What’s The Purpose of the Bestseller? – New Republic

THE BESTSELLER CODE: ANATOMY OF THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. JockersSt. Martin’s Press, pp. 256, $25.99

The authors of The Bestseller Code refer to themselves
as “literary scholars,” and while both have their PhDs in English, their passion is clearly
for word-crunching technology—Jockers is the director of the Nebraska Literary
Lab and Archer is a former researcher at Apple. Awed by the market, the two are
downright breathless over their “bestseller-ometer” and its talent for “machine-learning”
and “text-mining.” They ably show that verisimilitude
rules the bestseller list and always has: Readers savor the sentimental
preciousness of seeing familiar human predicaments dramatized. Bestsellers
usually have plenty of feeling to impart, which fits in well with our current autocracy
of emotion. (A Nicholas Sparks novel is so chronically saccharine you can feel
yourself getting diabetes as you read.)

This rabid realism comes as
no surprise; once a writer disposes of it he becomes obliged to rely on sophisticated
language that recruits the imagination of his readers. If there’s one thing the
average bestselling writer can’t ever pull off, it’s language. Remember
Evelyn Waugh’s relevant admission: “I regard writing not as an investigation of
character but as an exercise in the use of language.” For bestsellers, the plot’s
the thing; the dynamism and dimensions of language are rather beside the point.
The marketplace can’t and won’t measure merit, and it’s perfectly okay with
that. But are you okay with that? When
a nation’s taste in books is seemingly in the gutter, you can count on other
things soon joining it there, such as that nation’s facility for language and

When did things
go so wrong? Well, things were never right. Flip through Horace and you’ll find
no golden age of reading, one in which the masses revered serious and
artistically accomplished works of art. Instead you’ll be confronted with a castigation
of inferior ancient poets and the plebs who celebrated them. In an 1818
lecture, William Hazlitt called literary popularity “the shout of the
multitude, the idle buzz of fashion, the venal puff.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, in
an 1841 Journals entry, wrote: “People
do not deserve to have good writing, they are so pleased with bad.” In 1899,
Henry James lamented the pervasiveness of bad taste, the “millions for whom
taste is but an obscure, confused, immediate instinct.” In 1919, George Bernard
Shaw wrote: “Everybody knows how to read and nobody knows what to read.” There’s
Ezra Pound, in a 1933 letter, railing with characteristic bile against “the enfeebled
adolescent Amurkn mind” that allows low culture to thrive. In 1973, Gore Vidal
had fun poking at “the sort of exuberant badness which so often achieves
perfect popularity.” “No one,” he wrote, “has ever lost a penny underestimating
the intelligence of the American public.” You can’t help suspecting that
the “common reader” of Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf was a whole lot less
common than the ecstatically gullible reader who helped build Dan Brown’s

The numbers that Jockers and Archer give
us are dizzying: More than 50,000 new works of fiction are published every year—that
doesn’t count the self-publishing racket, the vanity printers that cash in on
dreamers—and the five biggest publishing companies own approximately 80 percent
of bestsellers. In the United States, around 200 novels make the
New York Times bestseller lists each
year, less than one half of one percent of the total novels published annually.
Danielle Steel has sold six hundred million copies of her books—that’s not a
six hundred million. We’re told
that disciples of romance often read hundreds of romances per year, which isn’t
quite the feat it sounds like when you consider how little is actually there,
each one a bonbon tossed lazily onto the tongue.

reality of what is selling is related to the reality of how people are thinking.
Pound believed that “if a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies
and decays.” Nobody’s pretending that Tom Clancy is literature, but you see
Pound’s point about the link between what we read and how we think, between the
books we love and the world we see, between language and
apprehension. Pound also argued that a nation growing accustomed to shoddy
books is in the process of losing itself irrevocably. Accept the middling and
false in your books and before long you’ll accept the middling and false in
everything else too—your food, your friends, your presidential nominees.

Archer and Jockers discuss the “style” of bestsellers they mean only what’s
most obvious—diction and syntax—and when
they say “winning prose,” they of course mean “selling prose.” In literature, style is not severed from substance;
rather, style permits substance, allows theme and plot and character to be born.
This is why the literary artist’s first concern is always language; without it,
nothing else can happen, nothing else can hold. “Style is matter,” said Nabokov, which was his restatement of Goethe’s
notion that “a writer’s style is a true reflection of his inner life.” In that
way, style amounts to an embodiment of morality. The language on the page must
indicate much more than what is there. That’s
the trick to most commercial fiction: Never put more on the page than what the
surface can hold; never ask your reader to delve with you into the wombs of
language, to rappel into the inky caves of connotation. Literature
means a striving into the accuracy and surprise of language, into the many
folds of understanding, while popular fiction perverts language to become
common advertisement, a public service message that means less than what it

Archer and
Jockers are researchers ostensibly without judgment, but their giddy register
gives them away. To modify a Wildean barb: they and their algorithm know the
price of everything and the value of nothing. Their simplistic talk of words as
commodities—“a bestselling verb”—debases language into a species of propaganda.
What’s the leading defect that makes Dan Brown enormously inferior to Shirley
Hazzard? The gimped inevitability of his prose, sentences that reveal a mind
unable to activate self-knowledge or rejoice in analogues, and a pandering to
the reductive, which is precisely how propaganda works. Attention to the
multiform complexity and surprise of language seeks value and understands that
value can be had.            

I. A. Richards’s Principles
of Literary Criticism
opens with this line: “A book is a machine to think
with.” But the handy retort from those readers who gorge on bestsellers is: “We
don’t want to think. We want to escape.” The term “snob” readies itself on the
tongue. About bestsellers, Richards tried to convince himself that “those who
disdain them are not necessarily snobs”—not necessarily, no, but mostly. We
snobs enjoy deriding all those lobotomized bestsellers and feeling superior to
the talentless readers who make them possible, but Archer and Jockers are right
to give us this deflating reminder: “The
top few titles alone are why some retailers are able to stay in business and
keep selling books at all.” And if it weren’t for
bestsellers, some publishing houses would have a hard time keeping their doors
open; they can put out serious books and lose money only because they put out
shitty books and make money.

once made the observation that not
reading is as important as reading: One must not buy into the easy
entertainments of the hour. Archer
and Jockers are “interested in the potential to launch new authors,” and so
they have the hammy goal of “widening access…to the career of writing.” Has
anyone ever stepped into a Barnes & Nobel and determined that what we
really need is more writers? Archer
and Jockers want to encourage publishers to spend “more of their
Patterson/King/Steel budget on the young writers who may one day replace them.”
That sounds decent enough, until you realize they mean to encourage the next generation
of supermarket schlock.

Look at the history of the
bestseller list and you’ll see that since the turn of the last century,
American readers have been dependably excited by the same breed of blockbuster.
Bestsellers might share a genome, as the authors’ program demonstrates, but
untold commercial flops share much of that genome too. “The bestselling novel,”
say the authors, “is a world in which characters know, control, and display
their agency…They live their lives; they make things happen,” and you have to
wonder how that doesn’t apply to nearly every novel you’ve ever read. The
ridiculous accident of bestsellerdom occurs between the day a book hits stores and
when it begins selling in the millions. No academic with an algorithm can tell
us exactly how that Hogwartian wizardry is done. 


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