Monday, May 21, 2018

John le Carrè and the Bestseller List

Recently going through the New York Times and Publisher's Weekly bestseller lists with an eye to the performance of spy fiction over recent decades for a recent paper, I must admit that what the hard data did was mostly confirm my more casual impressions—that the genre had done very well commercially in the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, and then became much less conspicuous in the '90s. (Predictably given not just the inevitability of changes in commercial fashions, but the damper the end of the Cold War put on the genre, but notable all the same.)

Still, it was something of a surprise just how well one of the bigger names sold—namely, John le Carrè. As the tables appended to my paper show, he was commercially on a level with such titans of the "airport novel" as Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. Going by the PW lists (the information from the year-end editions of which are conveniently gathered together by Wikipedia), from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (the top-selling novel of 1965 in the United States) to The Russia House, just about all his spy novels were among their year's top ten sellers.

This adds up to a quarter of a century at the very top, an extraordinary run, especially back in those days when the uppermost ranks of the publishing world saw rather more flux than they do now.

That his sales were quite so strong is all the greater given that, reflecting his comparatively greater acclaim by critics, he was anything but a producer of the kind of crowd-pleasers that made those other authors such big names. Not only were his stories slow-paced and lacking in action, decidedly unglamorous and preoccupied with moral ambiguity, but they were so obliquely told that I suspect anyone who picks up anything by him from The Looking Glass War on and does not feel bewildered by the goings-on can count themselves a highly accomplished reader.

Indeed, I find myself wondering—is this a case of audiences having become less tolerant of such writing, or is it the case that people were buying his novels and just pretending to understand them, or even just pretending to read them, because it seemed fashionable to do so? All those copies of the volumes detailing the adventures of Smiley and company, merely purchased to make the buyer look sophisticated by sitting on their coffee table or their bookshelf?

Any thoughts?

Filming John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy
Smiley, Ace of Spies: Reading John Le Carrè

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