Most novels come and go, soon on the remainder table and then forgotten. Some, however, are publishing sensations and great commercial successes in their time. One such was Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, published in 1956. It stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for fifty-six weeks and spawned an industry, with movies, a sequel, and a hit television series. But no one would call it a great work of fiction. And today, while in print, it is only a name to most people or, perhaps, a metonym for “dirty books.”

Others, genre books, are read generation after generation. The mysteries of Agatha Christie sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year. But while their plots are often ingenious (they make terrific airplane reading), their characters are forgettable at best (although such great actors as David Suchet and Joan...


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