How do novels become not just sellers, but best sellers – and hyper-sellers?
Quality’s important, but not always a criteria. Seldom have I read a novel as incompetently researched and clumsily styled as The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said). I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, nor do I want to, but I’m sure somebody’ll comment about what I am told is, well, derivative dribble.
I posted the other week about how genre becomes popular because it keys into changing social ideals – and last week about how types of genre become specifically popular on the back of particular social trends.
The best-sellers are the ones who float to the top of those heaps. The thing is, they’re usually transient. But every so often a book transcends that – becomes not just a best seller, but a lasting best seller. A classic.
Something everybody has at least heard of – even if they haven’t read it – and which stays in the public mind for years – even decades.
Like The Lord Of The Rings. In just a few heady years during the late 1960s, J R R Tolkien’s epic effectively mainstreamed fantasy. His mythos was embedded in western popular literature even before Peter Jackson’s movies (filmed in my country and my city, bwahahahaha) catapulted his creation to stratospheric popularity.
An astonishing achievement for a modest and retiring Oxford don who had to be nudged into finishing anything for a publisher.
Tolkien never planned it that way. His publishers didn’t anticipate it either. The book he presented Allen & Unwin with in the early 1950s was barely publishable – they broke it into three parts to spread the risk, and a glance at early print runs reveals it shifted only a few thousand copies.
Then, in the mid-1960s, it took off. Kicked into life by a pirated American edition, followed by Tolkien’s authorised edition. It kept on selling. And on. And on. And on….
His themes struck chords with a new generation, particularly the idealised pre-industrial England of the Shire and the hippified, natural Earth-spirit lifestyle of Tom Bombadil. The link between Bombadil and counter-culture values was lampooned with all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer in Bored Of The Rings.
This was a generation that read a lot of fantasy, partly because fantasy had become an element of their fabric of escape. Tolkien met their need on both counts. Genre tastes, in short, had caught up, though his own motives were different in many respects (eerily, also similar – every generation found reason to object to industrialisation).
Other authors tried to imitate him. Tolkien, in short, had created a new genre, about a generation ahead of its time.
As if that wasn’t wonderful enough, the book gained an enduring public audience. Part of that was due to the way that 1960s youth ideals were mainstreamed. Part of it was the scope of Tolkien’s vision, engaging symbolisms at a fundamental level. And that wasn’t surprising. He was trying to write Britain’s missing mythology; he wrote to fundamental themes – capturing our cultural framework in soaring battles between total good and utter evil; the symbolisms of mythic heroism.
All was given a dimension that ordinary people could identify with, through the ordinariness of the hobbits – little folk who, inevitably, were more heroic than anybody could imagine.
A stunning achievement. And not something that can be easily repeated – certainly, I suspect, not by design.
What do you figure?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Next time: getting down to the nuts and bolts of novel writing. More humour, more writing tips – and, well, more. Watch this space.