Richard Llewellyn is not your typical best-selling author. He spent 12 years writing How Green was my Valley during which he was enrolled in the armed services and researched the life of an average coal miner in the field by actually living and working in a coal mining town in Wales. He traveled to India and Hong Kong while in the service, but ended up moving to Dublin after the publication on his novel. Perhaps it was the painstaking effort that he put into the actually writing and research, perhaps it was the audience's preparedness, or perhaps it was just a good story. For whatever reason, this book became a bestseller.
Many bestsellers appear to be the result of either a well known author or sufficient advertising. The existence of book clubs also helps the sales of certain books (the Oprah Effect). Sleepers, books that become popular via word of mouth, are type of bestseller too. But this book was none of these. This book came out of the blue. There was no preliminary advertising and there was no author named Richard Llewellyn until this book was published. And it was an immediate success. Not only was it an instant blockbuster in England, but when it was published in the United States the following year, it did incredibly well, if not better than it had done in the UK. It is not alone in this phenomenon. Also falling into this category (blockbusters by first time authors) are such books as Peyton Place, Semi-tough, The Other, and Auntie Mame. While the exact situations in which these books were published is not the same, they are all from first time authors and all made the bestsellers list.
While Llewellyn's book is not riddled with double meanings and does not have a trick ending, it is a very well written story that was thoroughly researched before being meticulously woven together. Combined with a receptive audience this made for a bestseller. This particular book gained fame and popularity shortly after it was released and is now termed a classic because of this, although a contributing factor could have been that a film version of the novel was produced that same year. The recipe for his success can be deciphered by looking at a few aspects of this novel comparing them to others that also have these same aspects. The three elements that are present in this and a few other bestsellers are the existence of genre stereotypes, the first time author phenomenon, and the researching aspect of writing a successful novel.
In content and writing style, this novel can easily be compared to Sons and Lovers and Angela's Ashes. Llewellyn's book is about a young man's journey to adulthood while living in the coal fields in Wales. Similarly, D. H. Lawrence wrote about another young man's growth to a mature young man in his novel Sons and Lovers. The similarities between these books is very apparent in more than one way. In both, the hero finds himself in a working class neighborhood that is run on the coal trade. In both, the families are complete with a mother, father, and a few siblings and both are situated in the English country. The difference between the exact situations is that in the case of Huw in How Green was my Valley and the case of Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers is that Huw does not realize the quality of life he has with a loving family and enough food for everyone, whereas Paul is actually in a bad situation that he must rise above. This is apparent in the end of both novels where Huw ends up looking back with sorrow at his losses and Paul is left looking towards the light of London, leaving his life-time of indentured servitude to his family behind him and looking ahead to his bright future on the horizon.
Angela's Ashes is also a story about a young man growing up. It takes place in the same general area of the world, but not the same country. It ensues in the lanes of Limerick, Ireland. But the aspects of camaraderie with one's classmates, first loves, and other obstacles familiar to growing up in England and Ireland are present. There are more differences between this novel and Llewellyn's than there are between Lawrence's novel and Llewellyn's. These lie in the fact that they take place in different countries, different settings (country versus urban), and have different outcomes. In the end of McCourt's novel, Frank is looking forward to a promised land of attainable wealth and prosperity. The last scene is that of the young man riding into New York harbor with high hopes of a solid future. The last sentence in How Green was my Valley is "How green was my Valley, then, and the Valley of them that have gone." (p.651). In this sense, Huw is looking back, not forward. There is a sense of loss rather than a sense of triumph and gain. This can partially be attributable to the fact that he has actually lost someone, but the difference highlighted here is that of positive, progressive outlook versus sorrowful, reminiscent outlook.
Also contributing to the novel's popularity was the production of a film version the same year it was published in the United States. The film was produced by John Ford and won the Oscar that year for "best film" (1941). The phenomenon of a film creating a larger audience for a book makes sense. People always say that the book is better than the film and, because of this, many people want to either read the book before watching the film, or read it afterward to see what the differences are. For whatever reason, the publication of a novel in another media almost always contributes to the popularity and, in turn, the increased sales of a novel because of the increased access to it.
Another phenomenon that should be investigated when trying to figure out what makes this and other books a bestseller is that of the first time authors. This was Llewellyn's first novel. He researched it by working in the coal fields in Wales between the time he spent in the armed service. It took him twelve years to write and, after having written this, he proceeded to write, on average, two novels per year. None of these subsequent novels received nearly as much attention as his first one did, not even the three sequels he put out, Up, into the Singing Mountain, Down Where the moon is Small, and Green, Green My Valley Now. Similarly, Peyton Place had a sequel that did not fare as well as the first book. Another similarity between the two is that Peyton Place was made into a television series and a movie, both contributing factors to the success of the novel. Differences between the two lie in the issues dealt with in each one. Llewellyn does not push the social values of the time, while Grace Metalious definitely does. She uses sex and scandal abundantly in her novel while Llewellyn incorporates more romance than sex, perhaps another factor that contributed to the overwhelming success of her novel due to an audience that was more prepared. The audience's preparedness can be attributed to the fact that over fifteen years had elapsed between the publication of Llewellyn's novel and hers. If Metalious had tried to get her book published in 1940, it would not have happened because even seventeen years after How Green was my Valley, it was still tremendously controversial. Controversy has always attracted people. It is human nature to be curious about taboo subjects, otherwise, the field of Anthropology would not exist because that, I have found over the past four years, is a discipline centered around taboos and controversy.
Semi-tough is another example of a first time author having great success in his first appearance. Dan Jenkins, a writer for Sports Illustrated, produced this book in 1972. Like Llewellyn's book, it was published around war-time, but the subject matter is very different. The fact that both were incredibly successful could have something to do with the wars. World War II had just recently started when Llewellyn published his book. That Americans would need more violence than was occurring in Europe does not seem likely. It has been said that, during a war, people like to read about happier, lighter subjects. This could be one of the reasons why Llewellyn's book, about a family in the coal fields, was so well received at the time. Americans knew that we had to intervene in the war, and did so on behalf of their country. There were no protests comparable to those that ensued upon America's entry into Vietnam. Jenkins' book was published in the middle of the Vietnam War controversy. It involves a lot of vulgarity, profanity, sex, and violence, but despite the fact that we were involved in the war and the book was not a lighter read, it did very well. This could be because the attitudes at this time were markedly different than those during the second World War. There was tremendous social upheaval in the form of protests and draft dodging that was all over the news. It might have been that because of this reaction to the war, the public was looking for a different kind of outlet that came in the form of this particular book. This book was also made into a television series and a movie which have been identified as contributing factors to the sales of a novel.
Another strikingly different book that made the bestseller list is Thomas Tryon's The Other. While both he and Llewellyn were involved in the film industry at one time in their lives, Tryon's novel grew out of his involvement and Llewellyn's involvement grew out of his novels. Screenplays were the force that tied them into both the world of literature and the world of film.
Unlike How Green was my Valley, Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame was advertised before it came into print. Publisher's Weekly promoted it in its "buyer's forecast" in 1955 in the January 1st edition, and subsequently when it was published and released to the public. Perhaps he did this because he had been working in the advertising industry for the previous ten years and had seen how promotion helped sales so much. This heavy advertising inevitably boosted sales so, while this might have been Dennis' first novel, it was different in that it was promoted before it came into print. Llewellyn did not advertise his novel. It had already been successful in England the previous year (1939), and although not advertised in the US, it became an immediate bestseller. He did not have any experience in the advertising world, although he would have been exposed to it through his working the field of journalism. Another shocking difference between the two novels is that Dennis wrote his book in ninety days. Three months of writing is a lot less than twelve years. Although he actually wrote the book in three months, he had been planning it for a few years before that. And then he tried to get the work published for five years before Vanguard stepped forward. Llewellyn did not have trouble finding his initial publisher in London, Michael Joseph, Ltd.. That was the first publisher he gave the manuscript to and they accepted it with minimal changes to be made. Dennis had to go through fifteen publishers before he could find one that would publish his work. Like most of the bestsellers we have seen so far, this one was made into a film and redone twenty years later in an updated film version of the first one. These contributed to the novel's ongoing success and also to the fact that the novel is still in print today.
Researching what you are writing about is incredibly important to the success of a novel as well. If an author does not appear to know what he is talking about, the work will, most likely, not do very well. Llewellyn spent years doing research for his first novel. He went and lived in a small mining town in Wales where he got to know the local coal miners, their thoughts, beliefs, and customs. He also experienced, first-hand, what it was like to toil away, under the crust of the earth all day long; what it was like to miss daylight completely and be breathing the soot-filled air for hours on end. Through the various descriptive passages and word choice, the reader truly believes that his characters are real and the life they live is believable. Such meticulous research is also apparent in Semi-tough. In Jenkins' novel, he writes about a fictitious football player who ends up going to the superbowl. He wasn't a football player himself, but he did work in the field as a writer for Sports Illustrated and eventually became a senior writer and an editor. He did this over the course of 22 years and, during that time, he picked up a pretty good idea of what it would be like to be an actual player. The difference between the research that he did and the research that Llewellyn did is that he did not play the game himself. So while he probably did get a pretty good feel for what it would be like, he was not writing from his own personal experience. Llewellyn, from his years in the coal mines, had an insider's perspective on the life of a miner. Either way, they both achieved a level of writing that made the readers truly believe what they were reading and this contributed to the success of both of the books.
There are many reasons a novel becomes a bestseller including the mere fact that the book is well written and tells an interesting, believable story. This is the case of How Green was my Valley by Richard Llewellyn. He meticulously researched and wrote this work over the course of twelve years. There were no book clubs and there was no pre-publication advertising of the novel. It was an immediate blockbuster by an unknown author. It did not have the shock value of Peyton Place or Semi-tough, nor did it have the endless plugging that Auntie Mame did. It was simply a case of a receptive, war-time audience and well written, believable and touching story of a family in the coal fields of Wales.