Chaim Potok's The Chosen became a best seller in 1967. By analyzing both the unique and the common aspects of The Chosen as compared to other best sellers, we can better learn about the nature of the best seller itself, in particular as represented by Potok's novel. We will see that The Chosen demonstrates a combination of elements which all contribute in their own way toward selling the book. Unique factors of The Chosen include its label by many as "Jewish" fiction or the label given by some as a "young adult" novel, but also the fact that it is not a genre novel. Other more common elements to best sellers include being published by a large publisher, positive pre-release reviews, mixed critical reaction, and dealing with a subculture of American society that is unknown to many Americans. Finally, the novel is an example of how events in the era of it's release can positively impact the sales of the novel.
The Chosen is different from many best sellers in that it is not a so-called "genre" novel. Unlike Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, John LeCarrè's spy novels, or Danielle Steele's romances, The Chosen stands alone as a unique story about the lives of two young men, their fathers, and their culture. Though some label the novel as "Jewish" fiction or even "Young Adult" literature, a personal reading, along with critical reaction, demonstrates that The Chosen goes beyond such attempts at genre labels. Though the book is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition, the theme of the novel supercedes any exclusive Jewish message. In his review in the Saturday review on April 29, 1967, Granville Hicks writes, "[Potok] suggest[s] that almost any situation , no matter how unfamiliar to the population in general, may have meaning for the multitude if the author goes deep enough." This is not say, however, that every critic during the immediate reception of the novel gave the same reading. In fact, some critiques saw The Chosen to be a genre novel in many ways, and thought that the attempt for deeper meaning simply took away from the novel. Sandra Schmidt of the Christian Science Monitor finds fault in Potok's use of both psychological exploration and the so-called "genre" novel of "local color:" "[ The Chosen ] concludes with a not altogether convincing justification of the ways of fathers and their sons...Mr. Potok's two intentions cancel each other out." However, it has become generally accepted, as the book achieved phenomenal success, that the book does indeed outreach its Jewish or even young adult themes. In contemporary criticism of re-releases of the novel, almost every review has labeled it a classic or given otherwise positive reviews.
Furthermore, a very telling element of the true ?genre' novel is the ease with which it is adapted into other media, in particular, movies. Books such as the aforementioned Bond and Steele novels, a multitude of Tom Clancy novels, and other novels, such as The Day of the Jackal have all been made into succesful movies. The Chosen , too, was adapted into both a (straight to video) movie and a Broadway Musical. (Singing rabbis, yes, Fiddler on the Roof, it was not.) Neither release experienced any form of success, with the latter being thoroughly trashed by New York Magazine. John Simon blasts both the play (Potok did the adaptation) and the original novel. "[the characters] progress inexorably along dully intersecting diagonals, toward reversed extremes." Clearly, The Chosen is written in such a style that is both appealing to readers and difficult to translate into other media, which is a somewhat unique aspect of its best seller status.
Indeed it may come as a surprise to many that The Chosen was ever on the best seller list. It is a relatively short and simple work, and while it stands alone as a work of literature, there is no one clear-cut factor which made it a best seller. The Chosen is unique in that it is not a genre novel, but nor is it true ?high brow' literature. It draws a line somewhere in the middle.
The critical reaction of the novel is actually very representative of many bestsellers. Lauded by some and lambasted by others, critical reaction is by no means the sole or even most important influencing factor in predicting the selling power of the novel. Essentially, positive critical review can't hurt a novel's chances, but negative critical view does not always hinder and can, at times, even help the success of a book. However, because the negative critiques of The Chosen were not the type that would necessarily stir controversy, the book probably relied on word of mouth of its readership to boost sales. One mixed review by Hugh Nissenson, in The New York Times Book Review on May 7, 1967, states, "Something rough and unpolished about his style...the imagery blurred." However, he goes on to admit, "yet...we listen...The structural pattern of the novel, the beautifully wrought contrapuntal relationship of the two boys, and their fathers, is complete."
There is one element of the critical response to The Chosen which almost certainly helped it achieve bestseller status. Publishers Weekly, a trade publication which booksellers use to aid in deciding which books to order, gave The Chosen glowing pre-release reviews. The novel was mentioned four months prior to its April release in the January 23rd edition on "Spring Announcements," and even earlier on January 9th in the "Tips" section, which stated " The Chosen , A first novel of special promise." Clearly, not every book that is mentioned prior to its release makes it on to the best seller list, but this pre-release hype certainly influences bookstores to stock their shelves and promote the book. Furthermore, The Chosen was originally published by Simon and Schuster, a very large publishing company based in New York City. Simon and Schuster took out various adds in Publishers Weekly and most likely in other literary sources, getting the name of the novel out to the public. Furthermore, though the practice is far less common now, Publishers Weekly used to be available for customers to peruse in the bookstores themselves, where the publicity would help the book sell even more.
It is the case that for almost any book you will find glowing reviews (you can look for these on the inside cover or back title page) and harsh reviews, but such reviews often do little to influence the popular readership. In fact, they may even spark controversy and cause more books to be bought. Controversial bestsellers such as Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls were banned all over the country and highly criticized for their shocking and revealing content. While The Chosen is not particularly controversial, it does provide insight into a rather closed group of society, which probably served to spark a keyed interest in the novel.
After being originally published by Simon and Schuster in New York and concurrently by Heinemann in London in 1967, The Chosen was released by three other publishers in the same year. Ballantine Books, Fawcett, and Buccaneer Books all released their own printings of the novel. This served not only to put more books in stores to be bought, but also more money influencing promotion. Certainly, when a bestseller starts selling and is picked up by several other publishers, this can only further the book along in its path toward best seller status.
The American culture is based on a mix of cultures from around the world, and as a result Americans are often fascinated with the elements of the subcultures present in American life. By shedding light on the Orthodox and Hasidic tradition, and personalizing the characters living in that group, The Chosen may serve to settle the American public's attraction to the inner life of certain groups or subcultures. Though The Chosen is not strictly a genre novel, it does examine the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. Many other bestsellers have played on the same theme of group exposé: Mario Puzo's The Godfather shows us the life of the Italian-American Mafia, Ian Fleming, John LeCarre, and more recently Tom Clancy expose the life of an international spy, Upton Sinclair exposes the immigrant life in Chicago at the turn of the century, and Grace Metalious pulls the covers off of small town New England life. In The Chosen , Potok successfully penetrates a culture and humanizes it. He shows personal conflict between two sects of the Jewish faith, and also demonstrates certain universal problems within the highly organized structure of the faith.
When Potok shows readers that members of the Hasidic and Orthodox tradition have interpersonal problems, and problems with communication amongst fathers and sons, this very theme was a vital element of the culture of the Nineteen Sixties. Published in 1967, The Chosen was selling books during the great youth movement of the Sixties, in which America's youth found a voice against the so-called conformity and normalcy of the fifties. There was an air of disillusionment with conservative values and the ?old guard.' It should be noted that the book is set in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which even today remains a virtual time capsule of Nineteen-Fifties conservative America. The Chosen demonstrates that even within seemingly quiet, peaceful communities, an air of extreme unrest can linger and pervade the atmosphere. The Chosen shows the dysfunction present in the ultra conservative Hasidic culture and gave confirmation to the general sentiment of the Sixties.
In addition to the radical politics of the nineteen sixties, another societal factor which may have contributed to the success of the book was the war between Israel and Egypt, in which Israel won in convincing fashion. There was strong Pro-Israel sentiment in America at the time, and The Chosen may have satisfied many a readers interest to learn more about the Jewish culture. When movements in any time period are reflected in or can be discussed in relation to the theme of a novel, this increases the popular interest in the novel. This has been evidenced not only in The Chosen , but also in novel's such as Joseph Heller's Catch 22 or Something Happened (though Something Happened sold many of it's copies more because of the success of Catch 22 and less as a result of it's commentary on the bland pall of life in 1970's America).
Indeed, many bestsellers become so because of previous books written by that author which have gained popular acclaim. People by ?the new Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele, or Mary Higgins Clarke novel" simply based on the success of other novels by the same author. However, this is not the case with The Chosen . In fact, The Chosen was Potok's first novel to be published. Though he had had sholarly work previously published, The Chosen was his debut work of fiction. Other than perhaps circles involved in Jewish scholarly studies, it is doubtful anyone had ever heard the name Chaim Potok before reading The Chosen . The Chosen , however, probably did aid Potok in the success of latter novels, such as My Name is Ascher Lev.
In conclusion, The Chosen tells us many things about the elements of a best seller. Though The Chosen is not the most typical best seller, it contains many elements which can be applied to other books. These aspects include the humanization of an enigmatic subculture, positive pre-release reviews, mixed reviews upon immediate release, and a society which was undergoing social events which in some ways lead to a piqued interest in the content of the book. In addition, it's unique theme and style of writing also shows us that all best sellers are not alike. Not all best sellers are easily translated into blockbuster movies, nor are they simply written to entertain the reader as they relax in the backyard or in their beds. This is not to say, however, that the process is completely random, but there is no exact science to writing a best seller. The Chosen relies on not only common elements such as the exposé of a closed group in society, the success of previous novels, or being sold by a large publisher, but also on intangible elements such as being released at the right time, when society was reading and eager to read such a story, and the extremely powerful social phenomenon of word of mouth.