Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations: the sequel

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on December 20, 2010.

After playing over the weekend with the new word frequency tool in Google Books, I quickly came to realize that my recent post on the subject barely scratched the surface. It’s fun to compare novelists against other writers in the same category, for example, but what happens when we look at authors in different categories altogether? The graph above, for instance, shows us what we get when we chart two of the most famous literary authors of the latter half of the century against their counterparts on the bestseller list. And while the results may seem surprising at first, they aren’t hard to understand.

Looking at the chart, it’s clear that books by Philip Roth and John Updike might be outsold by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann in their initial run (the occasional freak like Couples or Portnoy’s Complaint aside), but as they enter the canon, they’re simply talked about more often, especially by other writers, than their bestselling contemporaries. (Robbins and Susann, by contrast, probably aren’t cited very often outside their own books.) Compared to the trajectory of a canonical author, the graph of a bestseller begins to look less like a mountain and more like a molehill—or a speed bump. But now look here:

Something else altogether seems to be at work in this chart, and it’s only a reminder of the singularity of Stephen King’s career. Soon after his debut—Carrie‘Salem’s LotThe Shining, and The Stand were all published within the same five years—King had overtaken the likes of Robbins and Susann both on the bestseller lists and in terms of cultural impact. Then something even stranger happened: he became canonical. He was prolific, popular, and wrote books that were endlessly referenced within the culture. As a result, his graph looks like no other—an appropriately monstrous hybrid of the bestselling author and serious novelist. So what happens when we extend the graph beyond the year 2000, which is where the original numbers end? Here’s what we see:

A number of interesting things begin to happen in the last decade. Robbins and Susann look more like speed bumps than ever before. King’s popularity begins to taper off just as he becomes officially canonical—right when he receives lifetime achievement honors from the National Book Awards. And just as Updike himself once predicted, he and Roth seem to have switched places in 2004, or just after the appearance of The Plot Against America, which marks the peak, so far, of Roth’s late resurgence.

Of course, the conclusions I’ve drawn here are almost certainly flawed. There’s no way of knowing, at least not without looking more closely at the underlying data, whether the number of citations of a given author reflects true cultural prominence or something else. And it’s even harder to correlate any apparent patterns—if they’re actually there at all—with particular works or historical events, especially given the lag time of the publishing process. But there’s one chart, which I’ve been saving for last, which is so striking that I can’t help but believe that it represents something real:

This is a chart of the novelists who, according to a recent New York Times poll, wrote the five best American novels of the past twenty-five years: Toni Morrison (Beloved), Don DeLillo (Underworld), John Updike (Rabbit Angstrom), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), and Philip Roth (American Pastoral). The big news here, obviously, is Morrison’s amazing ascent around 1987, when Beloved was published. It isn’t hard to see why: Beloved was the perfect storm of literary fiction, a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel that also fit beautifully into the college curriculum. Morrison’s decline in recent years has less to do, I expect, with any real fall in her reputation than with a natural settling to more typical levels. (Although it’s interesting to note that the drop occurs shortly after Morrison received the Nobel Prize, thus locking her into the canon.)

It might be argued, and rightly so, that it’s unfair to turn literary reputation into such a horse race. But such numbers are going to be an inevitable part of the conversation from now on, and not just in terms of citations. It’s appropriate that Google unveiled this new search tool just as Amazon announced that it was making BookScan sales numbers available to its authors, allowing individual writers to do what I’m doing here, on a smaller and more personal scale. And if there’s any silver lining, it’s this: as the cases of Robbins and Susann remind us, in the end, sales don’t matter. After all, looking at the examples given above, which of these graphs would you want?

Written by nevalalee

November 26, 2013 at 9:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. I’m partial to Star Trek, especially movies II-IV. In IV Kirk and Spock are talking on the bus about the origin of swear words they’re hearing in late Twentienth Century San Francisco.
    KIRK: …as is found in the writings of Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins.
    SPOCK: Ah, the greats.

    michaelulinedwards

    November 26, 2013 at 9:17 am

  2. And that line was written by Nicholas Meyer, another bestselling seventies novelist, and one of my heroes!

    nevalalee

    November 27, 2013 at 12:21 pm


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