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Bestsellers: a snapshot of an age

To celebrate World Book Day this week, we take a look at what John Sutherland thinks about why we read bestsellers and what they say about the age in which they were published, in his Very Short Introduction to Bestsellers.

By John Sutherland

Why read, or contemplate, with any degree of seriousness, less than ‘good’ (and sometimes downright bad) books – the Deepings of the literary world? Do they not belong in that category, contemptuously called in German, Wegwerfl iteratur? – ‘throw-away literature’? Why pick up what literary history so resolutely discards?

Any study of bestsellers confronts the same question as does the decaf, no-fat latte drinker in Starbucks: ‘Why bother?’ One justification, and the easiest demonstrated, is their (that is, bestsellers’) interesting peculiarity. Like other ephemera of past times, bestsellers (even Orwell despised Deeping) offer the charm of antiquarian quaintness. Where else would one encounter a line such as: ‘I say, you are a sport, pater’ [‘Son’ addressing ‘Sorrell’, on having been given a tenner ‘tip’ in Deeping’s Sorrell and Son]. And, so short is their lifespan, that today’s bestsellers become yesterday’s fiction almost as soon as one has read them.

Looking back through the lists is to uncover delightful cultural oddities. Consider, for example, the top-selling (#1) novel of 1923 in the United States, Black Oxen, by Gertrude Atherton. Recall too that the discriminating reader of that year had James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and D. H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod to choose from.

Atherton’s title is taken from W. B. Yeats (‘The years like great black oxen tread the world’). The allusion signals grand literary pretension; pretension absurdly unmerited. None the less, the novel’s theme was, for the time, both topical and sensational – rejuvenation. For humans, that is, not cattle.

The narrative opens in a New York theatre. A brilliant young newspaperman, Lee Clavering (a member of the city’s elite ‘top 400’ families), is struck by a beautiful woman in the audience. Investigation reveals that she is facially identical with a young ‘belle’ of thirty years before, Mary Ogden. Miss Ogden married a Hungarian diplomat, Count Zattiany, and has never been heard of since. Speculation rages, but eventually the truth comes out: Ogden/Zattiany has been rejuvenated in Vienna by Dr Steinach’s new X-ray technique. By bombarding a woman’s ovaries at the period of menopause, the ageing process is reversible.

When news of the wonderful process hits the newspapers, ‘civil war threatens’. And luckless Clavering finds himself in love with a woman old enough to be his mother. On the other side, he himself is obsessively loved by a flapper, Janet Oglethorpe, young enough to be his daughter, who drinks illegal hooch and attends ‘petting parties’. The plot thickens, madly, thereafter.

It is nonsense – just as, medically, Steinach’s X-ray miracle was nonsense. In 1922 Atherton herself had received the Viennese doctor’s rejuvenation treatment. It seems, from publicity pictures to have done little for her beauty. But tosh fiction and quack science as it may be, Black Oxen fits, hand-in-glove, with its period. And no other period.

However absurd it seems to the modern reader, Atherton’s novel reflects, and dramatizes, contemporary anxiety about women’s freedoms; as definitively as did Bridget Jones’s Diary in the 1990s. The 1920s was the era of the ‘flapper’ – the perpetually young girl-woman. British women in this decade had, after long struggle, the vote – but only if they were over 30, after which the heyday in the female blood was conceived to have been sufficiently cooled to make
rational political decisions. The cult of Dionysian youth – the ‘be young forever or die now’ aspiration – is more respectably commemorated in another novel of 1923, Scott Fitzgerald’s Beautiful and Damned. It, too, made the bestseller lists, but much less spectacularly than Atherton: Fitzgerald was running a longer literary race.

Black Oxen, the top novel in the US in 1923, is inextricably ‘of ’ its period. It could have been published 15 years later (as was Aldous Huxley’s ‘elixir of life’ novel, After Many a Summer). But out of its immediate time-and-place frame, Black Oxen would have no more ‘worked’ than a fish out of water. Nor would it, in other days, have been what it was, ‘the book of the day’. The day made the book, as much as events of the day made newspaper headlines in 1923.

This hand-in-glove quality is inextricably linked with the ephemerality of bestsellerism. A #1 novel may be seen as a successful literary experiment – as short-lived as a camera flash, and as capable of freezing, vividly, its historical moment. If (to paraphrase Coleridge) one saw Jonathan Livingston Seagull (‘Jesus tripping’) wandering wild in Arabia, one would shout: ‘hippy seventies!’ (with the possible addition ‘dude!’). If Bulldog Drummond blundered, dinner-jacketed, into one’s living room, his ‘man’ Denny in close attendance with pint tankard, furled brolly, and pistol, one would recognize the clubland thug as a time traveller from the early 1920s.

The great literary work may be, as Jonson said of Shakespeare, ‘not for an age but for all time’. The reverse is, typically, the case with the ‘best’ bestsellers. They are snapshots of the age.

John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College, London and the author of Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction.

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