This article started off being about the number of women authors on Wikipedia’s list of best-selling fiction authors of all time. However, as I looked at the list, I started to think “What the hell is Shakespeare doing here with these pulp-y, low-brow writers?” and “What does that say about how we value literature?”
Part One: The Ladies
Look at this list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_fiction_authors. Notice something? That’s right: so many women! It’s a long list so let’s keep ourselves to the top ten.
- If you order it by minimum or maximum estimated sales, female mystery writer, Agatha Christie, is the best-selling author of all time,
- even beating out Shakespeare, at No. 2.
- After The Bard (a man, of course), we have female romance novelist, Barbara Cartland, Princess Di’s step-grandmother, incidentally,
- then another female romance novelist, Danielle Steele.
- Then another guy, Harold Robbins, who arguably, could be trading in chick lit. He mined his day job in movies for gossip and story lines. Many of his books became films.
- Another dude at No. 6, the author of the Jules Maigret detective series, Georges Simenon.
- Then Enid Blyton, controversial children’s books writer. While she, herself, encouraged her readers to support a variety of charities and live moral lives, she’s been accused of “being elitist, sexist, racist, xenophobic.” The BBC would not publish her work through the 1930s to 50s because it lacked literary merit in their eyes. She founded children’s clubs and magazines for her fans and sold rights to games companies: a 1900’s literary McDonald’s. “Her love of tennis included playing naked, with nude tennis ‘a common practice in those days among the more louche members of the middle classes’.” Hmm.
- Sidney Sheldon is next, a theatre, movie and television producer who didn’t start writing the romance-suspense novels that got him on the top ten list of best-selling authors of all time until after he turned fifty.
- At No. 9, we have another female romance novelist: Jackie Collins. Eight of her novels have been adapted for film or TV. Barbara Cartland did not support her fellow woman in the writing trenches. She called Collins’ first book, The World is Full of Married Men, “nasty, filthy and disgusting.” The book was banned in Australia and South Africa, which only increased sales in the UK and US. I’m going to guess that mores changed between the time Cartland started writing and Collins did.
- A man, Gilbert Patten, rounds up the top ten with “dime novels.” The characteristics of a dime novel appear to be melodrama and unrealistic heroes and storylines. Patten’s Frank Merriwell hero excels at a slew of sports while solving mysteries and crimes… James Bond? Patten wrote under at least ten different pseudonyms.
- The best-selling author of all time is a woman.
- Five out of ten best-selling authors of all time are women.
- Four out of ten best-selling authors of all time are romance writers (Eight if you include Shakespeare’s tragicomedies, Robbins’ chick lit, Sheldon’s romance-suspense and Patten’s men’s romances—I think I’ll copyright that: “men’s romance.” ;P )
- One best-selling author of all time writes children’s book.
- Two out of ten best-selling authors of all time write detective novels.
Romance, chick lit, children’s lit and detective novels are hugely, if not exclusively popular with women. Women rule when it comes to selling lit. It may be “schlock” or “pop”; nonetheless, they excel. Weirdly, at least in the literary fiction circles I run in, we never talk about it. Reminds me of fine art where crafts and textiles aren’t included yet we have buildings (architecture) and porn (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_erotic_depictions) included, which strike me as mainly the domain of men, at least historically. Let’s not even start on how expensive it is to make visual art; aka, is it the domain of the well-heeled? If women dominated the dialogue about literature (and fine or other arts), the discussion would be extremely different.
Part Two: What is “Literature”?
Shakespeare is the only high-brow writer in this top ten list. Is that because he’s so incredible that he outshines everyone and breaks barriers or is it because he’s not high-brow at all, just old? I’m going to put my money (heh) on him being old. Shakespeare, gentlepeople, is the 1500’s equivalent of a modern day Steven Spielberg or Notch (creator of video game, Minecraft).
I didn’t think it was possible for me to have any more icons ‘oclasted. Here, I’ve been yearning after awards thinking that winning a Nobel Prize would be the height of achievement yet, the ultimate and absolute “Greatest Writer of English Literature of All Time” is really a pop storyteller who knew how to market, merchandise and get his shit out there. He was, after all, part-owner of his theatre company.
To sum up, women rule when it comes to selling books, pop lit IS literary and we need to change the story around storytelling.
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