Danielle Steel's "Message From Nam"
"Message From Nam" shares many characteristics with other best-selling novels. Like many best sellers, "Message From Nam" did not receive favorable literary reviews, but generally was loved by those who read it. As Steel's 25th best selling novel, "Message From Nam" exemplifies a novel that owes its success in part to three things: readers' positive response to the author's previous works, the marketing of the novel by the publisher, and the coinciding of its release with the eve of the Gulf War. "Message From Nam" breaks the category of a typical, best-selling war novel, for it tells the story of a female's relationships during the war from a female's point of view, whereas the topic of war is a subject written about mostly by males. The novel follows Steel's best-selling model for romance in which a heroine finds true love, loses that love, then once again overcomes the odds to find love.
Just like many books by best-selling authors Steven King and Jackie Collins, "Message From Nam" was scrutinized by literary critics, but embraced by the general public. Critics often dismiss King's writing for his lack of character development and simple sentence structure. For example, one reviewer for the New York Times describes King's writing as being filled with "tone-deaf narration, papier-mache characters, cliches, gratuitous vulgarity, [and] self-indulgent digressions (Andy Solomon, The New York Times, 9/2/90 [please see Sami Shah's database entry, Assn. 4])." This critical reception, however, does not coincide with many readers' responses to his fictional horror stories.
While Collins writes romance novels instead of horror novels like King, she has encountered harsh critics, but has also been loved by her readers. Reviewers often criticize her novels as being predictable and full of vulgarity and sex. Reviewer Joy Fielding of the Toronto publication "Globe & Mail" says "One does not?pick up a novel by Jackie Collins expecting something even approaching what is loosely defined as literature." She characterizes Collins' work as "sex-drenched, best-selling sleaze" (http://www.galenet.com, as of 4/21/00).
Like these authors, Steel has encountered her share of criticism. "Message From Nam" was not the first of Danielle Steel's best-selling novels to be blasted by reviewers. "The Long Road Home," is just one example from her dozens of best sellers to have been criticized upon its publication. In "The Long Road Home" Steel tells the story of a young girl, abused by her mother, only to become a nun whose affair with a priest causes his suicide. The heroine of the story, however, soon finds new love and achieves happiness through her own writing. One review of the novel appeared in Publisher's Weekly and states: "Scandal, betrayal and treachery do little to animate this dreary saga from the prolific Steel?Steel's latest attempt at a redemption story falls flat because of repetitious prose and two-dimensional characters. The inevitable happy ending, when it finally arrives, can't make up for a plodding narrative lacking in any real suspense" (Books in Print Database).
The numerous unfavorable critical reviews of "Message From Nam" do not appear to have an effect upon the novel's popularity with fans of Steel's writing. As support for their claims that "Message From Nam" is no more than a trash best seller, many critics cite Steel's poor writing, predictable plot, and lack of character development. Harry Levins sums up his opinion of Steel's writing in the following sentence: "The plot is hokey, the writing is banal, and even the sex is tepid" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 6/24/90). Despite harsh reviews like this, "Message From Nam" soared to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list almost immediately upon its release to the public. The novel was published on June 21, 1990, with 925,000 copies in print, and spent a total of 36 weeks on the list, after debuting at number two on June 29, 1990 a week after its publication (Publisher's Weekly; Bestseller Index). According to The Bowker Annual, "Message From Nam" was the fifth best-selling book of 1990, with 1,037,006 copies sold in that year alone. The novel is still in print (as of April 26, 2000) and available in local bookstores or through web sites such as Amazon.com and bn.com (the Barnes and Noble on-line bookstore.) As a testament to the book's popularity with readers, these web sites have published reviews of the novel written by the average reader. In general, most of these reviews are favorable. For example, one reader finds value in Steel's writing and contributed the following review to Amazon.com: "It was encouraging the way she went out into the battle field to find out what happened to the man she loved, even when the officials had given up. This is of inspiration to young people. It is not only one of pleasure, but also a lesson for keeping" (Amazon.com, as of 3/31/00). In addition to the novel's popularity in the United States, "Message From Nam" found universal appeal after its publication in 13 countries and its translation into 10 languages (WorldCat - First Search).
Like many best sellers, "Message From Nam" owes its success partially to the readers' positive response to Steel's other works. As Sidney Sheldon and Mary Higgins Clark have proven, best sellers often succeed because of the fame of the author. As Ellen Birek says in her database entry on Clark, "The review in the April 5, 1991 issue of Publisher's Weekly called the book ["Loves Music, Loves to Dance"] a 'disappointing latest suspense novel' and claimed its success was only because of Clark's large fan base" (Publisher's Weekly, 4/5/91 [please see Birek's Assn. 4]). Like Steel, Clark also writes at least one best-selling novel each year.
Similarly, critics of Sidney Sheldon often attribute the selling power of his newest novels to the popularity of his previous works. With several best-selling novels to date, Sheldon has developed a following of readers just as both Clark and Steel have done. Many critics acknowledge Sheldon's power to stay atop the New York Times Best Seller list, but say that his most recent novels demonstrate that his talent as a writer is decreasing. "Sidney Sheldon is living proof of how one keeps on keeping on, but perhaps he should have stopped short of 'The Stars Shine Down'," says one reviewer (http://www.galenet.com, as of 4/19/00).
Like Clark and Sheldon, by the time that "Message From Nam" was published, Danielle Steel already had established herself as a best-selling author, and consequently had readers who consistently bought her books as soon as they appeared on the bookstore shelves. The success of Steel's subsequent novels is almost assured, as evidenced by the existence of the Danielle Steel Fan Club. By the year of "Message From Nam's" publication, 24 of Steel's novels had already reached best-seller status. Reader responses on Amazon.com attest to the promotion of "Message From Nam" by Steel's fans. One reader writes: "I recommend this book to anyone who is a true romantic or a Danielle Steel fan. Once again, I am blown away by her work" (Amazon.com, as of 3/31/00). Steel is even in the Guinness Book of World Records for "having at least one of her books on the Times' bestseller list for 381 consecutive weeks. But Guinness was premature. The fact is, one or more of Ms. Steels' novels have been on The New York Times bestseller list for over 390 consecutive weeks [as of 3/22/00]" (http://www.randomhouse.com, as of 4/19/00).
In addition to relying on the fame of its author, "Message From Nam" teaches readers that a novel's best-selling status also may be attributed to the way in which the publisher markets the author's work. For example, both Sidney Sheldon and John Fox had their novels promoted by their publishers even before the novels had been made available to the public. Often, advertisements promote the author's name and fame more than promoting the novel itself. William Morrow and Company marketed Sheldon's "A Stranger in the Mirror" through an ad in Publisher's Weekly that promoted this novel as well as his previous novel, "The Other Side of Midnight" (please see Michael Beachy's database entry, Assn. 2). The advertisement, dated January 1, 1976, boasted the three and a half million copies sold of "The Other Side of Midnight." The publishers hoped that those who had bought Sheldon's previous novel would also purchase his newest novel. Sheldon also promoted his book through personal appearances. Similarly, John Fox's novel "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine," was heavily promoted by his publisher, Charles Scribner's Sons. As Michael Bernier notes in his database entry on the novel, Fox's publisher also promoted the novel through ads in Publisher's Weekly. In addition, Charles Scribner's Sons timed the publication of the novel with the Christmas gift-buying season, so that even more copies would be sold (please see Bernier's entry, Assn. 5).
The marketing of "Message From Nam" undoubtedly contributed to its popularity. In January of 1990, six months before the publication of the novel, Delacorte Press advertised it in Publisher's Weekly as part of a campaign to promote upcoming publications. The New York Times also ran advertisements of the novel. As in the case of Sidney Sheldon, many of the advertisements that appeared to promote the novel, actually promoted the author. For example, Delacorte took out an ad in the New York Times promoting the novel, but the ad included a large picture of Steel with the caption, "Now more than ever, America reads Danielle Steel" in a font much bigger than the actual text that promoted the novel. Steel's picture was approximately six times larger than a picture of the cover of the novel. At the bottom of the ad are the words: "Over 130 million copies of her books in print." Also, like Sheldon, Danielle Steel promoted "Message From Nam" through personal appearances. After the novel's publication, it was made into two audio recordings, a movie, and the typescript from the movie was even made into a book, titled "Danielle Steel's Message From Nam." The paperback edition of the novel also promotes the book as well as other books by Danielle Steel. The back cover of the paperback appears similar to the ad in the New York Times. There is a large picture of the author. Above the picture are the words: "Over 350 million of her novels sold!" and below it are the words, "Everybody [instead of America] Reads Danielle Steel." The last leaves of the paperback edition inform readers how to access the Danielle Steel web site, join the Danielle Steel fan club, and purchase her other best-selling novels.
While Steel's fame and the marketing of the novel contributed to its success, the timing of the release of "Message From Nam" also affected its popularity. "Message From Nam" dealt with a previous war and was published during a time when America appeared again to be headed to war. This was not the first bestseller that dealt with a previous war to be released on the brink of another war. Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" describes the struggles of Southerners during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and was released during the 1930s when America faced the possibility of entering into the war in Europe. Readers of Mitchell's novel may have identified with the characters who faced many of the same struggles that Americans faced in the 1930s and 1940s. Both readers and the characters faced an economic crisis, the rationing of goods, and the prospect of fighting in the war or having their loved ones sent to war.
"Message From Nam" was published during the year of tensions that led up to the Gulf War. In May of 1990, shortly before the novel's publication, Iraqi leader Sudaam Hussein accused Kuwait of oil overproduction. In July, a month after the novel's publication, Iraq began a military buildup and accused Kuwait of stealing oil from a field on the Iraq-Kuwait border. Iraq invaded Kuwait in August, and the first U.S. military forces arrived in Saudi Arabia within days. Throughout these months of tension, "Message From Nam" remained on the New York Times Best Seller list. Readers who bought the novel in its first few weeks of publication may have wanted to remind themselves of the last war in which America had been involved. Many readers may have had loved ones going to war once again. As with the war in Vietnam, many Americans may have wondered what purpose Americans had in the war effort. Some readers may have sought the "message" from Vietnam, and attempted to find it by reading "Message From Nam."
Also like "Gone with the Wind," Steel's novel approaches the traditionally male topic of war from a female's point of view. Both novels describe a female's relationships to the war effort and during the war. Typically, bestsellers that deal with warfare and military affairs are written by men and discussed from a male point of view. For example, Tom Clancy's "Patriot Games" rose to the top of the bestseller list in 1987. The novel tells the story of a male naval historian who uses his military training to free the captives of an Irish revolutionary group. Earlier in the century, Ernest Hemingway achieved bestseller status with "For Whom the Bell Tolls," describing the plight of soldiers during the Spanish Civil War.
Female readers of "Message From Nam" may have found the telling of a war story from a female's perspective to be out of the ordinary, and therefore worth reading. The novel may have appealed to female readers for a number of reasons. First, women whose lives had been impacted by the war through the loss of a loved one may have identified with heroine Paxton Andrews. The novel centers on the struggles of this young woman and her eventual personal triumph over the war that took two lovers from her. Many readers who felt defeated by Vietnam may have felt as though they were living through Paxton as she attempts to find the "truth" and the real reasons for the war that took away her loved ones. Secondly, the book may have been read by women who could not experience the war first-hand. While women were allowed to participate in the war, they were not allowed direct combat roles. Reading novels about the war and watching war movies may have been the only way for many women to participate. Also, many women of Paxton's generation may have identified with her struggles as a young woman during the late sixties and early seventies.
"Message From Nam" was not the first time that Steel had adopted a female perspective when discussing the topic of war. In fact, many of the reasons for the success of the novel stem from Steel's tendency to formulate her books. Also loved by readers, hated by critics, heavily marketed, and set against a background of warfare, are her novels "Wanderlust" and "Star." In "Wanderlust," young Audrey Driscoll finds love with a handsome writer, only to face misfortunes during the Depression in pre-war America and find true happiness in the end. "Star" depicts the story of a young heroine in America during World War II who finds love with an older man, loses that love, then once again overcomes the odds to reunite with her lover. While "Message From Nam" follows Steel's formula for romance and owes its success partially to the author's fame and marketing techniques, it also struck a chord with many of its readers who sought to identify with the heroine and her struggles during the Vietnam War.
Danielle Steel web site - www.randomhouse.com
Gale Literary Databases - www.galenet.com
Bestseller Database entries consulted:
Beachy, Michael; A Stranger in the Mirror - Sidney Sheldon
Sami Shah; Four Past Midnight - Stephen King
Birek, Elizabeth; Loves Music, Loves to Dance - Mary Higgins Clark
Bernier, Michael; The Trail of the Lonesome Pine - John Fox
Books in Print Database
WorldCat - First Search
The Gulf War Timeline - www.pbs.org
Publisher's Weekly, June 29, 1990, p.112
Bestseller Index, 1998
New York Times, June 17, 1990
Internet Movie Database
Steel, Danielle. "Message From Nam." New York: Dell, 1990. (paperback edition)