In the days preceding Amazon, finding the exact book you sought proved difficult. You may have kept track of library release dates, used bookstore inventories, or even the personal stashes of family and friends. More often than not, however, you’d find yourself amidst the stacks of one of literature’s metropoleis, the commercial havens that promise uncracked spines for the low price of $25.99, available in hardcover only.
These erudite havens prove tempting. The almost fragrant allure of the “Staff Picks” shelf draws you around one corner, while the “New Releases” banner beckons you diagonally to the next. But between the replete shelves lie another wonder altogether, those authors that appeal to a clot of die-hard fans, and nearly no one else. The authors whose books softly nudge the new release you were hoping to find off the shelf, after hours. The ones whose names proudly grace spines for entire columns, unaware and uncaring of the distaste emitting from the local hipster.
Danielle Steel, James Patterson, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and John Grisham consistently perch on the top rungs of Forbes’ highest-paid authors list, and for good reason. The image of the writer at work pulls visions of time passing, typewriters clacking, and work slashed and discarded. Where the platitudes say struggle, they prosper. “He is not a tortured artist in a garret,” writer Todd Purdum said of James Patterson in a 2015 Vanity Fair profile, “but rather [he] presides over an atelier that produces mass popular entertainment on an astonishing scale.”
Each of the aforementioned shelf stealers have published far more books than they’ve lived years, and their earnings only grow as the years pass.
In cracking the commercial code, however, they’ve somehow lost their literary merit. But these experienced authors do not stand breathing hot, labored breaths down the necks of debut Pulitzer hopefuls. In fact, they might be the most misunderstood lot of them all.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Danielle Steel waxed poetic about the “heart and soul” she pours into her art, and how she’d “like to think that [her] books are more than a beach read.”
Surprisingly, she never intended to write at all. Her dream was to work as a fashion designer, and “contrary to my early dreams,” she says, “the artwork became my hobby, and writing became my passion and life’s work.” While her paperback apologues are often reduced to trashy beach escapades, her books are some of the most popular among library-goers in the U.K., where her books were borrowed over 900,000 times in 2013.
The mass market authors we now regard as “unliterary” often had prize-winning dreams of their own. James Patterson finished his first mystery, The Thomas Berryman Number, at 26 and it was turned down by 31 publishers before winning Best Novel at Edgar Allen Poe’s namesake awards. It was the last prestigious award he’d win over the course of his financially fruitful career.
Twenty-six, too, was the magic number for Stephen King, whose debut novel Carrie launched him into literary stardom in 1974. The novel, inspired in part by a combination of situations he encountered as a school janitor, was almost trashed after King lost faith in his ability to tell the story of his infamous teens. His wife, Tabitha, convinced him to pick it back up. “I did have something there,” he recalls, “like a whole career. Tabby somehow knew it, and by the time I had piled up 50 single-spaced pages, I knew it, too.”
In acquiring their prime literary real estate, these bestsellers have in many ways done the impossible. Horror, romance, sci-fi, and crime are some of the least “literary” genres according to the long history of prize-winning literature. Where these authors proudly take the top place in their genres’ awards (the RITAs for romance, the Edgars for mystery), they are entirely missing from the likes of the Pulitzers and Man Bookers, who are usually won by authors who write literary, rather than popular, fiction. These authors may lose the respect of the literary community, but gain access to the homes (and wallets) of readers across the world.
Just because they share the top spots doesn’t mean they break bread, though. King in particular has criticized his comrades on the top shelf for their lackluster prose, calling Patterson “a terrible writer.”
“I am not a great prose stylist. I’m a storyteller,” Patterson retaliated, “there are thousands of people who don’t like what I do. Fortunately, there are millions who do.”
Nora Roberts blames sexism for the low regard of the romance genre, not so subtly referring to David Nicholl’s hit novel-turned-movie, One Day. “A woman writes it and it’s just one of those,” she told The Guardian, “a guy writes one and they call it something else. And it gets reviewed and made into a movie.”
“Romance gets disparaged for the happy endings,” she continued, “but all genres have expectations and all genres require narrative resolution. But it’s disparaged because it’s happy. And if it was important, it would be tragic. Which is bullshit! Look at Much Ado About Nothing – everybody is happy!”
And it turns out that the average reader often prefers to feel pleased rather than displeased after finishing a novel. The Public Lending Right has been advocating for decades on behalf of authors whose works are made available in libraries. In 2015 James Patterson took the top spot for the most borrowed author in U.K. libraries, followed by Roberts in third, Steel in seventh, and Grisham in tenth. The Pew Research Center reported in 2016 that 80% Americans read for pleasure, and 35% do so daily. So take that, Pulitzers.
John Grisham, who is perhaps most known for the film adaptations of his novels (like King, whose stories have been adapted over 150 times), also takes up prime shelf real estate. Grisham, an attorney and politician from Mississippi, and his crime thrillers have mesmerized millions. His first novel took three years to write, and it was met with low sales and disinterest. His second, The Firm, catapulted him into a career in crime fiction after a 44-week stint on the New York Times bestseller lists.
“My name became a brand and I’d love to say it was the plan from the start,” he told The Guardian, “but the only plan was to keep writing books. And I’ve stuck to that ever since.”
The sentinels of the stacks may appear, at first, to be nothing more than the craftsmen of literary paint-by-numbers, but there is more to them than meets the eye. The authors whose respect was seemingly lost in a multi-million dollar Faustian exchange began where all writers do. With an inkling, a pen and paper, and a story to tell.
Grisham’s favorite author is Mark Twain, Roberts reread “To Kill A Mockingbird” endlessly, King reads Franzen, Patterson fantasized about achieving the prose of Gabriel García Márquez. These misunderstood “sellouts” are, at their core, readers. They are literary lovers whose livelihoods are spent constructing sentences and cutting chapters. Steel agrees that “the books are better than the movies.” King dreams of inviting “Émile Zola, Thomas Hardy and Flannery O’Connor” to a dinner party at his house.
Though they possess superhuman efficiency and for that reason are often disregarded as artists, they maintain an intense love for the craft just as a Caldecott or Newbery winner would. One might imagine that they yearn, just as the Pulitzer hopefuls do, for a positive review in The New York Times or for a heartfelt letter from a fan. But mostly, they’ve learned more than others, to trust their readers.
“I’ve made my career on my own terms and that doesn’t necessarily suit the likes of The New York Times book review,” says Roberts, “they don’t see that as legitimate. But it’s just so insulting towards millions of people. Why would you apologise for what you read for pleasure?”