What Shakespeare says in Twelfth Night about greatness in men one could also say about that mysterious something in books that makes them bestsellers: Some are born with it, some achieve it, and some have it thrust upon them. An example of a peculiar kind of thrusting is the public history of The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. This “novel” about American diplomacy and foreign aid in Southeast Asia has now been on the bestseller lists for almost seven months, basking in the flattering vicinity of Lolita and Doctor Zhivago. At this date it is still defying its destiny, which is to drop into the ocean of public indifference where it will lie until Hollywood announces its resurrection.
If I say that its market success was thrust upon The Ugly American, the reason is not only my belief that this book is without intrinsic literary value. The reward of high sales is not one reserved only for good books. But in the case of The Ugly American, success was due neither to advertising and the many enthusiastic reviews nor to the fair reputation Lederer and Burdick had separately gained with their earlier writings. Much of the praise for The Ugly American was of an ambiguous nature. Advertising was initially by no means powerful enough to secure for The Ugly American the bestseller’s privilege of unpaid promotion. Its demerits might have appealed to an even larger public of doubtful literary taste (remember Peyton Place or Forever Amber), in which case The Ugly American, once it had somehow gained a foothold among the bestsellers of 1958, might well have sold half a million copies and disgraced the bestseller lists for more months than most books in America are remembered. 2 If it did not, the reason may simply be that for a work of fiction to become an exceptionally successful bestseller it is perhaps not quite enough to be a really bad book.
How then did The Ugly American make the bestseller lists at all and subsequently manage to occupy for months a most advantageous position? For two reasons, both entirely unconnected with its intrinsic quality.
The first of these reasons was that The Ugly American enjoyed a strong initial promotion not generally available to works of fiction, either good or bad, a promotion that made it what its publishers call “the best selling novel that has become an affair of state.” This is what happened: Shortly before and right after publication, The Ugly American was bought and distributed in unusually great numbers by private parties interested in securing for it “the largest possible audience of thinking Americans,” as the book’s jacket says. Although no one will ever be able to determine accurately the volume of these purchases—it seems that thousands, not just hundreds of copies were thus sold—it was big enough to betray an organized effort and at the same time to tip the delicate balance, so characteristic for the American b...
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