What makes a bestseller, and what can hugely popular titles reveal about the society that swallows them? A BBC 2 series, Reading the Decades, is trying to explore those questions, abetted by a tie-in book from John Sutherland (BBC, £16.99). Although Sutherland's rapid-fire history whisks us from the postwar escapism of Georgette Heyer and Elizabeth David to the current prime of Ms Jo Rowling and Mr Jamie Oliver, it entirely overlooks one of the weirdest and most interesting cults of all.
Later this month, a tribe of global publishers will gather in a cave in south-western France. They will come to pay homage to the bountiful goddess who granted them worldwide sales of 34 million copies before retreating for more than a decade of silence. Now their prayers have been answered. Jean M Auel – a 66-year-old Oregonian – is about to publish the fifth of her "Earth's Children" sequence, The Shelters of Stone (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99). Starting with The Clan of the Cave Bear in 1980, Auel's bulky prehistoric sagas have sold three million in Britain (while passing under the Sutherland radar). The new book has already hit the Amazon.co.uk Top 10.
What's the source of their appeal? It has nothing to do with elegance or brevity. Set in a meticulously-researched Ice Age landscape of around 30,000BC, the sagas recount, at punishing length, the adventures of Ayla, a young Cro-Magnon woman with the vital evolutionary gift of domesticating animals. She lives first with the Neanderthals, then with hunter-gatherers of her own kind. Soap-opera spats from the Upper Paleolithic (more John Updike than Fred Flintstone – they enjoy plenty of oral sex in those Périgord stone shelters) blend with endless expository passages powered by Auel's deep studies in paleoanthropology. Facing up to a fierce rampaging beast, Ayla's lover Jondalar pauses for a typical David Attenborough-flavoured commentary: "Woolly rhinos are solitary animals most of the time, and usually scarce around here in summer ...". Amazingly, he survives.
The whole package is boring and fascinating in equal measure. You learn a lot, and you yawn a lot. But why should US parents name their daughters Ayla while fans here flood the Hodder switchboard with enquiries? The usual explanations have to do with feminism. Auel's folk worship the Great Earth Mother, and her novels express the eco-friendly, matriarchal ethos that took firm hold of the women's movement from the late Seventies.
That's true, but not sufficient. Along with praise for hearth-and-home matriarchy comes a PC celebration of human diversity (with Cro-Magnons learning to respect the Neanderthals). Skilful male hunters win admiration, as well, in finest Mars-and-Venus fashion. And the Great Mother tells her children that the earth is "our home to use, but not to abuse". Cue course-by-course menus for Upper Paleolithic blow-outs (anyone for "roasted haunches of young reindeer" or a heady "fermented brew" called barma?) that Joanne Harris might envy.
The entire sequence adds up to a voluminous Green myth of origin. Its vast plains of featureless prose tell us a lot about our epoch, as well as everything you'll ever need to know about hide-tanning, cave-painting and bison-stalking. In her torrential way, Jean M Auel is as remarkable a figure as J R R Tolkien – and equally immune to conventional criticism. She conjures up a world as all-encompassing and self-sufficient as Middle-Earth itself. Quite why so many millions of readers want to follow her into it remains a puzzle for own cave sages to consider. They can't all be there for the Ice Age beer.Reuse content