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?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on