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Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction Paperback – Nov 25 2007
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His amiable trawl through the history of popular books is frequently entertaining Scott Pack, The Times breezily entertaining Kevin Power, Irish Times (Dublin) Sutherland effectively challenges the assumption that a book's commercial success somehow invalidates either its author's integrity or the critical acumen of its readers. Instead we are offered a plausible vision of the blockbuster or the bodice-ripper as narrative in its purest form. Jonathan Keates, TLS
About the Author
John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, and Professor of Literature at Caltech. He has published many books, including, most recently, iSo You Think You Know Jane Austen?/i and iSo You Think You Know Thomas Hardy?/i, and has edited 15 volumes in the Oxford World's Classics series (most recently Lytton Strachey's iEminent Victorians/i). He writes and reviews widely, including in the iTLS/i and iLRB/i, and writes regular columns in the iGuardian/i, iFinancial Times/i, iNew Statesman/i, and iSunday Telegraph/i. In 2005, he was chair of the Man-Booker fiction prize committee.
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Notwithstanding that this is a VSI and therefore of necessity concise, there are many unfortunate shortcomings of the approach taken here:
(i) no discussion of other countries' bestsellers, or even of the influence of Anglophone books on the bestseller lists in other EU countries, to say nothing of Japan, Latin America, etc.;
(ii) next to no discussion of the business aspects of bestsellerdom, including, among other topics: agents and advances, the relationship of bestsellers to the backlist, and media tie-ins and merchandising; and
(iii) no discussion of non-fiction. This last is puzzling: since the thesis of the book is that one can learn something about the preoccupations of an era by looking at its bestseling novels, one might think its best-selling non-fiction would be at least as transparent a gauge of the Zeitgeist. And some lines on the history of the self-help and business book genres, for example, would also have been reasonable to include in a book so titled.
All in all, this book might be of most interest to someone looking for a chatty bit of "cultural studies" fluff as a kind of sorbet course between more substantial books. If you're expecting a book about the publishing business, or even a more serious cultural analysis, you will probably be disappointed.
While it is true that there are other studies that deal with the bestseller phenomenon more extensively (of which Sutherland cites a handful in his bibliography), this VSI book has the advantage of inviting lay readers to reflect on the origins and development of bestseller marketing over the course of the twentieth century. Drawing from his wide knowledge of bestselling titles in the U.S. and Britain, Sutherland offers numerous examples of books that happened to capture their historical moment perfectly, only to fade away once that moment had passed. Sutherland is careful to point out the importance of genre (especially with crime fiction and westerns), political ideology (see his discussion of Tom Clancy and John Grisham), and media tie-ins (with 1976's *The Omen* as the landmark screenplay-novelization tie-in) in establishing a book's bestseller status in a given time and place. The examples are brief, but by the end of Sutherland's survey one has a good impression of the various strategies authors, publishers, and advertisers have used to secure books' lucrative, albeit fleeting, place on the bestseller lists.
Again, there are other books out there that delve deeper into the bestseller phenomenon. Two titles Sutherland doesn't cite but that remain illuminating are Thomas Whiteside's *The Blockbuster Complex*, based on a series of articles he wrote for the *New Yorker* in the 1970s, and Andre Schiffrin's more recent *The Business of Books*. Still, Sutherland's VSI is a pleasant, accessible read, and one that brings lay readers into conversation with an enduring object of study in the sociology of literature.
Some isolated remarks (like the one about 'bestsellers' vs. 'fastsellers') are interesting enough, the book is not a bad read, and Sutherland has done some information compiling which may be useful to readers interested in the history of publishing. Designed differently and delivered in a systematic manner—not as a series of unrelated anecdata—this could have been a decent reference book. Right now, it is nothing more than a disappointment.
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