Unlikely Literary Sensations - What's Up With That?

Written by 

thick stack of Harry Potter novelsThe Harry Potter books. The Da Vinci Code. The Twilight series. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and sequels. There have been literary sensations before these, but not of the same magnitude (disagree if you will, but provide counter examples). Stephen King has pumped out close to fifty bestsellers, but there was never a single one that people just wouldn't shut up about. Same with John Grisham's output. And Tom Clancy's. And Agatha Christie's.


Now consider this - those books I listed all had serious strikes against them, in terms of finding widespread mainstream success. If Stephen King had, in the last ten years, put out a novel (or series of them) that blazed its way into the awareness of pretty much everyone you know, whether they'd read it or not, that would be understandable. He's Stephen King. He's got decades under his belt of successfully divining what masses of people want to read. But JK Rowling came out of nowhere. And the Harry Potter books were written for and marketed to kids. No one expected they'd catch on with adults as well, much less to the extent that they have. Stephanie Meyer came out of nowhere. The Twilight series was written for teens, and similarly found an unexpected adult audience. Dan Brown (virtually) came out of nowhere. He'd written a few books, and Angels and Demons was a bestseller, but nothing he'd done presaged the success of The Da Vinci Code. And that book challenges the chief story of the Christian religion, and was likely to be rejected by many conventionally minded readers for that reason alone. Stieg Larsson came out of nowhere (Sweden, to be specific)(north of nowhere). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and sequels) is translated from Swedish. The books are set in Sweden. The characters have Swedish names. They're full of references to Swedish place-names, holidays, magazines, books and elements of that country's culture entirely unfamiliar to ethnocentric North Americans.


Another strike against these books is that they're thick. The first three Harry Potter books are short enough, but the fourth one is 640 pages long. The fifth is 768. The sixth is 608. The seventh is also 608. The Da Vinci Code clocks in at 454 pages. The Twilight books are 544, 608, 640 and 768. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo weighs in at an impressive 841 pages, the sequels coming in at 576 and 724. These books aren't dense - they're known as page-turners, but to pick them up off the shelf for the first time, they seem to demand a real commitment on the reader's part to burrow through such formidable collections of pages. And isn't everyone texting, tweeting, Facebooking, talking on their iPhones, punching the buttons on their blackberries, playing online solitaire and scrabble, scrolling through newsfeeds and endless links, bouncing from one website to the next, following saucy pictures and provocative headlines, bailing on paragraph three of any blog entry that threatens to take more than thirty seconds to read? Why are people gobbling up these thick-enough-to-stop-a-bullet genre novels written by unknown and unproven writers, in such unprecedented numbers?


I think it's precisely because we live in a world of quick cuts and never-ending, always streaming fast food information. As Stephen King describes in his book On Writing, reading a novel plunges you into a world it takes days, or even weeks to get to the other side of. You carry that world around with you for those days or weeks, no matter what else you're doing. It's an experience you don't get any other way. Therein lies its appeal. Our accelerated information age world overfeeds us on blips and sound bites, and all of a sudden, immersing ourselves into eight hundred pages of singular story seems more appealing than it did thirty years ago.


stief Larsson's Millennium trilogy setSo we bend in one direction, and then snap back in the other. And back again. Progress develops in a caduceus, a double helix, ever spiralling, one side reacting to the other, feeding the other, egging the other on. Eight years of George W. Bush paves the way for the election of Barack Obama. Barack Obama begets the Tea Party Movement and the continued public prominence of Sarah Palin. Taylor Swift wins the Grammy for Album of the Year, the next year Arcade Fire gets it. Jon Stewart rises, Glenn Beck rises. Reality TV and HBO shows. Walmart and Whole Foods. The war in Iraq and government subsidized healthcare. The obesity epidemic and yoga. Louder and more hardline fundamentalist evangelical Christianity and the replacement of the phrase "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays" by businesses, schools and governments. Hundred million dollar special effects extravaganzas and independent films, vying for Oscars and audiences, neither side consistently dominating. Ellen Degeneres dethroning Oprah as daytime TV's most popular personality, and the "move to defend traditional marriage." The Humvee and the hybrid. Increasing corporate profits and soaring CEO wages, and the free culture of the internet. The epic literary series and the tweet.


It'll keep going like that. Just watch.

Related items

Join the Discussion

Commenting Policy

Beams and Struts employs commenting guidelines that we expect all readers to bear in mind when commenting at the site. Please take a moment to read them before posting - Beams and Struts Commenting Policy


  • Comment Link Dutch Bieber Monday, 11 April 2011 04:28 posted by Dutch Bieber

    A truism, perhaps. At least an aphorism. That the pendulum swings. Or is it that we like to think in dichotomies. But for this article publishing dates don't support the overworked argument. e.g. Da Vinci Code published in 2003 and sparked a lot of Bible studies and studies of extra-canonical books (I thought the Code a badly written book.) and FB went public in 2006. Twitter is still an precocious infant.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Monday, 11 April 2011 04:45 posted by TJ Dawe

    Well, the big change, I'd say, happened circa 98/99. That's when it seemed to me the Information Age had firmly settled in and entered the lives of everyone I know, including those resisting it (I was the last of my friends to get an email address).

    Facebook and Twitter are recent additions to this world, but the instant gratification sense of internet culture goes back to the late 90s. Which is when the first Harry Potter book got published. According to wikipedia it hit #1 on the NY Times bestseller list in August of 1999.

    I, too, wasn't so hot on the Da Vinci Code. Stephen Fry said "It is complete loose stool-water. It is arse gravy of the worst kind." I wouldn't go quite that far, but I found it fascinating as an indication of what the public's into.

  • Comment Link jwood Monday, 11 April 2011 16:11 posted by jwood

    I recall the NY Times review refering to it as 'a primer on how not to write an English sentence'.

    All the books you mention have this quality of questionable writing in common, but each have elements that are crack for the main stream: Wizards, vampires, gothic protagonists, murder mysteries.

    I remember my father refering to Stephen King as 'wordprocessing, not writing', a take-off on Truman Capote's scathing indictment of On the Road ('that's not writing, it's typing').

    You've made no value judgments above, but could it be argued that crack-lit (my term, just coined!) is the other side of the same coin and not necessarily a pendulum swing?

  • Comment Link Gina Monday, 11 April 2011 19:02 posted by Gina

    I've always called these Dorito books. Junk food for the mind yet stimulating enough to cause an empty feeling of partial satisfaction.

    Crack-lit is good too because it also connects to the constant craving for new attention, new information, new, new new.

    Then again, I am not reaching for Michener anytime soon.

    Much love to all of you fine folks creating content for this site.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Monday, 11 April 2011 20:47 posted by TJ Dawe

    Crack lit, Dorito books - I like these terms.

    There have always been fluffy bestsellers, and always will be. I'd be delighted and surprised if writing with the complexity of Salman Rushdie or Nabokov or Virginia Woolf reached these heights of popularity, but I'm not holding my breath.

    Juma - to answer your point - I agree, the writing isn't complex at all. But the length of these books is what impresses me. Short fluffy books in the instant information age would seem consistent and predictable. Lengthy fluffy books - that gets me interested. And sets me a-theorizin'.

    And wizards have appeared in abundance in Fantasy literature for decades. Murder mysteries have thrived for longer (Agatha Christie has an astounding one billion (!!!!) copies of her books in print, worldwide). Vampires and gothic protagonists have been prominent for a while too, going back to Dracula, or Interview with a Vampire. But none of those elements have been enough to propel the books they're in to the kind of popularity we've seen with the books I highlighted in this article. So far as I know, anyway.

    So why would they reach these heights now, of all times? I've heard various people say that books are going the way of the dodo. So what's with these massive sales of these titles? Why weren't the wizard epics, vampire tales and murder mysteries of the 70s selling like this?

  • Comment Link jwood Tuesday, 12 April 2011 00:17 posted by jwood

    I might reconsider the pejorative with the Harry Potter books which are both entertaining and appropriately written for their target audience. And I haven't read the vampire books, so I should stay mum on those as well. Stephen King was really the first author that got me hooked on reading as an adult, so I'll be a little gentle with him as well. So I guess my comment was at the expense of the Code and maybe the Millenium trilogy, although that's been translated.

    I don't have a counter your question, so I'll stew on it a bit...

  • Comment Link Meghan Ciana Doidge Wednesday, 20 April 2011 19:46 posted by Meghan Ciana Doidge

    I think that (other than Da vinci Code, and honestly I have no idea WHY it was so popular) that back list and the ongoing story (i.e. mystery) helps the other books. I didn't start reading the Harry Potters until the 4th was just about to be released and I am a huge fan. Same with the "girl" books - I read all three in rapid succession.

    They are also all origin stories, which I think are very appealing - the reader learns (about an unfamiliar & exciting or thrilling world) at a similar pace as the protagonist(s). That's just plain fun!

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 21 April 2011 21:20 posted by TJ Dawe

    The Da Vinci Code is a mystery story, just like the other books (all the Harry Potter books have a strong "whodunit" element to them), and none of them are demanding to read. The Da Vinci Code's chapters are all very short, and pretty much every one of them ends with a cliffhanger.

    But mysteries are nothing new - Agatha Christie (the acknowledged grand master of the genre)'s books were coming out from the 20s to the 70s.

    Ongoing stories over multiple books are nothing new either - fantasy and science fiction have been telling multi-thousand page stories for decades. And those would qualify as origin stories as well, introducing the reader to new and unfamiliar worlds (which makes sense to me as the reason those books come in a series rather than as singles: if you create a new world, you want to explore it)(and it saves you from having to come up with a new world for every novel)(and work in all the exposition).

    I don't have numbers to back up my assertion that the books I refer to in this article have sold more than any given Agatha Christie novel, or fantasy or science fiction series, but my sense is that the books that were literary sensations in my lifetime - Spy Catcher, The Satanic Verses, The Celestine Prophecy, It, His Way, - none of them reached this current level of cultural omnipresence. And none of them had as many hurdles to leap over in order to reach that status.

  • Comment Link Michael Milano Wednesday, 29 August 2012 19:59 posted by Michael Milano

    I’m a little late to this discussion, but I think what all these books have in common is they take the reader out of their world and put the firmly somewhere else. In 2001 you had the Tech bubble collapse. 9/11. 2 wars starting. Then the economic collapse of 2008 and the recession that followed.

    People needed and wanted to get away from it all. Harry Potter and Twilight are complete fantasies not connected to reality in any way. Ron’s parents aren’t worried about being upside down on the mortgage and Edward is not worried about being deployed to fight in a some war halfway across the world.

    The DaVinci code is a quest for the Holy Grail. Again nothing to do with what’s going on in the world today. The Dragon Tattoo books take place in a foreign country with foreign names and places and holidays. It might as well take place on another planet as far and the North American reader is concerned. Again no connection to the depressing crap most people are dealing with on a daily basis.

    People needed an escape from reality and these very big, long books provided just that.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 30 August 2012 04:41 posted by TJ Dawe

    That's a great connection. And in reading these books on paper (kindles and other tablets have only starting taking up a significant share of the market in the last couple of years, by my reckoning) there's no constant opportunity to see what's happening on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, which would likely remind you of the real political, economic and social problems of the world.

    The Millennium books being the exception, the above books are all quite anti-technological, too. the wizards in Harry Potter use magic to accomplish what we muggles use science for. Twilight's vampires get their abilities from wherever vampires get their power from. magic blood of some kind. magic, period. Another thick and popular book (though not quite a mega-best-seller on the scale of the books mentioned above) is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, taking place around the time of Napoleon, and involving magic yet again. Great book, too. Lisbeth Salander is a hacker, and Mikael Blomqvist investigates political and institutional corruption, but you're right - that's all happening far away, and the novels make no attempt to universalize the setting. the currency is kronors (with no equivalent given in US dollars). the street names all involve the suffix "gatan." Blomqvist is likened to a cartoon character no one in North America has ever heard of - unless they're from Sweden. Pure escape, for all the issues the novels deal with.

  • Comment Link Anna Schmidt Thursday, 30 August 2012 14:19 posted by Anna Schmidt

    There is a scene in Educating Rita where, early in Rita's "education" she draws a comparison between the themes in the Work of Great Literature she has been assigned by her tutor and the parallel themes in a popular pot-boiler. We are supposed to understand that her willingness to see these two books as worthy of any comparison is a sign of her ignorance. While I absolutly agree that some writing is better in quality than other writing, I am always troubled by the tendency of those who consider themselves to be "serious readers" to dismiss so many books that capture the interest of a broad audience as being fundamentaly inferior. Expressions like "crack lit" and "Dorito books" diminish the work of writers whose only crime seems to be that they wrote something that a lot of people enjoy reading. I believe that all writers, regardless of style or genre, write with the hope that someone will want to read what they have written. It baffles me that, rather than viewing popularity as a valid measure of quality, so many take the opposite view.

    I was never drawn to the Twilight series, but I stood in line with the rest of them waiting for the next installment of Harry Potter, and couldn't put the Stieg Larsson trilogy down. I also enjoy Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Virginia Woolf. When I was in high school, my friend David told me that he had stopped reading for pleasure because his English teachers had made such a big deal analysing literature that he had decided it was just too much effort to read if that's what reading meant. I thought that was very sad. Writers like JK Rowling got a whole generation excited about reading for the sake of enjoying a good story. That, to me, is a measure of literary greatness.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 30 August 2012 15:15 posted by TJ Dawe

    Anna - thank you for this. I recall that later in Educating Rita, the teacher reads the Harold Robbins potboiler, and marvels at its brilliance, and by that point Rita is educated enough to see his praise of it as folly, and she sums it up as merely being "an interesting example of its genre."

    the association with Doritos or crack is certainly negative in terms of the fact that neither is good for you. But I'd be lying if I denied how enjoyable the sensation is of being absolutely compelled to find out what happens next, to intend to put the book down and get something to eat, or go do something else, but then to let yourself read just one more page, and one more, and another...

    Just yesterday I finished reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. I'm just completing the final performances of my fringe tour, and found myself to have brought primarily "homework" books with me, and something inside rebelled. so I went out book hunting, and bought the Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, and I utterly recommend that series, without reservation.

    It's true - it's a ready tendency to dismiss popular works for their popularity alone. I've been prone to that many times, and that opinion can still worm its way in to my consciousness. Or to separate myself from the popular works I read, viewing them as research. Which they can be - no one's going to like every single thing published. But the Harry Potter books did hook me, and there's considerable literary craft at play in doing that. and I should have made that clearer in this article, or at least this discussion.

    In the last four years I've gotten back into reading comics for the first time since adolescence. And those, I suppose, are generally ranked lower than potboilers. But damn, do I love them! And I do get directly emotionally involved in them. As I say in another article here on the site: "When I'm reading an Ultimate Spiderman or Captain America graphic novel, no part of me wants the Green Goblin or the Red Skull to win - not for a second!"


    And I absolutely marvel at the literary craft of the better comic scribes. As I say in yet another piece: "Soon Alan Moore and Brian Michael Bendis were exciting me as much as Salman Rushdie and Alice Munro."


Login to post comments

Search Beams

Most Popular Discussions