Lessons from Stephen King and "Valley of the Dolls": Reading 100 years of bestsellers

What the most popular books of the past century taught one writer about America's strange taste in fiction

Published April 2, 2014 11:52PM (EDT)

Stephen King         (AP/Francois Mori)
Stephen King (AP/Francois Mori)

When Matthew Kahn, a creative writing student at California State University at Northridge, learned from one of his professors that the bestselling book of 1926 was "The Private Life of Helen of Troy" by John Erskine, he was struck. The class wasn't reading it, but the book they were reading, "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway, was published the same year. "I thought that was interesting, Kahn told me. "When we think of the books of 1926, we think modernists. We don't think about the books that most people were actually reading at that time."

So Kahn decided to read them, 100 years of No. 1 bestsellers, from 1913 to 2013, and post reviews on his blog, Kahn's Corner. As of the time of this writing, he's up to 1966 and Jacqueline Susann's "The Valley of the Dolls" -- decidedly not a hit with this reader. But Kahn has come across a few surprises and can offer an unusual perspective on what Americans have liked in a book since the First World War. I called him up to get his impressions.

Now that you're halfway through this project, are you regretting taking it on?

There are definitely some books that I'll feel like I really don't want to read them and then it turns out that I have a good reason not to. But then I'll come across someone like Edna Ferber, who I'd never heard of, who's great. I'll come across little gems that slipped through, and that makes it worth it.

I know that around the beginning of 1960 there's a massive shift toward genre fiction -- Le Carré, Stephen King, even Tolkien one year -- and away from things like coming-of-age stories. So it's not going to all be the same.

Do you have a favorite book so far?

There are a few absolutely great ones, like "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "The Grapes of Wrath" or "Doctor Zhivago." It's hard to choose between ones like that. Of the ones that aren't well known or have kind of been lost, I'd say Ferber's "So Big" or Vicente Blasco Ibáñez's "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," a World War I novel.

Which one did you dislike the most?

Harold Bell Wright's "The Eyes of the World." And I just read Jacqueline Susann's "The Valley of the Dolls," which I did not like at all.

Why not?

One of my pet peeves is when the author tells you something about the character and then never shows that character displaying that trait.

In "Valley of the Dolls," it's mostly a matter of character construction, which is kind of lazy. It's just a matter of respecting your readers. You have to create good characters if it's a character-based story. In that book the main character, Ann Wells, is a complete Mary Sue. In every challenge she faces, someone else solves it for her. Yet the book is all about how great she is. The writer will tell you something, or the other characters will mention a trait the character has, but the character never exhibits it.

Were you surprised by any of these books, not necessarily in terms of quality, but in the subjects dealt with or the techniques the author used?

The first one I read, "The Inside of the Cup," was by Winston Churchill -- but not that Winston Churchill. It's not so much against religion, but for a more liberal religion, a step away from dogma. That's not something you necessarily expect in a bestseller from 1913. "Elmer Gantry" by Sinclair Lewis is even more in that vein.

That's a very savage portrait of a corrupt charismatic revival tent preacher, right?


What do you like about "So Big"?

It really comes down to complex characters and some really nice writing, too. The prose is great. It has a message without hitting you over the head with it.

Bestsellers today do sometimes come on pretty strong with the messages. I suppose some people feel like they need to learn life lessons from fiction.

Some of the books from the early 20th century do that, too. Look at Lloyd C. Douglas and a bunch of writers who are just incredibly religious. There are at least four I've read where the apostles are actually characters in the story.

So they've got biblical settings?

Yes. Douglas has a couple, set in Israel. Thomas B. Costain has one. Then there's "The Song of Bernadette" by Franz Werfel.

About Saint Bernadette! I think I've seen the movie. Were there patterns you observed, or qualities that you think help make a novel a bestseller?

Well, controversy helps. Sinclair Lewis was banned. For Steinbeck, there was a famous controversy over "The Grapes of Wrath."

Beyond that, advertising helps. It was interesting to learn about Harold Bell Wright's marketing strategy. His publisher spent a huge amount on advertising. Then, if a writer already has some notoriety, that helps.

It changes over time, too. There was a time when book clubs, like Book of the Month, were huge and had a lot of influence. Then in the 1940s, the mass market paperback industry began. So publishing changed a lot over this period.

A lot of those factors are exterior to the books themselves. Are there certain types of books, settings or themes that you've noticed cropping up a lot?

Well, in the first half of where I am right now, with the exception of religious history, which there are several of, and war novels, which there are a few of, it's predominantly realist coming-of-age stories or historical fiction. Some social realism. Every so often someone like du Maurier has a kind of gothic, but even that book is more historical fiction. Most of them really just fall into middle-class realism. With the exception of a couple of Zane Grey westerns, you don't really get any genre fiction until the 1970s.

What about themes? The number of biblical settings is curious.

Besides the biblical ones, there are a bunch that are directly or indirectly about priests. Religion was just a very popular subject, even if it's Sinclair Lewis' anti-religion, or a call to a different religious perspective. Even when it's not about Christianity, like Mika Waltari's "The Egyptian." That's very focused on Egyptian religion and culture.

So we're talking about either a very realistic novel about contemporary life or a heavily researched historical novel that's primarily about that specific time period.

I think of bestsellers from that time as being big books with a lot of character, like "Gone With the Wind." What they used to call "sweeping."

It really goes both ways. After "Gone With the Wind" it was Marjorie Rawlings' "The Yearling," and there's maybe 10 characters in the entire novel, and just three major ones. It swings widely in both directions.

Do you feel that, from doing this, you're learning what it would take to make a book a bestseller?

A little better. Part of it really is an issue of marketing. Most bestselling authors already had a name for themselves. It's rare for a first novel to become a bestseller. As far as the content itself, obviously it changes as we get to the second half, but a lot of it is just a matter of accessibility. A focus on plot and character rather than structure and the prose itself. That's what most people care about when they're reading a story for entertainment: plot and character.

As a creative writing student, have you learned anything for your own work from these books, even if it's a negative lesson?

I've learned small things from individual books. I'm looking at a book like Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" and learning techniques to tie a fractured narrative together. Or I'm looking at "All Quiet on the Western Front" to see how to make an action scene also kind of sad. How to make different things work at the same time

Any larger impressions about the book business over the past 100 years?

One thing about the massive shift in the 1960s is that it's partly about a changing perspective on books. They're more seen as a part of the entertainment industry. In the first half of this list, there are about 10 years where the bestseller was also a Pulitzer Prize winner. There were a few years where the bestseller was written by a Nobel Prize winner. With Allen Drury's "Advise and Consent," in 1960, that was the last time either of those things were true. It's the last book on the list to win the Pulitzer Prize.

It's something that opened doors for genre writers, people who had not normally been able to break through to massive audiences in the early part of the century. It gave credibility to that group, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it did lead to two different ideas of what the whole thing is about, of what publishing literature is meant to accomplish.

A lot of the more recent bestseller lists seem to be basically the literary equivalent of a crime procedural on TV. It can be good. There are good examples of that, but the main point is to just kill time, to entertain. Doing something great takes a backseat to making you want to buy the next book in the series.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Best-sellers Bestsellers Books Fiction Gone With The Wind Matthew Kahn Readers And Reading Stephen King