John Grisham's novel The Firm became a bestseller in 1991. Having been published for just under 10 years, The Firm is still widely sold and read. Some could say that the reason for this continuing popularity of The Firm is due to the name that Grisham has made for himself. Because Grisham has become a household name with contemporary readers, all of Grisham's books continue to sell. We have seen this to be true with other contemporary novelists as well, such as Stephen King and Danielle Steele. However, although this could be partially true in The Firm's continuing popularity and I also believe this to be the case with some of Grisham's most recent books, (mostly selling the name of the author itself), this was not true initially in the case of The Firm. Grisham had made an attempt at making a name for himself with his first novel, A Time to Kill, but to his disappointment, it sold a mere initial 5,000 copies. The Firm was his second attempt. It seems that many people do not even realize A Time To Kill was actually published before The Firm, because its popularity, along with Grisham's, only began after the publication of The Firm. As a matter of fact, New York Times reviewer Marilyn Stasio and Library Journal's Barbara Conaty both refer to The Firm as a "first novel." So, even though it is tempting to accredit The Firm's popularity to the love of the author himself, we must delve further into this novel to see what it is actually telling us about bestsellers. The name, John Grisham, did not bring fame to The Firm. The Firm, on the other hand, brought fame to John Grisham, and there are reasons why.
One category of bestsellers that The Firm readily fits into is that of legal thrillers. Readers enjoy legal thrillers because the law and legal system are supposed to protect us, but in actuality, there are several ways to twist it and it seems to always prove unpredictable. This unpredictability and amiable quality of the legal system peaks readers interest. The possibilities for plotlines in legal thrillers never seem to cease, just as legal cases in the world and in the media always continue. People enjoy the sense of being able to judge other people and their actions. Some of the most well-known and remembered events of the past few years have included the OJ Simpson trial, the case of Jon Bennett Ramsey, the Monica Lewinski trial, and most recently, the case of Elian Gonzales. Each of these cases has taken us into the courtroom and into the workings of the judicial system. Big networks have fought over coverage of these trials, and the ratings have been phenomenal. This is what legal thrillers, such as Grisham's, also give us. They take us into the courtroom and allow us to be the judge and jury. Grisham has been extremely successful in this category, not only with The Firm, but in fact, all of his current novels fit into it. However, The Firm does not actually take us into the courtroom. It instead gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of a law firm. It actually gives us a glimpse of those things the media cannot show us. This makes The Firm even more appealing. Although we can typically see courtroom proceedings, we cannot tangibly touch what goes on behind closed doors. But in The Firm, we can. When asked if he would ever consider branching out and writing about something other than law, Grisham replied, "One day, and I don't know when, I'll write other types of books. But not in the near future. I'd be foolish to abandon this genre at this time" (Book Reporter).
Another trend in bestsellers that I think The Firm follows is the author's inside position on his subject. Attending law school and practicing law in Mississippi himself, we know that Grisham has experience in the material about which he writes. This allows the reader to not only get an inside glimpse of something he or she may not typically know a lot about, but it also causes the reader to be more apt to believe the story and what it is talking about. In Joseph Maloney's database entry on Ian Fleming's James Bond novel, You Only Live Twice, he also writes about the importance of this in bestselling novels, "the point? is clearly to get readers to think of Fleming himself as a man of action, a spy even. Even if the public does not go so far as to believe that Fleming is a real-life Bond, they at least want to feel that he knows what he's talking about in his spy thrillers" (Assignment 5). Another example of this is Betty Smith's novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She was actually born on the same date as her heroine, Francie (although five years earlier) and she herself grew up in "the very world she re-creates? in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (First Perennial). Although Francie is a fictional character, Smith maintains a respect from her audience because readers feel that she is not merely speculating about what this child experiences. She has gone through the hardships herself, and therefore has somehow earned the right to write about it.
Grisham is not a real-life Mitch McDeere, either. But he has somehow earned the right to write about him. Knowing that Grisham did in fact practice law, readers do sense some real basis for his story, which makes it all the more appealing and captivating. One reader writes, "I think John Grisham is the best writer who has ever lived. Judging by his other books, I think he is good because he knows what he is talking about" (amazon). In one interview with Grisham, he was asked how helpful he felt his legal training was in writing legal fiction. His response was, "Crucial. I seriously doubt I would ever have written the first story had I not been a lawyer. I never dreamed of being a writer. I wrote only after witnessing a trial" (Book Reporter).
Another aspect of Grisham's The Firm, and his novels in general, that seems to be repetitive in bestselling novels is a retelling of the David and Goliath story. The David and Goliath story has been popular throughout history. There are many more average or below-average people in the world than there are giants, whether it be physically, mentally, educationally, politically, etc. People enjoy seeing people like themselves, the smaller character with all odds against him, step up and overcome the larger, oppressive giant. Many of Grisham's books are written in this way. His first novel, A Time to Kill, has a poor, young black girl and her father defeat racism. The Rainmaker is about a rookie lawyer, Rudy, who by his charm and big heart defeats a monopolizing insurance company. In The Client, a young boy and his lawyer defeat the Mafia. Grisham himself admits to being a fan of this type of story, which is obvious in reading his novels. Mitch McDeere's struggle to defeat his Memphis firm and its Mafia owners is no exception. Grisham makes sure to stack the odds heavily against McDeere, making him young, poor, and vulnerable. He is presented as an extremely intelligent young man coming from a broken home who has already overcome extreme odds to even get here. That is why the firm believes they can sucker him in, he has already fought to get where he wants to be. But the spark in McDeere is inextinguishable, even for the Mafia. Conaty again writes, "[Grisham is] a laser-sharp candidate for the best recent updating of the David and Goliath story" (Library Journal).
There are several categories that The Firm fits into to make it a bestseller, but there is also one it does not fit into that I think contributes to its success as well. Most stories have a happy ending, or at least a resolved one. However, in the Firm, although the McDeere's successfully get away on their boat at the end, there is no guarantee of their safety. We are made aware through the entire unfolding of the plot that the McDeeres will always be in danger. Mitch keeps reminding us, "The Mob never forgets?" (237). Even though the man who picks them up on the boat has successfully eluded the Mafia for years, there are still no guarantees. We leave the McDeeres on an island, wondering where they will be tomorrow and what will happen to them. We can feel their uneasiness, and we also walk away from the book with a feeling of uneasiness and without complete resolution. The producers of the film version of The Firm also felt uneasy about this ending. They changed the end completely, giving the dealings of the McDeeres with the Mafia total closure and ensuring a safe, happy life there afterwards. There are varying opinions on the ending of the novel. One reader writes, "Don't be fooled by the film portrayal with Tom Cruise where the ending has been
Holywoodised. You will be held with the suspense and impending danger throughout making it totally addictive," and another argues, "The ending of the film - an excellent adaptation - is altogether much more satisfactory- and satisfying" (amazon). I think the fact that The Firm breaks this basic rule of tightly packaged endings adds to its success as a novel. The reader does not merely close the pages and walk away from the story completely. He or she is forced to put down the book still thinking about the McDeeres and wondering how their lives will turn out. There is a reason for Grisham's ending the book with the McDeeres on the run instead of happily at home, like in the film adaptation. In one interview he explains, "I have a fascination with life on the run. I really get into it? It's not as difficult as it may seem, to disappear?. Of course, I never told my clients to get out of town? one guy?went to jail and he escaped?. I was pulling for the guy not to get caught" (Book Page).
Grisham's The Firm has many great aspects that make it a bestseller. Being a relatively recently published book, the general popularity of anything having to do with the law and legal system, whether in print or the media, has definitely contributed to the novel's success. That combined with the ever-popular story of David and Goliath make the novel a book for the masses. Yet, the mere contents of the book do not contain all we need to know about bestsellers. Although the name John Grisham did not in any way influence the initial selling of The Firm, the writer John Grisham did. His inside knowledge of the subject gives the novel a certain appeal and life-like quality, but there is one more component of Grisham's writing that shines through - his excitement. In speaking of his writing career, Grisham admits, "this is my third career in ten years. But it's the most fun I've ever had" (BookPage)
Conaty, Barbara. Library Journal. v.116. January, 1991. p.150.
Customer comments. amazon.co.uk.
Grisham, John. The Firm. Doubleday: New York, 1991. p.237.
Kanner, Ellen. Interview. BookPage. www.bookpage.com. March, 1992.
Kornbluth, Jesse. Interview. Book Reporter. www.bookreporter.com. 1997.
Maloney, Joseph. Essay on You Only Live Twice. Bestsellers Database. www.engl.virginia.edu/courses/bestsellers.
Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. First Perennial Classics: New York, 1998. p.un-numbered (would be 485).
Stasio, Marilyn. New York Times Book Review. March 24, 1991. p.37.