He who sells best, sells fast

The 10 bestselling writers of the decade were announced last week. And there were no prizes for guessing who they were. The list went: Catherine Cookson, David Hessayon, Terry Pratchett, Danielle Steel, Delia Smith, Stephen King, John Grisham, Dick Francis, Maeve Binchy and Wilbur Smith. If you are wondering who David Hessayon might be, well, you have heard of him, really. He's the author of all those paperback gardening expert books, the man behind our shrubs and pot plants, our roses and lawns. His books are stacked next to the Baby Bio, and are just as useful. He has sold 10.5 million of them, and it is no use pointing out that we could have planted 50 million snowdrops for that kind of money. In one sense it is almost unfair to include him (and Smith) in this list, which is otherwise made up of works we do not need. They really ought to move up a division, to take on the Bible, the dictionary, the A-Z, and the Highway Code.

The rest are household names. And it is impossible to argue with them, because this isn't an opinion poll. We cannot work ourselves into a pious lather on the grounds that the judges have shown themselves to be blinkered clods (or worse: snobs). This time the judges are ... us. So we do not have the luxury of wondering where for God's sake is the Archer, the Forsyth, the Taylor Bradford? Hell's teeth - no Jilly Cooper? But no one has made a mistake - except, perhaps, all of us. As Raymond Chandler once said, maybe Lincoln was wrong. Maybe it is possible to fool all of the people all the time.

Should we worry? If we cannot tolerate a football manager with cranky beliefs, why should we put up with this torrent of sentimental melodrama? But it takes no great insight to point out that there are better, more subtle books than these. And I for one feel somewhat embarrassed not to have read a single book by the most popular author of the last decade, Catherine Cookson (14 million books sold). If nothing else, it seems quite an alarming failure of curiosity. Perhaps something connects these huge- selling books; perhaps they really do tap into or satisfy (or promise to satisfy, at least) some universal urge. From the marketing point of view they have plenty in common: they are brands, as reliable and habit- forming as Nescafe. You don't expect surprises in a Dick Francis. The wiry hero, who often has a limp, successfully confounds a bunch of bruisers in the world of horse racing (usually he spends a page or two locked in a cellar; often he ends up with the Duke's daughter). And you know what you'll get in a Wilbur Smith - a guy who can look into the flat yellow glare of a lion without blinking.

John Grisham's legal heroes are men of uncommon virtue, shocked by the avarice of their colleagues and impulsive enough to blow the whistle on their misdeeds. Danielle Steel's heroines contrive (no, she breathed, no) to have their cake and eat it too.

But mere predictability can hardly be enough in itself. These writers (some of Terry Pratchett apart) also share a prose style. It is a style that Martin Amis once memorably pinned to the wall by saying that it aspired always to the line: Towards dawn he took her again. His parody has the virtue - and the vice - of possessing a sharp edge. Bestseller style achieves something more potent: a kind of transparency based on the fact that it is not necessary to read every word. Readers can skim along, absorbing the twists and turns of the plot without being detained by anything as abrasive as texture. And it is possible, not to say common, to acquire a taste for white bread. It just slips down.

Hang on, though. These authors have something above style: they have signature. Dick Francis couldn't write a Stephen King; Danielle Steel couldn't write a Grisham. But the signature expresses itself not in phrasing but structurally, in the shape of a plot, the rhythm of an adventure. It is not enough to dismiss this as formulaic, because the whole essence of signatures is that they are repeatable. Even the flourishes take practice.

There are more cheerful factors at work. Unlike the central characters in ambitious novels, the people in bestsellers have jobs. They own hotels or racehorses; they are lawyers or bankers or game wardens; they send faxes and take meetings. Their private life is not their whole life. They have secretaries and bosses and colleagues and rivals. This attention to the details of non-intimate existence is something that more sensitive literature often neglects.

Yes, these characters always get their man, or their girl (usually both). But why shouldn't they? If literature can't be escapist, what can? And next to this lot, all those fine writers struggling to express richer truths about life (its dejections and despairs) can seem like mere party- poopers. Who said life had to be tragic?

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own