Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. März 2006

10.1. Innovationen in der Kinder- und Jugendliteratur (KJL)
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Tamara Bučková (Prag)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Bestsellers - Literature for the People"

Mariya Anastasova (South-West University Neofit Rilski, Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria)


This paper offers a psycho-cultural analysis of the phenomenon of the bestseller of the late twentieth century, in a society where the public space is governed by electronic media. Television, Internet and DVD appear to be successful substitutions for reading books. In such a century all human beliefs about religion, social values and culture prove to be unstable and easily affected by outer factors. They become an easy target for the powerful influence of mass media.


Generally the second half of the twentieth century is governed by the literary traditions established by the period of Postmodernism. In a philosophical and literary context this is the time when all the great ideologies are questioned and tested, and the society is comprised of egocentric individuals striving for their social and self-realization. Postmodernism puts the accent on material achievements and thus becomes a factor for the secularization of religion, because spiritual values lose their meaning when everything is on the market. Sex, alcohol and drugs are the basic priorities of the postmodern society. The traditional and classical in literature is no longer interesting. Yet the escape from the common paradigms can also be considered as a salvation from artificial models. All this leads to alienation and the loss of a common identity among artists. The presence and the growing importance of the new technologies, television and advertisements, and people’s affinity for them affects literature. Caricature, intertextuality and pop art become the most common means of expression...

A certain reaction against the forms of high Modernism is expressed in the destruction of the borders separating high art from mass literature. The frameworks of the different genres are also shaken. Philosophical, political, sociological and literary discourses are united in writing. Since authors are in search of identity, their works are perfectly individual, impossible to be put in any kind of model.

The shift of values from the highly spiritual aspiration to the material acquisition makes it possible to turn the book into a good. The bestseller of the late twentieth century is examined here mostly as a market product and as a phenomenon proving that people are still interested in reading. Since the criteria of labeling a book as a bestseller is the number of its sold copies, it can be judged that books are still popular. The great number of bestselling books shows that books are enjoyed by people of different ages. There is something special about those books that keep readers buying them, bookstores flourishing and authors of bestsellers rich. There is a reason for the extraordinary success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The first pages of such books can be compared to a narcotic - once the first dose is taken - no one can stop it. They are like food for the people that gives them what they need. Yes! The need! One should research the market before trying to sell a product - any kind of product - even a book. The bestseller is an essentially reader-oriented product of writing.

In his book, Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900. Clive Bloom tackles the phenomenon of the bestseller, presenting Bestsellers as a "provisional ... map of reading" in Britain in the twentieth century.

Bloom faces all of the methodological problems that attend any study of the bestseller. On the one hand, the nature of the bestseller seems extremely clear: a book with enormous sales. Bloom, however, quickly reveals how issues of price, format, and unreliable sales figures conspire to complicate this definition.

It should be clear that bestsellers are books which do not fit in any of the established literary currents, because their scope of interest is quite heterogeneous. These books are meant for the public, and the thing that unites them in this respect is their advertising character and their market value, their being aimed at a large audience. However, it is possible to outline some of the author’s general tendencies in his or her goal of achieving the perfect bestseller, and reasonable arguments for using them should be traced to the tastes of His Highness the Reader. We will try to outline these tendencies, which concern mainly the genre, language, style, characters and the psychological impact on readers.

The genre can vary - love story, criminal novel, thriller...It is not even necessary to be fictional - it can also be a biography, a book of predictions or a novel based on true story. But with respect to genre the book will fit perfectly into the tradition of Postmodernism, because in most cases the bestseller is a mixture of different genres - a criminal story with elements of a historical novel (The Da Vinci Code), or a love melodrama with criminal aspects, involving conjectures about the identity of an unknown murderer or rapist (Push Not the River). It can even be a magical up-to-date fairy tale with horror motives and a philosophical aftertaste (HarryPotter). However, undoubtedly the recipe should only include the successful spices: any kind of adventure, wrapped in mystery in the last chapter. The end of the book is unexpected and most often a happy one. Frequently there is a surprising reversal in the main action and a role-change (the good characters turn out to be bad and vice-versa).

The style of the bestseller is reader-oriented. It is not very elevated or sophisticated, because it should get close to the mass reader - not only the one with a higher education, but also the ordinary worker, the schoolchild. The bestseller is primarily a commercial product aimed at a wider audience: the more people that buy the book, the better. So the style should be easy to comprehend, using mostly sentences with simple syntax yet rich in vocabulary and detailed descriptions. Although not complicated, the style should serve as evidence for the masterly narrative skills of the author. For example:

His red eyes scanned the lobby as he entered the residence. Empty. He climbed the stairs quietly, not wanting to awaken any of his fellow numeraries. His bedroom door was open; locks were forbidden here. He entered, closing the door behind him. (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, 2004:27)

The language of the bestseller very often resembles everyday spoken language, with even slang abounding at times in swear words and cynical expressions. The reason for this is again the reader’s taste. People like that. Such language usage is to be found in the movies, in popular songs and in newspapers. However, the language can also be florid, and as Barlow and Krentz comment: "In women’s fiction...eyes are never simply blue, but sapphire blue, and grass is never only green, but lushly and extravagantly green or perhaps verdant." (Barlow and Krentz, 1992; Thomas, 1986)

Another feature that sells bestsellers well are the vividly detailed descriptions of shocking scenes of murders, passionate sex scenes, imaginary objects or creatures - everything that could awaken the interest of the reader and his hunger for more.


Now his lips were on the soles of her feet, tentative, questioning, barely brushing the skin. She caught her breath, afraid to move, spellbound by the sensations that shot from her feet to the very roots of her hair, piercingly urgent sensations that were like foreign language, heard for the first time and, mysteriously, understood. She bit her lips as his tongue touched the arc of her foot, outlining, exploring, bolder each second. She moaned out loud as she felt his teeth graze her heel, and she tried feebly to pull her feet out of his grasp, but he only tightened his hold. She felt her knees falling apart under the Japanese silk as his tongue ran up the calf of one leg then up the other, finding that soft, private curve behind her knees. (Mistral’s Daughter - Judith Krantz 1983:48/49)

Done masterfully and well thought out, a good description is another secret device to grab and hold the readers’ attention. Sexually explicit scenes are one of the priorities of society in the late twentieth century... For example, the lonely woman who is eager for passion may find it in the books and the teenage girl can find some ease for her developing womanhood. The very fact that the book quoted above is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list proves that people do like such descriptions, because there is no greater acknowledgement for its success than the people’s interest.

The sex of the readers is also a factor forming their preferences in reading. Cynthia Whissell did research in the sphere of explicit sexual scenes in popular fiction in her article: Linguistic, Emotional and Content Analyses of Sexually Explicit Scenes in Popular Fiction. Having in mind the magnification of the different emotions of both sexes, she proves through an experiment that

"sexual activity between individuals,... ...inevitably (100%) led to long-term exclusive mating commitment in women’s romances. This was never (0%) the case in men’s adventure stories,...

...Materials designed for women focus on pleasantness,... ... while materials designed for men focus on activation,...

...Love and marriage play important roles in women’s genre fiction... Sexually explicit scenes were rarer and/or shorter in men’s genre fiction.

Sexual intercourse was followed by marriage in women’s novels, which also included the word "love" more often than did men’s novels...

Sexually explicit scenes in genre fiction were, on the whole, neither pornographic nor degrading." (Whissell, 1998:9)

According to the same research, words proportionally more common in women’s popular fiction are: body, hands, her, herself, his, love, mouth, she, skin, sweet, that, wanted, with.

And in men’s fiction: at, back, Barry, Beatrice, before, Bishop, blonde, can, door, gasps, got, himself, I, like, turned, nodded, etc...

Love romances are generally meant for women, because emotionally women are designed to experience pleasure in erotic scenes, involving love and commitment (in contrast to men, who prefer more pornographic scenes).

A lot of bestsellers are also characterized by the presence of some sacred object of key importance for the denouement of the story. For example the philosophical stone in Harry Potter and cleft de voute in The Da Vinci Code. The presence of such an object strengthens the mystery that envelops the story which is of crucial importance for a bestseller. The mystery of this object and its meaning are revealed in the end, but up to then the reader’s curiosity is held by the strange events that happen. Most often this object is hidden somewhere or lost, and only the chosen one or ones are permitted to find it. Strange or not, the chosen one(s) are ordinary people of no great importance in the society. This is an expression of the author’s desire to make ordinary people important. This is the reader’s desire to feel that he is able to be as important and meaningful as the hero of a story. Harry Potter, for example, is a kid - neither too clever, nor too good-looking. He is skinny and bespectacled, abandoned by his guardians as unimportant. Yet, he becomes the great one, the good one, the chosen one. And people like it, because he is like them, and this makes them feel meaningful. Here is a significant difference from the literature of former times, where heroes are creatures endowed with supernatural strength and talent.

Most often the positive main characters of the bestseller are not idealized. They have their weaknesses and their human failures. The average positive hero in a late 20 th century criminal novel, for example, is a man or woman, most often in his or her thirties or forties - a detective, policeman, or FBI officer capable of coping with the bad ones in the story. He or she is not beautiful, but charming, either black or white. Rarely do such heroes have a family. They are either divorced or single but in each case free to meet their great love at the end of the book. Although the typical bestseller hero represents a complex blend of negative and positive qualities, he or she acquires some extraordinary gift to succeed in doing the right thing at the last moment. So generally these characters are models - single persons at the zenith of their career, mostly overworking, having their defects and imperfections but undoubtedly honest, noble and smart enough to bring the story to its happy ending. The main characters meet their future love somewhere at the beginning of the book, but the affair happens at the end. The females are not necessarily beautiful but are always extremely charming, sexy and magnetic. Their charm is a specific one, not universal.

At thirty-two years old, she had a dogged determination that bordered on obstinate. (Brown, The Da Vinci Code 2002:78)

And later:

She was moving down the corridor toward them with long, fluid strides...a haunting certainty to her gait. Dressed casually in a knee-length, cream-colored Irish sweater over black leggings, she was attractive and looked to be about thirty. Her thick burgundy hair fell unstyled to her shoulders, framing the warmth of her face. Unlike the waifish, cookie-cutter blondes that adorned Harvard dorm room walls, this woman was healthy with an unembellished beauty and genuineness that radiated a striking personal confidence. (ibid., 79)

* * *

Anna had never considered herself beautiful..., but she thought that at times she could appear attractive. Her mother had told her that beauty is a beacon that emanates from within...

Anna had grown to be as tall as most men, and her frame was at once sturdy and slender...

Anna thought her hair her best feature. It had darkened slightly to a chestnut brown that in certain lights came alive with a reddish fire...It was her emerald eyes, however, that most people commented upon, deeply set as they were and strikingly flecked with amber. (J. C. Martin, Push Not the River, 2003: 31)

To summarize the typical main female heroine of a bestseller reveals her own charm and inner beauty, which is quite different from the established universals of modern society (36-26-36). This again is a reader-oriented decision, because thus the female reader does not see the heroine as an unreachable ideal in her beauty and talent but as someone from her own world, a reflection of the ordinary contemporary woman - imperfect, but fascinating.

The main male character is not too far from the female one. Alex Cross from James Patterson’s novels is 42 years old, athletic. He lives together with his two children, his grandmother and their cat Rosie. His wife Maria is dead. Alex has a PhD in psychology and solves a lot of intricate criminal activities..

On the contrary, in the typical negative characters the negative features are strengthened on the account of the positive ones. The serial killer in a crime bestseller is a monster. He is strong, clever and extremely evil. His psyche is twisted and distorted, and he is capable of doing hellish things. A typical thing about the classical bestseller’s villain is that he is almost impossible to kill. He goes through a lot of traps, he is shot at and hit, but he never dies. The bad guy is definitely stronger than the good ones, but he always makes some fatal mistake (which is quite funny, we think) that enables the good ones to be triumphant in the end. This image comes quite close to the classical villain (like Shakespeare’s Richard III, for example).

There is another way of developing the image of a negative hero - when the villain acts under cover, represented initially by the author as one of the good guys in the book in order to intensify the surprise of the reader from the unexpected end of the story (most often the villain is the least expected character of the book).

So, up to here a conclusion can be drawn that popular bestsellers share a lot of common features with the popular film. This is further evidence that it is possible to turn literature into a market product, which, through skillful merchandising and PR, can turn out to be a money machine.

Let us take now for an example the book which was a blockbuster in a lot of countries - Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It postulates the theory that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and they had a child. The church is represented as deceitful and wrong in its proclamation of male holiness, and this secret is kept by The Priory of Sion - a secret religious society, whose members are people of high rank. The story unfolds in the context of brutal murders and religious organizations willing to do everything in order to keep their vows. The main characters are the Harvard professor, Robert Langland, and a French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu, who happens to be a descendent of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ. Abounding in mysteries and suspense, this bestseller reveals curious facts about the works of Leonardo Da Vinci who, according to Dan Brown, was a member of The Priory of Sion, while the main characters are in a rush to find the secret of the Holy Grail and save the world from the obscurantism that the church imposes. The novel is a fascinating story of dramatic reversals in the main action, role-changes and all this veiled in the mystery of religious and art symbols.

The book has been translated in 45 languages and has sold 25 million copies worldwide, which is an acknowledgement of its extraordinary success. It even looks challenging. The luxurious copy - a beautifully illustrated hardback- made of first-class paper, including pictures of the objects and masterpieces depicted in the book, guarantees the pleasure while reading. In Bulgaria it costs about one third of the minimal monthly salary of the citizens. Yet, people buy it. The Da Vinci Code generates ideas about Christianity that stirred the Vatican and was the reason for religious scandals. However, scandals are another thing that attracts the audience. In an Internet forum it was commented:

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Archbishop of Genoa, was appointed by the Vatican to deny what it says are lies, distortions and mistakes in Brown’s bestseller. Bertone said that the book is filled with absurd and vulgar falsifications which are a clear attempt to discredit the church. ( pope versus potter)

The church is a powerful institution that has to defend its reputation. In a time of a dynamic way of living, when everybody is in the rush of chasing his own prosperity and when the mainstay of religion is shaken by the mass media and the doubts imposed by the postmodern literary society, speculations on religion are a fruitful topic. After the debunking of so many myths connected with the great ideologies, which were thought to be infallible, people feel unsure in their own religiousness and are amenable to manipulations in terms of religion.

But if one leaves aside the religious doubts that the book tries to impose the scandal with the Vatican again comes to be an advertisement for the book. And the first rule in advertising is that there is no anti-advertisement, so even though the things said about the book are not well-meaning, they attract the attention of the reading public and thus manages to fulfill its commercial goal. The more scandalous, the better. But scandals, in most cases, are a direct consequence of the revealing of some secret, and this is another thing of key importance - the secret.

From time immemorial people have had a passionate desire for secrets. It could be connected with an unknown murderer or lover, a family intrigue, or it could be a conspiracy connected with Christianity, involving the mysterious power of cryptography and semiotics as it is in the case of Dan Brown’s book. The author himself tries to ground the success of his book in that way: Secrets interest us all, I think. ( He admits on his website: I never imagined so many people would be enjoying it this much. I wrote this book essentially as a group of fictional characters exploring ideas that I found personally intriguing. ( Dan Brown’s awareness of the reader’s passionate desire for secrets is shown through the words of Marie Shovel: It is the mystery and wonderment that serve our souls, not the Grail itself. The beauty of the Grail lies in its ethereal nature. (Brown, 2004:581)

So, it is not because of the Holy Grail that the book is so interesting, but the secret that envelops it. Despite the fact that the described events are invented only by the author and his book remains pure fiction, its effect on the readers is incredible. A lot of doubts sneak in the consciousness of those who are not secure and convinced in their own religious beliefs. Here are some readers’ quotations:

This book made me ask myself questions about women in Christianity. Why are they never admitted to the high ranks of the church? Why are they permitted to become only nuns? The Da Vinci Code made me think over my own religion. Were we taught the right way? I cannot believe I had not thought about that before. (Krasimira Kostadinova - a reader)

While reading the book I thought that if I believed in the truth of the story told by the author that would endanger my beliefs in everything essential in my life. I knew that I need to believe that my world is not based on a lie, that’s why I labeled the book as "stupid". (Stanislava Kostadinova - a reader)

It was a great fun. (Kiril Batkov - a reader)

To conclude we can say that the bestseller can put a bug in people’s heads, and although fictional it enters into our real world. However, this obsession can become dangerous, especially for the younger readers.

The effects of such books on the reading public can be traced on the psychological level. These books are powerful. They have the power to take one and to thrust him into a different kind of reality - a world of magic and secrecy, of interesting turns of fate, a world where the gray everyday problems lose their seriousness and become so unessential. This helps us relax. Even the tension helps us relax - a change of atmosphere. Maybe this effect has something to do with Aristotle’s idea of the catharsis, which purifies the reader’s soul through suffering. By reading bestsellers people live through a kind of catharsis that helps them forget their real problems no matter how grave they are.

Anyway, this effect can be double-edged, especially for the children and youths who are in the delicate age of puberty. This is the time when children realize their place in the society, get clear notions of their sexuality and moral values and form their tastes - their likes and dislikes. At this delicate age a book can turn out to be an important factor in one’s way to maturity. Bestsellers are powerful books, they are meant to be stunning and to affect the reader. What can possibly happen, if this confused creature misunderstands some of the ideas in such a book? Is it possible on the subconscious level that this book could be a decisive factor in the development of the youth’s psyche - to turn him into a serial killer (by identifying himself as the main negative character of the book)? Another thing is that bestsellers abound in violence. Dan Brown depicts a ritual of Opus Dei in which the soul is purified by pain. Pain is good. (Brown: 27) Stephen King publishes thrillers and horror stories of monsters, murders and secrecy decorated with a lot of blood. Again murders are essential in James Patterson’s bestselling novels.

These examples of violence are enough to prove that victimization is one of the major aspects of the modern bestseller. Undoubtedly they can affect a teenager. He becomes familiar with it. It is not only in books, but in the news, too. The young man is no longer shocked by the different cases of extreme violence he meets in his daily life. When he sees somebody killed in the street, this will no longer be surprising to him. But maybe the most stressful of facts is that indifference makes teenagers think about violence as something natural, so there is a direct consequence of it - the growth in crimes committed by children, proven by statistics. One possible result of this problem has been the age categorization of different books. But this also has its negative effect, because, as it is stated in an old maxim: the forbidden things are the sweetest.

Of course, the positive features of bestsellers should not be ignored. Undoubtedly the authors of bestsellers are very clever people who do expanded research before writing the book. Writing a book is not an easy task. According to his personal website, Dan Brown gets up and starts writing each day at four in the morning. The building of characters of their own biography also demands special skills and time to think. Bestselling authors are very adroit. They use a rich vocabulary and are masterful storytellers, and their books prove to be an amazing way to take a rest from the whirlwind called life.

It is not serious to claim that bestsellers are insignificant, because they are aimed at the mass reader. If one turns back time, it can be clearly seen that even Charles Dickens and W. M. Thackeray started their careers as authors of bestsellers. Their books were published in periodicals and kept the readers craving for the next installment. The most important evidence for success was the public’s taste, because literature is created by people, about people and for people. This keeps bestsellers selling today.

© Mariya Anastasova (Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria)


1. Brown, Dan, The Da Vinci Code, Corgy Books, Surrey, 2003;

2. Martin, James Conroyd, Push Not The River, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2003;

3. Krantz, Judith, Mistral’s Daughter, Bantam Books, New York, 1983;

4. Whissell, Cynthia, Linguistic, Emotional and Content Analyses of Sexually Explicit Scenes in Popular Fiction - journal article, The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, Vol. 7, 1998;

5. Barlow, L., & Krentz, J. A. (1996/1992). Beneath the surface: The hidden codes of romance. In J.A. Krentz (Ed.), Dangerous men and Adventurous Women (pp. 17-36). New York: Harper Paperbacks;

6. Blom, Clive, Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900, Palgrave/Macmillan, New York, 2002;


8. pope versus potter

10.1. Innovationen in der Kinder- und Jugendliteratur (KJL)

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