The Human Factor was released early in 1978, sold fairly well for most of the year, and finished as the year's #11 bestseller. Its success rested upon a number of factors external to the book's content?Graham Greene's sales record and popular reception in the US in the 1970s, a late-1970s resurgence in a specific kind of spy thriller, a highly publicized movie adaptation?and to some within the novel?elements of the exotic eroticand the novel's focus on a non-American Cold War setting.
Graham Greene in the 1970s
Three of Greene's works from the 1970s appear on the year-end bestsellers lists: Travels with My Aunt (1969, #9 in 1970, database entry), The Honorary Consul (1973, #10 in 1973, database entry), and The Human Factor (1978, #11 in 1978). Importantly, these three novels are Greene's only entries on year-end bestsellers lists. The first two of these clearly primed the way for the success of The Human Factor. Greene, by this point a noted British author?The Human Factor was his twentieth novel?also benefited from the success of other "literary" authors whose books sold well in the 1970s. As a quick survey of the database reveals, the bestseller lists of 1970s fiction (link) are full of these authors: John Fowles, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Wouk, John Updike, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Heller, EL Doctorow, Saul Bellow, John Irving, William Styron, etc. This climate, receptive to literary novelists, definitely eased the way for Greene's 1970s novels, which eased the way for The Human Factor. Though this was by no means the only decade in which "literary" authors sold well, those in the 1970s that sold well are those that often made repeat appearances. It's worth noting, then, that name recognition and "literary" status seem to be important influences on what books sold well in the late 1970s, including The Human Factor.
In addition, as mentioned above (in the "reception history" entry), the novel's reviewers helped situate it as a morally inflected, literary novel, and noted that the novel took up some typical Greene tropes. They also stressed heavily that Greene was not only a literary master but also master of the spy and espionage genre. This multiple positioning allowed the novel access to multiple genres and their associated sales. The Human Factor, then, was well-positioned with a number of key markers that gave it a wider range of buyers than if it had been "just another literary novel," "just another Greene novel," or even "just another spy novel." This last category, though, definitely counted for something.
The 1970s spy novel and the Cold War
As mentioned above (in the entry for "biography"), The Human Factor is in some ways similar to a number of late-1970s spy/espionage novels that have similar narratives and themes, not all of which appear on year-end bestseller lists. However, many notable novels in this genre do, notably Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal (#4 in 1971, #4 in 1972) and The Odessa File (#3 in 1972, #4 in 1973), John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (#4 in 1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (#4 in 1976) and Smiley's People (#10 in 1979), and Robert Ludlum's The Holcroft Covenant (#8 in 1978) and The Matarese Circle (#1 in 1979). While earlier spy novels?like Ian Fleming's James Bond novels (and their associated films)? often employed the rogue-hero model and were only superficially concerned with contemporary politics, many of these 1970s thrillers focus on a more troubled, conflicted character embroiled in a more complex geo-political setting (Cawelti and Rosenberg, 34-54). The Human Factor is happy to oblige in this vein. Castle and his officemate, Arthur Davis, often joke that they are nothing like James Bond, much to the consternation of Castle's son. The novel's main plot?in which a mole is suspected, wrongly detected, wrongly eliminated, after which Castle must quickly defect to Moscow?is notably low-tech; for example, the toxin used to dispense with the erroneous mole is derived from moldy peanuts, the mole having been "found out" through a series of dinner-and-a-drink conversations, speculation, and slightly illogical conclusions. Even the limited nuclear "final solution," which serves as the novel's ostensible geo-political/technological threat contains no specifics, which both guarantees the universality of the threat, while shifting the novel's focus away from a Bond-style narrative. In short, The Human Factor, as its title implies, examines the moral centers of its characters and their relationships within a tightly-woven international political situation, but one that is mostly devoid of all but the most bland technical detail.
This shift in the genre (which seems quite marked in the late-1970s) is tied to the increasing banality of the Cold War, and the increasing sense of impenetrability of the inner mechanism of a "war" then thirty years old. Increasingly, these novels also seem to focus on conspiracy, defection, with characters who are in the know, even as we watch them duped and destroyed by the very system in which they should be expert. The novel shifts these aspects to Castle and Davis' home lives?Davis is a drinker and a gambler, who cannot keep even the simplest inter-personal relationship together; Castle has a distant marriage that he feels moves without him. These are characters who attempt to move through the everyday issues in their lives, and when they treat their intelligence job the same way, it of course turns against them. The realist aspect of novels like The Human Factor neatly plays across multiple genres, and allows a variety of readers access through the novel's focalizer, Castle, who is equally bumbling and adept in both his marriage and his convoluted world.
The Human Factor (dir. Otto Preminger)
As mentioned in other entries, the film version of The Human Factor was in the works and publicized as early as July 1978 (Buckley). Rumors and articles about the upcoming film?particularly focused on the notable cast and crew?could only have helped raise interest in and sales of the novel. With Otto Preminger and Tom Stoppard attached early as director and screenwriter, then Richard Attenborough, Nicol Williamson, and Iman attached as stars, the film seemed quite promising (though it wouldn't actually be released until 1980). This might help explain the novel's sales throughout the year: the novel was released in February and sold well early in the year; prominent articles about movie deals in the late summer and fall probably helped keep the book selling through the year's close. Publicity for the film is also notable for often referring to the upcoming film as "Graham Greene's", highlighting not just the story in The Human Factor, but Greene's name as a selling factor.
The exotic erotic and The Human Factor's setting
A number of aspects within the novel itself also helped the novel's reception and sales. Some of the reviewers of the novel note with interest the exotic other-ness of the South African aspects of the novel's plot. Maurice Castle, our protagonist, is married to a black South African, Sarah, whom he helped escape from South Africa before the novel's main action. Sarah is a statuesque beauty, who in part helps "sell" the complex moral position of the novel (as well as being presented as an icon stemming directly from the African continent in conjunction with the excerpt printed in Playboy, image). Sarah and her son?by another South African, not by Castle?represent the morally unambiguous position against which we read Castle's ambiguities. She also stays out the novel's main plot, though much of it revolves around her original escape from South Africa. This distance is definitely idealized by reviewers and the way the novel was marketed.
Also, the novel's non-US setting might have helped the novel's success in the US. Since the novel's main plot involves a defecting British intelligence officer, it might have been a harder sell if set in the US with a defecting American. The novel is in part a critique of British nationalism and misplaced morality in a fading British world power. That kind of critique wouldn't be popular in US spy fiction for some time. It also helps to maintain a distance between the novel's moral tone and the sense of realism. American readers might tend to exoticize and feel a sense of separation from the novel's London/Moscow setting, which in turn allows the novel a less specific mode of address. An attack on, say, middle-aged, bumbling CIA agents living in Falls Church, VA, would not have quite the same appeal. The late 1970s spy genre mixed with the novel's setting and exoticism allowed The Human Factor a much larger place in the book market of 1978 than it might have had if any one of those factors had been removed.
- Buckley, Tom. "At the Movies." New York Times. 14 July 1978. C6.
- Cawelti, John G. and Bruce A. Rosenberg. The Spy Story. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.
- Greene, Graham. "The Human Factor." Playboy. February 1978. 88-90, 178-82.
- Sedlak, Valerie. "Espionage, Murder, and the Moral Vision in The Human Factor." CEAMagazine: A Journal of the College English Association, Middle Atlantic Group. 11 (1998): 33-46.
- Serry, Norman. The Life of Graham Greene. 3 volumes. New York: Viking, 1989, 1995, 2004