Bestsellers vs. masterpieces: Living forever or being forgotten

Is there a recipe to turn a book into a bestseller?

Although it was introduced by the end of the 19th century to label an unusual book success, the term “bestseller” has been a reality even from the 1605, when Cervantes published “Don Quixote”, his masterpiece.

Une histoire des best-sellers, written by Frédéric Rouvillois, captivates one through its simple style and a certain degree of humour, on top of relevant pieces of evidence collected from the press and books from ancient times to nowadays. The book actually contains a significant number of examples with stories that turn famous literature myths upside down.

Rouvillois acknowledges that the most famous bestseller in the world are two books, which resisted over time and proved to stay always “fresh”, generation by generation. The first one is “The Bible”, a champion in terms of number of copies (about six billion) and in terms of timespan. The second one is the “Little Red Book”, a collection of quotes by Chinese leader Mao Zedong. According to Rouvillois, there were about two billion copies sold in China and elsewhere in the world.

 

Rouvillois focuses on the main factors around making a book: the author, editor, reader, historical context – with censorship examples -, market and marketing efforts of both author and editor.

One key condition to label a book as a bestseller is its sales figures. Take two examples: “Harry Potter” and “The Da Vinci Code”. Rouvillois demonstrates that the sales figures are doubtful most of the time. He argues that they were faked even from the 19th century. Based on the evidence of the time, the author claims that it is not always the book high quality the criterion to sell very well, but, because of a strong marketing strategy, people buy it to be trendy or to align themselves to the snobbery of the moment. Referring to the nowadays book industry his examples cover the work of Paolo Coelho, Marc Levy and Guillaume Musso. Rouvillois says that these authors deliver comforting stories to the readers, who enjoy the books as they do with their daily horoscope reading.

A bestseller can be born through a well-planned editorial project, so a skilled editor is able to transform an ordinary book into a worldwide success. For example, “Maria Chapdelaine”, a book written by Louis Hémon, a French national living in Canada, was a failure in his country. Bernard Grasset, a French editor, realises that the book subject may appeal to the French readers. He then turned it into a worldwide bestseller, with huge sales figures notably in France, the United States, Germany and United Kingdom.

These facts prove that a bestseller in a country or a culture cannot necessarily be a “bestseller” replica in other countries or cultures.

Bestsellers vs. masterpieces and the fragile borderline between them

Rouvillois draws the attention to the differences between a bestseller and a masterpiece, which is a piece of genuine work. A bestseller may be a preference for a short period of time, reflecting reading fashion trends, while a masterpiece resists the time and stays fresh from one generation to another. He mentions the case of Don Quixote, which quickly become known and translated into several languages and still stays as a reference book of the world literature.

Rouvillois also proves that the so-called “book industry” or “industrial literature” responds to what a large category of readers want and expect: easy-reading subjects and the need to identify themselves with some story characters. The industrial literature has also developed a certain pattern, which influences the book lifecycle. He mentions that, for example, Amélie Nothomb, publishes a book every August. To make the book more mysterious and increase the chances of good sales figures, the book subject is unknown until it goes out on the market.

Bestsellers and cultural protectionism

Rouvillois also explains the “cultural protectionism” phenomenon in certain countries, in response to the globalisation tendency. For example, the same Amélie Nothomb, a bestseller author in France, Belgium and some other European countries, needed 17 years to get her novels translated and sold in the United States.

Another example is the one of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, the 2008 Nobel Prize winner. Unknown in the United States at the time of the Nobel Prize announcement, the American newspapers’ headlines were something like: “Who is this guy?”

A third example refers to a novel written in French by an American-born writer, namely Jonathan Littell. Why his “The Kindly Ones” (Les Bienveillantes) did not resonate with the American readership while in France the book was a hit?

Censorship between a bestseller and a masterpiece

Based on the press of the time, Rouvillois explains how and why censorship has contributed to making a number of bestsellers, despite its role “to adjust” books according to the ideology of the regime.

For example, “Corinne” of Madame de Staël became a bestseller in Napoleon’s times because its author was an important opponent of the Emperor. The censorship led to drawing the readers’ attention, and therefore contributed to increasing the sales figures. The story is well concentrated into a famous quote of the book: “Tout comprendre rend très-indulgent”, which may mean “To know all is to forgive all”.

An unusual example comes from the former Soviet Union and refers to the “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Solzhenitsyn. The censorship almost did and did not work because of a special historical context, namely the Soviet openness following the Stalinist period.

Nikita Khrushchev, the former Soviet leader, approved the book, which was published in 1962. The book describes a day of a prisoner’s life in a Soviet labour camp around 1950. The book was meant to prove the openness of the regime in the post-Stalinist era. The novel was sold out and turned into a publishing hit immediately.

Industrial literature: Something old and something new?

There are plenty of pages in this book which may disappoint readers when they see clear evidence on how Dumas, for example, hired a large team of people to write novels on his behalf. Or how Jules Verne’s son published a number of books many years after his father died.

In other words, the so-called industrial literature was born earlier than we thought. Rouvillois says that today, hiring “documentarists” to help a writer, is common practice.

Why “Une histoire des best-sellers” is a pleasant reading experience?

Despite the book density coming from summing up stories covering bestsellers worldwide, Rouvillois’s book is easy to read as the content flows by combining press and critics’ quotes, anecdotes and testimonies of the time.

Very often, each story behind a bestseller is always full of surprises and unknown facts I have never heard of.

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