Bestsellers are a way of monitoring society and learning about what interests popular culture. Additionally, bestsellers reflect the current events which shape and form the average person. "Mila 18" is a novel that covers many categories for bestselling novels and reflects a society desiring to examine the unspoken undercurrents of culture. Among these undercurrents festers adultery, violence, war, and discrimination. "Mila 18" also exemplifies an author who has managed to develop his own brand name. By examining the bestseller categories into which "Mila 18" falls, we come to a better understanding of what intrigued popular culture during the 1960s and what it took to be a bestseller during such a turbulent time.
"Mila 18" was Leon Uris's second bestseller. His first entry on the bestseller list had occurred two years prior with his novel "Exodus", a novel about the Jews' struggle to create the nation of Israel as their homeland. "Exodus" was so successful that it was made into a movie starring Paul Newman the following year. The movie was called "the biggest bestseller in the United States since "Gone with the Wind"". Through this novel and its respective movie, Uris developed a following that helped the success of several of his subsequent novels. On the bestseller list, "Mila 18" was followed by "Armageddon" in 1964, "Topaz" in 1967, and "QB VII" in 1970. His books were marketed as "Leon Uris's new novel". His name became a brand and, apparently, a brand that sold well. Uris was known for his plot driven novels with blood, sex, and gore. "Mila 18" was no exception to this rule. Additionally, Uris was known for his meticulous research skills. His novels were praised for their historical accuracy despite some creative leave. Thus, "Mila 18" represents a bestseller influenced by its author's previous works.
While researching "Exodus", his first bestseller, Uris developed his platform for "Mila 18". As an action-packed drama, "Mila 18" was a hit with American readers, which they had come to expect from Uris. "Mila 18," however, did not fair as well with literary critics. Accused of being poor written, over-dramatic, and superficial, "Mila 18" was viewed by literary critics as "a surface and shoddy performance"(Christian Science Monitor). Scholars thought that Uris's representation of the Warsaw uprising "turns a tragedy into a melodrama"(Christian Science Monitor). But, this melodrama was apparently one that sold. Therefore, a bestseller did not necessarily have to be of the utmost literary quality to sell quantity.
"Mila 18" can also be used as a case study in popular 1960s fiction. "Mila 18" was introduced to readers during a time of change and confusion on the brink of the sixties. The strict structure of the fifties was giving way to new ideas and challenges to societal norms in the sixties. The sixties marked the beginning of the civil rights movement and the recognition of special interest groups. Subcultures and minorities were celebrated and explored. Books like "I Heard the Owl Call My Name," a story about Native Americans, and "The Chosen" were included on bestseller lists in the sixties. Examining the plight of Jewish peoples during the Holocaust and World War II, "Mila 18" was part of this new genre of books celebrating and exploring subcultures.
"Mila 18" was also part of the post World War II genre of books from the fifties on that focused on World War II and the Holocaust. This type of book may have been popular because of nostalgia for the past and as a backlash against the Cold War and communism. For example, a bestseller in both 1958 and 1959 "Dr. Zhivago" details one man's struggle during the Holocaust in Russia. Porter's "Ship of Fools" is another World War II novel about a ship entering enemy waters during the war. This fascination with World War II can also be seen in the movies. Among the popular movies during the sixties were such as the 1964 production of "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," a movie about a spy in World War II. The prevalence of World War II films and novels may have been related to the anti-Communist movement following the Cold War. On going problems with the Soviet Union and fear of totalitarian government also fueled this interest in anti-Communist movements such as World War II. With its anti-Nazi, anti-German sentiments, "Mila 18" was subvertly poking at communist forms of government while not explicitly saying that it was doing as much.
Another World War II type bestseller of the sixties was Muller's novel "The Tropic of Cancer," a biography detailing one man's experiences in World War I & II. The biographical novel, fictional or real, was another popular bestseller genre that also encompasses Uris's novel. Uris's novel was told mostly through third person omniscient and detailed the lives of several of the Jews in Warsaw, but concentrated on the story of Alexander Brandel as told through his journals and first person narrative. Other examples of fictitious autobiographies with historical bases include "Up the Down Staircase" by Bel Kautman and "The Confessions of Nat Turner" by Styron. These novels are historical autobiographies. Such movies as "Cleopatra" and "Moses" were popular during the 1950s. This style of personalized history continues the historical movement. It seems that people wanted to learn about history, but enjoyed the pleasure of fantasy that movies and books allowed. "Mila 18" teaches that people are fascinated with the human condition during all eras of history and in all walks of life.
While alternative in some respects, "Mila 18" was also very stereotypical. The characters in his novel played out typical male-female cat and mouse games. The men were portrayed as strong and powerful and the women as either innocent maidens or sexual temptresses. These stereotypical roles reflected the very gender conscious post-war climate of the fifties. With men back from war, women returned to the home and the separation of gender spheres was emphasized once again. Shows like "Father Knows Best" emphasized the male-dominant, nuclear family. Underlying these perfect families were unspoken affairs and difficulties. The popularity of such novels as "Dr. Zhivago" and "Peyton Place" with their torrid affairs and explicit sex scenes revealed underlying tension beneath the plasticity of the fifties family. The same readers that enjoyed the risqué divulgence of "Peyton Place" were fascinated with the blatant adultery and premarital sex in "Mila 18". Nearly every twenty pages there was at least one sexual encounter of sorts. Typically, the affairs would be described fairly explicitly and came close to soft pornography at times. Books like "The Joy of Sex" that became popular in the sixties reflected a growing fascination with sexuality. Additionally, the "Mila 18" challenged the straight laced morals of family. There were no happy married couples in the novel. The only family that was focused on involved an alcoholic husband with an unfaithful wife who was cheating with her husband's best friend. All three of the romantic couples in the novel were unmarried and expressed no desire to marry. In fact, one couple refused to get married. Thus, "Mila 18" was a definite breach from the nuclear family in "Leave it to Beaver" or "Father Knows Best". As a bestseller, "Mila 18," its moral indiscretions and explicit sex scenes reveals the fascination with the abomination--people like sin.
Critics complain that "Mila 18" lacked character development and that Uris's writing style was too simplistic. "Mila 18" was vastly popular with its readers, however. This popularity can be attributed to its simplicity. A number of books that hit the bestseller list during the sixties were not known for their literary value or complexity, including West's "Daughter of Silence" or Lindbergh's "Dearly Beloved". Previous authors and books, like "Pollyanna," further emphasize the popularity of simple novels. Even authors today like Danielle Steel and Stephen King are known for being easy reading and have excellent sales. Uris and popular writers like him wrote in terms that could be understood by a large audience. While the characters portrayed were stereotypical, they were also familiar. The fact that they were Jewish under siege during the Holocaust did not make them any less identifiable to its readers because the characters were stereotypes that could be found in any community or piece of literature. For example, Uris's character Andrei Androfski played the typical strong dominant male, described as "indeed the cut of the classic figure" with "leg muscles fairly ripping through his trousers." A ladies man, Andrei "returns the smiles and flirtations of young lady strollers." Andrea is the leader of the Jewish uprising and is portrayed as the moral guidepost when other member of the Zionist movement grow weary. While Uris gives stock descriptions of his characters, he does not go in depth to explain why his characters are the way they are. They are developed through conversation and description. Their inner thoughts as described by the omniscient narrator do little more than describe the character's inner voice detailing his/her future actions. The characters are not portrayed in inner debate or self-development. If Uris's characters are portrayed as complex, they are complex in a manner that can be explained in a short paragraph. For example, Uris explains the complexity of one side character in less than one sentence: "Schreiker's mediocrity left him with two divorces and four children and debts and alcoholic tantrums"(118). The reader does not have to figure the characters out for him or herself. Rather, the necessary information is readily given to them. Even Alexander Brandel's journal does not include much personal information. Instead, the journal serves as another way to recount the current events. By eliminating the complexity of his characters, Uris allows his readers to concentrate more on the action of the novel and the driving force of events. Thus, "Mila 18" teaches that readers of bestsellers were reading for pleasure and action rather than complexity of characters and depth.
The popularity of this novel and other bestsellers may be related to the book's lack of plot complexity. "Mila 18" is an easy read that does not involve a convoluted plot. Chronologically arranged, the novel flows from start to end with a logical culmination. The ending is expected and conveniently falls into place. Of course, the Jews lose but only after a significant battle, death, blood, gore. The novel ends with a journal entry by Alexander Brandel and delineates what exactly happened to all of the characters. Uris solves the adulterous affair in the novel by having the husband kill himself so that the wife is free to pursue her true love. The Germans make a number of convenient mistakes that make the Warsaw uprising plausible for such an unlikely battle between two very unequal forces. The plot twists and turns are extreme at times, highly implausible, but still entertaining. But, the cause of the underdog and the perseverance of the Jews in the face of defeat is uplifting, especially to a nation facing the possibilities of Vietnam. All loose ends are tied and the reader can finish the novel and feel as if the story is complete. By tying all of the loose ends, "Mila 18" and other bestsellers like it give their readers an experience. It is an experience that can be stepped into and back out of. Reading bestsellers like "Mila 18" and ones similar to it were popular because they were a catharsis. They were an experience to be had in and of themselves and appealed to the general public because they could be used as an escape. While "Mila 18" did not necessarily have a happy ending, it did have a resolved ending--another genre of novels.
As a bestseller, "Mila 18" provides insight into what sells and what audiences are looking for in their reading experiences. Readers of the sixties wanted some sort of escape from the strict morals and structures of the fifties. Scandalous affairs and open sexuality were a reaction against the plasticity of the fifties. "Mila 18" and its simple sentence structure, character, and plot design also denotes a reader that does not want complex reading, but is rather reading for pleasure and diversion. Readers in the sixties wanted a novel that would distract them from the pending Vietnam war. Additionally, novels like "Mila 18" that examined a subculture of society reveal a nation of readers that is beginning to recognize minorities. The Civil Rights movement opened the eyes of many Americans to discrimination. The Holocaust and World War II portrays discrimination at its worst and serves as a reminder to those that were inspired with the civil rights cause. "Mila 18" also reflects the importance of good marketing for bestseller materials. "Mila 18" was branded with Uris's legacy and was probably influenced by the popularity of his previous novel "Exodus". And, finally, "Mila 18" reflects the importance that bestselling authors should place on knowing what his/her audience wants and how the times are affecting his/her interests. "Mila 18" appealed to a society undergoing change, challenging norms, and exposing discrimination. As "Mila 18" demonstrates, bestsellers are novels which have touched the core elements of people and appealed to their inner desires.