On cultural memory

Interesting discovery earlier this week: I do a trivia question for my kids every week, right? Usually something connected to history, but not always. It’s completely optional and not for a grade; the people who get it right get a piece of candy on Friday and that’s really it. Just a little fun thing.

This month’s questions have all been about women, since it’s Women’s History Month, and this week’s was Who is the highest-selling woman author in the world? I was pretty certain I knew the answer, but I needed to double-check it before posting the question, because if I was wrong and it turned out to be She Who Shall Not Be Named, I was going to have to come up with a different question.

And I found a list— not perfect, Wikipedia admits– of the top-selling authors of all time. And it’s shocking, because of the number of authors on it that I have never heard of. Now, granted, people have been writing books for a long time, and I can’t read or know about all of them, but given how much of my life I have dedicated to reading and books, even given that several of them aren’t close to being in my genre, the fact that I haven’t ever heard of half of the top ten– half!— frankly blows my mind. Here’s the list:

  1. William Shakespeare. And, okay, yeah. I feel like there’s an argument to be made that Shakespeare doesn’t belong on the same list as the rest of these people, since he was a playwright and not a novelist or actual prose author, but I’m not going to make that argument right now. At any rate, I’ve heard of and read Shakespeare.
  2. Agatha Christie, meaning that my guess about the best-selling woman author was correct. Somewhere between two and four billion books sold. I have read three of them.
  3. Barbara Cartland, who I have never heard of in my entire life despite the fact that she has written seven hundred and twenty-three books and sold a billion copies of those books. I don’t read romance, granted! But how the hell have I never heard of her??
  4. Danielle Steel. Wouldn’t have guessed that she was this big-time, but okay. I haven’t read anything by her but at least I’m familiar with her.
  5. Harold Robbins. No idea. 23 books, American, around 750 million sales. Never heard of him.
  6. Georges Simenon. I’ll cut myself a bit of slack because he wrote in French and is Belgian, but there are 700 million copies of his 570 books out there and I’ve never seen one in translation? Fucking seriously? HOW??
  7. She Who Shall Not Be Named. Whatever.
  8. Enid Blyton. I think that maybe if you’d asked me who Enid Blyton was before I saw this list I might have been able to say she was an author. Maybe. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to provide more detail than that, and I’m willing to toss her on the “never heard of” pile.
  9. Sidney Sheldon. Between 370 and 600 million books sold. A suspense author, so his(?) books are probably much more aligned to my tastes. No clue.
  10. Eiichiro Oda. I’ll call him a .5, because I’ve never heard his name, but he’s the One Piece guy and I’ve heard of One Piece.

I have also never heard of #11, Gilbert Patten, #13, Akira Toriyama, but see Oda because it’s a similar situation, or #15, a Spaniard named Corin Tellado who supposedly has written four thousand books. Weirdly, after that, you have to roll through a couple dozen before I hit someone I’m unfamiliar with, and there are no American or English authors on the rest of the list who I’ve never heard of.

(Also, I just went and checked dates, and there are only three in the top 10 whose lives didn’t overlap with mine: Shakespeare, of course; Blyton, who died in 1964, and, ironically, Christie, who died six months before I was born. These are not nineteenth-century authors or anything, with the obvious exception of Shakespeare. They are all relatively modern.)

How the hell do you sell a billion books and you leave so small (or so specific) a cultural footprint that I, a person who has been reading constantly for his entire life, have never heard of you? I know I’m edging toward– if not trampling on– the idea that Nothing I Haven’t Heard Of Is Important, which I don’t believe, but books are kind of my thing, and the notion that I don’t know half of the top 10 writers who ever lived is weird, right? And not weird in a “something is wrong with me” type of way, but in a “something’s going on here” sort of way? Is romance that sequestered from every other genre of writing that this is normal?

I dunno. How many of these ten authors have you heard of? Is there anybody reading this who knows all ten of them?

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.

6 thoughts on “On cultural memory

  1. I don’t know 8 or 10. Not that his works aren’t important and worth reading for their own sake, but I can’t help thinking that Shakespeare has the advantage of longevity and inclusion in academic curricula from (at least) 7th grade onwards. All I could tell you about Cartland is that she was a romance novelist, and I know that piece of information because once upon a time I worked in a bookstore and shelved fiction, romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and erotica. I am not sure how to define “recently,” but I would say that until recently, romance was definitely sequestered. Its fans are legion and DEVOTED, often not reading much outside of that genre, and readers of other genres look down their noses at romance novels as not real writing. (As a bookstore employee, I was told that Danielle Steel had it in her contract that her books be shelved in fiction rather than romance.) It has moved beyond windswept, shirtless Fabio, ripped bodices, and heaving bosoms and has at least as many sub genres and nuances as mystery, science fiction, and fantasy. Maigret isn’t quite as famous as Poirot (despite appearing in more than twice as many books), but I am a little surprised you haven’t heard of him, even if you don’t know his creator’s name. I am not sure that I would have guessed Christie, but I am not surprised.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Enid Blyton was a hugely popular children’s book author in the UK. Maybe her work wasn’t published in the US? Simenon’s works are available in English – certainly in the UK and New Zealand with no difficulty. Barbara Cartland is also famous in the UK and was somehow related to Princess Diana. Harold Robbins I know but have never read his books. I, on the other hand have no idea who Eiichiro Oda is, but he does manga which explains that!

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  3. I didn’t know five, six, or 10. When you say that it is an author I remember that I have heard that before, but I don’t think I would know without context.

    And yes, romance is that much of a involuntarily walled garden. I don’t know of any other genre that receives as much bile from what feels like everyone.

    I love romance novels because they’re stories that celebrate love, and they nearly always end happily. They can very much be the CottonCandy of my literary diet, but we all need an escape of some sort.

    I’m really fond of a few authors who have really changed the conversation around romance and creating characters who aren’t helpless, and don’t need rescuing, and generally do amazing things.


  4. A few of these authors were wildly popular in their day and then their day passed. I loved romance in the 80s and Barbara Cartland did that well. I didn’t read Harold Robbins but I knew who he was. Also remember in their day, the 80s and 70s, comic books were superheroes or kid stuff and science fiction was still not a big deal, except for Isaac Asimov, and all lumped together in one genre.


  5. Hmm, this is a very UK centric list. Christie no surprise. I’d never heard of the last two, and never read a Cartland (but she was regularly in UK papers and a friend of royalty – soppy aristo Romance, I think). Blyton part of UK childhood since before my birth (1947), frowned on by grammarians, loved by hordes of children. Danielle Steele, very familiar name, not read any, Romance/YA? Robbins – read Carpetbaggers as a teenager and it made me feel ill. Simenon – interesting, worth a go, I read The Blue Room a few years ago. Something of a quantity/quality mismatch in a list based on sales perhaps?



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