John Sutherland’s new book, The Bestsellers, is important for the subject it addresses. It is, however, disappointing for its insistent failure to complete the task it has taken on. It is curious, for instance, that by the end of Sutherland’ s examination we do not really have a clear idea of what he was examining: we cannot even be sure of what Sutherland believes constitutes the ‘best-seller’ , a confusion aggravated by the various definitions offered at different points in his discussion, even though each is ultimately dismissed (‘It is clearly unwise to be artificially precise’ ). A vague distinction is made between the literary novel and the best-selling one, but, after that, no further distinctions are developed – or from another point of view – nothing but distinctions are developed, making up an endless catalogue of nearly every blockbuster (mostly American) of the last ten years: the new westerns, the escapist fantasies, the holocausts fictions, the women novels, and, most dominant the frighteners.
Sutherland’ s book is, really, an extended descriptive bibliography, and while I admire his perseverance – the number of books he has volunteered to read is truly staggering – I cannot take his ‘study’ seriously. His book, however, is important, but not actually for what it accomplishes, which is negligible, but for its occasion. The subject, the phenomenon of the best-seller, is indeed worthy of examination.
As early as 1700 Daniel Defoe had sold 80,000 copies of his verse pamphlet in support of William of Orange, and throughout the nineteenth century to be an established author – Dickens, Scott, Dumas, Eugéne Sue – meant to be a best-selling one: that is, with sales of around 50,000 for each novel published. The term best-seller first surfaced at the end of the nineteenth century, however, in the American trade journal Publisher’s Weekly (a New York bookseller having asked a newsagent for his ‘best-selling books’). It is appropriate, of course, that the best-seller, as a trade phrase, should originate in the United States, just as it is also appropriate that the best-seller list should originate there as well, the first one appearing in the Bookman in 1885 and in Publisher’s Weekly twenty-three years later: publishing has always been more aggressive and market-orientated in the United States than in either England or Europe.