How Did Books Get Oprah-ed Before Oprah?

Oprah's choice of David Wroblewski's "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," announced just this past Friday, got me thinking about how mega-bestsellers used to be made before Oprah was Oprah. (Reality check: "Edgar Sawtelle" was already on most bestseller lists before Oprah turned her wand on it. Somehow, it's a lot more fun when she chooses a book out of total obscurity.) In the 20th century, at least in America, probably the most reliable good fairy of bestsellers was the Book of the Month Club, which now is a shadow of its former self. But in the 19th century, the Oprah of the day was serialized fiction.

Charles Dickens first novel, "The Pickwick Papers," brought him instant and rampant fame when it was published in 32-page monthly parts from 1836 to 1837. His readers only had to pay a shilling a month as opposed to the full cost of a book, which was 25 times that amount. Dickens went on to publish most of his novels this way. And when other authors saw his success, they, too, turned to serialization: William Thackeray gained wide renown when he serialized "A Shabby Genteel Story" and "History of Samuel Titmarsh." Wilkie Collins eventually got on the bandwagon with "A Rogue's Life" in 1856.

But it wasn't only in England that this phenomenon took fire. From 1879 to 1880, Dostoevsky serialized "The Brothers Karamazov" in 16 segments over the course of two years, struggling mightily (as he recounted later) against the tendency to end each segment with a "wow ending" that would cheapen his vision for the book. But even Dostoevsky was responding to the market much in the same way that authors may now be doing when they "write for Oprah": with books that have a deeply moral, largely uplifting, Hollywood message.

Stephen King tried to resuscitate serialization in 2000, when he took one of his unfinished manuscripts from the 1980's, "The Plant," and vowed he would finish it in chapters written in seriatim, charging $1 every time it was downloaded on the Internet. He published six parts well into 2001, but I must admit I lost track of it. I'm not sure it was ever finished. The Dickens/Trollope/Dostoevsky magic just wasn't there. The Internet turned out to have unreliable chemistry when it came to passionate fiction readers.

Before the big run on serialization in the 1800s, of course, there were books that achieved "bestsellerdom" on their own steam, the way books now get onto lists without any help from Oprah or the Book of the Month Club, or from any artifical "choosing" machine: Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe," for instance, took readers by storm in 1719, although the reading public had seen any number of novels about castaways. Voltaire's "Candide," published under a pseudonym 40 years later, was an instant bestseller, mainly because of its naughty bits.

Speaking of naughty bits in book publishing -- and it doesn't take an Oprah to point them out -- they seem to have been with us since time immemorial. In France, during the early 1700s, gossip, largely sexual, and generally about the famous, began as "mauvais propois" or insider gossip in the king's court. Eventually, if it was spicy enough, it became public rumor. Then a kind of tabloid journalism would ensue with "gazettes a la main." In the end, these tabloid subjects went on to become books, or "libelles" (much like the Clinton-Lewinsky books), which told all the breathless details of, say, the affair between Louis XV and Mme. la Comtesse Du Barry.

Who needed Oprah, when there were so many ways to get books into readers' hot hands?

By Marie Arana |  September 22, 2008; 10:13 AM ET Marie Arana
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I only read what I want to read. I had enough assigned books in school -- 'We're studying author XXX now so you have to read XXX.' Enough of that! I don't even bother with best sellers if they are fiction. Mostly into history and biographies but will read a best seller if it interests me, not because everybody else is reading it. Oprah's opinion means diddly-squat to me.

Posted by: South of the Beltway | September 22, 2008 11:01 AM

King's "Green Mile" was also serialized; I think in 6 parts.

Posted by: WDC | September 22, 2008 11:19 AM

The Oprah Book Club has chosen a whopping TWO books this year that it considers worthy of it's club. Are they saying that they could only find 2 books to read this year? When the NEA released a report on the decline of literary reading in America last year, how does the Oprah Book Club respond to this challenge? By only recommending TWO books to read! Simply put, the Oprah Book Club is not a club for readers.

Posted by: Terry | September 22, 2008 1:14 PM

I love Oprah. She could have chosen movies. She could have chose fashion.
But she chose books.

Posted by: readlove | September 22, 2008 1:15 PM

Thank you for the quick-time education on serialization. I'll never look at Brothers Karamazov or Dickens the same way again.
They were going for the market! (At least a little bit.) As all writers who truly care about readers must do.

Posted by: dave | September 22, 2008 10:42 PM

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