The phenomenal success of Waiting to Exhale in 1992 seemed unbelievable. The author, Terry McMillan found herself in an astonishing whirlwind of fame and notoriety after her third novel was published. At each stop of her book tour, thousands of people waited in line to hear Terry McMillan "tell it like it is" from her quintessential novel about being black and female in the 90's. Waiting to Exhale appeared the New York Times best-seller list during its first week of publication in May 1992 and remained there for the next 38 weeks. By its sixth week, Pocket Books had bought the paperback rights for the enormous sum of 2.64 million dollars, one of the highest in recent history (Max, 1992). With more than 700,000 hard copies, more than two million paperback copies in print, a successful movie version, and an extremely large readership, Waiting to Exhale proved to be one of the most popular and well received books of 1992. Several factors contributed to its success including the target audience of the novel, the authors honest and realistic writing, current events, and an extensive publicity campaign.
The reviews of Waiting to Exhale were extremely varied, covering a whole range of positive and negative reactions. Since the novel is about love and relationships, it was often criticized for its shallow plot and its lack luster literary merit. One reviewer claimed that "it may in part be concern to avoid accusations of racism that has prevented putting this book firmly where it belongs -- among the glitzy, commercial, women's novels" (Sellers, 1992). However, many critics enjoyed the vibrant, irreverent and often wicked wit that McMillan brought to a genre often associated with unrealistic sentimentalism. "McMillan's sparkling dialogue is raunchy and wild, half black street talk and half one-liners" (Larson, 1992). Unlike other novels about women and friendship wrought with maudlin emotionality (reminiscent of typical Oprah Winfrey fare), McMillan manages to create a sisterhood story that is a "little more fun, a little more cathartic, and a little less pathetic" (Dodd, 1992).
Reviewers praised the book for describing female camaraderie with such vibrant and thought provoking reality. Also, critics lauded the novel for its accurate portrayal of Black thirty-something, professional women dealing with career, family, and love in the '90s. "Written for and about educated Black women, Waiting to Exhale reflects the growing numbers of successful African Americans who have fled the violence of the ghettos for fashionable neighborhoods, while trying to preserve a uniquely black cultural heritage" (Sellers, 1992). Rarely before Waiting to Exhale had any other book been the voice of middle class African American women in such a way. McMillan's fiercely realistic story about motherhood, divorce, relationships and friendship struck a chord with not only reviewers but with the reading audience craving such characteristics with which to identify.
One of the unspoken reasons why Waiting to Exhale became so popular is that there were not many novels like it before 1992. For decades, Black authors have contributed greatly to the body of American literature. However, the majority of their books exhibited a conscious literary effort to make ideology at least as important as character and plot. The readership of these books has not expanded beyond the realm of intellectualism to the popular culture. However, "[Terry McMillan] writes the kind of popular books white authors have long written, but which black authors were discouraged from undertaking because publishing wisdom decreed that black people didn't buy books" (Max, 1992). Because the Black middle class grew considerably since publishers last examined the market, there was potentially a large audience which had not been targeted before. When Waiting to Exhale was published in 1992, it filled a niche -- books about professional, contemporary, educated women of color. Thus, the public responded quite enthusiastically.
The author's public persona also contributed to the popularity of the book. "Terry McMillan, at age 40, might be just as far as you can get from the traditional image of a tweedy novelist" (Max, 1992). She wears stylish clothes, is known for her big designer earrings, Nefertiti hairstyle and her sharp tongue. She offers a contrast to the sagacious and intelligently rational personas of other "high literary" black authors, like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Terry McMillan has an image of being a "wild, down to earth, unpretentious homegirl who peppers her raw conversations with lots of F-words and S-words to make a point" (Edwards, 1992). Many readers expressed their appreciation for a writer who sees what they see and writes how they feel, especially as women of color. "She writes from a black, female perspective that we don't get to hear" (Hubbard, July 1992). Women readers don't see McMillan as an intangible literary icon who cannot comprehend their everyday circumstances. Instead, her audience views her as she is -- a single mother grappling with issues of love, marriage, career, and family. Because her audience deals with these issues everyday, they can identify with McMillan's endearing story.
Often, Terry McMillan is compared to other contemporary, black female authors. However, a huge difference exists in the type of literature they create. Alice Walker, known for her stunning depictions of Black women, released Possessing the Secret of Joy at the same time as Waiting to Exhale. The focus of the two novels differed radically. While Walker vividly describes and signifies on female genital mutilation as a symbol of male oppression, McMillan is more likely to emphasize what brand of handbag her characters carry. Despite the chasm of ideological importance, Waiting to Exhale was immensely more popular with readers than was Possessing the Secret of Joy. "It is McMillan's pot-boiler writing that's likely to continue making the bundles of money more 'literary' work seldom achieves" (Edwards, 1992). Popular audiences appreciate that hair weaves, press on nails, and a love of Janet Jackson have a place in literature. Waiting to Exhale evokes the same anxieties that women of all colors face in trying to keep a balance in everyday life. Although ideologically based literature plays an important part in society, that particular kind of novel is not accessible to everyone. In the 90's, women are forced to be superwomen. Between caring for the family, home, and career not much time is left to breathe, let alone contemplate the horror and societal implications of profoundly complex issues, like clitoral circumcision. Instead, a sociological melodrama like Waiting to Exhale provides the same outlet for escapism and fantasy that soap operas do. The language is the fun and straightforward brand common in best-sellers, that does not require much effort to comprehend. "The people who bought 'Waiting to Exhale' were women who really identified with the characters. They don't see her as an Alice Walker or a Toni Morrison. She's writing more about their experience" (Max, 1992).
Waiting to Exhale is essentially a novel about love, sex, and trying to find the perfect man. In 1992 when the novel was published, as well as the surrounding years, several other best-sellers seemed to share the same theme as Waiting to Exhale. Danielle Steele had two best selling novels in 1992 -- Jewels and Mixed Blessings. The year before that she released two other novels titled No Greater Love and Heartbeat. Terry McMillan should be compared to Danielle Steele before she is pitted against African American authors like Toni Morrison or Alice Walker. Although the characters in Exhale are black, the plot essentially revolves around who ends up sleeping with whom, as is true of many Danielle Steele novels. The proposition that women do not feel fulfilled in relationships and sex may explain why How to Satisfy a Woman Every Time by Naura Hayden was a best-seller in 1992. In Exhale, the four main characters bemoan the fact that they cannot find men who are simultaneously successful, considerate, and good in bed. One of the main characters, Savannah Jackson, prays to the Lord to bring her "a decent man. Could he be full of zest, and please, a slow tender passionate lover?" (McMillan, 1992). Perhaps the men in Exhale should read Hayden's how- to book or as an alternative, read the ever popular, always stimulating coffee table treasure, SEX by Madonna (also a best-seller in 1992). Perhaps, Exhale was so popular at the time because women could see that they were not alone in their search for meaningful relationships. Says the author, "I really didn't get it. I was about 36 or 37 years old, not in a relationship at the time, and I asked myself, 'What's wrong with this picture?' Most of my girlfriends, including some of my white girlfriends, were in the same boat. It became clear to me that there was a problem. And I knew there was a story here" (Edwards, 1992).
Many critics claim that Waiting to Exhale focuses excessively on male bashing and displaying men as ruthless, unreliable, and undeserving of female affection. In the novel, the four characters lament the lack of available and worthy men today. "'They're either ugly, gay, in prison, unemployed, crackheads, short, unreliable, irresponsible, dogs, shallow, or too goddam old and set in their ways'" to know how to treat a woman (McMillan, 1992). Perhaps certain events occurring outside the realm of popular fiction were important precursors to the popularity of the novel. In 1991, many women, especially black women, were outraged and disillusioned by the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings. Many people felt that Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court undermined the testimonies of harassed women and thus deprived them of power. Many feminist groups (as seen on the internet) expressed resentment towards the system that would endorse someone like Clarence Thomas. In the book, one of the male character is similar to Thomas. He is a rich, black, corporate figure, who denies his black heritage and leaves his wife for a white woman. McMillan may have had Thomas in mind when writing the character. The remnants of anger caused by the testimony may have spurned the male bashing found in literature (especially toward black men in Exhale). Likewise, the current movie blockbusters of the time may have prompted some of the negativity felt towards men. In 1991, Thelma and Louise became one of the most popular movies at the box office, mainly because women flocked to see it. The movie recounts the lives of two women who, after being suppressed by worthless men in their relationships, decide to liberate themselves. Critics of the movie were disappointed with the negative way that men were portrayed. However, many women enjoyed seeing the close sisterhood that the two main characters shared as they refused to be held down by unworthy males. Thus, movies like Thelma and Louise may have primed readers to appreciate a novel about strong women who are looking for men worthy of them. Instead of middle class white women, Waiting to Exhale depicts upper middle class black women searching for the same thing. So in 1992, when Waiting to Exhale was published, readers grabbed for a novel about female power and friendship.
Publicity was a main factor in the popularity of the novel. Before Waiting to Exhale was published, Terry McMillan involved herself in a huge advertising campaign to promote the book. The author went on a 20 city tour for six weeks doing book readings and autograph signings. Her tour was not limited to book stores however. In order to reach a more varied audience, she frequented jazz clubs, community centers and smaller ethnic bookstores. When the book was published, McMillan appeared on the Today Show, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and the Arsenio Hall Show. In 1995, Waiting to Exhale was made into a full length motion picture. Crowd drawing actresses Angela Bassett ("What's Love Got to do With It) and Whitney Houston ("Bodyguard") were given the two leading roles. The much anticipated movie opened at number one at the box office in its opening weekend. The reviews of the movie were mixed. Many said that the director, Forrest Whitaker, created a sappy and cliched melodrama without the sparkling wit and humor of the book. The common lament that "the book was better than the movie" prompted readers to consider reading the novel. Despite criticism of the movie, the book benefitted from an upsurge of interest in the novel. On the day that the movie opened, Oprah Winfrey had the four leading actresses and Terry McMillan on her show. The movie then prompted more interviews with the author, which focused attention on the novel. Along with the movie came the musical soundtrack to the film. The theme song to the film "Shoop-Shoop (You Will Exhale)" sung by Whitney Houston, became popular on the radio as did the music video version on MTV. Many web pages promoting the movie also may have popularized the book. Although, after the movie was released, the book did not return to the best-seller list, two million paperback editions were in print (including a new edition with the movie's cast members on the front cover).
Waiting to Exhale was a phenomenal success when it was published. Not only did black women enjoy reading about characters that were like them, but women of all races appreciated reading a realistic and honest story about relationships, friendship and love. "The issue is gender, not race and above all the question is sisterhood. These aren't black women; they're most women" (Larson, 1992). The way that the author is able to relate to her characters and to her audience displays her understanding of women in the 1990's.
Dodd, Susan. "Women, Sisters and Friends." Washington Post Book World. 24 May, 1992.
Edwards, Audrey. "Waiting to Inhale." Essence. October 1992.
Hubbard, Kim. "A Good Man is Hard to Find." People Weekly. 20 July, 1992.
Larson, Charles. "The Comic Unlikelihood of Finding Mr. Right." Chicago Tribune. 31 May, 1992.
Max, Daniel. "McMillan's Millions." New York Times Magazine. 9 August, 1992.
Sellers, Francis S. Times Literary Supplement, 6 November, 1992: 20.