January 12, 2011
How has fiction changed/not-changed since the day you were born?
by Melville House
If you haven’t seen it already, GalleyCat pointed out this web tool that lets you find The New York Times fiction and non-fiction bestsellers from your birthday. I was curious what this information tells us about how things have changed/stayed-the-same in literature (bestselling literature only, it should be stressed) in the time I’ve been alive.
Here the fiction list from my birthday some 30-odd years ago:
1. SMILEY’S PEOPLE John le Carré
2. PRINCESS DAISY Judith Krantz
3.THE DEVIL’S ALTERNATIVE Frederick Forsyth
4. TRIPLE Ken Follett
5. JAILBIRD Kurt Vonnegut
6. PORTRAITS Cynthia Freeman
7. MEMORIES OF ANOTHER DAY Harold Robbins
8. THE ESTABLISHMENT Howard Fast
9. THE TOP OF THE HILL Irwin Shaw
10. SOPHIE’S CHOICE William Styron
11. THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG Norman Mailler
12. THE DEAD ZONE Stephen King
13. THE LAST ENCHANTMENT Mary Stewart
14. THE THIRD WORLD WAR: August 1985 General Sir John Hackett
15. MOVIOLA Garson Kanin
What surprised me was that not only did I recognize many of these books and authors, but that I had read four of them. I was expecting more of them to resemble the humorously dated The Third World War: August 1985.
What (hasty) conclusions can be drawn from this? You could argue that bestsellers truly do have a lasting impact on a culture, and are still remembered and known 30 years later. Or you could argue that 30 years ago bestselling literature mattered, but that the bestsellers of 2011 will not be as familiar. What’s also astonishing is how some of the bestselling names could easily still be on The New York Times list: Stephen King and John le Carre particularly.
Comparing this list with yesterday’s NYT list, I’d argue too that the list has tilted more towards genre. The above list has a pretty impressive cast of literary figures: Vonnegut, Styron, Mailer stand out, but many of the other books strive towards literary significance. In yesterday’s list, Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom is the lone “literary” title among a field of spies, killers, and thrillers.
Though one probably shouldn’t draw sweeping conclusions based on two days in time–it’s a fun exercise, and perhaps not without significance. I’d be curious to hear what other “conclusions” have drawn about how literature has changed during the course of their lives.