Friday, May 29, 2015

The Evolution of the Short Story: Genre and Form

In the January 25th, 1914 edition of the New York Times, twenty-six of the most successful authors of their day responded to a query, "What is the best short story in English?"

Original article here.
Previous discussion here.

The stories they selected constitute a time capsule: what the literati deemed as the best in short literature before the diversity of literary voices was commonplace, before the best of writing was defined by its shades of grey and infused with the wicked taste of irony.


The short story, as we know it today, is approximately two centuries old and 1914 can be seen as its midpoint. In fact, this year may have provided the perfect dividing line. On the eve of the madness of World War I, many of the more experimental forms of writing were still germinating. (Years later, Virginia Woolf would assert that modernism began in or about December of 1910). In June 1914, James Joyce published his first collection of short stories, The Dubliners. D. H. Lawrence’s first collection of stories, The Prussian Officer, was published in November. Franz Kafka’s first collection, including Metamorphosis, came in 1915. The revolutions of modernism, surrealism, and imagism, which had begun to appear in novels and poetry, for the most part, had yet to infuse the art of the short story, which was still dominated by the need to publish in popular magazines.

At the same time, the old guard had passed on. In the previous ten years the world had lost the voices of Mark Twain (1910), O. Henry (1910), Leo Tolstoy (1910), Jules Verne (1905), Kate Chopin (1904), and Anton Chekhov (1904). In an event that symbolized of the end of an era, just one month before the New York Times article was published, the great short story writer Ambrose Bierce disappeared, fate unknown.

The year 1914 can also be viewed as being at the cusp of the turning point in the formal recognition of excellence in writing. The Best American Short Stories series would begin in 1915. Also for Americans, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction would begin in 1917 and two years later, the O. Henry Awards for short stories. In Britain, the Hawthornden Prize and the James Tait Black Prize were founded in 1919. Other than school prizes, the only regular awards for literature presented before 1914 were the Nobel Prize and the Prix Femina (France). The New York Times article referenced here joins with these as an historic tribute from their peers.

Genres and Styles of the Stories that were Selected.

The development of short stories in part grew out of fantasy and fairy tales, from Aesop to the Brothers Grimm. This heritage is reflected in such selections as Rip Van Winkle, A Christmas Carol, Will o' the Mill, The Door in the Wall, Markheim and A Cricket on the Hearth.

Horror and mystery, so integral to the foundation of short stories, appeared as common genres. Beyond selecting four tales by Poe, there are suspense mysteries by Cobb and Elliott, a mummy story by Conan Doyle, a ghost story by Bulwer-Lytton, and such horror classics as The Turn of the Screw and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Even the family novella A Christmas Carol employed ghosts and chain rattling.

Several of the selections include extensive use of dialect in a manner which seems antiquated—at least—and often offensive. The best (e.g., Twain) do this with a sense that most everyone has a peculiar form of speech. The worse relegate it only to the poorer classes, the rural or certain ethnicities, often employing fractured speech for humor. If the goal of the author is to communicate, what does the following achieve?

And dis all cum ob de goole-bug! de putty goole-bug! de poor little goole-bug, what I boosed in dat sabage kind ob style! (Poe’s The Gold Bug)

It has no use other than presenting the character (a slave in the Old South) as ignorant and fearful, the basest of comic relief.

In contrast, in A. Neil Lyons’ Love in a Mist, the cockney brogue rises to the elegance of music. We celebrate with the character the glories and pratfalls of their fractured English. "Ruth was 'er name. She 'ad 'er whack of sorrows, but kep' 'er sense, an' most of 'er sauce, too."

Race is a frequent theme in many of the stories. One of the recurring subjects of the literature of Kipling was the examination of the interaction of races and cultures, and of empire and those under its rule. Two of his selected stories (Beyond the Pale and Without Benefit of Clergy) depict the tragic consequences of romantic relations between the British and Indians. Some critics (Orwell among them) view his writing as racist while others (T. S. Eliot) have defended its subtleties. The contrast between some stories is stark, such as comparing The Man Who Would Be King (Kipling), a rousing adventure of would-be monarchs, with Heart of Darkness (Conrad), a horror story where the "emperor" is the monster.

A word applied to people of black origin and offensive to most people today, in various forms—person, place-name and adjective—is found 64 times among the selected works both in stories dealing with race and in casual appearances such as in "n----- luck" in The Outcasts of Poker Flat. Beyond blacks, other minorities did not fare well (although certainly well below the 64 derogatory epithets noted above). Though a master craftsman, Kipling often comes across as offensive.

Some of the best stories looked at race and class by turning convention on its head. The top two vote-getters, A Lodging for the Night and The Outcasts of Poker Flat, deal directly with who is given the role of hero and who is the castoff of society.

Among the selected works, nine included lyrics from songs. The great expansion of copyright laws that took place over the subsequent years and the unfeasible pricing for use of even a bit of lyric have extinguished this practice: the modern author would lose all revenue from the story (and more) to pay for rights. Even novelists can seldom afford such a luxury. Author Blake Morrison used one line from the song "Jumping Jack Flash" for a price of £535, about $800. A line from a Beatles song cost $1000. Such gouging is likely preventing the artists from receiving a reasonable tribute and impoverish our culture heritage.

Several pieces include poetry mixed with narrative. The story Rebecca and Rowena is particularly long on verse. The combination of poetry and narrative was much more common in the nineteenth century, with Ivanhoe and Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, as prime examples.

Melodrama and overt sentimentality infuse a number of the stories. O. Henry’s An Unfinished Story is a slyly constructed tale about a noble shop girl and the few sad choices in her life. Morris's The Claws of the Tiger takes many of the same elements as O. Henry's piece and plays them to a crescendo of tragedy.

What may seem most antique is the sense of heroism that often informs these pieces. Whether it is the quiet nobility of Bob Cratchit or the braggadocio of a Kipling hero, these characters represent how the readers liked to imagine themselves, the soldiers in their armies and their nations. Many of these works are populist and patriotic. With some notable exceptions — e.g., The Outcasts of Poker Flat, The Heart of Darkness — good was good and bad was bad.

Plotting, Not Plodding

In a recent opinion piece, author and teacher Hanif Kureishi stated, “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between.” The works presented in the 1914 article don’t suffer from that syndrome. Plotting is methodical and characters are etched with precision. It is easy to argue that these works go to the other extreme: they are too focused on the narrative drive, in other words, too traditional. However, in being the best of the best, they often violated the conventions of their day. This could be through subject matter, such as Cantwell’s An Incident, in which Southern injustice is laid bare. It could be through a complete disrespect for propriety such as in Rebecca and Rowena. It could be through experimenting with form, such as in O. Henry’s delightful A Municipal Report, which mixes travelogue with narrative. Among others in this collection, Stevenson’s A Lodging for the Night and Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat play with moral conventions. In a more serious manner, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was among the first to use an anti-hero and take on the idolized and idealized notion of empire. James’s A Turn of the Screw draws horror from the then modern notion of psychological dissonance and what is left unsaid.

Other works, although conforming to tradition, represent masterpieces of craft. Dickens’ Doctor Marigold is narrated by a pushcart peddler and hawker. To him, everything, including his wife and child and life and death, are described in bartering terms. In Wharton’s A Journey, we are trapped with a woman in a desperate situation: on a train, sitting next to a corpse and unable to escape.

Each of the works selected was deliberately and carefully crafted. Although many are flawed, each is a jewel. The works were collected in three volumes, totaling over 1500 pages. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Brief History of the Evolution of the Short Story

From the Introduction to The Best Short Stories Series, Volume 2, Martin Hill Ortiz

The Evolution of the Short Story

That which is commonly considered the modern short story—the short story as a distinct art form and separate from folk tales and odes—came into being as recently as the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Early literature was dominated by poetry. Of the nine Greek muses, four were directly assigned to poetry and songs. Three more represented tragedy, comedy, and history, which, in ancient Greece, were written in verse form. (The remaining two were dedicated to dance and astronomy.) This tradition continued to reign for millennia. Chaucer’s tales and the epics of Dante, Milton, and Coleridge were communicated in metered stanzas. In other countries, authors such as Don Juan Manuel and Boccaccio produced short narrative fictions, but until the nineteenth century, English literature remained dominated by what were considered the proper forms for classical composition: drama and verse.

To break from this tradition, storytellers needed more than just a desire to write in prose: they needed an outlet in which to publish their creations. Technology in the early nineteenth century had allowed newspapers to expand in size. Space became available to fill with stories, often “sketches,” brief, plotless, albeit artistic, descriptions of people, events, and places. Fables and fairy tales were set to paper by various authors, including E. T. A. Hoffmann and the Grimm Brothers. The arrival of gift books in the early 1800s allowed novels and short story collections to be sold in quantities sufficient to make writing a profitable venture—establishing writing as a career and not merely a pastime for the wealthy. Authors became renowned figures, attracting others to the field who envied their talents and success and who wished to achieve the grandeur of their art. Those delving into storytelling reached a critical mass that allowed the form to mature.

What defined the art form of the short story that emerged? A novel has the length and luxury to examine multiple characters and allow their dilemmas to play out over a broad period of time. A short story, although it may have a supporting cast, generally focuses on a single character undergoing a single crisis.

The early stories began to break free of the constraints of the character sketch and parable forms. Together with the main character(s), the reader was taken on a brief journey. Through crisis, true nature and truths—both small and universal—could be revealed.

Early stories often mixed in poetry, in part to demonstrate the author’s writing chops. Allusions to the classics and bits of Latin were often sprinkled into the text. As a mirror of poetry, many of the stories included deeper meanings and symbols bubbling just beneath the surface. Such is the case in The Fall of the House of Usher, where both the building’s structure and the occupants are fatally flawed and must ultimately break. In another of Poe’s works, the treasure-hungry Legrand is literally bitten by a golden bug in The Gold Bug.

In the late 1800’s publication technology and mail delivery improved so as to allow for the broad distribution of national magazines. In this environment, the short story flourished. Authors such as Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling became international celebrities.

Nineteenth century short stories were meant to help sell magazines. They were populist in format. They often took on genres such as mystery, melodrama and horror.

Next: genres and styles.

 Volume1cover Volume3

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The All-Time Best Short Stories: A List from the New York Times, 1914

Famous Authors Select the Best Short Stories: 1914.

My fascination with lists is long-standing. Many early lists represent discrete bits of history and reveal the mindset of their times. While researching information on Arthur Conan Doyle, a character in my upcoming novel, A Predator's Game, I ran across an article in the January 25th, 1914 issue of the New York Times in which the journalist queried 26 of the most famous authors of the day as to what is the best short story in English. The list of respondents included: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Booth Tarkington, Jack London, Owen Wister and Edna Ferber. They made a total of 49 selections.

With a list of their choices on hand, I decided to track down the stories for personal consumption. I figured since they were all public domain, so they would probably be readily accessible. After laboring for two weeks to compile the stories, sometimes finding them poorly scanned with many typographical errors or else not available at all online, I realized how much time I had spent and wished someone had done the work done for me.

So, I put together a series of volumes of the best short stories, wrote up some introductions and found a publisher.

First thing to note. I suspect they didn't use the word, "novella" or "novelette" at this time. Many of the "short stories" were lengthy, up to 40,000 words (The Turn of the Screw and Heart of Darkness). The selections totaled over 500,000 words, filling three volumes, each with 500 pages.

So, What Were the Short Stories?

Those selected by four authors:
  • A Lodging for the Night by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte

Those selected by three authors:
  • The Brushwood Boy by Rudyard Kipling
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling
  • A Municipal Report by O. Henry
  • Without Benefit of Clergy by Rudyard Kipling

Those selected by two authors:
  • The Belled Buzzard by Irvin S. Cobb
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  • The Gold Bug by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Luck of the Roaring Camp by Bret Harte
  • The Man Without a Country by Edward Everett Hale

Those selected by one author:
  • Beyond the Pale by Rudyard Kipling
  • Bread Upon the Waters by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark Twain
  • Cinderella by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
  • The Claws of the Tiger by Gouverneur Morris IV
  • The Cricket on the Hearth, A Fairy Tale of Home by Charles Dickens
  • Doctor Marigold by Charles Dickens
  • The Door in the Wall by H.G. Wells
  • The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Gifts of Oblivion by Dorothy Canfield
  • The Haunted and the Haunters; Or, The House and the Brain by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
  • His Wife by Stephen French Whitman
  • An Incident by Sarah Barnwell Elliott
  • A Journey by Edith Wharton
  • Love in a Mist by A. Neil Lyons
  • The Maltese Cat by Rudyard Kipling
  • Marjorie Daw by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
  • Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Merry Men by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant
  • The Pavilion on the Links by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Piece of String by Guy de Maupassant
  • Providence and the Guitar by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Rebecca and Rowena by William Makepeace Thackeray
  • The Ring of Thoth by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving
  • The Stolen Story by Jesse Lynch Williams
  • The Story of Richard Doubledick by Charles Dickens
  • The Story of Ruth Anonymous
  • Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • An Unfinished Story by O. Henry
  • Will o’ the Mill by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Wolfert Webber; or, Golden Dreams by Washington Irving

To be continued with notes on the stories and the history of short stories.

 Volume1 cover Volume3

What is the Best Short Story in English? A 1914 New York Times Article.

Below is a transcription of a 1914 article presented in the New York Times. I corrected several typographical errors. The author of the article made minor mistakes in counting the number of short stories, overlooking one and leaving off the attribution of which author selected which story for others. Stories not originally written in English were variously included or excluded from the final tally. The stories are collected here for purchase.

 What is the Best Short Story in English?
(as presented in the January 25, 1914 edition of The New York Times)

Twenty-four Well-Known Authors Answer This Question for The New York Times and Name Forty-Five Stories

Tales by Stevenson and Bret Harte Get Most Votes—Kipling, Poe and Dickens Are Also Leading Favorites

The Authors Who Voted.
Samuel Hopkins Adams
James Lane Allen
Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
Irving Bacheller
Robert W. Chambers
Irvin S. Cobb
Mary Stewart Cutting
Arthur Conan Doyle
Richard Harding Davis
Edna Ferber
Inez Haynes Gillmore
Montague Glass
Wallace Irwin
W. W. Jacobs
Owen Johnson
Alfred Henry Lewis
Jack London
Leonard Merrick
Gouverneur Morris
Thomas Nelson Page
Mary Roberts Rinehart
Booth Tarkington
Mary E. Wilkins
Owen Wister

The Stories They Name.

 A Lodging for the Night.
 The Merry Men.
 Pavilion on the Links.
 Will o’ the Mill.
 Providence and the Guitar.
 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
 Without Benefit of Clergy.
 The Brushwood Boy.
 The Man Who Would Be King.
 Bread Upon the Waters.
 Beyond the Pale.
 The Maltese Cat.
 The Jungle Book.
 (Any of the first series.)
 A Christmas Carol.
 The Cricket on the Hearth.
 The Story of Richard Doubledick.
 Dr. Marigold.
 The Gold-Bug.
 The Purloined Letter.
 The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
 The Fall of the House of Usher.
 Outcasts of Poker Flat.
 Luck of the Roaring Camp.
 Wolfert Webber.
 Rip Van Winkle.

 Heart of Darkness—Conrad.
 The Belled Buzzard—Cobb.
 A Municipal Report—O. Henry.
 The Bible Story of Ruth and Naomi
 Rebecca and Rowena—Thackeray.
 The Turn of the Screw—James.
 The Man Without a Country—Hale.
 The House and the Brain—Lytton.
 The Ring and the Troth—Doyle.
 The Jumping Frog—Twain.
 Uncle Remus—Harris.
  (Any one of the first series.)
 Marjorie Daw—Aldrich.
 His Wife—Whitman.
 A Journey—Wharton.
 An Incident—Elliott.
 The Claws of the Tiger—Morris.
 The Stolen Story—Williams.
 Love in the Mist—Lyons.
 The Door in the Wall—Wells.

If you were asked point-blank to name the best story you had read in the English language, what would your answer be?

In quest of the best answer, The New York Times presented this question to more than a score of men and women on both sides of the Atlantic—not to those whose business is the criticism of books, not to those who within university walls are trying to teach the young idea how to write, but to the men and women who are writing or have written the short stories of this generation.

The question went as far West as the Pacific slope to find Jack London: it went as far East as the city of Rome to find Thomas Nelson Page. It went to writers whose stories have differed as widely as the poles. It sought out Mary Roberts Rinehart and W.W. Jacobs. It was presented to the creator of Emma McChesney and to the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

On this page you will find the answers, and out of their wealth and diversity several things stand clear.
As to the best short story—there is none. There is no universal, single choice.

"But there isn’t any best short story!" protests Alice Brown, and her protest is the protest that comes in other words from the study at Max Gate, Dorchester. You must first define the varieties of "best," says Thomas Hardy.

“One may be the best tragic short story,” runs the message from the man who wrote "Life’s Little Ironies"; “the other may be the best tranquilly domestic short story, and so on, and unless you decide which is 'best,' tragedy, comedy or tragi-comedy, the question is unanswerable. It seems as impossible to say which is the best of these forms of art as to define which is the best color, or the best taste in food, in which everything depends on the requirement."

"No man may tell you which is the best short story," writes Alfred Henry Lewis, very firmly, and a shrewd prediction is made by Owen Wister when he says:

"You have asked a question to which there is really no answer, and you know as well as I do that if the replies you are going to receive coincide it would be amazing enough to become historic in a small way."

The Two Leaders.

Mr. Wister is quite right—and yet there is no little coincidence in the host of replies that have come to this newspaper in response to the question, enough coincidence to make it worth while pointing out that whereas there may be no best short story there are decidedly some best short stories.

On the basis of these replies two stories—one by a Scotchman and one by an American—lead all the rest, because, for each of them, four writers speak. Here are two and, with each, the writer whose favorite it is:

  Stevenson's "A Lodging for the Night."
  Richard Harding Davis.
  Alfred Henry Lewis.
  Jack London.
  Booth Tarkington.
  Harte's "Outcasts of Poker Flat."
  Mr. Davis.
  Wallace Irwin.
  Owen Johnson.
  Gouverneur Morris.

"Point-blank, as you desire," is the message from Mr. Tarkington, "I should answer Stevenson's 'A Lodging for the Night.' Probably this is a rather 'popular opinion'; certainly, it is an old one."

In all, ten writers name Stevenson stories, but it is on this one that four agree—this tale of Master François Villon seeking shelter on a snowy night in Paris long ago. Strangely enough, the other story is also one of snow that falls, "silent, circuitous, interminable."
Next must come those stories that stand in second place, because, for each of them, three writers speak:

  Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King."
  Kipling's "The Brushwood Boy."
  Kipling's "Without Benefit of Clergy."
  Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."
  O. Henry's "A Municipal Report."

This is the Kipling group. Thirteen writers speak for Rudyard Kipling, but of all his stories the favorites are these three, all of them written long ago.

"In my humble opinion," writes Irvin S. Cobb, "the best short story in the English language is Kipling's 'The Man Who Would Be King.'"

Other Kipling "Fans."

And Mr. Davis and Mr. Morris agree with Mr. Cobb. The other two are favorites of Robert W. Chambers; he names as the two best short stories England has given us. For the wonderful dream story, Mrs. Rinehart and Mr. Morris cast the other votes; for the "Without Benefit of Clergy," Mr. Irwin and Mary Stewart Cutting.

Out of all the wealth of O. Henry, the writers settle on just this one—a favorite with Mr. Morris, Mr. Davis, and Montague Glass. [note: O. Henry wrote two selections] And "Heart of Darkness" is the only Conrad story chosen. Thomas Nelson Page puts it first of all; it is named by Sam Hopkins Adams and by Mr. Davis.

And then we come to those stories mentioned twice in answer to the question. These, the stories of the third place, are:

  Dickens's "A Christmas Carol."
  Poe's "The Gold Bug."
  Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher."
  Harte's "Luck of Roaring Camp."
  Cobb's "The Belled Buzzard."

For all its faults, James Lane Allen puts above all the rest that blessed Dickens story, which in the days just past has been read aloud in countless English and American homes. Owen Johnson concurs in the decision. In fact, this third place list is Owen Johnson’s largely. The Harte story is chosen by him, with Mr. Page assenting. The two Poe tales are his choices, that for "The Gold Bug" indorsed by Mr. Chambers, that for "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Mr. Morris.

These four have long been established favorites, classics: the fifth, a new story, first published not so many months ago, is recorded here as the choice of Mrs. Cutting and of the man who designed Potash and Perlmutter—"The Belled Buzzard," by Irvin S. Cobb.

These stories, then, are the preferred list—the very best of all. But in a sense it is well for us to consider each and every one of the stories named as best, or as of the best, or just as great, great favorites, and we have—what? A list of forty-five. It is a list of the best short stories. It is no list compiled within a public library, nor selected by a professor of English literature, nor chosen by some editor or publisher of a collection with due regard to copyright limitations. It is just a list contributed by successful short-story writers—the list of their favorites from the writings of other men and women.

Forty-five in All.

Of course, they did not all contribute alike. Under the guise of inability to name any story at all, there has been some unblushing stuffing of this literary ballot box. It is pointed out for us that a man can never say a story is best; that he can say only whether he likes it or does not like it. Well, these forty-five are the stories our short-story writers like. In the words of the American Ambassador to Italy, they are the stories "at the top—the very top." This then, is the list published here—the forty-five "best short stories" in the English language.

Attention has already been drawn to the choices of Owen Johnson. As may have been equally apparent, two other writers have come close with their own choices to the preferred list, and we must call Mr. Morris and Mr. Davis discerning. There is this from Mr. Davis:

Crossroads Farm,
Mount Kisco, N.Y.
To the Editor of The New York Times:
Your question is, “If you were asked point-blank to name the best short story you had read in the English language, what would your answer be?” After considering for a week your question, my answer point-blank is "A Lodging for the Night," "The Man Who Would Be King," "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," O. Henry's "A Municipal Report," and Stephen French Whitman's "His Wife."
I am sincerely yours,

To Mr. Davis, Gouverneur Morris takes off his hat, and a Morris story, in turn, appears in the list sent by Mr. Chambers. But here is Mr. Morris's letter:

Westchester County, N.Y.
To the Editor of The New York Times:
Sometimes I think Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" is the greatest short story in English. Sometimes I incline to the "Outcasts of Poker Flat," and again it will be the "Brushwood Boy" that knocks me galley-west, or "The Man Who Would Be King." O. Henry's "A Municipal Report" is perfection. Davis has written perfect stories—one after another for a long time now. And, indeed, I don't like to commit myself in print, because I know by experience that to-morrow I shall be playing some other favorite.
I like my own stories better than anybody else's—until they are written.

It depends, says Mr. Hardy, on what you mean by "best." It depends, says Mr. Glass, on who makes the choice. As to his own choice, he is in no doubt. He makes it here:

To the Editor of The New York Times:
Everything depends upon the point of view. If I were an editor working to increase the circulation of my magazine my judgment might be warped accordingly and I would say that the short story on the front page of my magazine’s current issue was the best I had ever read. If I were a critic who wanted to flout contemporary short story writers I would instance an obscure contribution to Blackwoods for 1861 or The Atlantic Monthly for 1867, or the like. If I were a professor of short story writing in a school of journalism trying to justify my occupation, Heaven alone know what I would do, but in doing it I would write a two-hundred-page book anyway.
But, as I am professional short-story writer when I write and a very average reader when I read, I think that "A Municipal Report" by O. Henry printed in the volume "Strictly Business" (Doubleday, Page & Co., Garden City) is the best short story I have ever read. My second choice is "The Belled Buzzard," by Irvin S. Cobb, printed in a volume with other short stories by same writer (George H. Doran Company, New York.) However, the story I love the most, although I cannot esteem it the best, is "Providence and the Guitar," by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Mr. Glass, the man who puts cloaks and suits into fiction, knows just what he likes, but Edna Ferber, whose fame rests partly on a certain traveling saleswoman in the petticoat line, is never sure. She suffers all the pangs of indecision.

To the Editor of The New York Times:
I’ve a confession to make. Not a plain, ordinary, every-day confession, but the sort of soul-baring which will be hideous even to a Sunday editor. This is it:
I’m the sort of person who, when asked point-blank her choice of ice-cream, says, "Chocolate, I think—no peach! No—chocolate! Oh, I don’t know."
That being true, how can you expect me to name, off-hand, the story which I consider the best short story in the English language? If I had any sense of time value, I’d shunt the whole question by saying, grandly, "Oh, 'The String.' or 'The Necklace,' or 'Master and Man,' or 'The Unfinished Story,'" and then, that being off my mind, I should go calmly on dashing off my own deathless masterpieces.
But I can't. I’ve explained why. It all depends on the mood and the time and the weather, and what I’ve had for dinner and that sort of thing. I only know that when I’ve read a short story (perhaps an old one, perhaps a new) and, having read it, finger the pages a moment and shut my eyes and say to myself, "O Lord, O Lord, WHY couldn’t I have written that!" then for the first time being, that’s the best short story I’ve every read.
I said it of "Love in a Mist," one of A. Neil Lyon’s' stories in "Arthur’s Coffee Stall." I remember having said it years ago, in my cub reporter days, of Jesse Lynch Williams's "Stolen Story." I’ve said it again and again of O. Henry. I’ve said it of—
There I go again—Chocolate, no—peach! No, choc—Oh, I don’t know.

And then comes this “point of view” from the author of "Wolfville:"

  457 West 148th St., New York
To the Editor of The New York Times:
No man may tell you which is the best short story. All he can say of a story is that he likes it or doesn’t like it. He might say as much of onion soup. His answer might place his taste; it would not place the story.
Another matter. There are stories and stories—stories of money, of mystery, of adventure, of sacrifice, of crime—detective stories, land stories, sea stories—the list has no end. You no more compare a story of one sort with a story of another sort than you can compare a horse with a cow. If you want to go riding, the horse should be the better animal. Should your purpose be a dairy purpose, you might succeed better with a cow.

Remembering which, I am quite ready to report that for myself I like best Lytton's "The House and the Brain," Kipling’s "Bread Upon the Waters," Dickens's "Dr. Marigold," Stevenson's "A Lodging for the Night," Poe's “Purloined Letter,” Irving's “Wolfert Webber,” Doyle's "The Ring and the Troth," [correctly, The Ring of Thoth] Thackeray's “Rebecca and Rowena”—but what’s the use? I could go on indefinitely.

P.S.—Whatever of sour impatience tinctures the above is born of my hatred for book critics and book criticism. A critic—book—is one who finds fault with you for doing something he could do in a way he wouldn’t do it if he could. He has the same relation to literature that a flea has to a dog—he infests it, lives off it without either advancing it or adorning it. At best and most he may but make the dog scratch a little—as I do here. A.H.L.

In his diverting letter Mr. Lewis names a story by the man who created the best-known character in contemporary imaginative writing. This man, by the way, was beset by no difficulties in answering the "point-blank" question. His choice is direct:

  Crowborough, Sussex
To the Editor of The New York Times:
On the whole, I think that Stevenson's "Pavilion on the Links" is my ideal of a short story.
   Yours truly,

A Stevenson Contingent.

The Stevenson lovers are apt to be single-hearted like this. They know their minds about him, and the promptest answer to the question—it had to come from New Jersey, to be sure—was a single ballot for "The Merry Men." It was cast by Mary E. Wilkins.

Another Stevenson choice comes from Thrushwood, the home of Irving Bacheller, at Riverside, Conn.
"Off-hand," he writes, “I would say that Stevenson's 'Markheim' is the greatest short story I have ever read in the English language."

And still another vote in honor of the great Scotchman is that cast by the Englishman who has it in him to fashion magnificent horror like "The Monkey's Paw" and magnificent fun like "Borrowed Plumage." Here is his note:

  Feltham House, Loughton, Essex.
To the Editor of The New York Times:
My Dear Sir: I have so many friends writing short stories that I decline to answer. But I will say that, to my mind, one of the best short stories ever written is Robert Louis Stevenson's "Will o' the Mill." Believe me, yours very truly,

The answers supply other contrasts besides those between ease and difficulty of choice. There is real conflict of opinion in the comment by Owen Johnson and the letter by Mary Roberts Rinehart, creator of the ruthless Tish and the tooferless Aggie. First Mrs. Rinehart:

Glen Osborne, Penn.
To the Editor of The New York Times:
I think it is safe to give “The Man Without a Country” as my reply to your interesting question. If any reason is needed, it seems to me that many otherwise perfect stories do not stand the test of time. Some of Poe's already area a bit stilted in form to our modern ears, although they are of course unexcelled in subject matter. "The Man Without a Country" reads like the truth that it is the same yester-day, to-day, and to-morrow. It has heart, drama, and life. A great many people think it is quite true, and that’s the real test, isn't it?
For form and beauty of handling, had I a second choice, it would be Kipling's "Brushwood Boy."

Owen Johnson writes:
The curious thing about the whole curious proposition is the number of American stories that spring to mind as opposed to English. With the exception of Kipling and Dickens—his "Christmas Carol"—everything that springs to mind is American; Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," Bret Harte's "Luck of Roaring Camp," "Outcasts of Poker Flat," &c.; Poe's "Gold Bug," "Fall of the House of Usher," &c.; Mark Twain's "Jumping Frog." "The Man Without a Country," if written by a master would have been my choice. As it is, put me down for the story of Ruth and Naomi. All things considered, it is the greatest love story written.

There might be some slight ground for debate as to the right of Mr. Johnson's ultimate choice to a place in a list of the best “English” short stories, but their can be no objection to the exclusion of Mr. Page's favorite. He excluded it himself at the outset. Here is his letter from Rome:

Embassy of the United States of America
To the Editor of The New York Times:
I think that “Cinderella” is the best story ever written. If your letter, however, refers to a story written in English, I should say that perhaps the best story I know is the "Heart of Darkness," by Conrad, though "The Luck of Roaring Camp," "The Murders of the Rue Morgue," "Rip Van Winkle," "Uncle Remus"—any of the first series—and the Jungle Book stories—any one of the first series—and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" are all at the top, the very top.

Alice Brown can make no single choice. She writes:

But there isn't any "best short story." If you had said the best dozen, there'd be some hope for an answer. And if you’d asked for the best within six months or even more, I should say "Dorothy Canfield's "Gifts of Oblivion," in Harper’s Magazine.

The difficulty of making a choice led Samuel Hopkins Adams to a straightforward casting of two ballots. He tells why here:

"Short story" is so elastic a category that one should, I think, be permitted a double choice.
If the term is to include fiction is not actually a novel, I should put Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" first. In the more rigidly defined form, Kipling's "Beyond the Pale."

Mary Stewart Cutting was driven to a quadruple choice. Here is her letter:

To the Editor of The New York Times:
If I were asked what I thought was the best short story in the English language I'd have to answer that I couldn’t possibly tell! But among the finest I can at least place Dickens's "The Story of Richard Doubledick," and Kipling's perfect "Without Benefit of Clergy," and to come down to the present day, "The Door in the Wall," by H.G. Wells, and Irvin Cobb’s wonderful "Belled Buzzard." I am sorry not to be more definite as to choice.
   17 Evergreen Place, East Orange, N.J.

And here is candid indecision for you:

To the Editor of The New York Times:
If asked point blank, I should probably say Kipling’s "Without Benefit of Clergy"—then I should probably say: "No, make it 'Outcasts of Poker Flat.'" But as point-blank shots seldom hit the bull’s eye, I might think of something still better on reflection.

On the other hand, no one could be more decisive than Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews, who for her answer, needs only three words of the title of Kipling’s matchless polo pony story, "The Maltese Cat."
And there is certainly no indecision in this choice by the author of the Phoebe and Ern Martin stories:

To the Editor of The New York Times:
If I were asked point blank to name the best short story I had read in the English language, my answer would be "The Turn of the Screw," by Henry James.

It is Robert W. Chamberlain who divides his stories into English and American. In the latter division he names Poe’s "Gold Bug," "A Journey," by Edith Wharton, Sarah Barnwell Elliott's "An Incident," and "The Claws of the Tiger," by Gouverneur Morris. The English is just Rudyard Kipling, both Kipling favorites as shown by the balloting—"Without the Benefit of Clergy" and "The Brushwood Boy."
Altogether, there is diversity here and Owen Wister is right. See his letter:

To the Editor of The New York Times:
It is a pleasure to do anything I can for THE NEW YORK TIMES. You have asked a question to which there is really no answer, and you know as well as I do that if the replies you are going to receive coincide it would be amazing enough to become historic in a small way. My own belief, and it must be yours also, is that you will receive about as many selections of the best short story in English as you have asked people to make them. But not transgress upon your time any further, let me say that under the agreeable compulsion to which you put me I will choose, not perhaps on the ground of most perfect skill, but of widest and longest appeal, among the short stories with which I am familiar, the one by Charles Dickens entitled "The Cricket on the Hearth."
   1004 West End Trust Building

Had the question sought the best play there would have been little variance probably. Had there been sought here the name of the best novel there would surely have been no forty-five titles to publish.

Yet there is coincidence of choice even on short stories, and even more coincidence on the great writers of short stories. Of the more than a score of present-day writers from whose letters the list has been compiled thirteen named Rudyard Kipling, ten name Robert Louis Stevenson, five name Charles Dickens, six name Edgar Allan Poe and five name Bret Harte.

Are not these, then, the great short story writers of our language? This certainly is no departure from the academic point of view. The professional short story writers have named them to be sure, but probably your professor of short story writing would have named the same five. And there you are.

 Volume1 cover Volume3

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

New York Times Bestsellers: Historical Changes. Fifty-Five Years in Four Easy Pieces

A Summary of the Changes.

To get an idea how the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller List has changed over the last fifty-five years, rather than looking at decades, it is better to divide the data into fourths, quartiles. Each period has approximately 150 novels but, due to the longer stays in the number one position in earlier years, they cover very different time spans.

The Mad Men Era. The first quartile takes place from 1960 through 1990 and was dominated by male-authors, long stays at number one and long novels. The prestige book was often important, usually a historical epic, although other blockbusters were of the sensational variety such as The Valley of the Dolls, or sentimental such as Love Story. The average length of stay for a number one book was 9.6 weeks. Novels written by men accounted for 1200 weeks in the number one position in contrast to 289 for those by women. Six novels were number one for 30 weeks or more.

Period One.
1960 through 1990.
Number of novels in number one position: 155
Average length of stay in number one position: 9.6 weeks.
Average word count: 181,028.
Average page count: 492.
Weeks with novels by male authors in number one position: 1200. (80.6%)
Weeks with novels by female authors in number one position: 289. (19.4%)

The Transition. The second period lasted from 1991 through 2003. The length of stay in the number one position was cut in half. The novels slimmed down by an average of 50,000 words, and the percentage of weeks with a female authored book being in the number one position nearly doubled. Perhaps this period is best defined by J.K. Rowling, a female author who got kicked off the list and on to the children's list after becoming too successful. It ended with the last book to dominate for over 30 weeks in the number one position, The Da Vinci Code.

Period Two.
1991 through 2003.
Number of novels in number one position: 158
Average length of stay in number one position: 4.5 weeks.
Average word count: 131,025.
Average page count: 410.
Weeks with novels by male authors in number one position: 464. (65.5%)
Weeks with novels by female authors in number one position: 244. (34.5%)

Free-for-all. The third period again shortened the stay at number one to approximately half of its previous number, now down to 1.9 weeks. Another 10,000 words were shaved off the word count. The female versus male authorship statistics stayed roughly the same.

Period Three.
2004 through 2009.
Number of novels in number one position: 144
Average length of stay in number one position: 1.9 weeks.
Average word count: 119,472.
Average page count: 419.
Weeks with novels by male authors in number one position: 185. (68.8%)
Weeks with novels by female authors in number one position: 96. (35.7%)*
*Six novels authored by male/female collaborations were counted in the tallies for both groups.

Women Take Charge. The final period begins in 2010. The average length of stay has bottomed out and so has book length. For the first time, female-authored novels have spent more weeks in the number one position than male-authored books.

Period Four.
2010 through April 2015.
Number of novels in number one position: 141.
Average length of stay in number one position: 1.9 weeks.
Average word count: 135,703.
Average page count: 456.6.
Weeks with novels by male authors in number one position: 124. (45.9%)
Weeks with novels by female authors in number one position: 150. (55.6%)*
*Novels authored by male/female collaborations were counted in the tallies for both groups.

These changes are summarized graphically below.

The %female refers to the percentage of weeks a book authored by a woman placed in the number one position on the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller List in a given time period. The %male gives the corresponding numbers for male-authored books. Weeks are the average number of weeks a book remained in the number one position during a given time period. Word count is the number of words in the novels for each quartile.

Friday, May 22, 2015

New York Times Bestselling Authors: Ages, an additional note.

I haven't time to compose a full post.

I wanted to add a bit of perspective to my previous post. While the average age of the author whose books were number #1 on the adult fiction bestseller list was 54 years, this number included all works by a given author. In terms of the age when the bestselling author first made it to number one on the list, the average age dropped, but not by much, to 48.1 years old.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

New York Times Bestsellers: Ages of Authors

One aspect of literature that fascinates me is the fact that it celebrates accumulated wisdom. Authors often bloom in their middle and senior years. 

I examined the ages at which the authors had their bestsellers. To simplify the process I subtracted birth year from year initially appearing on the bestseller list rather than seeking out birthdate versus list date.

A special award goes to J.R.R. Tolkien who, 34 years after dying at age 81, had the novel The Children of Húrin rise to the number one position on the bestseller list, 115 years after his birth.

Another remarkable story is that of Helen Hooven Santmyer. In the 1910s, she was a suffragette and in the 1920s, an Oxford scholar. For the bulk of her professional life she worked as a librarian in Dayton, Ohio. At age 86, and in failing health, she published her 1200 page epic, "...And the Ladies of the Club." It sold several hundred copies, languishing in obscurity for two years until it got noticed. In 1984 it was selected as a Book of the Month, and rose to the number one position on the New York Times Bestsellers List where it stayed for seven weeks.

Eleven novels reaching the number one spot on the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller list between 1960 and 2015 were by authors over the age of 80. Another 38 were by authors between 70 and 79 and 133 novels were by authors between 60 and 69. The average age was 54.1 and the median 54.

On the other extreme, two novels were by authors in their twenties. Rachel Van Dyken with her novel The Bet, owns the position as the youngest.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of one novel, A Predatory Mind (2013) from Loose Leaves Publishing. His mystery, Never Kill A Friend, will be available June 15th from Ransom Note Press. The sequel to A Predatory Mind is set to come out later this year.

Monday, May 18, 2015

New York Times Bestsellers: Genres, Then and Now

Sorting Out Genre.

I have pored through the 598 novels which made it to the number one position on the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller list between 1960 and 2015 sorting them into genres. This was a mind-numbing task with many judgment calls, so take the results with a grain of salt. When is a romance book also a mystery and, if a mystery, is it suspense/thriller? To categorize the novels, I used the publisher's descriptions, the summary descriptions in WorldCat or, occasionally GoodReads summaries along with my own impressions for those novels I had read. Many authors who are known for one genre appear in another, for example, The Black Mesa by Louis L'Amour, is science fiction.

I gave each book at most two classifications or else one classification and a sub-genre. A romance could be a mystery-romance or a suspense-romance, but not mystery-suspense-historical romance. A lot of the decisions came down to word-parsing. I chose the term suspense over thriller, it seemed to be more inclusive and was used more often in descriptions.

Since I allowed two descriptors per book, this means the cumulative classifications total up to be over 100%. 

I chose one or two of the following categories.
  • General (high and low literature that is not primarily genre).
  • Fantasy
  • Horror
  • Mystery
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction
  • Suspense (including Thrillers)
Or else one of the above categories and one of the following subgenres.
  • Epic
  • Erotic
  • Historical
  • Domestic
  • Humorous
  • Inspirational
  • Political
  • Detective
  • Legal
  • Spy
  • Western
I avoided some subgenre terms such as International (usually spy, politics or else just location), Psychological and Adventure (placed under Suspense). 

The Big Picture

One lesson I learned while putting this together is that publishers like the word suspense. For the entire set of number one novels between 1960 and 2015, Suspense was the ruling genre with 265 entries (44.3%). This included mystery/suspense, romantic suspense, techno-thrillers, resurrected dinosaurs and invincible spies (although no resurrected invincible spy dinosaurs). Mysteries and Suspense overlapped, sharing 109 entries. Spies accounted for 40 novels and Suspense/Legal for 25.

Mysteries comprised 203 entries (33.9%). As mentioned above, this category greatly overlapped with Suspense (109). After Mystery/Suspense came Mystery-Detective (40) and Mystery-Humorous (21).

General literature.
General literature, often drama, comprised 113 entries (18.9%). Among these, historical literature made up 39, and domestic fiction 25.

Romance accounted for 100 novels (16.7%). Most commonly these were suspense or else domestic in theme.

Fantasy/Horror/Science Fiction (18.9%)
Fantasy accounted for 64 novels. Many of the 36 horror entries could also be placed in this category. Science fiction accounted for 13.

Recent Times.

Since 2010 there have been 141 novels in the number one position on the NYT Adult Fiction Bestseller List. The top genre is again Suspense, this time just eking out Mystery.

There have been 70 novels with Suspense as a primary category. These have totaled 116 weeks in the number one position.

Sixty-nine Mystery novels have made it to the number one position. They have stayed on top for 125 weeks with the two top sellers being Girl On A Train and Gone Girl. Mysteries are the shortest of the genres averaging 104,161 words. Twenty two of the mystery novels were under 80,000 words.

Romance has 25 entries for 67 weeks. Erotic romance is not a subgenre limited to Fifty Shades of Grey. Since Grey's debut another five erotic romance books have topped the list.

Fantasy/Horror/Science Fiction
These categories total 28 books, led by 18 Fantasies. Five epic fantasies (typified by Sanderson and/or Jordan and Martin) and two historical fantasies (Garabaldon) make up the lengthiest subgenre, averaging 393,757 words.

General literature
Thirteen general literature books took the number one spot, remaining in place for 42 weeks. The two most popular subgenres were historical and domestic.

Bottom line. Each category of genre fiction has increased or held its own while General literature has decreased.Mysteries have increased to the greatest degree.

Two categories were allowed for each book, therefore total percentages are greater than 100.

Continued with Ages of Authors.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

New York Times Bestsellers: A Look At The Authors

The New York Times Adult Fiction Bestsellers List is a surrealistic reflection of America, where Nobel Prize winners rub shoulders with manic typists, a landscape of Don Corleone and werewolves.

The Authors

Between the years 1960 and 2015, 204 authors account for the 598 novels in the number one position on the weekly lists. This includes fifteen co-authors who did not appear separately with novels of their own. Ninety-four authors made one appearance. This means that the authors with multiple entries averaged 5.2 novels.

The top ten leaders account for 221 of the novels and 668 weeks:

  1. James Patterson, 49 novels, 93 weeks. Average length: 68,565 words.
  2. Stephen King/Richard Bachmann, 31 novels, 125 weeks. Average length: 188,688 words.
  3. Danielle Steel, 27 novels, 105 weeks. Average length: 98,024 words.
  4. John Grisham, 23 novels, 117 weeks. Average length: 108,214 words.
  5. Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, 23 novels, 27 weeks. Average length: 122,307 words.
  6. Janet Evanovich, 20 novels, 29 weeks, 68,019 words.
  7. Patricia Cornwell, 18 novels, 42 weeks, 114,096 words.
  8. Mary Higgins Clark, 16 novels, 44 weeks. Average length: 86,339 words.
  9. Tom Clancy, 14 novels, 71 weeks. Average length: 266,228 words.
  10. Dean Koontz, 13 novels, 29 weeks. Average length: 130,127 words.
The leader for most weeks with a number one novel goes to James Michener, 9 novels, 195 weeks. Average length: 437,463 words.

Books with co-authors.

Seventeen different pairs of author/coauthors accounted for 49 books.

These are:

  • James Patterson plus one of ten coauthors. 33 books.
  • Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. 7 books.
  • Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. 3 books.
  • Stephen King and Peter Straub. 2 books.
  • Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. 1 book.
  • Clive Cussler and Paul Kemprecos. 1 book.
  • Tom Clancy and Grant Blackwood. 1 book.
  • Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney. 1 book.
Both Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson have had number one novels independent of each other. For the rest, the second author is present on the list only with his or her partner.

Male Versus Female Authors.

When I approached an analysis of a previous list, that of the top 100 mystery novels by the British Crime Writers' Association, I naively imagined male and female authors would be equally represented. On the female side, I thought of such greats as Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Dorothy L. Sayers and the recently departed, Ruth Rendell. In fact, only 17 of the authors were female.

In putting together the database of New York Times bestsellers, I had the opposite expectation. Patterson and King and Grisham crowded my mind. So which gender accounts for the bestsellers and has this changed?

Overall, 71 female authors writing on their own account for 222 (37.1%) of the 598 of the novels, one female-female collaboration and three females collaborating with males account for an additional fourteen (2.3%). Alone or in co-authorship, women account for 780 weeks in the number one position.

One hundred and five male authors writing on their own account for 336 (56.2%) of the novels. In collaboration with another male, this number increases to 373 (62.4%). Alone plus in collaboration, males account for 1972 weeks on the list (71.7%).

Let's look how that has changed over the years. For those novels written in collaborations between a male and female author, I counted the books for both sexes. For those novels on the bestselling list spanning two decades, I included their presence in both decades, but divided their weeks.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, female authors accounted for 33 novels on the list, totaling 280 weeks. Over the same period, male authors accounted for 118 novels for 1181 weeks. Newspaper strikes and non-novels comprised the remaining portion of this time period.

In the 2010s, a near parity has been achieved. While male-written novels outnumbered female-written novels 80 to 65, the female-written novels have been in top position for 150 weeks compared to 124 weeks for male authors. Four out of five of the novels with the longest runs were written by women: Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen; The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins; The Help, Kathryn Stockett; and, Fifty Shades of Grey, E. L. James.

 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of one novel, A Predatory Mind (2013) from Loose Leaves Publishing. His mystery, Never Kill A Friend, will be available June 15th from Ransom Note Press. The sequel to A Predatory Mind is set to come out later this year.

The blue bars are the percent of novels in the number one position on the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller lists in the given decade which were written by females. The green bar is the equivalent measure for males. The red bar is the percentage of weeks in the number one position by females. The purple bar is for males. In the 1980s, women had bestsellers in the number one position for 18% of weeks (a dramatic difference between the red and purple bars). In the 2010s women have had bestsellers in the number one position for more weeks than males (red higher than purple).

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The New York Times Adult Fiction Bestselling Novels: 1960 to 2015

I've put together a database to analyze the novels which made it to the number one position on the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller list during the period of 1960 through April 2015. I excluded from my analysis the occasional collection of short stories (mostly Stephen King), two inspirational books that ran under 15,000 words, a graphic novel, and a pair of poetry books.


Since 1960, there have been 598 novels averaging 4.6 weeks at number one. The length of stay has changed greatly over the years. In the 1960s, the average entry stayed in the number one position for 16.1 weeks (four months). In the 2010s, the average stay has been 1.9 weeks.

If you wish to read all of these novels, they total 256,659 pages or 444.2 pages per book.

Novel lengths and word counts.

Word count is the gold standard for determining a novel's length. Page counts vary between printings and are manipulated so that short novels are puffed up and long novels are shortened, the latter to save printing expenses.

I could find actual word counts for 320 of the books in my database. I estimated word counts for an additional 261 using the length of the unabridged audio recording by a process previously described. This provided word count information for 97.2% of the novels and all but two of 487 novels since 1986, the exceptions being: Where is Joe Merchant? by Jimmy Buffett and The Force Unleashed by Sean Williams.

Word counts increased from the 1960s to the 1980s when the short novel disappeared: None of the 70 number one novels in the eighties was under 80,000 words*. The short novel returned in the 1990s and peaked in the 2000s. In the 2010s, so far, the average length has ticked upwards. While historical novels made up many of the lengthy books of the 1980s, in the 2010s it has been the epic fantasy. 

*I could not find or estimate the word count of Who Killed the Robins Family? by Thomas Chastain, 1983 and Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut 1979/1980 both of which were likely under 80,000 words.

The Great Feculence of Logorrhea of the 1980s
In the 1960s and 70s, novels under 100,000 words equaled the percentage of novels over 200,000 words. In the 1980s, the 200K+ novels were three times more common than those with less than 100K. In the 2000s this was reversed, those with less than 100K words were four times more common than those with more than 200K.

 The Bestseller List can be thought of as a vote of popularity (popularity = marketing x appeal). In this sense, presence on the list is less significant than the number of weeks present. Do people want long or short novels? In my above analyses, a novel appears for one week it gets an equal say as another novel which stayed for twenty weeks. I will follow-up with an analysis that weights for numbers of weeks present. 

In the meantime:

James Patterson Versus James Michener with a Surprise Appearance by a Celebrity.

The change in who dominated the bestseller list between the 1960s and the 2010s might best be illustrated by the difference between James Michener, who had the number one best selling novel for 49 weeks in 1960 to 1961, and James Patterson, who has had 49 number one bestsellers between 2001 and 2014.

As noted in a previous post, James Patterson is a serial tree killer (if only someone could invent a detective to hunt him down). He writes short books which he sells as medium-length books. While I have already commented on this phenomenon within the space of my more limited dataset, I now have the information to place his work in the context of all number one bestselling novels from 1960 to April 2015. 

The typical James Patterson number one bestselling novel has 68,565 words and is 383 pages. This averages out to be 178.2 words per page. If you remove Patterson's influence from this analysis, the remaining books average 314.9 words per page. For the unabridged audio versions of the other books, the readers take 2.2 minutes per page. For Patterson's books, a page is read in 1.2 minutes.

In contrast, James Michener wrote excruciatingly long novels. He first appeared in the top spot on the bestseller list in 1960 and had eight more novels in the number one position through 1988. His works averaged 437,463 words and 885 pages. Although his books were massive, they averaged 502.5 words per page. If Michener's Texas had as few words per page as the average Patterson novel, it would have run 3080 pages.

With just 9 novels in the number one position, Michener totaled more words than those in Patterson's 49 novels, 3,937,167 to 3,359,675.

In my database of the 581 novels since 1960 with word counts, James Patterson's novels take 35 of the top 37 spots of fewest words per page, including 11 of the top 12.

Although not known as a fiction author, Glenn Beck slunk into the number three spot with The Christmas Sweater, 43,500 words in 284 pages.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of one novel, A Predatory Mind (2013) from Loose Leaves Publishing. His mystery, Never Kill A Friend, will be available June 15th from Ransom Note Press. The sequel to A Predatory Mind is set to come out later this year.

Continued with: A Look at the Authors

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

King of the Golden Hill, Part Four

What Questions Can I Answer?

I initially assembled a database of the New York Times Bestseller Adult Fiction List with a modest goal: to look at those novels which had stayed on top at least four weeks, a sort of peek at the blockbusters among the top selling fiction.

Along the way I decided this was unsatisfactory to address some of the questions which were popping up, so I decided to extend my database to include all novels that made it to number one over the period 1960 to 2015. This will allow me to make more comprehensive statements and will also allow me to look at the more recent time period.

I am extending my database now and I am approximately 80% finished. What questions can I answer? Here are some that come to mind.
  • To what extent has the bestseller list been dominated by male authors? Has this changed in recent times?
  • The short novel all but disappeared in the 1980s. Has it made a comeback? Or is its reemergence limited to just Patterson, Evanovich and Mary Higgins Clark? And if it is three productive writers does that constitute a comeback?
  • How long are the novels of a specific genre? Which genres have dominated over the different time periods? I am still pondering how to identify genre for each. Do books that are equal part romance and mystery get counted as both? What should be my list of genres? For example, was Michener's ouevre "historical epic?" Or should his works be in a larger category that include dramatic epics?
  • How well is the literary novel surviving? How has its representation in the list changed over time?
  • What age were the authors when they made the top of the list? How many were first time authors? How much do veteran bestsellers dominate the list?
  • Does anyone puff-up their novels as much as James Patterson? Preview: a well-known name gives him a run for the money.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

King of the Golden Hill: Part Three.

It's Crowded Getting to the Top.

A total of 462 novels spent at least one week atop the New York Times Bestsellers List for Adult Fiction during the period of 1960 through 2009. Adjusting for 37 weeks of strikes and 84 weeks when short story/novella collections and other non-novel books dominated, this represented an average stay of 5.4 weeks per novel.

The length of the stay on top changed dramatically over the years. In the 1960s, 31 novels accounted for the entries for the entire decade. In the 2000s, this number had risen to 219. Correspondingly, over this period the average number of weeks at the number one position dropped from 16.1 to 2.4.

The above graph shows the average length of stay for all novels in each decade.

From the 1960s through 1999, a total of 28 novels remained at the number one position for only one week. From 2000 to 2009, that number ballooned to 115. During the sixties, the median number of weeks as a number one bestseller was 15 weeks. In the 2000s, it was 1.

The ballooning number of novels lasting one week at #1.

These days.

During the decade beginning 2010 this trend has continued. So far, there have been only 11 novels that have stayed on top for at least four weeks. It is hard to say whether they define a trend in their own right, however, they seem to differ from those of the past, favoring female and fledgling authors. Indeed, many veterans of past years have not been able to sustain a book in the number one position for four weeks, including Stephen King, James Patterson while venerable bestsellers Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton have passed on.

Novels On Top of the NYT Adult Fiction Bestseller List for at least 4 Weeks During the 2010s.

2010-12 The Help, Kathryn Stockett, 21 weeks
2010-11 The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, Stieg Larsson,  9 weeks
2011 Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen, 8 weeks
2012 Fifty Shades of Grey, E. L. James, 29 weeks
2012-15 Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, 7 weeks
2013 Safe Haven, Nicholas Sparks, 7 weeks
2013 The Cuckoo's Calling, Robert Galbraith, 7 weeks
2013 Inferno, Dan Brown, 2013, 6 weeks
2013 Sycamore Row, John Grisham, 7 weeks
2014 The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt, 4 weeks
2015 The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins 13 weeks plus

Of the above group, female authors make up 7 of the 11 entries for 87 weeks while men make up 4 entries for 29 weeks. First novels make up three entries: The Help, Fifty Shades of Grey and Girl on the Train, while The Goldfinch, Gone Girl, Water for Elephants, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest are third novels. Only Grisham, Sparks, Rowling (Galbraith) and Brown represent the old vanguard of bestsellers.

Continued with Part Four.

Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook editions through Amazon and other online retailers.

A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.


Back page blurb.

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game,  features Nikola Tesla as detective.