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What’s the Purpose of the Bestseller?

‘The Bestseller Code’ reveals the well-known secrets of the formulaic novel.

Andreas Rentz / Getty

Writing about Philip Roth in 1984, Martin Amis made this aside: “Though they all want it…writers tend to be distrustful of the ridiculous accident of bestsellerdom.” True, we do all want this ridiculous accident, for all the reasons anyone wants what money can bring. And yes, we should be distrustful of it, since writers can’t pretend they don’t know what bestsellerdom usually means—populist and puerile fare. Still, although we all want it, we all aren’t going to get it. We aren’t even going to get close.

Who does get close to the ridiculous accident? And just how accidental is the ridiculousness? Less accidental than you would think, argue Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers in their new book The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel. Here’s their thesis, worth quoting at length:

The bold claim of this book is that New York Times bestsellers are not random but predictable. They are predictable not due to the commonly repeated “truth” that it is all about an established name, marketing dollars, or expensive publicity campaigns…Forget worries about covers. Forget obsessional Facebook posts and endless tweeting…What really matters in predicting whether a novel will make it or not is nothing more or less than the author’s manuscript…and a computer model than can read, recognize, and sift through thousands of features in thousands of books in order to predict which books are most likely to succeed in the market.

The authors devised a computer program, an algorithm “fine-tuned on over 20,000 contemporary novels,” and set it loose inspecting the elements that go into building a novel: theme, plot, character, setting, etc. Bestsellers, they tell us, “have a distinct set of subtle signals, a latent bestseller code.” Their program analyzed 2,800 features of bestselling novels and boasted an 80 percent accuracy rate in determining which novels would break big. The bestseller code has other talents, too. With the counting of only articles or prepositions, the program can guess with 82 percent accuracy whether a writer is a woman or a man. In this effusive jamboree of facts you’ll learn that “heroines are so often twenty-eight years old,” that love scenes appear “exactly at page 200 if it’s a 400-page novel,” and that bestsellers have “three-part plot shapes.” You’ll learn that “the stylistics” of Jackie Collins and Jane Austen “are much the same”—that hurts. You’ll learn that in The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown averages seven instances of the word ‘the’ for every hundred words,” and that “the word ‘thing’ occurs six times more often in bestsellers than in non-bestsellers.”

In other words, you’ll learn about formula. But surely you already know that the preponderance of bestsellers is yawningly formulaic—that’s partly how they became bestsellers. If you’ve ever tried to read a novel by Nicholas Sparks or Mary Higgins Clark, you know there’s nothing there beneath the page—no connotative complexity, no aesthetical commitment, no turbulence of intellect, and no reaching for wisdom. “The kind of book that sells by the million,” said Anthony Burgess, “rarely imparts to its readers the sense of epiphany.” 

St. 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 thinking.

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 mansion.         

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 typo, 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.

The 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.

When 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 says.

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.

Schopenhauer 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 are 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.