Published in October 1999, Nicholas Sparks' novel, A Walk to Remember, followed his two prior novels to bestselling status. With a confident first printing of 650,000 and a full-page advertisement in the New York Times Book Review, A Walk to Remember's success was predicted by its publisher, Warner Books. The follow-on novel retained the bittersweet temperament of Sparks' previous writings in the telling of the romance between Jamie, the sick, Baptist girl, and Landon, the son of a wealthy politician. Told by aged Landon, remembering his tragic love, the novel has a nostalgic pining for small-town life in 1958 North Carolina. As Landon falls in love with the once seemingly stodgy and bizarre Jamie, he learns morality from her Baptist theology. He also learns that appearances can hide the truth; the outwardly healthy Jamie has a rare and fatal form of leukemia. This bildungsroman certainly has a moral lesson to offer: "the ?right thing'? [isn't] so bad after all." (p.137) Sparks promises: "first you will smile, and then you will cry" by the end of the tragic tale. (p.xi) Nicholas Sparks' A Walk to Remember held a lucrative reign because Sparks understood the contemporary book industry as well as his audience. By catering to both, Sparks manufactured a bestselling novel, even if not one to remember.
In 1999, established authors dominated the bestseller lists. Publisher's Weekly asked, "So how did the 1999 bestsellers compare to previous years? As usual, the name is still the main part of the game." This article, titled "So Far, Little Has Changed," lists Grisham, King, Crichton, Steel, and Cornwell as such authors. Indeed, "the only newcomers to the top 15 are two books." (www.publishersweekly.reviewsnews.com) Causing this phenomenon of literary dominance are massive, costly campaigns to publicize the author and the book. The main goal: make the particular author and piece of literature recognizable. For a first time novelist, this task is daunting, competing against novelists like Stephen King and John Grisham. Augmenting the reign of returning novelists is the growing popularity, in 1999, of Amazon.com. Because the consumer could not physically browse through books, the authors' name became suddenly more salient. In May 1999, the website offered a fifty percent discount on New York Times bestsellers, clearly adding to the name recognition of popular authors. (www.salon.com)
Once an author reaches bestseller standing, however, the hardest battle has been won: he has beaten the "big-names." Sparks enjoyed such a victory with his first novel, The Notebook. Even his next novel, Message in a Bottle, was a bestseller. The New York Times bestseller list of April 25, 1999 was the last week of Message in a Bottle's life on the list. Also gracing the April 25, 1999 list were familiar names: Mary Higgins Clark, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, and Nora Roberts (with two separate books). The recipe for success seemed clear cut: quickly written novels, by renowned authors, of the same genre as the last writing. Because "the right name makes the game," "it's nearly impossible to make a splash? if the author isn't already a known entity."(www.publishersweekly.com) Nicholas Sparks had the right name; he had made his splash with The Notebook. With his subsequent narratives, with A Walk to Remember, he simply had to keep swimming.
Because Sparks understood the book industry, he kept his success afloat by writing A Walk to Remember in very much the same style as his previous books. His reliance on his previous accomplishments is demonstrated by the first edition of the novel. His fourteen letter name is drastically larger than the fifteen letter title. His photograph graces the entire back cover. Clearly the consumer is meant to recognize the name and face of the author, even if not the title of his new book. A Walk to Remember was created as an impression of the Sparks stamp; that was all that was necessary. "All of Sparks' novels include the same trademark elements: a love-challenged individual, a soul awakening, and an unexpected tragedy." (see assignment 4)
Like his past two novels, his third was set in idyllic North Carolina, his home state. All three novels drew from Sparks' personal experiences. This novel centers on Jamie, modeled after his pious sister, who died of leukemia. All both girls crave is to be married, and both eventually are, but with a tragic end. Similarly, Nicholas Sparks' wife's grandparents inspired The Notebook's plot, and Message in a Bottle focused on Nicholas Sparks' father. (www.nicholassparks.com) Sparks retained the same publisher, Warner Books, through all three novels. He even sold the film rights of his third novel to Denise DiNovi, the same producer of "Message in a Bottle," the movie. Since Sparks had found his path toward fortune, he found no reason to depart from its sure course.
Because "Sparks doesn't stray far from his bittersweet lost-love formula," A Walk to Remember "[seemed] poised to duplicate the success of his earlier works," predicted Publisher's Weekly. Indeed, Sparks' work of fiction enjoyed prepublication bestseller ranking in September 1999, according to Cahners Business Info. This occurred merely five months after the last date that Message in a Bottle resided on the bestseller list. Sparks had become one of the "heavy hitters;" like Grisham, Steel, and Roberts, Sparks had found his formula, and was utilizing it quickly. Contemporary profit necessitated consistency and efficiency, if not quality.
That is not to say Sparks was without his critics. Maggie Haberman sardonically called his writing a "celluloid-ready weeper." She continued, "Predictable? Schmaltzy? Of course." Written stylistically similar to his previous novels, the third inherited the same criticisms. According to People Magazine, "Like Sparks' previous novels? Walk is light on story and heavy on sentiment." Parodying the title, People told its readers to "Run, run" away from the novel. (www.people.com) Truly the novel is written in a colloquial tone, as the narrator speaks the story from memory, shying away from verbose passages and complex diction. A Walk to Remember is, admittedly, gorged with clichés. The Library Journal cedes, "the novel is predictable, to be sure." The staid Jamie is from the "other side of town," (p.71), is "misunderstood" (p.185), yet causes the wealthy, popular boy, Landon, to transform his outlook on life. This theme is not new in literature or in Sparks' prose.
The text, similarly, is not innovative. During a sentimental moment, while pondering how Jamie changed his life, the narrator says, "Jamie helped me become the man I am today." (p.234) As Jamie helped Landon, "bodybuilding helped me become the man I am today," noted former Mr. Universe Bob Paris in 1998. (The Advocate) Correspondingly, in Al Higginbotham's book, By Faith? I'm Still Standing, he writes that God helped him "become the man I am today." (www.alspeaks.com) This diction is trite, causing an otherwise important, emotional moment to be downplayed if not trivialized. A Walk to Remember is a work of fiction about moral transformation; trivialization of the theme defeats its lesson.
Judging from the sales of A Walk to Remember and his other novels, readers did not seem thwarted by his hackneyed style. Weathering twenty-one weeks on the hardcover bestseller list alone, the novel was a commercial triumph. Released just before the Millennium, this nostalgic, moral reinforcing tale tapped into the anxiety of the future. He clearly understood the shift in the audience's interests; A Walk to Remember presents unmistakable Christian dogma. Jamie, firstly, is the daughter of a Baptist minister. She totes a Bible with her at all times, and uses the phrase "the Lord's plan" liberally. During her gradual weakening, as the leukemia progresses, her faith proves steadfast, even though Landon likens her suffering to that of Job.
Such a Christian emphasis is not underscored in the writing. In fact, part of Landon's transformation is his embracing of the Bible. Intense Christian ideals are also lucidly defined, including: abstinence, charity, and good will to all people. The novel's end even alludes that Landon is so affected by Jamie's goodness that he becomes a minister, like her father. Sparks makes this theme brazenly apparent; and in 1999 this strategy was lucrative. Both of the 1999 bestselling novels that were not written by past bestselling authors were biblically based. "Several other authors of religion and inspirational titles enjoyed increased sales in both general and Christian outlets." This was a result of "millennial fever [that was] everywhere." (www.publishersweekly.com) Sparks catered to this renewed religious craving, and was lauded by religious and secular readers alike for A Walk to Remember.
To ensure his bestseller ranking, Sparks made a concession in A Walk to Remember: he did not let Jamie die. Having written the death of the protagonist of Message in a Bottle, he received many "really furious" complaints. "This was on my mind while writing [his next novel] and? if I killed off another major character, my readers would never forgive me." (www.nicholassparks.com) But, basing the novel on his sister Danielle's death, Sparks envisioned Jamie as dying. "It would have been dishonest," he notes, "to have Jamie suddenly cured." (www.nicholassparks.com) As a result of this dilemma, he left Jamie's fate an enigma. The story ends in the marriage of Landon and Jamie; her fate is left to the reader's imagination. Perhaps this ending gave Sparks even more success as interest was alighted as to her actual destiny. On Nicholas Sparks' website, the most frequently asked question is whether Jamie lives or dies. Because Sparks understood his audience, he was able to tailor his narrative to suit contemporary taste buds, resulting in a lucrative novel.
Another facet of book writing during Sparks' time period was the intermingling of books and movies. Sparks' second novel, Message in a Bottle, was a box-office hit, starring Kevin Costner. It was, thus, natural for A Walk to Remember to follow its path to the movie theater. From January to March 2002, nineteen movies based on popular fiction were released, signaling the conjoined relationship. (Cahners Business Info.) This prevalence of books-into-movies suggests that Sparks knew his third story would become a movie during its composition. Further hinting that Sparks wrote his book to become a movie is the fact that A Walk to Remember's film rights were sold prior to the novel's official publication. Starring Mandy More and Shane West, teen icons of the decade, the movie version certainly was profitable, yielding over $40 million by April 2002. (see performances in other media, assignment 2)
Not only was the movie a theater hit, but it also spurred even greater profits for the actual book. Sparks probably predicted this; the same occurred after "Message in a Bottle" entered theaters. To further link the movie and the book, Warner Books released the movie-paperback tie-in, featuring the pop-culture More and West on the cover. Indeed, the paperback remained on the bestseller list through the movie's stay in the box office. Yielding praise from teenage fans and religious zealots alike, the movie garnered support for the book from new groups. Surely Sparks understood his market, and the role of film within in, exercising his experience to his advantage.
An unanticipated event may have further granted A Walk to Remember appeal. Hurricane Floyd devastated the coasts of North Carolina in September 1999, causing forty deaths and $1 billion in damage. (www.hurricanehunters.com) Living on Bogue Banks Island, North Carolina, Sparks' home was destroyed. In an editorial to the New York Times, on September 19, 1999, Sparks proclaimed he would rebuild his home and remain in North Carolina because it is "one of the most beautiful places in the world." (www.nytimes.com) This article, entitled "I Will Rebuild," gave his name publicity one month before the publication of A Walk to Remember . It also caused state pride after such a disaster. Since Sparks' third novel followed the formula of the first two, it is set in North Carolina. A Walk to Remember lavishly details the state's beauty, so perhaps he enjoyed increased sales sparked by this patriotism. The south, indeed, is romanticized in this 1958 setting, where "people waved from their cars? whether they knew [you] or not." (p.1) Nicholas Sparks' actual neighborhood is even described in A Walk to Remember: "Eastern North Carolina is a beautiful and special part of the country? Nowhere is this more evident than Bogue Banks." (p.215) The novel clearly highlights southern culture, depicting scenes involving boiled peanuts, RC cola, and hushpuppies. Such cuisine is distinctly southern, as is this source of regional pride. Sparks' novels had always dealt with the south, but Hurricane Floyd perhaps gave this emphasis appeal.
A Walk to Remember, while not innovative, grossed salient sales because of Sparks' ability to respond to the whims of his readers and to the climate of publication. Understanding the interrelationship of books and movies, he wrote his third story to translate well into a movie version, which undoubtedly was rewarding. Reacting to the negative comments regarding the death of Message in a Bottle's protagonist, Sparks learned and did not kill the protagonist, Jamie, in his next novel. He further understood the current outlook of the audience by publishing a Christian themed narrative just prior to the Millennium and to the holiday season. Since Sparks had written two bestselling novels, he was virtually assured a third bestseller. He made these adjustments in his style for A Walk to Remember, but retained the original, tried-and-bestselling Sparks formula. Consumers at this time bought novels from "dependable" authors; Danielle Steel predictably wrote romance, James Patterson wrote thrillers, and Nicholas Sparks wrote bittersweet love sagas. He did not need extravagant rhetorical devices and radically twisting plots to profit; clichés had proven sufficient.
In the novel, Landon reacts to a community play, starring Landon and Jamie, reflecting, "To say that the play was a smashing success was to put it mildly. The audience laughed and the audience cried which was pretty much what they were supposed to do." (p. 136) The same is true of the novel; its commercial reign is undeniable. Sparks did what he was supposed to do to ensure this success: be predictable and opportune.