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?