James A. Michener's Return to Paradise: Why did it sell?
What makes a best seller? For every best selling book, the answer to this question is different. The creation of a best seller does not follow an exact pattern any more than does the making of a successful man. Moreover, since there is not just one best seller audience, analyzing the plight of a best selling book may involve learning much more about what seems to have made it succeed. Books dealing with religion, sensationalism, self-improvement, history, and personal adventure have seen the bestseller lists much more frequently, and other books often have found the lists for other, less justifiable reasons. James A. Michener's Return to Paradise may have been originally recognized for it's connection with his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, but it eventually found the best seller lists by its own literary merit. It combined a successful style with elements of history, travel, adventure, humor, and fantasy. The successful combination was complimented by Michener's recognizable name, the new and different format of the book, and his unique idea of place used in the novel. Although readers had already been captivated by these elements in Tales of the South Pacific, they were attracted to the idea of a sequel, or even a mere continuation of the stories that resulted from Michener's actual return to the South Pacific.
Michener didn't publish his first work of fiction until around the age of forty. It was not until he volunteered for service in the U.S. Navy in 1942 that he began to collect experiences he could visualize as marketable fiction. Although Tales of the South Pacific is considered a collection of short stories, Michener considered it a novel due to the book's overall theme of America's fight in the South Pacific theatre during World War II. Although it never became a best seller, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, and it was the beginning of a recognizable reputation for the author himself. By the time his third novel, Return to Paradise, was released in 1951, Michener had made a definitive name for himself in the literary world. His tales of travels and adventures to new and different places of the world enthralled readers everywhere, and Michener began to realize a promising opportunity. His talents in observation, combined with his attention to detail and keen prose, captured the attention of readers and critics both.
Return to Paradise benefited loosely from the fact that Michener's name was already known by readers. He could be recognized for his stories of vast travels and exotic settings, which had already begun to appeal to the popular audiences in the late forties and early fifties. Although Return to Paradise was a tentative continuation of Tales of the South Pacific, Michener created an entirely new form for the collection of short stories and essays. The popularity of the book reached best selling status in May of 1951, and remained there, on both the New York Times and the Publisher's Weekly Fiction Lists, for a combined total of forty-four weeks.
Michener "is a born story teller," New York Times writer David Dempsey explains in a review of Tales of the South Pacific, "but, paradoxically, this ability results in the book's only real weakness-the interminable length of some of the tales. Mr. Michener saw so much, and his material is so rich, that he simply could not leave anything out." His first novels represent Michener's experimentation with form and story-telling strategy before he finally settled into "the Michener formula" that many critics speak of. The book Return to Paradise was a result of the author's return visit to the South Pacific, and out of this he waned to write a new kind of book-a book of mingled fact and fiction. The stories contained in the popular and highly readable Return to Paradise are each preceded by an interpretive essay about each of the countries on his tour. The essay provides a report of observation, while the story dramatizes a significant problem. "The evidence is piling up that as Mr. Michener becomes more expert as a journalist he is becoming less effective as a writer of fiction. But those who were excited by the appearance of wonderful tales cannot help being disappointed." Although some critics accuse the experimental form of failing in part, citing that Michener's journalistic talents were becoming more developed than his story writing ability, and because the book's readership was extremely diverse, the book became a huge success.
Return to Paradise uses the idea of place to partly determine structure and meaning. By forming his stories around the exotic settings of the South Pacific, Michener can stimulate memories in the reader that in turn affect character psychology; he can provide symbols, such as beaches and gardens, that often carry certain conventional associations. His use of place encourages familiar metaphors such as earth and woman, forest and moral wilderness. Moreover, nearly one-fifth of the ninety-eight best selling books of the same decade were celebrating a vision of entrepreneurial success. "The story of individual achievement [was] at the center of many plots, protagonists [were] men in search of success, and the overriding tone in the universe of best sellers [was] optimistic and confident about the forward march of social progress and America's rightful place in its vanguard." Michener, on the other hand, was writing stories about history and religion, politics and drama. He was writing postwar fiction from the standpoint of a different place. His focus was not on the complexities of postwar life in America, but rather some similar complexities from a different place. For readers who had seen or wanted to see the South Pacific, Michener provided a personal introduction to an area followed by a short story which vaults off from the theme of the factual sketch. He likes to have his characters "perform against the background or in accordance with the events of history. The quirks of personality, the oddities of character, the unpredictable Brownian motions of human psychology appear to interest him little. He prefers to represent a history in action."
Even by the time he wrote Return to Paradise, Michener had not yet become the universally known best selling author that we know him as today. His first novels were considered quality literary works, but it wasn't until he wrote the novel Hawaii that Michener established the format that would see him through several subsequent novels and make him a best selling author. New York Times writer Caryn James explained that it was "only when he moved from small stories of people to monolithic tales of places-beginning with the fictionalized history of Hawaii in 1959 through Israel in The Source, South Africa in The Covenant, Poland, Chesapeake, and Space-did he become the kind of brand name author whose books hit the best seller lists before they reach the bookstores." Jonathan Yardley reported in the New York Times Book Review that Michener "deserves more respect than he usually gets. Granted that he is not a stylist and that he smothers his stories under layers of historical and ecological trivia, nonetheless he has earned his enormous popularity honorably. Unlike many other authors whose books automatically rise to the upper reaches of best-seller lists, he does not get there by exploiting the lives of the famous or the notorious; he does not treat sex cynically or pruriently; he does not write trash. His purposes are entirely serious: he wants to instruct, to take his readers through history in an entertaining fashion, to introduce them to lands and peoples they did not know."
Michener's attempt to share his experience of the South Pacific with his readers is seen by most as honest and valid, without any ulterior motives. He has never been known to struggle for popularity or fame, and his works speak for themselves. Readers appreciate his adventurous and inquisitive nature, and enjoy the way it comes through in his works of both fiction and nonfiction. Surprisingly, Michener considered himself a popular storyteller rather than a novelist, and while Michener's literary talents may be regarded by some as limited, his memoirs indicate that, "there is every chance that he will be remembered for being not an ordinary but a highly unusual fellow, almost a Renaissance man, adventurous, inquisitive, energetic, unpretentious and unassuming, with an encyclopedic mind and a generous heart."
It can't be denied that many best selling books are lacking any of the literary graces. These books make it clear that a vast reading public is not concerned with the particulars of style. These are books that critics often call "typical best sellers", simply because their immense popularity seems to be their only quality worth considering. On the contrary, and although the popularity of Return to Paradise may have depended loosely on Michener's reputation as a best selling author since then, critics agree that his high status as an author is more than justified. In all his works, including Return to Paradise, Michener provides the reader with a valuable service. There are few works of fiction that, even now, can match a Michener novel's educational value. His inability to ignore the journalistic writer within himself has given rise to novels whose teaching value is as prevalent as its fictional content, if not more so. "A Michener novel is a tribute to the industriousness of both author and reader and, in addition to the easy-to-swallow data, it contains a morality tale about the heroism of hard work and guts. His thick, fact-filled books seem thoroughly impersonal, but several days in Michener's company show the novels to be perfect expressions of their author's anomalies-moral without being stern, methodical yet digressive, insistently modest yet bursting with ambition, full of social conscience yet grasping at facts as a way to avoid emotion."iv
Michener, between his birth in 1907 and his death in 1997, wrote twenty-three novels, five books of short stories and sketches, and twenty-six non-fiction manuscripts. In Hackett's 80 Years of Best Sellers 1895-1975, which lists books which have, over 88 years, sold two million copies or more, there are nineteen entries under Michener's name. This number of entries is exceeded only by long-standing best selling authors like Lloyd C. Douglas (20 entries) and Sinclair Lewis (22 entries), and exceeds the number of entries for such well-known authors as Irving Wallace (17 entries) and John Steinbeck (18 entries). His first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, was released in 1947, and adapted for the stage by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II as the musical South Pacific. The play was filmed in 1958. Until They Sail and Mr. Morgan, both from Return to Paradise, were adapted into motion pictures. James noted that "the Michener formula might seem an unlikely one for the media age: big, old fashioned narratives weaving generations of fictional families through densely documented factual events, celebrating the All-American virtues of common sense, frugality, patriotism. Yet these straitlaced, educational stories are so episodic that they are perfectly suited to the movie and television adaptations that have propelled Michener's success."iv
For Michener, making the bestseller list was not a particular goal. He spent his life and energy doing things that he loved-traveling and observing people and places all over the world, writing about them, and teaching-and his readership found this easy to recognize in his writing. Return to Paradise became a best seller largely by its own literary merit. Michener once told James, "I don't think the way I write books is the best or even the second-best. The really great writers are people like Emily Bronte who sit in a room and write out of their limited experience and unlimited imagination. But people in my position also do some very good work. I'm not a stylist like Updike or Bellow, and don't aspire to be. I'm not interested in plot or pyrotechnics, but I sure work to get a steady flow. If I try to describe a chair, I can describe it so that a person will read it to the end. The way the words flow, trying to maintain a point of view and a certain persuasiveness-that I can do."
Orville Prescott, In My Opinion, p. 154
Elizabeth Long, The American Dream and the Popular Novel, p. 63
Thomas Lask, New York Times
Caryn James, New York Times
Jonathan Yardley, New York Times Book Review
Doris Grumbach, New York Times Book Review
· Becker, George J., James A. Michener, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1983.
· Day, A. Grove, James A. Michener, Twayne, 1964.
· Hayes, J.P., James A. Michener, Bobbs-Merrill, 1984.
· Hinckley, Barbara, and Hinckley, Karen, American Best Sellers: A Reader's Guide to Popular Fiction, Indiana University Press, 1989.
· Hutner, Gordon, American Literature, American Culture, Oxford University Press, 1999.
· Literary Taste, Culture, and Mass Communication, edited by Peter Davison/Rolf Meyerson/Edward Shils, Volume 12, Bookselling, Reviewing and Reading, Chadwyck-Healey Ltd., 1978.
· Long, Elizabeth, The American Dream and the Popular Novel, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.
· Marx, Leo, The Pilot and the Passenger: Essays on Literature, Technology, and Culture in the United States, Oxford University Press, 1988.
· Prescott, Orville, In My Opinion: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Novel, Bobbs-Merrill, 1952.
· Rhine, C.D., Roberts, F.X., James A. Michener: A Checklist of His Works, with a Selected, Annotated Bibliography, Greenwood Press, 1995.
· Booklist, December 1, 1993, p. 671.
· Chicago Tribune, January 17, 1982; September 29, 1983; June 27, 1985; October 17, 1985; July 2, 1989.
· Insight, September 1, 1986.
· Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1985.
· Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 7, 1980; October 3, 1982; July 31, 1983; September 4, 1983; September 13, 1987; April 7, 1991.
· Newsweek, January 25, 1954; May 14, 1962; August 12, 1963; May 24, 1965; May 6, 1968; September 16, 1974; July 24, 1978; November 24, 1980; January 16, 1984; September 23, 1985.
· New York Times, February 2, 1947; February 3, 1947; February 6, 1949; February 7, 1949; April 22, 1951; April 23, 1951; October 30, 1951; July 12, 1953; January 24, 1954; December 12, 1954; March 3, 1957; August 3, 1958; May 1, 1968; June 10, 1971; September 27, 1974; July 1, 1976; August 1, 1978; November 14, 1980; September 29, 1982; September 3, 1983; February 20, 1984; September 25, 1984; October 9, 1985; October 31, 1985.
· New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1948; May 22, 1949; July 12, 1953; March 3, 1957; November 8, 1959; November 22, 1959; June 18, 1961; August 11, 1963; May 23, 1965; July 24, 1966; May 12, 1968; May 25, 1969; June 6, 1971; June 27, 1971; September 30, 1973; February 10, 1974; September 8, 1974; June 27, 1976; July 23, 1978; November 26, 1978; July 15, 1979; November 23, 1980; September 19, 1982; June 12, 1983; September 4, 1983; November 20, 1983; October 13, 1985; September 6, 1987; June 26, 1988; July 9, 1989; November 5, 1989; November 12, 1989; September 30, 1990; March 31, 1991; January 19, 1992; November 28, 1993, p. 26; October 16, 1994, p. 20; January 7, 1996, p. 20.
· Publishers Weekly, October 18, 1993, p. 54; August 21, 1995, p. 46.
· Washington Post, September 2, 1983.
· Washington Post Book World, June 4, 1972; September 1, 1974; July 9, 1978; September 30, 1979; November 2, 1980; December 6, 1981; September 12, 1982; September 29, 1985; July 3, 1988; March 2, 1991; December 8, 1991; October 16, 1994, p. 1.
· Yale Review, spring, 1947; spring, 1949.