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)...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $35 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.