James A. Michener's novel Mexico, published in 1992 by Random House, was a best-selling novel for him. It remained on the Bestseller List for thirteen weeks, was translated into several languages, and was still being published in 1998. Judging by the success of the novel, it would seem that Mexico is considered to be one of Michener's finer works. This, however, is not the case. In fact, Mexico is far from being one of Michener's greatest works. Although the novel sold many copies, reviews of it were mediocre and sometimes rather critical. After its initial release, Mexico received very little publicity even from the publisher. Mexico is a perfect example of a best-selling novel that was quickly forgotten because the things that made it a hit did not necessarily make it an enduring book. There is a great deal that goes into making a novel a hit. When one carefully examines the time and conditions under which Mexico was released, and more importantly the style that it was written in, it is apparent why it was a best-selling novel of 1992 that ultimately fell short of any kind of greatness or stature in comparison to Michener's other works.
The primary reason that Mexico immediately flew onto the Bestseller List in December of 1992 is because of the great anticipation that surrounded the release of the novel. Michener was in his eighties at the time, and was a familiar and established name among the public. He had published over eighteen novels at the time along with numerous short stories and essays. After receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for his 1947 novel Tales of the South Pacific and enjoying the tremendous success of his 1959 novel Hawaii, Michener had credibility. Thus, his fans were willing and eager to read his latest work, and many copies of Mexico were sold.
There was also something quite unique about the novel that intrigued the public. It became known that Michener had been working sporadically on the novel for over thirty years, had lost the documents for a while, and had only recently found them and completed the work. In an interview by Lawrence Grobel, Grobel asked how this had happened. Michener replied,
"That this manuscript should have been totally lost for thirty-one years and then to have surfaced with all the notes, three big notebooks, ten finished chapters--it's incredible. In my mind, I had mailed it. But they never picked it up. What I'd forgotten was that Random House had a contract for the book. So from time to time they would say, 'Gee, let's get that book on Mexico, you had two-thirds done.' But it was lost. When we wanted to do the memoir, there was a keen desire to have some photographs. My cousin, who lived with us, was always wondering where the photographs were. She finally found the photographs in the back of a filing cabinet. And when she did she also found behind the cabinet the lost manuscript about Mexico."
The simple fact that the work was written under such unusual conditions brought attention to it, and naturally helped to sell the story (New York Times).
The timing of the release of the novel also was to its advantage. Its December release made it a prime candidate for a holiday gift. Furthermore, Michener released a biographical novel around the same time that Mexico was released that told the story of how the novel was written and the aspects of Michener's life relevant to writing the novel's composition. Michener explained how he originally chose his subjects and why the novel was put on hold for over thirty years. These lines, taken from My Lost Mexico, express this.
"I believe what I tell my listeners, yet here I'm confessing that in Mexico I suffered a block for thirty years, 1961-1991...Writer's block? I've suffered colossal ones, but I no longer surrender to the minor ones lasting a few days or weeks which seem to terrify many writers. Those I exorcize by turning to other work, and I recommend this tactic to others" (102). The simultaneous release of the two works hightened the public interest in the two.
The above circumstances are not the sole reasons that Mexico became a bestseller. There are qualities about the novel that reviewers and the general public praised. As was the case with almost all of Michener's works, the extensive research that went into the novel was greatly admired. Nicholas Lemann stated that a typical work of Michener's was "a sweeping panorama of regional history done in the form of a novel" (Contemporary Literary Criticism 255). Mexico was no exception to this. A book review on Amazon.com reports that "With remarkable skill author James Michener brings to life 1,500 years of Mexican history through the character of an American journalist who is sent south of the border. The text, like the history of this great nation, is full of blood and gore."
The strength of the novel lies in the descriptions that Michener was able to communicate to his readers. He was inspired to write the novel, and was able to create a vivid scene for his readers, especially when he wrote of the great bullfights that still occur in Mexico. In his interview with Grobel, he said that Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises originally inspired him to learn more bullfighting. After seeing several matches and participating in the "Running of the Bulls" in Pamplona, Michener was ready to put his experiences down on paper.
"Writers are people with instantaneous reactions to dramatic situations, and in my case my first incandescent reactions often enlighten the entire experience. I see the bullfight as an exemplification of dark, mysterious power operating against the dancing pirouetting man, the bull in his primal dark coat, the man in his extravagant suit of lights. This imagery has been so potent for me that my novel Mexico is a retelling of that experience" (20).
Michener's ability to richly describe another land and its culture to the average reader helped to make Mexico a bestseller. After all, the support of the general public is what ultimately makes a book a success. The average "customer review" from the "Customer Comments" section of the Amazon.com web site gave Mexico four stars out of a possible five. One reader describes Mexico as a "very good book that mixes history with a personal story." Another reader from Germany said that it is "definitely one of Michener's two best books." A mixed review said "it got kinda slow at some parts but after you survive them the book becomes real exciting." One final response from a reader from Vienna is closer to what the critics said about the novel. "It's one of the most pathetic books. I managed to fight it until page eighty or so until sleep and anger overcame me. The author isn't capable of concentrating on his (should be, if any) subject and instead lets the central ?character' try to entertain the bored reader with the fame and glory of the character's family every tiring second paragraph."
What exactly happened to Michener's work that led some readers and most literary critics of Michener's Mexico to criticize it? Like most other Michener novels, it is by no means a short read, and it can not be said that Michener rushed through its completion. However, the fact that Michener worked on the novel for short periods at a time during a thirty-year span indicates that the novel never received the full and undivided attention of its author. An article in the New York Times by Clifford Irving depicts this. "In 1959, after correcting the galleys on his long multigenerational novel ?Hawaii,' Mr. Michener drives to Mexico City with the idea of writing a similar massive novel about Mexico, a country he has come to love. He completes more than half of it, feels a malaise that most writers feel at some stage during the arduous journey toward the completion of a two- to three-pound book, searches in vain for what he calls ?a strong, clear vision of where I wanted to go,' loses forward motion, and in 1961 sends the unfinished manuscript to his publisher, begging for advice on how to continue?the reply from Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House?so devastates the author that he can't continue. He abandons the novel. And then he loses it."
In 1990, Michener tried to leave Random House publishing when "managerial affairs fell into temporary disarray and people he respected were ?let go, sometimes in unacceptable ways'"(New York Times). Surprisingly, no other publishing company would publish him because they considered him to be a "has-been." He then returned to Random House. The interesting thing about this event is that it indicates that a negative opinion and stereotype was forming about James Michener and his writing career. His works, although generally considered to be enjoyable and entertaining, were also becoming stale. They were losing the interest of the reader, and by the age of eighty, one wonders if perhaps Michener himself was losing his desire to produce the works any longer.
It is as if James Michener had created a recipe that he followed to write a bestseller. Mexico contains almost all of the ingredients that his previous popular works did. He knew that enough adventure, gore, excitement, and colorful description could make any work of his land a temporary spot on the bestseller list. Interestingly enough, Michener himself recognized that he had in a sense developed his own formula for a book. "I do have wonderful respect and love for the old days. I try to figure out what they were like and where did they come from; how did they get their money? what agitated them? what was their drive? what were they after? And I get swept away by the magnitude of the thing. If that is a formula, then I'm stuck with it" (Grobel 42-43).
Mexico is not a terrible novel. It just has nothing new about it. It seems to follow the typical style and pattern of Michener that had become redundant by 1992. Mexico could not stand as an individual and unique work. Today, it is not compared to other works by other authors, but rather to previous Michener works that cast it in their shadows, works like Hawaii and Alaska.This truly helps explain why Mexico did not live on after its thirteen weeks of popularity. The novel was like a "cookie-cutter" work. It satisfied the readers for a short time, but it left no lasting impression because there was nothing exceptional about the novel. It covered the basics, and that is all. Although the story is about a great adventure, there is nothing adventurous about the style or the story itself. However, as the history of this work indicates, those are not necessary qualities for a book to become a bestseller. Sometimes, as was the case with Michener's Mexico, the established reputation of an author along with a style that has been proven to appeal to readers is all it takes to get a book to the top.
At such a late stage stage in his life, it seems that the overall negative response to Mexico and the many problems he saw in the publishing system would have discouraged Michener from continuing to write for the public. This however was not the case, and Michener continued to work up until his death. After My Lost Mexico was released in 1992, James A. Michener's Writer's Handbook:Explorations in Writing and Publishing was also released. Afterwards, seven other Michener works were published. The last one, titled A Century of Sonnets was published in 1997. Mexico, however, was his last bestseller. While his final works were read by some, they received very little attention. That Michener continued to write until his death and did not relent even after unfavorable reviews were given about Mexico does show the dedication and tenacity of Michener concerning his profession. In Michener's words,
"Both ordinary talent and rare genius can be nipped in the bud by criticism. I adopted this rigorous policy in self-defense, for I had learned through three abortive attempts at finishing a novel--this one on Mexico, the one on the siege of Leningrad, and the one on contemporary social relationships, each of which I had to abandon in mid-flight--that I must permit nothing to imperil my forward progress. I had not suffered writer's block; I had experienced writer's annihilation...The protection of one's personal source of power and one's integrity as an individualized spokesman is vital to a writing career. For that reason I do not read criticism of my work after it is published. I cannot profit from favorable reports; the work is already done. And I dare not allow unfavorable reviews to alter my perception of my work or in any way modify what I might want to do in the future...The death of my Mexican novel thus became the birth of the philosophy that has sustained me" (My Lost Mexico, 65-66).
This philosphy that Michener held in regard to his profession, the deidication Michener had for completing a work to the best of his ability, and the desire to share his experiences with others are the qualities that Michener possessed that made him capable of writing modern bestsellers. These qualities gave Michener a respected reputation among many readers that helped to sell his works, as was the case with Mexico. Obviously, a novel does not have to be well received by critics to be sucessful. It does not even have to be a great work in the eyes of the general public if it has enough working for it that gets it off the shelves. However, this does not mean that the actual writing of a bestseller is easy and is something that anyone can do. Mexico may not be considered an excellent work of literature, but that does not mean that it was merely thrown together. Modern bestsellers do not have to be deep or have a great deal of substance, but the substance they do contain has to carry weight with the readers. In other words, if a work is to be a bestseller, what goes into it has got to be good. There has to be discipline. Michener was quoted one time for saying, "If writing was easy, everyone would do it. There are many people that I've thought could write something better than I could, but the difference is that I actually do it" (Grobel 87). In his self-written Writer's Handbook, Michener's final advice to prospective writers is
"Remember that most successful writers compose their first three manuscripts at four o'clock in the morning prior to a full day's work in some office. If you can't discipline yourself to do that, you'll never be a writer. Of course, it could be just as effectively done after eleven o'clock at night" (180).
No matter what the critics thought of Michener and his works, he was an effective writer. His novels became bestsellers because he had people supporting him, he worked diligently and incessantly, and he knew what readers wanted. He was not one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, but he was one of the few who really made a good living at what he did. The secret of a bestseller is best given by those that have written one. As Michener said, "There is a great deal I can't do--I'm not good at humor or psychology, I'm not a stylist--but I can tell a story. If the reader will stay with me for the first hundred pages, which I often make difficult, then he or she will be hooked and want to know what's happening. That's storytelling and I prize it. A writer is prudent if he stays with what he does well and perfects it" (Grobel 41). He later said, "I have turned out to be one of the most widely-read writers of modern times. I haven't had to use violence or wild sex, kookiness or anything else. I've simply laid out a great story and let it fall where it will" (Grobel 96). In the eyes of Michener, his bestsellers were born out of great stories that he had carefully developed. Michener put everything into his works. He gave his all time and time again, and this seems to be his key ingredient for a successful novel. "I held nothing back," he told his friend Lawrence Grobel. "I am not saving anything for a sequel" (xx). That must be Michener's formula for a bestseller.