A best seller according to the Encyclopedia Britannica is a book that leads all others in sales for a time. The encyclopedia goes on to state that the best seller can serve as a guide to popular literary taste at the time. A best seller of a certain time can teach us why another book may have made the best-seller list. It is interesting to look at the list of a single year or scan lists from a number of years looking for the common threads that the books share. Joseph Conrad's The Arrow of Gold shares common threads with many other books of the same era and also with books that came after it. The Arrow of Gold can help to teach us what makes a bestseller. By examining the reception of The Arrow of Gold, the reputation of the novel's author and the genre for which he was famous, and the time period in which the book was written, we can learn about what has elevated other books to the bestseller status.
Joseph Conrad's career as a writer was highly exalted by literary critics. He enjoys the reputation of being "one of the finest stylists of modern English literature" (TCLC, vol. 6, p. 111) and his best novels are considered to be masterpieces of the English language. To have reached such a high position in the literary world is remarkable enough on its own, but when one considers that English was not the native tongue of Polish-born Conrad, it is all the more impressive. Although he enjoyed a high reputation in the literary world during his life as well as after his death, his reception by readers in terms of book sales was not of the same caliber, and he struggled for most of his life to earn a living as a writer.
There are twenty-nine principal works that can be attributed to Conrad between the years of 1895 to 1928. However, despite this large output of work and his literary fame, Conrad only had three books reach the bestseller list: The Arrow of Gold, on the list for a total of twenty weeks in 1919, The Rescue, on the list for 8 weeks in 1920, and The Rover, on the list for a total of four weeks in 1924 (Justice, p76). It is revealing that his bestsellers came later in his career. It was stated in The Bookman in 1919, "Some of us are too deeply devoted to Conrad to go back on anything that he has written." It is possible that he had built up a reputation as a renowned author and that was the reason that the public began to buy more copies of his books.
Conrad is not the only author who made the bestseller list for the first time later in his career. Another author, Vincente Blasco Ibáñez, was on the bestseller list along with Conrad in 1919. Blasco Ibáñez was on the list for a total of forty weeks in 1919 with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Justice, p160). He also made an appearance on the list with Mare Nostrum for sixteen weeks in 1919 and Woman Triumphant for twelve weeks in 1920 (Justice, p159-160). Blasco Ibáñez has thirty-three principal works to his credit mainly ranging from the years of 1894-1929. Like Conrad, Blasco Ibáñez's critical reputation rests on his earlier works despite the fact that they never reached the bestseller status.
Not only do bestsellers late in the careers of Conrad and Blasco Ibáñez indicate the possibility that they were selling books on their built up literary reputations, but it also suggests that they may have changed their writing styles to give the people what they wanted to read and what they would buy. In the same year that The Arrow of Gold was published, Conrad was quoted as saying,
"I am sufficiently a democrat to detest the idea of being a writer of any 'coterie' of some small self-appointed aristocracy in the vast domain of art or letters. As a matter of feeling - not as a matter of business - I want to be read by as many eyes and by all kinds of them at that."
The "matter of business" that Conrad refers to could quite possibly be the bestseller list. While he may not be writing to specifically make the list, it is a side affect of having your book read by many. It is quite possible that after years of writing Conrad wanted the satisfaction of knowing that many people were buying and reading his books. In order to achieve his popularity amongst the readers, many critics argue that he changed his writing style. It was the general consensus that the earlier novels had more substance and offered the readers moral lessons while the later novels use romance to replace morals and ideals. It was written that The Arrow of Gold
offered "?a less 'difficult' introduction to the reading of Conrad than others." (A.L.A. Booklist, May 1919). Another response to the notion that Conrad had the desire to appeal to a larger audience, Frederick R. Karl wrote in 1969,
Many reasons all speculative, could be advanced for the directness of Conrad's later style: advancing age that possibly brought with it a clearer vision and an accompanying simplicity of technique or, a steady loss of conceptual power, or, the desire to appeal to larger audiences.
Critics have commented that Blasco Ibáñez's later works also changed significantly from his earlier works and that his "fiction became sensationalistic and was in fact aimed at the Hollywood film industry" (TCLC vol. 12, p27). This comment was made in relation to Blasco Ibáñez's recent success in the movie industry with the film versions of Blood and Sand
and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
. The NY Call reported on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
in 1919: "It has enough universality of appeal to deserve its reading by everyone." As his career was winding down, Blasco Ibáñez, like Conrad began to realize that the books that receive the most favorable literary review are not always the books that the people will buy. It seems very likely that both altered their writing style knowingly in order to appeal to the masses.
While an author and a publishing company can use just one author's good reputation to launch a book, another author's reputation can be used in conjunction to achieve the same purpose. In advertisements for The Arrow of Gold
in 1919 Publishers Weekly, the book is often advertised in conjunction with Rudyard Kipling's poetry book The Years Between
. Kipling is heralded as "one of the most popular authors of all time and one of the finest short story writers in world literature" (TCLC vol. 8, p174). The Years Between
also made the bestseller list in 1919 for twenty-four weeks. The two not only appear in advertisements together, but are often found together in reviews. It was stated that, "No one now writing English is in the same class with Conrad at his best or Kipling at his best." (Bookman, 1919 p369). The publishers at Doubleday knew to expect great things from these two authors who had rich literary backgrounds and strong reputations. It was a powerful tactic by the publishers to advertise both of the books together, as they both became bestsellers. It was not a case of using the strong reputation of one author to carry the sales of the book of a new author. Both authors had already achieved a strong reputation, and placing the two together only made them more powerful. Also, in the advertisements, the book was introduced as "Joseph Conrad's The Arrow of Gold
" and never appeared without Conrad's name in a conspicuous place in the advertisement.
It is possible that The Arrow of Gold
and other books become bestsellers because their authors always wrote in the same genre or with the same setting. It is well known that most of Conrad's novels take place aboard a ship or with the sea as a background for the action. Zane Grey, who enjoyed twenty listings on the bestseller list from 1919 until 1939, was well known for writing Westerns. He has been called "the father of the western" and "a pioneer of the western novel" (TCLC vol.6, p175). If people were looking to read a western novel they knew that they could count on Grey for such a novel. If they had enjoyed one of his novels, they could be pretty certain that another book with the same genre by the same author would be comparable and enjoyable as well.
It is the same phenomenon that exists today on the best seller list with authors such as John Grisham. Someone who has read a couple of his novels or who has heard about his writing knows that his reputation is for writing books in a legal setting. People feel comfortable buying the book because they know what they're getting. If someone enjoyed novels that had the sea as the background, they could feel confident that they would enjoy a Conrad novel. As Grisham's novels about law come from first hand experience of being a lawyer, Conrad's novels of the sea come from first hand experience of being a sailor. Conrad's passion almost his whole life had been to go to sea. Many of the stories that he writes and the characters in these stories come from his days at sea. His writing in the same setting and from first hand experience lends to his strong, successful reputation and good writing. When people read the novel, they are assured that they are getting the real thing.
The time period in which a novel was written and the events happening in the world at that time have an influence on whether or not a book will be a bestseller. The Arrow of Gold
reached the bestseller list in 1919, a year after the end of WWI. The fact that it is a romance is very significant. When reading fiction, people wanted to forget about the problems of the outside world. The book is described as "absorbing and beautiful" in Bookman (1919, p369). The only real turmoil is involved in the tumultuous and uncertain relationship between the characters Monsiuer George and Doña Rita. There is some drama at the end of the story when a person from Doña Rita's past returns to make good on her forced, girlhood promises of marriage.
While The Arrow of Gold
was escapist in the sense that it was a romance, it also addressed the idea of conflict indirectly. The conflict addressed was the Carlist movement, a political movement occurring in Spain that originated in the 1820s. It is important to recognize that the political movement occurred in a country that was not central to the conflict of WWI from 1914-1918. Some books that made it on to the list towards the end of the war did begin to address the war. The Major
by Ralph Connor and on the list in 1918, The Sky Pilot in No Man's Land
also by Ralph Connor and on the list in 1919, and The Tin Soldier
by Temple Bailey and on the list in 1919 are a small sampling of fiction books that began to talk about themes of war. Beginning in 1917, there was a category on the bestseller list for war books. Although the majority of the fiction was still of a genre that did not address war directly or addressed a distant conflict, war books were beginning to make their way on to the list as the war was winding down. The books about the war were bestsellers because the war could be looked on with confidence at that point. The Arrow of Gold
was a book that bridged the gap between complete escapism and immersion in war.
Some other books that made the bestseller list around the same time were books that completely ignored the fact that war was going on. At the beginning of the war in 1914, books such as Pollyanna
by Eleanor H. Porter were on the bestseller list. Pollyanna
is a book filled with optimism. Pollyanna, the main character, spends her days playing "the glad game" in which you have to think about thinks to be happy about. Booth Tarkington's novel Seventeen
makes the list in 1916. It is also a story that does not spend much time in reality. The largest obstacles that are faced in the book are the dilemmas that the main character encounters as he chases around a young girl. These books were at the beginning years of the war when the outcome was uncertain. It was not a time that people wanted to dwell on war or its capabilities or consequences. The bestseller list of the era clearly reflects the sentiments of the general public and teaches us what people were thinking and feeling.
When reading The Arrow of Gold
or almost any book on the bestseller list, we have many things to learn. No one bestseller can teach us everything that we want to know about the era or the people at the time. However, it is amazing what we can learn by observing multiple bestsellers and deducing information from the connections that they have. Reading a bestseller in some senses can be a double treat. In applying the previous statement to Conrad's The Arrow of Gold
, there was not only the entertainment and the drama of the love story, but there was also the chance to learn about the evolution of Conrad's writing, the fact that he was not alone in changing his writing style, the idea that an author's previous reputation can be enough to launch a book into popularity no matter its literary worth, and that the written world is both effected by and affects what happens in the surrounding world. All of the ideas that we can apply to Conrad's bestseller, we can apply to other books as well and learn different lessons outside the boundries of the covers.
Book Review Digest
Conrad, Joseph The Arrow of Gold
Justice, Keith L. Bestseller Index
Knowles, Owen. A Conrad Chronology
Twentieth Century Literary Criticism
(TCLC). Volumes 1 (p195-223), 6 (p111-125) (p175-188), 8 (p174-210), 12 (p27-54)