The Critical List

Virginia Woolf and Danielle Steel: both placed novels on the best-seller list, but that may be the only literary achievement they have in common. What do we mean when we characterize a book or author as best-selling? Do such books possess an identifiable quality—subject or setting, cover design or marketing plan—that readily connects to readers? As digital technologies transform today’s industry, we looked to another key development in publishing history—the institution of the best-seller list—to understand how the popularization and marketing of fiction has engaged the attention of the reading public. To explore the century-long role of these tote boards, this special section of BOOKFORUM features a probing essay by Ruth Franklin that recounts the lists’ history, revealing what much-read stories tell us about our evolving culture. Essays by critic Michael Dirda and editor Gerald Howard provide insiders’ takes on how published sales rankings affect the larger literary scene. Sir Walter Scott’s role as the first blockbuster author is recalled by Stuart Kelley. We also invited noted novelists—Benjamin Anastas, Madison Smartt Bell, Aimee Bender, Joshua Cohen, Siddhartha Deb, Stacey D’Erasmo, Steve Erickson, Sheila Heti, Tom McCarthy, Patrick McGrath, Claire Messud, Peter Straub, and Marianne Wiggins—to speculate on why the best sellers that most intrigue them (and maybe you) achieved their popularity.

Ruth Franklin on Readers of the Pack: American Best-Selling

Gerald Howard on The List’s Seductions

Peter Straub on A Perfect Spy

Marianne Wiggins on Riders of the Purple Sage

Michael Dirda on Publishing’s Wrong Numbers

Joshua Cohen on Doctor Zhivago

Siddhartha Deb on The Satanic Verses

Stuart Kelly on Walter Scott

Aimee Bender on Love Story

Steve Erickson on Advise and Consent

Benjamin Anastas on Elmer Gantry

Sheila Heti on Valley of the Dolls

Tom McCarthy on Jaws

Patrick McGrath on Half a Rogue

Madison Smartt Bell on Strange Fruit

Claire Messud on Rebecca

Stacey D’Erasmo on The Road

Andrew Stuttaford interviews Stieg Larsson's Ghost