Kitsch, Corny and Irresistibly Bad

The bestseller came into existence with the first bestseller list, in the Bookman in 1895. The idea of a weekly chart, recording how books of the day were doing, was quickly adopted by the American book trade. Not, however, by the snooty Europeans: There was no regular or reliable bestseller list in Britain until the 1970s. Books, the Europeans maintained, do not compete with each other–Heaven forbid. They’ve since come round. The point about bestseller lists, of course, is not that they record sales: They stimulate the market, creating the mania effect (“everyone’s reading it!”) that the book trade so loves.

From the first, the novel–the book that is always new and quickly old–was the archetypal bestseller. “Fiction Bestsellers” still have pride of place in all our major newspapers and trade magazines. Heaven, the witty Frenchman said, would be a sofa and an endless supply of new novels. Hell, one might retort, would be the same sofa and an endless supply of old bestsellers. Few categories of book are less readable than those which, as recently as 10 years ago, everyone was reading.

Still, there is, among all the sludge and schlock a category of bestsellers that are so bad that they’re fun to dig up and re-read. What would the top 20 best-worst bestsellers of the 20th century be? Opinions will vary and you have to chew through a lot of pudding to get your 20 plums. But here’s my selection.

Top of my “cream of the crop” chart is Black Oxen, Gertrude Atherton’s super-seller of 1923. The novel opens vividly in a New York theatre. There is a sensationally beautiful woman in the audience identical (as randy old bucks recall) with Mary Ogden, “the belle of thirty years ago.” A daughter perhaps? No, by God, it is Mary herself. She has been “rejuvenated” in Vienna. Science has discovered that by bombarding a woman’s ovaries at the onset of menopause the aging process can be reversed! When news of the process becomes public, “civil war threatens.” Mary, meanwhile, has a good time at “petting parties.”

In second place, I am torn between a novel about a boring bird who thinks he’s Jesus Christ and a man who makes his living muttering sweet-nothings to horses. Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973) edges out Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer (1995). The seagull wins by a long neck.

For No. 3, an old and much-recycled favorite, Sax Rohmer’s The Mystery of Fu Manchu (1913). I relish it for the villain’s exotic means of disposing of his victims. Not for him the banal knife, poison or bullet. His favorite technique is the “fungus cellar” where poisonous mushrooms grow at incredible speed to kill their captives agonizingly. Yellow swine. Disgracefully xenophobic, of course.

As a ne-plus-ultra of political incorrectitude, and as No. 4, I select Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 “sex shocker,” Tobacco Road, set in an American South of the fevered imagination. Patriarch sharecropper Jeeter Lester married his wife Ada when she was 11 and sired 17 children before her (bowlegged) 30th birthday. Still living in the family shack is harelipped and nymphomaniac Ellie Mae and young Dude, who raises hell with a preacher, Bessie Rice, twice his age with no bones in her nose. The novel gets funnier. Unless, of course, you happen to be reading it south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933) topped American bestseller lists for two years. A plane load of wispy Brits find a quasi-Tibetan valley where no one grows old and life is tranquil. Hilton’s escapist romance bequeathed a name (“Shangri La”) to more boats, bungalows and beach huts than any other novel of the century. Published in the year that Hitler came to power, it expressed the Free World’s desire to find some bolt hole where bad things don’t happen.

Edna Ferber penned a string of bestsellers of which the most enduring are Show Boat (1926) and Giant (1952). I choose, as No. 6 in the best-worst list, So Big, her top-selling “rags to riches, anyone can make it in America” novel of 1924. I particularly relish the heroine’s line, in declining the proposal of a hopeful suitor: “You’re all smooth, I like ’em bumpy.” She also likes them “big,” of course, “so big.”

Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat (1925) gets in at No. 7 for the heroine’s name (“Iris Storm”), her green hat, her yellow Hispano-Suiza limousine, and her kisses that smell “dimly of petrol and cigarettes and a scent whose name I shall never now know.” Whole generations of unsophisticates learned sophistication from Arlen’s novel–with its daring climax in which the svelte heroine, horror of horrors, is revealed to have married a man with an extremely unsophisticated “social” disease.

Every connoisseur of comic fiction knows Cold Comfort Farm and Aunt Ida’s “something nasty in the woodshed.” Few nowadays have read the novel on which the witty Stella Gibbons based her spoof. Mary Webb’s Precious Bane became a bestseller in 1924, after Stanley Baldwin–the British Prime Minister–took to puffing it in his political speeches. Webb’s heroine, Prue Sarn, is horribly disfigured and has encountered many nasty things in many woodsheds. But, by a hilariously improbable series of events, she ends up riding off into the sunset with her true love, Kester. Nothing helps a novel to bestsellerdom like prime ministerial or presidential endorsement (vide, what John F. Kennedy did for Ian Fleming, Ronald Reagan for Tom Clancy, and Bill Clinton for Walter Mosley).

For the New Age Nonsense category and #9 on the list, I was tempted by The Celestine Prophecy, but settled instead for an old favourite, Ruth Beebe Hill’s 1979 bestseller, Hanta Yo. It charts the fortunes of a band of Teton Sioux over the centuries. Beebe lived with the Sioux for decades and translated the book into their language before publication. She received the accolade from one of the wise men of the tribe that “in its pages flows skan.” Personally, I have never read a book with so much skan.

At No. 10, I nominate Mickey Spillane’s 1947 pulp classic I, the Jury. Who can forget the ending in which Mike Hammer wastes the beautiful (but deadly) Charlotte Manning. “She was what you would expect to find in a painting if each of the great artists added their own special technique to produce a masterpiece” (who says Spillane ain’t got no class?). Ms. Manning may be beautiful, but she shot Mike’s buddy in the belly with a dum-dum bullet and she’s gotta go the same way. “How c-could you?,” she gasps. “I had only a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in. ‘It was easy,’ I said.”

Harold Robbins’s The Adventurers (1966), my nomination for No. 11, was the top novel of its year until edged out by Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (Harold bore no ill will, and wrote a novel based on the doomed Jackie, The Lonely Lady). The Adventurers is Robbins’s most flamboyant roman a clef. The hero, Dax, is based jointly on playboy Porfirio Rubirosa (who died, sexually exhausted, in 1965) and the Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, who was assassinated in 1961. It’s all polo, luxury yachts and silk sheets. And it’s impossible not to suspect that Robbins may be laughing at us. Surely no one could seriously put this stuff on paper?

At No. 12 comes Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse. A historical romp that topped the bestseller list for two years, 1933-4. It was America’s first blockbuster. Running to 1,200 pages, it was marketed as “three books for the price of one.” Allen’s novel for its time contained daring sexual explicitness, including what is, I think, the first use of the word “orgasm” in bestselling fiction. The story, following a foundling who swashbuckles his way as a slave-trader across 17th-century Africa and a treasure-hunter across Central America, is pure tosh. Three books’ worth of tosh for the price of one.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957) is as long as Anthony Adverse and much stranger tosh. It’s what the 19th-century called “fiction with a purpose.” Rand’s purpose is to destroy socialism (“the whining rotters,” that is, who want to “loot” honest capitalists). The hero, John Galt (his trademark is the “holy sign of the dollar”) persuades his fellow “wealth creators” to retreat to the American equivalent of James Hilton’s happy valley. The United States, without its capitalists, disintegrates. The novel had sold 5 million by 1984. And who is Ayn Rand’s most famous disciple? Alan Greenspan. Who says bestsellers can’t change history?

At No. 14, a soggy old favorite, H. De Vere Stackpoole’s Blue Lagoon (1908). It’s the most romantic of “Robinsoniads”–Crusoe novels. Arthur Lestrange is voyaging to Southern California to mend his tubercular lungs (it’s 1908, remember) when his boat is wrecked. His little son Dickie and niece Emmeline are marooned on a South Seas island where they grow up to “find sex” and kill an octopus. For some reason, film makers love this novel. It can be seen, of course, lurking over the edge of Golding’s Lord of the Flies (what kind of sex would his kids have grown up to find, one wonders).

At No. 15, the dullest No. 1 bestseller I know, Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal, which topped the charts in 1950. It chronicles the life story of priest Stephen Fermoyle, and the tediously good works he does. This dire novel bursts into life for one brief moment when Stephen is tempted by a beautiful woman. He fights off carnal desire, “like a man combating a severe but curable disease.” In Colleen McCullough’s rollicking Australian epic, The Thorn Birds, the priest succumbs. It makes for a jollier bestseller.

The biggest religious bestseller of the 20th century is Lloyd C. Douglas’s gospel-bio of Simon called Peter, The Big Fisherman (1947). The narrative makes much of the ancient Jews’ struggle against their Roman oppressor, and the novel achieved its phenomenal sales, I suspect, as a kind of rebound from current interest in Israel’s emergence into statehood in 1947-8. “The Carpenter” makes a tactfully distant appearance.

Who now could bear to read A. J. Cronin’s top seller of 1937, The Citadel? A distant ancestor of “ER” (via “Dr. Kildare”), it is the archetypal “doctor’s dilemma” novel. Andrew Manson, a worthy graduate of St. Andrews, finds himself torn between healing the poor and glitzy Harley Street. He succumbs to mammon and adultery before seeing the error of his ways and throwing himself, “kneeling and weeping,” at the feet of his forgiving wife, Christine. Cronin’s pious sagas were all the rage in both Britain and America in the 1930s. The dust lies heavy on them today.

As it does, less fairly, on Margaret Kennedy’s “outrageous” bestseller of 1925, The Constant Nymph. Musician Albert Sanger lives with his mistress and seven children in the Tyrol, whose hills are alive with music and libido. The shocking plot of the novel has the constant nymph of the title, Teresa, aged 15, in a torrid affair with a grown man. Deservedly, the little trollop dies at the end. One foresees Nabokov’s story of a tragic (if less constant) “nymphet,” which topped the lists 30 years later.

At No. 19, I nominate the vulgarest novel I have ever read, Judith Krantz’s 1991 bestseller, Dazzle, with its heroine Jazz Kilkullen (no threats of namesake libel suits here), an LA “celebrity photographer.” Krantz’s sex scenes defy description. Needless to say, Dazzle sold a ton of copies. No publisher lost money with vulgar.

The vilest bestseller? No contest: Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club (1974). Four “ordinary guys” kidnap a sex-goddess film star–transparently Marilyn Monroe (her protestation, “A sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing” is the novel’s epigraph). Once they have their victim, the members of the fan club force her to be their sex slave–graphically described, of course. Joyce Carol Oates’s current bestseller Blonde is Proustian by comparison.

Curious readers may wonder how I happen to have come across these egregiously awful novels. I’m preparing The Oxford Companion to Popular Fiction. Curious and hawk-eyed readers will note that they all have title key words that begin with the letters “A” to “I.” I’m only half waythrough.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. He is the author of many books on 19th-century fiction and 20th-century bestsellers.