Best Sellers, The New Republic and Waugh

The current issue of The New Republic reviews an academic study of the best-selling novel. This is The Best Seller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers. The book is based on an analysis of 20,000 novels published in the US, from which they developed an algorithm that would predict which books would become best sellers. It was accurate 80% of the time. The analysis can be applied to any novel.

Waugh was not a best-selling author in the US until he scored with Brideshead Revisited. He did not aim for popularity with the book, but thought it would be a literary masterpiece. After it proved popular, particularly in the US, he was rather embarrassed by it. But he repeated his success a few years later with The Loved One. Neither of these novels was a number 1 bestseller on the New York Times list, but both had sufficient US sales to be considered among the bestselling novels of their year. 

The New Republic’s reviewer (William Giraldi) considers the criteria for a bestseller selection and quotes Waugh:

[The authors] 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…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.

One can only wonder whether either of Waugh’s US bestsellers would have been predicted as such by the computer review. 

The Loved One appears in another context. Booksellers Barnes & Noble discuss the best novels about what they call “Old Hollywood”. This is defined as novels about 

classic movies, glamorous movie stars, true crime, lush romance, bitter disillusionment, and of course a dash of noir, all tucked away behind Los Angeles’s seemingly perfect, sun-shiny facade.

The standard novels in this category are The Day of the Locust, What Makes Sammy Run, and Play It as It Lays. But B&N name 6 others that they believe deserve to be included in the canon, and among them is The Loved One:

Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see something for what it really is. Prolific English writer Waugh went for the satiric jugular in this account of Brits living in 1940s Los Angeles and working in the entertainment industry… A bone-dry, hilarious look at the absurdity of Hollywood and those who become trapped trying to maintain careers as writers or publicists in an ever-fickle industry.

Others on the list of deserving Old Hollywood novels include Stuart O’Nan’s West of Sunset which is a fictionalized story of Scott Fitzgerald’s last years in the city. 

Waugh’s other best seller is among the books mentioned in an article in the Herald Scotland about novels with a “house at their heart”:

Evelyn Waugh’s evocation of Brideshead, based on the medieval Madresfield Court in Worcestershire, is an unforgettable setting, the mansion embodying the encrusted, tortured and increasingly outdated values of the family it housed. 

Other “home-based” novels discussed in Rosemary Goring’s article include Bleak House, Rebecca and TV presenter Kristy Wark’s first novel The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle.

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