Why do so many books fail to make a big impression on the public, while others become blockbusters? This is a question I’ve been pondering since the emergence of Fifty Shades of Grey, the book dubbed “Mommy Porn” by the press, which has become a sales phenomenon. What started out as a piece of Twilight fan fiction on the Web has morphed into a New York Times mega-seller, earning author E.L. James and the small Australian press that initially published the book a six-figure deal from Vintage. According to the Los Angeles Times, the major studios are lining up to purchase the film rights.For those who might not be familiar with the story, Fifty Shades of Grey chronicles the sexual adventures of twenty-something literature student Anastasia Steel, apparently a virgin at the beginning of the book, and her sadomasochistic boyfriend, young billionaire Christian Grey. The book, according to the articles I’ve read (seriously, I haven’t read the book), is pretty much one long sex scene, replete with hardcore bondage, domination, and other things that would have made Lady Chatterley blush. Make no mistake, I’m no prude. The subject matter is not one I find offensive—I’m simply curious about the book’s popularity.
I don’t begrudge James her success. Indeed, more power to her. But what is it about the book that’s fueling its overwhelming popularity? Is it simply sex? If that’s the answer, does this mean Henry Miller’s books will start appearing on the bestseller lists? What was it about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy that spawned a similar frenzy? I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels and enjoyed them all, but I’m at a loss to explain why those books in particular struck such a powerful chord with people. It’s a tragedy Larsson didn’t live long enough to see his books become the pop-culture phenomenon they did.
What I not only find puzzling–but disturbing–is Snooki, whose book . . . I can’t even finish typing this sentence. Let’s move on.
I’m currently reading Into Africa by adventurer Martin Dugard. The book details Henry Stanley’s epic 1871 search for missing explorer David Livingstone in the heart of Africa (their eventual meeting was immortalized by Stanley’s famous greeting: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”). The book is a stellar adventure story written in a lively manner that almost dares the reader not to turn the page. It’s one of the best works of narrative nonfiction I’ve picked up in a long while and reads like a real-life Indiana Jones story.
It’s a wonderful character study of two very complex individuals: Livingstone, the missionary bent on finding the source of the Nile; and Stanley, a journalist plagued by failure and desperate to make something of his life. Why didn’t this book generate mammoth sales? It has drama, human conflict, adventure, a touch of mystery—but not much sex.
An author I’ve mentioned on this blog before is James Crumley, whose violent, drug-fueled detective novels rank amongst the best crime fiction I’ve read. He has been cited as a major influence by such bestselling authors as Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane, yet he never found a large audience. Crumley, who died in 2008, voiced his thoughts on the matter in a 2001 interview with the Dallas Morning News:
I’m not middlebrow and middle class. Sure, I’d like it if more people read the books. My children would like it. My ex-wives would like it. But that’s just not what I’m about.
The opening line to Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss is considered by many to be one of the finest of the genre:
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
The whole book, mind you, is phenomenal.
Otto Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Press and owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, could never account for Crumley’s lack of mainstream success. “He just never found a mass audience,” he told the the Los Angeles Times in 2008, “and I wish I could tell you why. I don’t know.”
As the author of six non-bestselling books (well, one did appear in a brief flash on the Barnes and Noble paperback bestseller list about six years ago) and my next book due out in October, I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever beat the odds. If great authors like Crumley go their entire career hidden in the literary shadows, what chance do other scribes have?
All writers, of course, are prone to such feelings every now and then. The trick is not to dwell on them too long. If we knew why some books meet with great success, while others go out in a blaze of obscurity, we’d all be writing massive bestsellers.
Who knows? Maybe in the end, it is all about sex.