by Patricija Fašalek
Not that long ago, the term ‘best-seller’ was used for a book which sold better than others, such as works of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Jane Austen, and it was reserved for fiction only. Later on, the term was applied to nonfiction also, including the very popular genre of self-help books, and gradually the word acquired a negative connotation since it was mostly associated with books of low literary value. As in, “there are great works of literature, and then there are…bestsellers.” Nowadays the reliable source of information which restores some dignity to best-sellers would be the major bestsellers lists, published in Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USATODAY, New York Times or Publisher’s Weekly, and, more recently, on Amazon where the term Amazon Bestseller is given to the books that manage to get on the Amazon bestsellers list – and this list is composed of hundreds or thousands of books.
Although there is a lot of talk about young people not reading literature as much as earlier generations, statistics from 2015 suggest that reading remains one of the favourite leisure activities in America. The Average American supposedly reads 12 to 13 books per year and the US publishing industry was estimated to sell 2.7 billion books in 2015 – yet, only a few of them actually attracted considerable readership and less than 500 books made an appearance on the New York Times bestseller list. There is no wonder people are curious to know what kind of books actually sell in this area. Much research has been done in the field of popularity, and writers eager to make the list can actually find many tips on the internet on how to write a best seller. Strict rules and formulas are something literary critics do not really like to hear about. As Rick Gekoski explained for The Guardian:
I was once asked, at some festival or other during a time when I was judging the prize, what my criteria were for defining a great book. Now I must admit that, like a lot of arts people, I have an instinctive revulsion against rules. Art is by its nature often transgressive, and most of us trained in the arts do not like to be told what to do, whether by people or by formula.
What is a good quality book…and what is a bad one
But how can we tell the difference between quality writing and bad writing? How are we to judge? Gekoski continues:
What is a masterpiece? Crime and Punishment. Hamlet. To His Coy Mistress. Ulysses. Madame Bovary. How does one know this? By having read a hell of a lot. Something only stands out from the crowd when there is a crowd to stand out from … Nevertheless, what you find in the greatest works of literature often involves some or all of the following: the high quality of the language, complexity of theme and detail, universality, depth and quality of feeling, memorableness, rereadability … When you read works of this quality you often feel, and continue to feel, that your internal planes have shifted, and that things will never, quite, be the same again.
In the Reader’s Digest article “The One Way Bestsellers Have Changed That You Probably Haven’t Noticed”, Ben Blatt collected every digitized number one New York Times bestseller from 1960 to 2014 and ran the Flesch-Kincaid readability test on them. One thing became clear to him – today, best seller’s lists are comprised of much simpler writing than 50 years ago; shorter sentences and less lexical variety go hand in hand with the increase of appearance of commercial novels making the list. Blat writes: “But if we break down bestsellers by genre, we find that there has been a long-term shift within these guilty pleasures. Thrillers have become ‘dumber’. Romance novels have become ‘dumber’. There has been an across-the-board ‘dumbification’ of popular fiction.”
Although complicated writing does not necessarily make a powerful piece of literature, the style itself and the way the story is told are important factors to consider when judging a book’s quality. But it is about more than that – many literary masterpieces in the past were known for delivering a story which carried a sense of subversion, a revolt against a system or they served as a warning about something bad that is happening to society. But then, the ever-growing consumer culture made its way into the literary world as well, and the sense for resistance and social criticism was replaced by James Bond performing wonders. Saulat Nagi, author of seven books on Socialism and History, write in Daily Times: “He can win a war on his own, face a battalion of enemies and comprehensively annihilate them. The individual dominates, but society recedes into oblivion,” It makes a lot of sense for bestselling books to lose their complexity – being popular means appealing to the masses and masses do not have any desire to read complicated things in their free time. In fact, a group of 24 journalist became so irritated by the decline in good quality American writing that they decided to write Naked Came the Stranger (Mike McGrady et al., 1969): the aim was to prove that any book with a lot of sex scenes in it could become a best-seller, no matter how badly written and incoherent it is.
Naked Came the Stranger was, in the eyes of its authors, considered one of the worst books ever written; however, with the help of heavy promotion and sexy cover, it became a best seller. Appraising the book as one of the worst, this time by literary critics as demonstrated further below, seems to be also the fate of some contemporary biggest best sellers: Da Vinci Code, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. But not only did these books achieve huge commercial success – they are also (as series) among the best-selling novels of the 21st century . Dan Brown’s series has sold over 200 million copies since the release of Da Vinci Code and E. L. James sold over 150 million copies of books from her franchise Fifty Shades of Grey in 2019. There is only one writer that tops them all, and that is J. K. Rowling with the Harry Potter books.
In fact, The Bible is the bestselling book of all time. However, Harry Potter is the bestselling book series of all time with more than 500 million copies sold. And where is The Lord of the Rings? J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has been repeatedly put on the pedestal and labelled: “the most popular work of English Fiction, beating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” While talking about Harry Potter and escapist fiction, I will occasionally return to Tolkien’s work in order to illuminate some points, but let us focus on the books published in the 21st century (the included exception being Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone which was published in 1997).
So far, I have named 5 books: Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. They all belong to the top of the top of best-sellers of our century. Three of them were also criticised by prominent newspapers, such as The Atlantic, The Guardian, The New York Review of Books, BBC, for being the worst books ever written. Two of them have become classics in their genres. What do they have in common – why did they all make the top of the list of bestsellers? And why do some regard them as being so bad?
Harry Potter and escapist literature
Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series belong to the fantasy or escapist fiction genre. At first glance, escapist fiction cannot offer anything of greater importance to our society or to ourselves, au contraire, an escape from reality is most often seen as a negative thing, because it doesn’t deal with the real, important issues in our lives. Tolkien liked to argue the contrary: While creating a world of elves, magic, walking trees, wizards and all the creatures that do not exist in our “real” world, placing them into the secondary, fantasy, parallel world of fiction, some authors manage to reproduce the foundation of our world, replicate the good and the bad of our complicated, messed up world, and transform all that into a lesson, into a clearer picture of what we are actually living ourselves, if only we are able to see through the surface. Stepping into other people’s shoes is widely known to enhance empathy – and with that comes the ability to understand, learn and imitate. Harry Potter and his friends are not just tossing around spells while trying to kill the evil made-up wizard; in each and every book they are learning from their mistakes, overcoming personal fears, trying to grasp the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, embracing personal and other people’s flaws; they fail and they succeed, they love and they accidentally betray, and in the midst of it all they aim to become good people with strong values, which, in the end, they succeed at. Harry Potter teaches children the importance of love and friendship, peace and the courage to stand up for yourself, empathy and selflessness, and it also shows how not many things are the way they seem at first. As Abbigail Mazour writes:
By closely examining The Lord of the Rings as escapist fantasy, I propose that escapism is not a negative term, but rather a term necessary for humanity and sanity. Our intrinsic need for escape also factors directly into fantasy’s popularity, and it is, in part, because of perceived elements of escape that books like Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia remain so popular. Within the elements of escapism lie elements of reality, self-improvement, and deep seeded truths. Elements of escape help magnify the binaries of good and evil faced by humanity every day, offering an imagined place where one escapes from evil into good.
In his book The Fantastic in Literature, Mazour sees escape as a necessary element of humanity and fantasy literature, as a “much-needed psychological escape”. This idea was expanded by Northrup who stated that “we can remove ourselves from the pain, suffering, sorrow, and injustice of the ordinary or Primary world. We need this kind of escape in order that we can regroup … and again face the miseries and pains of our ordinary lives”. Tolkien believed that a successful fantasy can be defined as “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth”, meaning that the created secondary world should serve as a mirror to the primary world and help us understand and cope with the things we are running away from.
And who would not want to escape from global warming news, anti-abortion laws and Brexit into a world where good is appreciated and always wins in the end? As much as the phrase “escapist fiction” comes with a connotation of condescension and usually marks something fun and light, it can also serve as means of shedding a light of hope and help us imagine a brighter future. “No one can run on negativity and fear alone,” is Charlotte Ahlin’s opinion expressed in Bustle, while Alex Acks explains her view on the matter in her opinionated article “The Escapism of Romance”: “The big thing is that with romance, you know there’s going to be a happy ending. At its grittiest, you get a ‘happy for now’, which still feels plenty escapist. You know the characters are going to figure out their problems and find solutions.”
Romance novels, as much as fantasy novels, are also labelled as escapist ficton. We can see than the best-sellers list of 21st century are composed of works mostly offering escapism. However, can Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey really be classified as that – escapism? Or are they too real, set too much in the primary world to offer any doors of escape? Brown claims the statements in his books are real and, to be fair, there are too many macho-abuse-related heterosexual relationships on this planet.
Too real to be escapist
First, let’s have a look at what Aimee Levitt, a vivid reader, sees as an escape into romance, her preferred reading material after the state of affairs of America in 2017. In her article “Romance and Escapism Trump reality”, she confesses that she retreated into the world of romance novels because they present an idealized world where people treat each other nicely and men listen to women not just with the purpose of seduction but because they respect them. They also treat their servants, family and friends with dignity and kindness. Characters actively look for solutions to their troubles; relationships restore their love, friends stand up for each other. She writes: “In these books, characters who are bloviating, ungenerous, small-minded, racist, sexist, incurious, and prone to sexual assault and slut-shaming are usually easy to identify as villains and are always punished,”. But then, when does Fifty Shades of Grey come in? Why was the first book so popular when it offers none of the qualities mentioned above, qualities of escapist literature fiction that make Aimee read romance novels or the happy ending of the third book, when Christian is saved, redeemed, tamed and married to Ana.
The trilogy introduces Anastasia Steele, a shy and ordinary virgin, who falls in love with Christian Grey, a sexy young billionaire who is keen on hurting women while having sex. Emily Eakin summarised the critics’ response in The New York Review of Books by stating that the erotic content of Fifty Shades of Grey provides nothing that has not been already described in other, better-written books, and how scary it is to see millions of intelligent women tolerating prose on such level. “Improbable dialogue, lame characterisation, irritating tics,” wrote Zoe Williams for The Guardian and Christopher Orr reported for The Atlantic after the release of the last movie of the franchise: “Another sequel so awful that it needs to be described in detail to be believed.” He went on: “The good news—and, yes, we are grading on a curve so steep that it’s essentially a vertical drop—is that Fifty Shades Freed is marginally less retrograde and offensive than Fifty Shades Darker. The bad news is that it is even more idiotic, which is in its way a remarkable achievement.” Jen Doll, also in her critique for The Atlantic, started the article with the introduction: “Look, I’m not afraid to say it: Fifty Shades of Grey is a terrible book. I know this because I have started reading it. It didn’t take long to figure out. The writing is stilted and relies on tropes that anyone who’s ever sat through 15 minutes of a high school writing workshop would know to avoid. The characters are two-dimensional and stereotypical.” “The problem isn’t that Fifty Shades is unrealistic. There are plenty of unrealistic books out there. The problem is that people think this is real. The thing about Fifty Shades is that it’s plausible in a way that sex slaves undressing royalty with their teeth in some random castle that revolves around sex games is not,” states Laura Hancock, English teacher, in Huffington Post.
A fantasy suggests two things: escape from reality and an expression of hidden desire. What does this obsession with Fifty Shades tell us? A lot about our culture, for sure. If we just look at the outline of the plot, one thing is clear: Ana and Christian fit perfectly into traditional gender roles with capitalist and patriarchal ideals mixing quite well with the kinky sex they are having. While there may be nothing wrong with kinky sex in general, its presentation in the book is problematic; not long after the beginning of the story, Ana finds herself reluctant towards signing a legal contract which would bind her to Christian’s complete control over her, having him decide everything from what she can eat and wear to how she has to take care of her body and what kind of sex they will have. What he demands from her is full-on submission. As Emma Green explains in The Atlantic:
She’s torn—she wants to make him happy, but violent sex makes her uncomfortable. . . This is not how experienced members of the kink community have sex. Because BDSM and similar kinds of experimentation can be risky, and because it pushes people’s comfort limits, people who are interested in these kinds of activities have established communities that follow strict rules concerning safety and consent,
Fifty Shades merchandise (e.g. sex toys, lipstick and cufflinks) can be used for a purpose they are meant to serve; a Harry Potter wand, on the other hand, will not produce spells on the streets of our primary world.
Sex sells, and explicit sex scenes are a sure way of placing a book on the best-sellers list. However, there is another genre of books that sells well, and that is conspiracy thrillers – a genre of books based on the assertion that nothing happens at random. Da Vinci Code got published about two years after 9/11 and, according to Mark Lawson writing for the The Guardian, it told Americans exactly what they wanted to hear – nothing happens by coincidence. He notes: “Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, 450 pages of irritatingly gripping tosh, offers terrified and vengeful Americans a hidden pattern in the world’s confusions,” The BBC‘s John Humphrys called The Da Vinci Code “the literary equivalent of painting by numbers, by an artist who can’t even stay within the lines” and Salman Rushdie used the words “The Da Vinci Code is a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name”. The story follows symbologist Robert Langdon who is trying to resolve a murder while uncovering the “real truth” about Jesus and Mary Magdalen who supposedly had children and whose descendants are still living in France. “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate,” is written as the last line on the Facts page, right before the story begins (Brown 1). What provoked the rage of critics and audiences were factual errors, leading people to inaccurate beliefs and portrayals about history, for the story contains historical claims that are to be accepted as factual and not fictitious (Ehrman xiii-xvi). And, as Madonna figured out…censorship and scandal are the best type of advertisement; the response from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, head of doctrinal orthodoxy for the Vatican who gave an official statement on behalf of the Catholic church where he denounced the book as “a sack full of lies” and urged Christians not to read it, induced a lot of public debate and news reporting. I was about 12 years old at the time and I still remember all the fuss, provoked by Christians and media, regarding the book. And as for Twilight, the book may be badly written, but at least it does not represent itself as something plausible, it does not twist our sense of reality nor does it normalize unhealthy abusive relationships. After all, we know that vampires do not really sparkle in the sun.
Nowadays, as in any period of time, culture reflects society and literature reveals our states of mind as well as standards of literacy. Today, many more people than ever before are able to read and write; consequentially, since marketing campaigns aim for mainstream readers who do not wish to strain themselves while reading, bestselling books no longer contain the complexity, quality of the language and depth of narration as they used to. Bestsellers made the shift to a “guilty pleasures” style of reading and their stories no longer carry a sense of subversion. However, there are still good quality bestsellers, usually belonging to the branch of escapist fiction, which promote the values of self-improvement, righteousness and selflessness, love and friendship, while also maintaining a fair or good literary style of writing and some complexity to the plot. On the other hand, we have mostly badly written bestsellers with poor use of language and too much confusion with the real world, making the reader believe all the events in it are based on facts or is at least plausible while remaining factually inaccurate or/and supporting unhealthy perspectives on social issues.
A year and a half ago she spent a semester as an Erasmus exchange student in Brno where she joined this group of girls responsible for the making of Re:Views as a content contributor. After her return to Ljubljana she has never ceased writing articles for the magazine and hopes hope to remain one of their writers for more years to come – with every new article, she find myself enjoying the writing process even more. Although she graduated from journalism and mostly writes articles for living, collaborating with Re:Views remains fun for her because it offers her the opportunity for creating longer, analytical articles and freedom of stylistic expression. At the moment she is writing her master’s thesis where she is focusing on another aspect of writing and reading that appeals to her a lot: bibliotherapy and cinematherapy.
1 The book series mentioned are on the top of the list of contemporary best-selling novels that compares both individual books and series as a whole.
Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. Anchor Books, 2009.
Ehrman, Bart D. Introduction. Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals what We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine. Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. xiii-xvi.