1 Paste your critical analysis in here (maximum 2500 words)
Over a period of less than three months near the end of 1972, Dan Jenkins' Semi-Tough sold enough copies to become one of the top-selling fiction novels of the year. The book's publisher scarcely promoted the novel's release, and still people bought the book in hordes. Semi-Tough's success, like many other bestselling novels of the twentieth century, should be attributed to certain elements, found in the story, that cater to a large audience. Jenkins filled his story with a number of conventions that have been used repeatedly by many authors to create bestselling novels. Creating bestselling fiction has become, within the last century, a very profitable business endeavor, and there is no "mold" for crafting a book that everyone will buy. However, by examining books like Semi-Tough, it becomes apparent that there are numerous trends and traits of bestselling fiction that are common to many novels. Jenkins' novel contains several of these conventions, which helped propel the novel's sales during its tenure on the bestseller's list. Semi-Tough, like many other bestselling fiction novels in the later half of the century, is laden with vulgarity in the form of sex and profanity?elements which tend to interest fiction readers. Jenkins also includes facets of moral and social anxieties in the storyline that were present at the time of the book's publication; this, along with other aspects of the story, likely augmented the timeliness of the novel's release. The novel's success was also hinged?as it is with the novels of celebrity writers like Stephen King and Danielle Steele?on the power of the author's name.
People generally acknowledge that an author's status in the literary world plays a major role in their ability to produce bestselling fiction. Big names often sell successfully without major marketing of their product. Authors like Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and Ann Rice are prime examples of big-name writers who have the ability to sell thousands of copies of each novel they release simply because buyers trust the name on the product. Anyone who purchases a book rather than borrowing one from the library wants to be as confident as possible that he is spending his money wisely. Celebrity writers like King and Clancy provide a certain comfort level for those buyers; the purchaser feels assured that if he is buying a new book by King, for example, he likely will be satisfied with his purchase. This phenomenon is not limited to recent authors by any means. Joseph Heller made use of his name in 1974 when he released the highly anticipated follow-up to his 1961 masterpiece Catch 22 (Heller's most famous novel which never finished on an annual bestseller list). His follow-up novel, Something Happened, finished fifth on the bestseller list despite being criticized throughout the literary world by critics and readers alike. Kurt Vonnegut also used the power of his name to sell novels with some success. Vonnegut's best-known literary works, like Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five, never made it onto an annual bestseller list, but they did build recognition and a solid readership foundation for him; as a result, three of his less-notable books were bestsellers during the 70s.
What is particularly interesting about Jenkins' novel Semi-Tough is that, although Jenkins did have name recognition, it was not the result of a previously-written novel. Most authors who reappear on the bestseller list because of their name recognition earn that recognition by first writing a successful or popular novel. Jenkins obviously did not have this luxury, as Semi-Tough marked the publication of his first novel. Jenkins' celebrity came solely from his position as a senior editor for the popular sports magazine Sports Illustrated at the time the book was released. His high position at the widely-read sports publication meant he often wrote wide spreads in the magazine that were seen on a regular basis by a very large audience. He had a fairly large fan base when Semi-Tough hit bookstore shelves late in 1972; the fan base was built solely on his magazine writing. A Washington Post article affirmed this stating, "(Semi-Tough) is likely to be a big seller because Jenkins, of Sports Illustrated, has a wide following" (Yardley 8). This is evidence that bestselling authors who are able to sell copies of their novels because of their name recognition do not necessarily obtain that recognition through previous novels. Readers, in other words, are satisfied merely with the "name" itself and are not necessarily concerned with why the name is well-known. In any event, readers do notice and buy books based on the name printed on the cover of the novel. It provides a security factor that puts them at ease when they decide to risk their money on the purchase of a novel. A well-known author will sell books more easily than an unknown author because purchasers are already familiar with the author's product; this familiarity, eventually, translates into greater book sales.
Another common trend of bestselling fiction that is noticeable in Semi-Tough is the inclusion of vulgar elements of sex and profanity. This seems to be a trend that opened up and broadened as time passed in the latter half of the twentieth century. Beginning with such books as Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in 1955, Grace Metalious' Peyton Place in 1956, and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint in 1969, vulgarity in bestselling fiction became a more commonly utilized tool for selling books as the years have gone by. Events outside the literary world surely had a significant impact on the transition towards the acceptance of these devices in literature. Liberalism in the United States reached all time highs with the emergence of the Baby Boomer generation, the sexual revolution, and the war in Vietnam all transpiring at relatively the same time. Literature often reflects conditions of the time during which they are written, and the surfacing liberalism in America rapidly found its way into bestselling fiction during this time period.
Profanity and sexual references are constantly present in Semi-Tough. The story is narrated by a Texan football player who cusses freely and frequently participates?and talks about?the act of sex. The most noticeable profane term throughout the book refers to the narrator's rival football team as the "dog-ass Jets." Most of the profanity in the novel is similar to this: nonchalant words merely inserted into the book's conversation for the sake of realism concerning the dialogue of mostly Texan characters. Regardless, though profanity in literature was present at the time of Semi-Tough's publication, the level of profanity in the novel is higher than that seen in many bestselling novels of the time.
Sex is seen quite often in Semi-Tough, both in sexual references to women and to the act of sex itself. Most of the narrator's extra-curricular activities, which take place basically anytime he is not playing football, involve a lot of women. Throughout the book, women are never referred to as women; rather, they are called, "wool" for the duration of the book. The obviously derogatory term is not used to be ill-mannered or chauvinistic, but instead it is implemented for the sake of realistically displaying what Jenkins is (humorously) portraying as a professional football player. The "wool" (or women) the narrator describes are always present in the story, whether the action is in a local night club or at the narrator's apartment. In both cases, sex is always discussed during almost every scene of the novel in the freest possible way. Sex happens so frequently that it has almost comical effects for the story. The result is, simply, a lot of sex packed into a fiction novel. The popularity of Semi-Tough is merely one example of readers' general interest in subject matter dealing with sex. Bestselling books by Jackie Collins or Phillip Roth demonstrate the same evidence. Throwing plenty of sex scenes and sexual references into a story tends to earn interest from more people and, of course, increase readership of a novel. This is a common trend among bestsellers.
Bestselling fiction often includes aspects of social and moral anxieties in its storyline to make the book more exciting or lively. By playing out these anxieties in a controlled medium like a fiction novel, authors can effectively manipulate and control what is seemingly uncontrollable, unspeakable, or frightening in society. Peyton Place examines teenage sexuality and incest and acknowledges within the story that society regarded both as complete taboo; To Kill a Mockingbird reflects on racism in a small rural community where everyone knows everyone, and something like race relations is almost impossible to change; Lolita inspects teenage sexuality and pedophilia; and The Exorcist looks at general morality, spiritual faith, and evil in the modern world. At the center of each of these books' themes is a social/moral anxiety that the author, using the novel as a means, attempts to comment on and resolve. Although most books have some sort of inner conflict, many bestsellers tend to have at least one that deals with a social or moral anxiety.
Semi-Tough comments on a very big social anxiety that, even though it was more prominent in the late 60s and early 70s, is still present after the birth of the 21st century. Racial tension between blacks and whites came to a head as the 60s ended. The civil rights movement was in full effect. And, the year Semi-Tough was released, 1972, two black athletes protested saluting the American flag after they each won medals in the 72 Olympics. They felt the treatment of blacks in the United States was unjust, and thus displayed their dissatisfaction with their divided country to an international audience. People then, as they are now, were often uncomfortable with members of the opposite race or what to call members of the opposite race. Semi-Tough resolves both in a rather crude manner. The narrator of the book?who is a white Texan?never calls a black man in the book anything other than a racial slur. He uses a few variations of slurs, but never calls a black man a "black man," or an "African-American." Rather, anytime the reader encounters a black character in the story?and it happens often?he is presented with a bombardment of racial slurs. Likely, in the early 70s, this was uncomfortable for many people, but as the narrator of the story says, "It's just a word" (Jenkins 4). Jenkins uses the slurs in a matter-of-fact manner that tries to emphasize both the white characters' and the black characters' indifference to the words. Jenkins' comment on society is no different than the ones found in most other bestsellers?it strives to point the problem out so people recognize the problem rather than ignore it.
Twentieth century bestsellers are often thrust into their popularity through a combination of many factors. These factors vary from novel to novel, but often, those factors found in one bestseller can be found in another bestseller. Trends for "producing" bestsellers have not changed significantly over the century. They have grown to include new trends and traits, but these facets often parallel life in society at the time a book is released. Elements like sexuality and vulgarity?once uncharacteristic of typical bestsellers?are now found within many of today's bestsellers. The trend is the spawn of revolutionary changes in society during the 60s and 70s. Bestselling fiction always needs some kind of reference point?something that it can rely on to produce sales (if it did not, the book likely would not be a bestseller). Name recognition is one of the easiest ways to market a book in today's culture. People who go to buy a book rather than borrowing one from the library want something they can be assured will not be a waste of their money. Titles, of course, do not always assure that. Readers generally find, however, that certain names can often be relied on to produce quality fiction (and at minimal, worthwhile). Often, writers can gain this celebrity by writing a successful novel (usually a first, quality novel aided by advertising campaigns) and then marketing a second one using the recognition they gained from the first novel. However, as proven herein, name recognition does not necessarily have to come from writing fiction. Celebrity may come from other sources; as long as the author's name is recognizable, he is more likely to sell his novel than an author without name recognition.
All of these trends in bestselling fiction are present in Dan Jenkins' bestseller, Semi-Tough. The novel shows that the trends that were present ten and twenty years before its publication were still utilized when Semi-Tough began selling in the fall of 1972. Semi-Tough is an indicator of the standards of the publishing industry because of its rapid rise to the annual bestseller charts in just two and a half months of sales. People settle on purchasing books for a number of reasons, but those listed herein carried heavy weight in generating the popularity that Semi-Tough possessed. Semi-Tough is another bestselling fiction novel that indicates why people choose to buy books and how bestsellers come to be high-selling money-makers for the individuals who write them.
Bestselling 20th Century American Literature Database.
Gale Literary Database. "Dan Jenkins."
Halberstam, David. Semi-Tough. New York Times Book Review. Sep 17, 1972: 2, 22.
Jenkins, Dan. Semi-Tough. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
King, Larry L. Life. Sep 29, 1972: 24.
Yardley, Jonathan. Super Studs, Super Bowl, Super Bummer. Washington Post Book World. Sep 17, 1972: 8.