The Good, the True, the Beautiful:
Those are the things that pay!

—Lewis Carroll

Most authors can contemplate the prospect of making a lot of money with breathtaking equanimity. George Santayana, for instance, had no difficulty in grasping the news that The Last Puritan had been picked as a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. “Of course it is gratifying to have this sudden boost,” he wrote to a friend in 1935, “but someone must have it, apparently, every month, and really it’s not extravagant to think that The Last Puritan, which is a major work and original in some respects, should have been chosen to be one of the twelve in one year.”

But what was to Santayana cause for detached, perhaps even smug, self-congratulation provoked in John P. Marquand an oddly splenetic outburst. When his 1943 novel So Little Time was chosen as a Book of the Month, Marquand wrote to his son John, Jr.:

This, as you may know, is one of the things which we boys in our profession strive for, and I am told that I am peculiarly honored since I am one of the few novelists who have had two novels selected by this august money-making organization, and nearly the only one who has had two in succession. Aside from this I am not deeply moved. I think the Book-of-the-Month Club is a racket that is spoiling the general sale of books by concentrating on the few that it sends to its customers. It is really another of these organizations which exploits our writers as do agents and the publishers themselves, as well as the damn movies.

The difference between Marquand’s exasperation and Santayana’s cool detachment was probably more a matter of self-confidence than anything else. Marquand, for years a highly paid contributor of slick short stories to The Saturday Evening Post, had been struggling since the publication of The Late George Apley to gain recognition as a serious novelist. (“I have never understood,” he wrote, “why a sinner is not allowed at least to attempt reformation in the American World of Letters.”) But he never quite pulled it off, and his efforts succeeded only in cementing the admiration of newspaper reviewers, the affection of millions of American readers, and the respect of the editorial board of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

For a frustrated highbrow like Marquand, the approval of the Book-of-the-Month Club was sheerest gall. The orthodox view of the BOMC as America’s caretaker of middlebrow literary taste was neatly summed up three decades ago by Dwight Macdonald, who observed in his essay “Masscult & Midcult” that “Midcult is the Book-of-the-Month Club, which since 1926 has been supplying its members with reading matter of which the best that can be said is that it could be worse, i.e., they get John Hersey instead of Gene Stratton Porter.” Nor was this elaborate disdain a mere affectation of Macdonald’s. When Norman Podhoretz was an undergraduate whiz at Columbia in the late Forties, envious but socially tonier peers gleefully predicted that he would become another Clifton Fadiman when he grew up. Fadiman, who also started out as an undergraduate whiz at Columbia, ended up reviewing books for The New Yorker, starring on the popular radio show “Information, Please,” and joining the BOMC panel of judges, the latter a job which he holds to this day. The insult was apparently considered definitive by its wielders. If the Book-of-the-Month Club had been around in 1922, George Follansbee Babbitt would surely have been a charter member.

Blackballed by the American World of Letters, Marquand finally succumbed to the blandishments of the Book-of-the-Month Club—in spades. Not only did he accept without further protest the fifty thousand dollars which the selection of So Little Time added to his 1943 royalty statement, he also accepted an invitation to become one of the club’s judges, the ultimate Midcuit literary sinecure. Marquand kept the job, which paid him twenty thousand a year, for the rest of his life, and whatever pleasures it afforded him, he knew that it had defined him more firmly than ever.

Were the highbrows right about the Book-of-the-Month Club? More than seven hundred books have been chosen as Main Selections in the six decades during which the club has been doing business, and it is, after all, worth remembering that The Last Puritan did indeed make the cut. So did Nineteen Eighty-Four, Doctor Faustus, A Preface to Morals, The Catcher in the Rye, The Gulag Archipelago, In Cold Blood, and Seven Gothic Tales, none of them quite the thing for perusing on hot summer nights in Zenith, Ohio.

The quality of these titles alone suggests that there might just be more to the Book-of-the-Month Club than meets the highbrow eye. Such is the case made by Al Silverman, chairman of the BOMC and editor of The Book of the Month: Sixty Years of Books in American Life, a celebratory miscellany of articles originally published in The Book-of the-Month Club News, a monthly magazine which describes the club’s current selections, alternates, and dividends.1 Mr. Silverman’s ostensible purpose is to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Book-of-the-Month Club. But one quickly realizes that this miscellany has a message. Mr. Silverman, it seems, earnestly wishes to convince the reader that the BOMC, far from being a mere middlebrow business venture, has in fact been an institution central to the American literary life.

That Mr. Silverman takes the Book-of-the-Month Club seriously is evident in his choice of epigraph for The Book of the Month, a generous slice of Milton’s “Areopagitica.” That he means to place the BOMC in the mainstream of American literature is equally evident in his opening paragraph: “Harry Scherman picked a good time to start a book club. It was 1926 and Hemingway was posing for a photograph with Joyce, Eliot, and Pound at Sylvia Beach’s bookstore in Paris.” But the full scope of his intentions is revealed when he explains that the purpose of The Book of the Month is to “tell a story of the social history of the past six decades as seen through books,” adding that “I wanted to know more about the club’s past because that way I would know a little more about our past as a country.” (Shades of Charlie Wilson and General Motors.)

Cynics will doubtless respond that the real purpose of The Book of the Month is to provide advertising for what John Marquand, who knew the value of a dollar, succinctly described as a “money-making organization.” But Mr. Silverman, it turns out, is at least partly right. Not that The Book of the Month has any particular literary value. Though a great many distinguished authors who have contributed to the pages of The Book-of-the-Month Club News turn up in the pages of this volume, their contributions tend to run to what Joseph Epstein calls “blurbissimo.” The best piece of writing in The Book of the Month, ironically, is a droll letter which highbrow radio comedian Fred Allen sent to the BOMC in response to a request for a review of a novel by an old Allen jokewriter named Herman Wouk.

The Book of the Month does contain the raw material for an exercise in social history.

Still, The Book of the Month does contain the raw material for an exercise in social history which, if not quite as broad as that promised by Mr. Silverman, is nonetheless intriguing. This is the story of the club itself, a tale which George Santayana, chronicler of America’s genteel tradition and author of two Main Selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, would have appreciated to the fullest. And though Mr. Silverman devotes too much space to corporate puffery and not nearly enough to hard facts, his book gives the reader a clear sense of the important role the club has played in what William Shirer, a favorite author of BOMC members, might have described as the rise and fall of American literature since World War I.

The idea of a mail-order book club had apparently been floating around for a good many years before Harry Scherman got the notion to start one in 1926. Subscription libraries in the United States go back to the days of Benjamin Franklin. The German Volksverband der Bücherfreunde (People’s Union of Book Lovers) published and distributed books at a discount as a response to the postwar hyperinflation. But the Book-of-the-Month Club sprang up as a result of an entirely different problem: the poor distribution of books outside America’s major cities. In 1930 there was one bookstore for every thirty thousand Americans. Thirty-two percent of Americans had no direct access to any bookstores whatsoever. Shorter working hours, higher literacy rates, and rural electrification had combined to increase the number of potential readers of books and magazines. A huge, untapped market was waiting for the right kind of businessman to come along.2

The Twenties may have been the decade of Hemingway, Joyce, Eliot, and Pound, but they were also the age of what Al Silverman adroitly describes as “entrepreneurs of the word.” The Reader’s Digest was founded in 1922, Time in 1923, The New Yorker in 1925. These business ventures, like the men who founded them, were as characteristic of the Twenties as bathtub gin. DeWitt Wallace, Henry Luce, and Harold Ross were all classic specimens of the Great American Culture Salesman, half genius and half rube, a type which seemingly came in with Coolidge and went out with Pearl Harbor. Wallace was once described by a colleague as having a “strictly average” mind which “completely reflects the mentality of his readers.” Though he boasted of his “passable” Latin and Greek, Harry Scherman was clearly cut from the same bolt. His business philosophy was straight out of the pages of Dale Carnegie or Elbert Hubbard—or, for that matter, the Reader’s Digest itself.

If you are to deal with or think about the American people en masse, you can trust them as you trust yourself. You can trust their consuming curiosity about all the quirks and subtleties of human existence; you can trust their fascination with every colorful aspect of history; you can trust their immediate response to good humor and gaiety, but also to the most serious thought; you can trust their gracious open-mindedness, forever seeking new light upon their troubled but wonderful world.

A man who can say such things without cracking a smile is destined to become a millionaire, and Harry Scherman did not disappoint. Recognizing that there was a fortune to be made in mail-order books, he devised an ingenious subscription system in which club members were required to purchase a fixed number of titles a year and were automatically sent a Main Selection each month. Scherman then added a stiftjolt of very special old snake oil. He decided that the Main Selection would be chosen by an all-star editorial board which met regularly to have lunch and select the “Book of the Month”: Henry Seidel Canby, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Christopher Morley, Hey-wood Broun, and William Allen White.

The result, a typically American combination of steak and sizzle, caught on with amazing speed. Starting out with 4,750 members, the Book-of-the-Month Club expanded to 46,539 within eight months. By 1929, 110,588 people were members of the club, which was well on its way to becoming a fixed star of American popular culture. People told jokes about the Book-of-the-Month Club. Novelists satirized it. Other entrepreneurs imitated it, using Scherman’s basic subscription principle to sell everything from fruit to phonograph records. There was even a highbrow equivalent of the BOMC, the Reader’s Subscription, whose editorial board consisted of Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, and W. H. Auden.

The club’s initial selling point was convenience. (The BOMC’s first advertising slogan was “Handed to You by the Postman, the New Books You Intend to Read.”) But the all-star board made the Book-of-the-Month Club a household word. The purpose of the board, Scherman later said, was “to set up some kind of authority so that the subscribers would feel that there was some reason for buying a group of books. We had to establish indispensable confidence with publishers and readers.” By giving his editorial board absolute freedom to pick the Main Selection each month, Scherman gave to the Book-of-the-Month Club a patina of independence and literary respectability; by choosing as panelists five conservatively minded writers who were already in the business of attracting large audiences, he ensured that the Main Selections would never be so recherché as to scare off an excessive number of subscribers.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher anchored the first BOMC panel to the literary center as rigidly as Scherman could possibly have wished. Though her own novels are forgotten today, her aesthetic standards are suggested by a 1946 exchange of letters reprinted in The Book of the Month. To an unhappy BOMC member complaining that the current Main Selection depicted “a group of people whose entire conversation is made up of talk of sleeping with each other, and such dirty stuff,” Miss Canfield stalwartly replied:

Three of the five members of the Editorial Board . . . are of Quaker background. That is, I think you will agree, a guarantee of our sober, careful upbringing in our youth, and of our recognition of moral values during our adult life . . . . I am repelled as you are by what seems to me the overemphasis laid in modern novels on sex-relations. But I feel that if there is in our American twentieth-century life as it is lived by large numbers of people, in actual reality, such an overemphasis, with its resultant misery and dreariness, it would be ostrich-like for our serious novel writers to ignore it.

What squalid fancy of the editorial board, one wonders, could Miss Canfield possibly have been defending? The Company She Keeps? Memoirs of Hecate County? Other Voices, Other Rooms? None of the above. It was a best-selling novel about the advertising business called The Hucksters. One wonders what poor Miss Canfield, who died in 1958, would have made of the sex relations overemphasized in such later Main Selections as The World According to Garp.

Even more central to the success of that first panel were Henry Seidel Canby and Christopher Morley, the best-known literary popularizers of their day. Both men achieved a modest immortality by being on the receiving ends of two of the wickedest parodies imaginable, Morley a brutal 1938 Edmund Wilson spoof called “The Pleasures of Literature” (“With how sure an expectation of solace, amid the turmoil and perplexities of our time, do I turn, when the fires of evening are lit, to my silent companions of the library!”) and Canby an even more savage character sketch in Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution:

He was a prominent literary critic: he had a column of criticism, every week except the last two weeks in August, in the best-known literary weekly; he was a director of a club that picked books for readers who didn’t know what to read . . . during the school year he would lecture to colleges, and when the school year was over he would make commencement addresses to them or get honorary degrees from them; he was the chief reader of a publishing house, he was one of the vice-presidents of the American branch of the Academie Française; you saw one-act plays by him, if you fell among anthologies of one-act plays; he even wrote informal essays.

Scherman’s first panel, as Richard Rovere noted in The American Mercury, “carried the stamp of culture without being too frighteningly highbrow.” The Main Selections they picked out from the thousands of titles submitted to the BOMC each year attracted herds of loyal, trusting subscribers. (Up to fifty percent of the club’s members were taking the Main Selection as late as 1948.) And as the original board members died or retired, Scherman continued to display an impeccable sense of middlebrow literary taste in choosing their replacements.

John P. Marquand, who came aboard in 1944 and remained until his death in 19 60, was in many ways the quintessential board member of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The country’s most consistently popular author throughout the Forties and Fifties, Marquand was unfailingly sensitive to the need to offer the widest possible variety of books to the club’s members. Reporting to his fellow board members in 1947 on a novel by Thomas Costain, Marquand noted: “It seems to me about time that we gave the customers something with entertainment value, and never mind the art and implications.” After reading Intruder in the Dust, he told board member Amy Loveman that the book “really would be easier to read if [Faulkner] adopted a few printer’s conventions, but perhaps its being hard to read makes it great literature.”

Despite a penchant for highbrow-baiting, Marquand was just as capable of pushing a book like Peter DeVries’s The Tents of Wickedness or Francis Steegmuller’s translation of Madame Bovary, and his recommendations were generally as solid and reliable as was his own writing. Judges like Marquand and Clifton Fadiman, for all their literary sophistication and intelligence, were sufficiently aloof from the more upsetting crosscurrents of modernism to ensure that each month’s Main Selection would be respectable enough to keep the business side of the BOMC humming.

No complete listing of the club’s seven hundred-odd Main Selections is currently available to the general public, making it difficult to analyze changes in the quality and character of the club’s offerings over the years. But The Book of the Month provides an informative, if unsystematic, overview of the club’s offerings throughout its sixty-year history, and one of the most striking things about Mr. Silverman’s running commentary is the candor with which he confesses the failings of the selection process.

Leafing at random through The Book of the Month, one runs across sentence after sentence like these: “For some unfathomable reason, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren was not picked as a Selection of the Club.” “No Faulkner novel became a book of the month until his last book, a minor work called The Reivers, perhaps because one judge confessed that he always giggled when reading Faulkner.” “Thus The Sun Also Rises did not become the Book of the Month.” “No F. Scott Fitzgerald work ever became a Book of the Month.” “It is somewhat disconcerting to note that Saul Bellow’s first BOMC Selection came late in 1975.” “But it wasn’t until 1979, with The Ghost Writer, that a Roth book became a Club Selection.”

What caused these embarrassing oversights? One suspects that a good deal of blame can be laid on the board’s use of the principle of concurrence in choosing Main Selections. “The old Quakers in their business meetings,” Canby explained, “never voted. If the majority could not persuade the minority to concur, the proposal was dropped.” Conventional balloting having failed to work in the BOMC’s early years, Canby persuaded the board to use concurrence instead. As a result, a lot of books were dropped over the years because they failed to accord with the sensibilities of one or the other of the five judges. John Marquand claimed that Intruder in the Dust was passed over as a Main Selection because it made one of the judges “nervous.” And when Amy Loveman agreed to concur in the selection of Robert Ruark’s Something of Value, she insisted on being allowed to publish the following starchy dissent in The Book-of-the-Month Club News:

This is an absorbing book, but many readers will find it a shocking one, as I did, and that is the reason I did not approve of its selection. It is not shocking in the ordinary sense of the word, for it contains no obscenity and no deliberate attempt at sensationalism, but shocking by sheer weight of its facts.

Even when the board managed to pick a book of undeniable seriousness, strange things sometimes happened in the course of the selection process. Books were read and considered six months or more prior to publication, and it was not uncommon for the board to suggest revisions to the author. For the most part these suggestions were made to novice authors. But the editorial board actually dared to suggest to George Orwell that Nineteen Eighty-Four would benefit from two cuts, the appendix on Newspeak and the thirty-page “Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.” Orwell declined (“I really cannot allow my work to be mucked about beyond a certain point,” he told his American publisher) and the board, to its credit, backed down.

George Orwell scored twice, the first time with Animal Farm.

George Orwell scored twice, the first time with Animal Farm. James Michener, on the other hand, has racked up ten Main Selections since 1947, making him the all-time fiction champ of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Five to one sounds about right. “Because no permanent contribution to world literature has been published in the month of May,” Canby asked rhetorically, “is a critic therefore stopped from recommending somebody’s good and readable novel?” This question could have easily served as the credo of the BOMC editorial board. Some of the board’s selections were first-rate, some frankly trashy, most comfortably middle-of-the-road. Charles Lee cites the following “distinguished selections” in his introduction to The Hidden Public: The Story of the Book-of-the-Month Club, written with the full cooperation of the club, and his list would seem to be as representative of its period as any: All Quiet on the Western Front, Gone with the Wind, The Good Earth, John Brown’s Body, Life with Father, Kristin Lavransdatter, Revolt in the Desert, The Rise of American Civilization, Elmer Gantry, The Last Puritan, Darkness at Noon, Animal Farm, Anthony Adverse, Benjamin Franklin, The Nazarene, The Gathering Storm, The Old Man and the Sea, Andersonville, and By Love Possessed.

Confronted with so bewildering a hodgepodge of titles, the reader is likely to grope for some sort of meaningful ordering principle. Such groping is in vain. Canby claimed that his sole purpose in selecting books was “the passing on of sound values to others.” Fadiman speaks of “my own direct, uncomplicated, eager interest in a book.” The judges explained in the very first issue of The Book-of-the-Month Club News that their object had been “not to deliver an ultimatum as to the ‘best’ book each month, but to find a book that will appeal most winningly and forcibly to widely differing tastes.” William Allen White broke down those tastes in 1940 as follows: twenty percent “who will accept subtlety in literature, who like stylists, who do not mind ‘dirt,’ who quickly fall in with new literary fashions”; twenty percent “who have made good but have not had much education, who like the looks of the books on their living-room tables, who intend to read but never get around to it”; and sixty percent “solid professional people—doctors, school principals, and so on.” If there is a better definition of middlebrow taste, I haven’t heard it.

Highbrow opinions of the Book-of-the-Month Club, not surprisingly, have varied wildly. When Charles Lee sent Malcolm Cowley a list of the club’s Main Selections from 1926 to 1953 and invited comment, Cowley pointed out that Faulkner, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Gide, Pirandello, Rilke, Lorca, D. H. Lawrence, Dos Passos, Yeats, Eliot, Mauriac, Conrad Aiken, Valéry, Claudel, and Colette were among the important authors of the day who were missing. (Proust and Colette eventually made it as alternates.) Still, Cowley’s overall opinion of the club was one of “very qualified praise.”

Dwight Macdonald, on the other hand, was convinced that middlebrow institutions like the Book-of-the-Month Club had a dangerous and destructive effect on American culture:

Up to about 1750, art and thought were pretty much the exclusive province of an educated minority. Now that the masses—that is, everybody—are getting into the act and making the scene, the problem of vulgarization has become acute. I see only two logical solutions: (a) an attempt to integrate the masses into high culture; or (b) a contrary attempt to define two cultures, one for the masses and the other for the classes. I am for the latter.

Macdonald saw the Book-of-the-Month Club, like the novels of John Marquand or the plays of Thornton Wilder, as a flagrant example of Midcult, a consciously commercial attempt to bridge the gap between Masscult and High Culture. He was convinced that Midcult undermines and vulgarizes the values of High Culture and makes it easier for the barbaric minions of Masscult to storm the gates. (“But that roller-skating horse comes along, and the final impression is that both Renoir and the horse were talented”) And he argued forcefully that Midcult values, “instead of being transitional—‘the price of progress’—may now themselves become a debased, permanent standard.”

Highbrow opinions of the Book-of-the-Month Club, not surprisingly, have varied wildly.

As an indictment of mass culture as a whole, this argument carries a good deal of weight. As an indictment of the Book-of-the-Month Club in particular, it doesn’t wash. Al Silverman himself makes the case for Midcult in The Book of the Month, although not very well:

In his challenging essay “Masscult & Midcult,” Dwight Macdonald criticized the Book-of-the Month Club for what he felt was its tendency to water down and vulgarize high culture . . . . Harry Scherman was a pragmatist, and a populist, when it came to reading. He understood that there would always be that gulf between Macdonald’s High Culture and popular culture, but he also felt that the two sometimes merged and, anyway, that a bridge existed between the two and that people could walk back and forth as they chose.

A more convincing argument, however, is implicit in this earnest but naive rebuttal of “Masscult & Midcult.” Harry Scherman, like DeWitt Wallace and Henry Luce, proposed to make a lot of money by improving people’s minds, and he took both sides of the equation seriously. The purpose of the Book-of-the-Month Club, as Scherman saw it, was to bring an unprecedentedly wide selection of books into as many homes as possible. “In the late nineties or early nineteen hundreds,” he wrote in 1928,

conditions were probably at their worst. That was the day of the real best seller, when half a dozen books sold up to half a million copies each, when the general reading population all read the same five or six books—and very few others—when 2,000 copies was a good sale for a serious nonfiction book, and 300,000 moderate distribution for a popular milk-and-water novel. That is standardization—and we had it.

To judge by those goals, Scherman succeeded brilliantly, selling books to the masses that almost certainly would not have reached them otherwise. Many of those books were good. And a good book, as Carl Van Doren once said, “is not made less good or less useful by being put promptly into the hands of many readers.” One suspects that even George Santayana would have agreed. Surely the forty thousand copies of The Last Puritan sold to the members of the Book-of-the-Month Club more than adequately define the club’s very real place in the American literary life.

What has the passing of time done to Harry Scherman’s radiant vision of a more literate America? Up until a few years ago, it still made perfect sense. I should know, for I was once a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and my memories of it are wholly benign. I joined the club as a small-town high-school senior in Missouri for the very good reason that there wasn’t a decent bookstore much closer than a day’s drive from my home town. During the two years I belonged, I purchased at least three Main Selections that have remained on my bookshelves to this day: William Manchester’s American Caesar, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers. I bought my fair share of alternates and dividends, too, among them a very nice set of Evelyn Waugh’s early novels and a Nabokov package that contained Lolita, Speak, Memory, and Pale Fire. It’s hard to get much more highbrow than that.

But times have changed back where I come from. Now there are a couple of surprisingly good bookstores thirty miles from my old front door. The spread of chain bookstores throughout the small towns and rural areas that once provided the BOMC with its staunchest customers has revolutionized the publishing business. It has also deprived the Book-of-the-Month Club of one of its chief reasons for existing. Fred Smith, then BOMC publicity director, noted in 1948 that “We do more than half of our business in cities where the publishers do less than 20% of theirs. Where publishers do 90% of their business, we do something over 40% . . . . This would indicate that our business is directly related to book distribution, that the vast majority of our members are people who have no readily available retail source of books.” Those words have an ominous ring today.

Moreover, the drawing power of the Book-of-the-Month Club editorial board has been on the wane for years. John Marquand was probably the last panelist widely known to the general reading public. Today’s editorial board consists of veterans Clifton Fadiman and John K. Hutchens; novelists Mordecai Richler and Wilfrid Sheed; and David McCullough and Gloria Norris, both of whom started out as members of the BOMC staff before being promoted to the board. Good judges all, no doubt, but one has to wonder exactly what they add to the appeal of the club out in the boondocks. Not that the Book-of-the-Month Club is to blame. Literary celebrity just isn’t what it used to be. What public figure of today, literary or otherwise, could possibly wield an authority equivalent to that once exercised by the likes of Canby or Marquand? John Updike? William F. Buckley, Jr.? James Clavell? Bill Cosby? Phil Donahue? A grim little party game suggests itself.

The drawing power of the Book-of-the-Month Club editorial board has been on the wane for years.

In any event, the literary scene today shows no sign of having been influenced for the better by Harry Scherman’s democratic plans for the bookbuying future. “We thought that we might be able to create a new kind of audience for good reading,” Henry Seidel Canby said in 1947, “and we did.” Maybe so. But though more people are indeed buying more books, the books they are buying are for the most part trashier than ever. Publishing has become an impossibly big business, and the margin for error at the major houses has become so narrow as to squeeze out almost anything that can’t be sold by the truckload.

The current issue of People, which is lying on my desk as I write this paragraph, contains an article about a woman named Sally Beauman whose first novel, Destiny, was recently signed by Bantam Books for a record-breaking one-million-dollar advance. Stephen Rubin, Bantam’s editorial director, describes Miss Beauman as follows: “This is a woman who not only understands the elements of a blockbuster, but she can write as well. There is elegance in Destiny, along with intelligence, energy, and sex.” One week before the official publication date, Destiny appeared at the number six spot on The New York Times bestseller list.

When I read this cautionary tale, I immediately thought of an indelible remark Diana Trilling made in her review of John P. Marquand’s 1946 novel B. F.’s Daughter:

Without transcending the high-grade commodity level, he has done a great deal to raise our standards of what a literary commodity can be. Without urging us to regard his novels as “important,” he has done more than any writer of our time to close the dangerous gap between important and popular fiction.

Well, Mrs. Trilling, that gap is yawning again. There are no more John P. Marquands, and if there were their books probably wouldn’t sell. Their closest equivalents are such pandering sexual politicians as John Irving and E. L. Doctorow. The comparison between Marquand’s popular but artistically serious novels and the fifth-rate throwaway tracts of his successors illustrates with grisly accuracy the deterioration that has taken place in American literature over the last couple of decades.

But there is still a Book-of-the-Month Club, fumbling along in its well-meaning, idealistic way, bringing pretty good books to the prairies year after year. To be sure, the pickings are slimmer these days. Where once the BOMC could offer its readers The Heart of the Matter and Brideshead Revisited and The Last Hurrah, they now get . . . And Ladies of the Club and The Accidental Tourist and The Cider House Rules. And publishers are increasingly less willing to cut deals with the BOMC when they can dump millions of copies of a piece of garbage like Destiny directly into the chain bookstores without wasting time and money on middlemen.

Still, one shouldn’t blame the BOMC for the declining quality of the books it has to sell. No doubt the judges are patiently making do with the likes of John Irving in the secret hope that another John Marquand will finally come along. “Optimists as always,” Al Silverman writes in The Book of the Month, “all of us who work for the Club today are looking for more for tomorrow. We are joined together to find, among the 5,000 submissions we get from publishers every year, the book that will bring us wonder and joy or help us understand this fragmented age.” The current hoopla at the BOMC involves the board’s decision to offer an art book as the Main Selection for the first time ever. The book in question is Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures, and the BOMC has ordered up a special edition. It’s comforting to note that whatever the long-term prospects of the Book-of-the-Month Club, America’s literate middlebrows continue to be suckers for the right kind of pitch.3

Me, I’m not a member any more. There are enough good bookstores in New York to suit my tastes. But I wish the Book-of-the-Month Club well. Its old-fashioned goals remain every bit as brave and foolish as Dwight Macdonald’s chilly vision of a society where “the masses have their Mass-cult” while “the few who care about good writing, painting, music, architecture, philosophy, etc., have their High Culture.” Not to mention a good deal more humane. If Clifton Fadiman and company ever find themselves in need of a new board member, they can write to me in care of this magazine. I know a good lost cause when I see one.

  1.  The Book of the Month: Sixty Years of Books in American Life, edited by Al Silverman; Little, Brown, 335 pages, $17.95.
  2.  This account of the history of the Book-of-the-Month Club draws in large part on Charles Lee’s The Hidden Public: The Story of the Book-of-the-Month-Club, published in 1958 by Doubleday. Club officials declined to talk with me or supply any information about the BOMC and its operations.
  3.  The club’s Main Selections since January, 1986, include such titles as Geraldine Ferraro’s memoirs, David Halberstam’s The Reckoning, Larry McMurtry’s Texasville, and no less than two novels by Stephen King. It may be worth mentioning that the only one of the club’s last twenty-two selections which I have read for other than professional reasons is Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 2, on page 36
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