There is a mix of the ordinary and the unusual in the fact that Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift achieved bestseller status in 1975. The book, widely regarded as Bellow's most important work, took almost fifteen years to write. It is very scholarly in both style and substance. It has some aspects of a bestseller, but it is not altogether a typical bestseller. Although Bellow's name accounted for much of the books appeal, the marketing and style of the book did not scream out to bestseller readers.
Humboldt's Gift is a deep metaphysical novel with complicated plots and counterplots. It is a hard read, telling the story of a novelist and his mentor in the 1930s and 40s. It starts in flashback, as the main character, Charlie Citrine, tells of his first meeting with the famous writer Von Humboldt Fleisher. The story goes on to tell of the rise of Citrine, the fall of Humboldt, and the eventual fall of Citrine. Throughout most of the novel we hear stories of a ragged bum Humboldt, ruined by the whim of critics tastes. Although he and Citrine were once like family, he is bitter at Citrine's success, and slanders him to whomever will listen. It is not until Humboldt dies that Citrine fully understands Humbolt's effect of his life. Both his and Humboldt's stories are that of intellectuals fed up with intellectualism, and searching for some sort of theory or work that will change the hypocrisy and uselessness of modern intellectualism. They both want to surprise the world with their work; they want to make everyone stop and rethink.
Because the book is rooted in a story of intellectualism ...intellectuals in a world of intellectuals... the language and situations in the novel are not as mainstream as many typical bestsellers. Most people read literature, because of the adventures it takes them on. Readers relate themselves to the novel as a temporary escape from life. In novels, they get to do things or learn things not present in their everyday life. Therefore, when a highly intellectual book with difficult, metaphysical prose comes out, it is not as easily a bestseller as another book that may be less cerebral.
Humboldt's Gift, however, is not totally rigid and uncrackable. It has many identifiable and familiar themes. Most notably, it tells of an individual's triumph over nihilism, a defeat of snobbish hypocrisy, and of an almost fatherly love of Humboldt's protégé (although the love isn't always verbally requited). Even though these stories are packaged tightly in the scholarly prose, they are identifiable to the reader. The plight of the protagonist isn't packaged in a way common to bestsellers, but it transcends the circumstances and is able to touch the reader.
Saul Bellow's previous success was a major factor in Humboldt's Gift's mainstream success. The Adventures of Aggie March, published in 1953, was Bellow's first success. It was almost universally praised, and Bellow's success never looked back. Herzog, the book published directly before Humboldt's Gift, won Bellow wide popularity, and was a bestseller in 1964. Bellow would not publish his next work (Humboldt's Gift) for over ten years. There was much anticipation for the novel, and when Humboldt's Gift finally appeared in 1975, it was received with much praise. The book saw immediate commercial success, and remained a bestseller for almost 6 months. It peaked at the second spot on the list, and ended the year tenth. The novel, however, was partially eclipsed by the success of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime which was published in the same year, and ended the year at the top of the bestseller list. Humboldt's Gift was the primary selection of the Book of the Month club for two months. This exposure accounts for a some of its popularity.
Whereas there are these reasons for the books popularity, its life on the bestseller list was not exactly stereotypical. Although the book was highly touted by the Book of the Month Club, it was rarely publicized otherwise. The Viking Press never ran advertisements in Atlantic Monthly, Publishers Weekly, or most major magazines (Time, Life, Esquire, etc.). Humboldt's Gift rode largely on the previous success of Saul Bellow. The novel was not marketed to a typical "bestseller audience". The preconceived audience was small and intellectual. The Viking Press, whereas it believed the book would prove to be a success, treated the book as more of a critical success then a mainstream success.
Most bestsellers rely on publicity. It takes a great marketing campaign to produce a best-selling novel, with print advertisements, book signings, and a slew of other book propaganda. Novels are sold to the reader through appearance and advertising as much as they are through quality and names. A novel that does not have much of a mainstream backing force is not as likely to make the bestsellers list as a novel with a nationwide publicity campaign. The lack of this sort of campaign for Humboldt's Gift makes it an anomaly that it was so commercially successful.
Another peculiarity of the novel's nationwide success is its critical praise. Either because intellectuals tend to stray away from popular things, or because intellectual things tend not to be popular, it is not often that a "great" book becomes a wide success. Humboldt's Gift is a "great" book. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and was extremely key in Bellow's winning of the Nobel Prize in 1977. In the thirty-five years preceding the publication of Humboldt's Gift, only seven novels on the yearly bestseller top-ten list had won the Pulitzer (Bernard Malamud's The Fixer in 1967, William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1968, MacKinlay Kantor's Andersonville in 1956, Ernest Hemingay's The Old Man and the Sea in 1953, Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny in 1952, John Hersy's A Bell for Adano in 1945, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in 1940). This seemingly incompatableness of "great" books and bestsellers is partially due to the strive of intellectuals to become anti-mainstream. People who create the cannons of great literature, and the people who award the Pulitzer Prize are weary about being associated with something so popularly elected (just the sort of intellectualism Bellow berates in the novel). For a novel to be successful in both literary and popular circles is very rare. In this aspect, Humboldt's Gift is not a typical bestseller.
Famous and previously successful authors have a much easier path to the bestsellers list. If an author publishes one bestseller that people know, then when his next novel comes out, people will feel comfortable with it. People will buy a novel from a known author before they will from an unknown author. In the mid 1970s, when Humboldt's Gift came out, there was a group of authors that were almost guaranteed to produce bestsellers. Names like Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Wouk, and Robert Ludlum regularly made the bestsellers list. If they wrote a book, people would buy first and ask questions later...... even bad books by these authors would become bestsellers due to their popularity (though the follow up to a bad novel might suffer). Other names, such as Joseph Heller and Bellow, played off of the wide success of their last books, and their history of good literature. Bellow didn't produce a bestseller ever year, but when he put a book out, people had faith in its quality.
Whereas, over the span of the century, "great" books, especially Pulitzer winners, tend not to be bestsellers, there was a trend towards the opposite in the middle of the century. Some "great" books became very popular because of their authors. This is because "great" authors were more popular at the time. The staple authors of the list, however, have shifted from the Hellers and the Vonneguts to the Kings and the Grishams. In the late middle of the century, it wasn't that people read more acclaimed books, but they were sold the books of more critically successful authors. The people who wrote intellectual books were more visible celebrities then they are now. Better books weren't written, but they were better marketed, and by headline authors.
When Humboldt's Gift was published, Saul Bellow was in the prime of his long career. His last novel was a bestseller and a huge success. He was at the pinnacle of his Nobel Prize wining career, and popular in the national limelight. Humboldt's Gift had been anticipated by critics and the public for over a decade. The attention was as critical in the books success as any print advertisements or publicity could've been. Saul Bellow wasn't of the same drawing power as a Kurt Vonnegut, but he was close. The novel was destined to be a success. The fact that it was also a critical success was rare, but not damaging or totally atypical. The great and universal themes in the novel overcame the metaphysical prose, and the success of the author helped ride the book into the bestseller list. The critical success of the book might have even helped to prolong the buzz surrounding Humboldt's Gift.
There is no typical bestseller. Each novel has a complicated range of reasons and aspects that go into making it a mainstream success. Advertisements, readability, an authors success, and a books relevancy in the world are just a few of the pressures on a book. No book has all of the right aspects, and in that way, no book is the perfect, typical bestseller. What is important is that a book has enough of these aspects to push it over the top. Humboldt's Gift had enough of these aspects. It didn't have the easiest prose, and it wasn't the perfect topic. It was intellectual and under advertised, but it did what it took. It had the right buzz and the right writer. Because of this.....in those areas....it is a typical bestseller