What makes an author “great”?

I came across a couple of interesting lists when I was researching for last week’s book club with Bob Fischer on BBC Radio Tees. I was talking about Enid Blyton, so I wanted to find out who the most successful authors of the twentieth century were, knowing how phenomenal Blyton’s sales had been (and still are). So, I looked at various lists which provided different definitions of success. Needless to say, on most of them Martin Amis featured heavily and Blyton did not!

The most interesting one (on Wikipedia, so not necessarily verified – this isn’t academic research, just interest!) was a list of the bestselling British authors of all time. Shakespeare was at the top of the list, but I decided to discount him as he’s not a novelist, and other classics (such as Dickens, Eliot and Austen) are not included because they don’t have accurate figures prior to the twentieth century, which makes it a bit unfair to add Shakespeare.

So, the five bestselling British novelists with their very broad estimated sales figures, according to Wikipedia are:

  1. Agatha Christie (between 2 and 4 BILLION books)
  2. Barbara Cartland (between 500 million and 1 billion sold)
  3. Enid Blyton (approx. 600 million books)
  4. JK Rowling (approx. 500 million books – but the list may not be up to date)
  5. Jackie Collins (between 250-400 million books).

Do you notice something quite surprising here? Yes. All women. Every single one of the top five selling British novelists is a woman. And they are all writing either genre or children’s fiction, popular stories with a huge and appreciative audience. It appears, however that neither popularity nor sales count for much when it comes to legacy.

I then searched for “great” novelists of the 20th century (because all these writers above are broadly 20th century and the older classics are excluded from the list I thought this was a fairer – and more interesting – comparison).  Google provided me with the following top five (I don’t know how their list was compiled, so I’m not claiming this is a scientific comparison):

  1. Virginia Woolf
  2. George Orwell
  3. H.G. Wells
  4. E.M. Forster
  5. Anthony Burgess

Only one of them is a woman, and not one of them is a bestseller. Out of the complete lists of twenty authors, only one person makes it onto both lists, and that’s Agatha Christie. If you look at the overall figures for the top 20 in each category, 10 of the 20 bestsellers are women but only 3 of the 20 “greats” are women. Oddly enough, I suspect that if I included earlier ‘great’ novelists, the list would look entirely different, with Austen, Eliot and the Brontes swinging the balance back in favour of a more equal balance between male and female writers.

There’s a lot of snobbery about books, about those who write them and those who read them, and about how some writing is “better” than others. However, the facts here speak for themselves. Women genre fiction writers were dominating their (often male) literary counterparts in the twentieth century when it came to the number of people who were reading and presumably enjoying their books. I think I can quite confidently state that Enid Blyton has made more readers happy than Martin Amis has!

Images by Yerson Retamal from Pixabay

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