two more books on the list. In 1992 he had the year’s number-one bestseller, Dolores Claiborne, and the year’s number-three bestseller, Gerald’s Game. The second best-selling book that year was John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief.
And then of course there is the phenomenon of Danielle Steele. She wrote two of the year’s top-ten bestsellers in 1985, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, and 1996. She landed three books on the top-ten lists of 1994, 1997, and 1998. I haven’t even mentioned the numerous years in which she made the list only once. In 1997 books by Steele and Patricia Cornwell accounted for half the titles on the year-end top-ten list. In 1992 Steele and King accounted for forty percent of the list. Throw in a few titles by Michael Crichton, Mary Higgins Clark, and Anne Rice, and you’ve got a good description of just about every year-end bestseller list of the 1990s. And the list has only gotten less diverse since then. Consider, for instance, the year 2012, when books by Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games series) and E.L. James (The Fifty Shades series) held seven of the list’s ten spots.
Why has popular fiction become so much less diverse than it used to be? A few reasons stand out. It was in the 1980s that massive chain bookstores such as Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Tower Books began to dominate the bookselling market. In the 1970s, and in previous decades as well, most books were sold through independent bookstores rather than chains. And those bookstores were likely to reflect the personalities of their owners and their employees. Levinson’s bookstore in my hometown of Sacramento, California, probably pushed an entirely different list of books than the Argosy bookstore in San Francisco was pushing. But a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Sacramento promotes exactly the same writers as a Barnes and Noble bookstore in San Francisco, San Antonio, Minneapolis, Omaha, and every other city in the country. When Amazon.com came along, the monopolization of massive retailers only increased. It’s easier for a Barnes and Noble or an Amazon.com to stock up on books written by a handful of monster best-selling authors than to stock up on a wide array of books, by a wide array of authors.
The bestseller list of 1970 contained four British authors (Greene, Fowles, Stewart, and Holt) as well as an American (Caldwell) who was born in England and emigrated to America as a child. One of the ten novels (The French Lieutenant’s Woman) is set in the Lyme Regis area of England during the nineteenth century. Another (Hemingway’s Islands In The Stream) takes place in the Caribbean. Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman begins in England and then moves to the South Pacific. Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave is an Arthurian fantasy. Caldwell’s Great Lion of God is about Saul of Tarsus. Leon Uris’ QB VII is a courtroom drama set mainly in England but which also concerns the Holocaust. Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt is about an Englishman who travels across Europe on the Orient Express and later winds up in South America. Thus seven of the year’s ten best-selling novels had absolutely nothing to do with the United States of America. Compare that with a typical year-end bestseller list of our day. The stories nowadays usually take place in a contemporary American setting or an entirely fantastic one (i.e.: Stephen King’s Dark Tower universe, which was inspired in part by America’s Old West, and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games universe, which is a bleak dystopian vision of a future America). Even when a bestseller is set largely overseas, such as is the case with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Codeand its sequels, the story is told through the eyes of an American character and is clearly directed at an American audience.
Here is the bestseller list for 2006:
- For One More Day by Mitch Albom
- Cross by James Patterson
- Dear John by Nicholas Sparks
- Next by Michael Crichton
- Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris
- Lisey’s Story by Stephen King
- Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich
- Cell by Stephen King
- Beach Road by James Patterson and Peter de Jonge
- The Fifth Horseman by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
The authors are all Americans, and the stories with one exception are set in America (Thomas Harris’s novel is about the early years of fictional American serial killer Hannibal Lecter, and takes place mostly in Europe). During the first decade of this century, the only foreign author to make it onto a year-end list was J.K. Rowling.
After 1981 the American bestseller list for fiction took a serious turn for the worse, epitomized by the fact that the best-selling novels in both 1982 (E.T., The Extraterrestrial, by William Kotzwinkle) and 1983 (Return of the Jedi, by James Kahn) were novelizations of blockbuster movies rather than original novels. The year-end top-ten list for 1979 has two Brits (Mary Stewart and Graham Greene) and an Australian (John Hackett) on it. After 1980, the few foreign writers who managed to land on the American year-end list were mostly writers like John le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, and Ken Follett who had made their names in earlier decades. Few new foreign writers would make the list after that. In 1983 the only new non-American on the list was romance writer Jackie Collins, and her book was the distinctly American tale Hollywood Wives. In 1985 the only foreigner on the list was again Jackie Collins, again with a novel, Lucky, that was a wholly American tale. Collins returned to the list in 1986 with Hollywood Husbands, which, needless to say, was an American tale. In 1987 no foreign writers made the list. In 1988 Barbara Taylor Bradford was the only non-American on the list and she had been living in the U.S. for years, was married to an American, and would shortly thereafter become a naturalized American citizen. In 1989 Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses would make the list, but that was a bit of a fluke. Hostility towards Rushdie by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini gave the book selling power that it almost certainly wouldn’t have possessed otherwise. Both le Carre and Follett also made the list that year, but they had been grandfathered in back in the 1960s and 70s respectively. In the decade of the 1990s only three foreign writers made the list: Rosamund Pilcher made it once, Laura Esquivel made it once, and Maeve Binchy made it once. Since the year 2000 the only non-Americans to crack the list have been J.K. Rowling and Steig Larsson (who had been dead for six years by the time he made his appearance there in 2010).
In the year 2014 three of the year’s ten best-selling novels were simply different editions of John Green’s young-adult novel The Fault In Our Stars. Three of the best-selling titles that year (Divergent, Allegiant, and Insurgent) were written by Veronica Roth. The three remaining books on the list were all, like the John Green title, propelled there by their film versions: Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Frozen by Victoria Saxon (Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Patton rounded out the ten-title list, but isn’t technically a work of fiction; Publishers Weekly seems to have categorized it as such simply because it was written by a faux newsman). These are not novels that crawled their way up the bestseller list on the strength of word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied readers. No, these are books, mostly written for children, that became powerful literary brands thanks in large part to their Hollywood iterations. In previous decades Hollywood films often traveled to success while riding piggyback on a popular novel (Jaws, The Exorcist, Love Story, etc). Nowadays, the reverse is often true. A novel that wasn’t a huge bestseller becomes one only after Hollywood has adapted it for the screen.
In the 1970s, best-selling authors usually left the young-adult genre alone. There were no true young-adult novels on any of the Publishers Weekly lists of the year’s best-selling fiction back in the 1970s (although some books, such as Watership Down, were popular with both grown-up readers and young adults). Nowadays, authors who frequent the bestseller lists—writers such as John Grisham, Carl Hiaasen, and James Patterson—have also published numerous young adult novels. Even more “literary” writers, such as Jane Smiley and Alice Hoffman, have been branching out into young-adult territory lately, making the consolidation of the two genres almost complete.
Plenty of great popular novels were written prior to Rosemary’s Baby (1967), and plenty of good pop fiction has been written since. But the bestseller lists that predate Rosemary’s Baby tend to be filled with plodding religious uplift, thrillers that aren’t terribly thrilling by post–Rosemary’s Baby standards, and predictable romance novels. When we think of great mid-century pop fictions nowadays, we tend to think of the novels of writers like Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Philip K. Dick, but those writers made it nowhere near the top of the bestseller list during their lifetimes. Among the best-selling novels of the 1940s were numerous religious titles, including The Song of Bernadette, by Franz Werfel, The Keys of the Kingdom, by A.J. Cronin, The Apostle and Mary, both by Sholem Asch, The Miracle of the Bells, by Russell Janney, The Big Fisherman, by Lloyd C. Douglas, and The Bishop’s Mantle, by Agnes Sligh Turnbull. Henry Morton Robinson’s novel The Cardinal appeared on two year-end lists in the 1950s (1950 and 51). The Foundling, by Francis Cardinal Spellman, also made the list in 1951. Thomas B. Costain’s The Silver Chalice, the best-selling novel of 1952, is a Biblical epic. Also on the list that year was Agnes Sligh Turnbull’s The Gown of Glory, another traditional novel with a religious subject. The Silver Chalice was the second best-selling title of 1953, behind only Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe, a novel about the crucifixion of Jesus (The Robe was also a number-one or -two best-selling novel in the years 1943, 1944, and 1945). Morris West’s The Shoes of the Fisherman, about Vatican politics, was the best-selling book of 1963. James Michener’s The Source, a novel about the history of the Jewish people, was the best-selling book of 1965. None of these religious tomes was the slightest bit irreverent or groundbreaking. Ira Levin was the first writer to make the bestseller list with a novel that portrayed religion (in this case Satanism) negatively. Later novels, like Stephen King’s Carrie and Irving Wallace’s The Word, would benefit from the path that Levin blazed.
The 1970s were the first decade in which heavy-handed Biblically inspired novels were not an important element of America’s best-selling fiction lists. Although The Exorcist is a deeply Catholic novel whose heroes are both Catholic priests, its violence, language, and intensity were enough to get the book and the film condemned by the Catholic Church. The best thrillers of the 1970s, books like The Exorcist, The Day of the Jackal, Jaws, The Dead Zone, The Great Train Robbery, The Seven-Percent Solution, The Eagle Has Landed, and Eye of the Needle, were a lot more exciting than any of the bestsellers of the 1950s. In fact, prior to Rosemary’s Baby it is difficult to find a novel on a year-end bestseller list that these days would even qualify as a thriller. Those that come closest, such as Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 bestseller My Cousin Rachel, are somewhat staid historical dramas rather than genuine thrillers.
Even some of the dreckiest bestsellers of the 1970s aren’t quite as bad as you might remember them. Erich Segal’s Love Story, though no literary masterpiece, is short and eminently readable, with touches of humor that seem to have been inspired by J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories and Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus. Indeed, more interesting than the book’s central love story is the relationship between the narrator, Oliver Barrett IV, and his father, Oliver Barrett III. In that aspect, it could be read as a sort of prequel to Saul Bellow’s much better Seize the Day, which deals with a strained relationship between a well-off senior-citizen father and his less successful, middle-aged son. And though all of Love Story’s major characters are gentiles, the book still manages to include an effective critique of anti-Semitism in America. Oliver doesn’t graduate from Harvard Law at the top of his class, but he manages to land the best and best-paying job of anyone in his class, because the other top students in the class are all Jewish and therefore not as desirable in the legal job market. Though it is the quintessential early 1970s bestseller, the book is actually set in the early 1960s, long before the Summer of Love and the arrival of the Haight Ashbury scene, and this nostalgic aspect of the book may, in part, have accounted for its success.
Arthur Hailey’s novels of the 1960s and 1970s are not showcases for great prose, but they provide invaluable—and entertaining—glimpses into the ways various industries—the media, Big Pharma, hospitality, air travel, banking, electrical power—worked in the middle part of the American Century. Nowadays the topics covered by Arthur Hailey are more likely to be covered by nonfiction writers like Michael Lewis than by novelists, most of whom tend to look inward these days. Which is a shame. We could use a big fat panoramic novel about America’s healthcare woes or its infrastructural degradation or its military industrial complex.
In the 1970s Herman Wouk gave us those two big fat novels that explored almost every major theater of World War II: The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Our fictions about more recent wars—Vietnam, the Gulf War, the Iraq War—tend to be more personal, focusing on the exploits of a single combatant or a single platoon. The big-picture approach to recent wars seems to be confined only to nonfiction books.
Novels such as Gore Vidal’s 1973 bestseller Burr seem to have given way these days to massive biographies like Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. And something is lost when great fiction writers cede the broad historical canvas to the nonfiction writer.
The fat historical romances of the 1970s, books such as James Clavell’s Shogun and Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, were way too racy to have been published in a previous decade. And after the 1970s, their ilk was replaced on the bestseller lists by the far less ambitious romances of Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and the like. For all their flaws, books like Shogun and The Thorn Birds were not cranked out in a hurry to meet the demands of a busy publishing schedule. They appear to be passion projects whose authors spent years toiling on them. Few pop romance/adventure novels give off any whiff of toil these days. In fact, many of them seem to have come off an assembly line.
McCullough was arguably the only female to publish a book in the 1970s that remains one of the defining bestsellers of the era. Most of the decade-defining bestsellers of the 70s—Love Story, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Jaws, The Day of the Jackal, The Winds of War, Rich Man Poor Man, My Name is Asher Lev, The Other, Rabbit Redux, Ragtime, Breakfast of Champions, Burr, Watership Down, The Silmarillion, The Honourable Schoolboy, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Centennial, August 1914, The Dead Zone, and so forth came from the pens of The Men Who Wrote the Seventies. Agatha Christie released a few bestsellers in the 1970s, the final decade of her life, but they had all been written decades earlier, in the 1940s. She wasn’t a hugely significant part of the zeitgeist of the 1970s and none of her books is set in that decade. Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Taylor Caldwell released multiple bestsellers in the seventies, but the titles, for the most part, have not attached themselves permanently to the pop cultural memory of the era. Jacqueline Susann had some bestsellers in the 70s but she will always be best remembered for Valley of the Dolls, which was published in 1966. Things might have been different had she not died fairly young in 1974. As it is, Colleen McCullough is the only woman of the era to have written a monster bestseller that remains fixed in the minds of those who care about the 1970s as a cultural landmark. Helen MacInnes was a fine author but she’s never been a cultural icon.
Like Agatha Christie, a lot of prominent twentieth-century authors would make their last appearance on the year-end list in the 1970s. It would be the final decade in which any of the following played a significant role on a year-end list of best-selling novels in America: Ernest Hemingway, Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk, Arthur Hailey, Irving Stone, Irving Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, and Graham Greene. But it was also the first decade in which Stephen King and Ken Follett appeared on such a list, and they would go on to produce many more bestsellers. Indeed, both men are still very active as of this writing. Michael Crichton, who debuted on the list in the late 1960s, would continue to produce massive bestsellers into the current century. He died in 2008, but his publisher has brought out three more novels by him since then, and the popular HBO series Westworld is based on his work.
On today’s list of America’s best-selling novels there is no real equivalent of Graham Greene. In the Seventies, Greene made the list twice, with Travels With My Aunt (1970) and The Honorary Consul (1973). You could argue that Ian McEwan or Martin Amis or some other serious British literary author is today’s version of Greene, but their books are nowhere near as popular as Greene’s were in the 70s. Neither writer has made a year-end list of bestsellers in America. Greene was highly critical of America and famously said he’d rather live in the Soviet Union than the United States (in fact, he lived much of his adult life in the south of France). But American book buyers didn’t hold it against him. Americans bought his novels in large numbers. Perhaps today’s version of Greene is John Le Carre, another expat Brit who has been highly critical of America’s government. Le Carre is still a bestseller, but he hasn’t made a year-end list in decades. His brand of intelligent thriller has been crowded out of the list by the likes of The Da Vinci Code and the latest by-the-numbers thriller from James Patterson. He made the year-end list thrice in the sixties, thrice in the seventies, and thrice in the eighties, but he hasn’t returned to it since, despite being nearly as prolific today, in his late eighties, as he ever was.
Diversity and a spirit of internationalism were hallmarks of the year-end bestseller lists of the 1970s. Those qualities are sadly lacking from most of the year-end lists that Publishers Weekly has compiled since that decade ended.
If you really want to pin a date on the end of the Golden Era of American popular fiction that began with Rosemary’s Baby, you might place it sometime around 1985. That was the year that Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove was published. Lonesome Dove is, arguably, the last genuine pop fiction to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Every winner since then has been a work of “serious literature,” written mainly for MFA students and their ilk. Lonesome Dove is a genre novel that embraces many of the conventions of the traditional Western but still manages to be literary and intelligent. Plenty of Western novels were honored with Pulitzer Prizes in earlier decades, books such as A. B. Guthrie’s The Way West and The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor. But Lonesome Dove seems to be the last of that breed. It wasn’t quite popular enough to make a year-end list of the ten best-selling novels, but that’s because its hardback sales were split fairly evenly between two years, 1985 and 1986 (curiously, the best-selling Western of the 1980s was a 1983 novel by Louis L’Amour with a similar-sounding title, The Lonesome Gods, indicating that a certain wistfulness had settled upon the genre by then). Given that it contains much raw language and depictions of violence and sex, Lonesome Dove probably couldn’t have been published in America much earlier than 1970. And had it been published much later than 1985, it probably couldn’t have garnered a Pulitzer Prize, popularity seeming to be a disqualifying condition with today’s nominating committees. McMurtry’s masterpiece synthesized the large-scale storytelling of such 1970s icons as Michener, Wouk, Clavell, and McCullough, with the literary competence of Graham Greene, John Fowles and E.L. Doctorow. It’s the best example of a 1970s bestseller that wasn’t actually published in the 1970s. When Woodrow Call rode off into the sunset at the end of Lonesome Dove, he might as well have been carrying an entire mode of popular fiction with him. We haven’t seen its like since (although McMurtry has published plenty of Lonesome Dove spin-offs).
Excellent novels still get published in America, but the bestseller lists rarely reflect this excellence. Primarily they reflect the triumph of brand-name authors and aggressive marketing over the diversity and unpredictability that characterized the bestseller lists of the 1970s. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the publishing industry offered primarily moral uplift and historical pageantry. These days it offers mainly by-the-numbers thrillers (missing girls, serial killers with rigidly thematic M.O.s, etc) and teenage dystopias, almost all of it coming from the pens of a few brand-name authors. But for one brief, shining decade or so, it offered up something different, something strange: a diverse mix of horror and history, fantasy and mystery, set in a wide array of locales and time periods, and written by authors who represented a variety of English-speaking nations and levels of literary artistry, and who rarely appeared on two consecutive year-end lists of best-selling novels. Many of the era’s bestsellers were written by authors (Hemingway, Jimmy Breslin, Harold Robbins, Victoria Holt, Agatha Christie, Taylor Caldwell, Sidney Sheldon, Leon Uris, James Jones, etc.) with little or no higher education. Many of the men and some of the women served in uniform during World War II. Few of the best-selling books of the era were installments in a series. Neither Hollywood nor the publishing industry seemed as interested in franchises back then. Nowadays nearly every best-selling novel represents a “branding opportunity” and is often spun off into a dozen or more sequels. Don’t even think of writing a standalone young-adult novel. If it isn’t the first installment of a series, the publishing industry isn’t likely to be much interested in it.
It was different once, but only for about a decade.
RIP Herman Wouk.