Within the past year, three of the most famous authors to emerge after World War II have died: Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron. Their deaths all resulted in front-page stories, lengthy appreciations and ongoing discussions about their place in American letters.
No writer was more competitive, or ambitious, than Mailer, author of such epics as “The Naked and the Dead” and “The Executioner’s Song,” and critics would likely hand him the prize for his generation. But if sales are the measure of the public’s mind, then honors clearly belong to Vonnegut.
“Vonnegut was the American Mark Twain. He even looked liked him. Everybody loved Vonnegut, whereas Norman was a much more controversial figure,” says J. Michael Lennon, the literary executor for Mailer, who died Nov. 10 at age 84.
“I remember being given an honorary degree a few years ago at Lehigh University, when Vonnegut was the commencement speaker, and you could tell these kids had read him in a way that they hadn’t read Mailer or Styron,” says Dana Gioia, poet and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of industry sales, Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” has sold about 280,000 copies since 2006, more than four times the combined pace of six of the most talked about books of the past 60 years: Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead,” “The Armies of the Night” and “The Executioner’s Song,” and Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Darkness Visible.”
‘People get hooked on Vonnegut’While Vonnegut’s passing last April led to a significant jump in sales for his books, the change was far smaller for the works of Mailer and Styron, both of whom, unlike Vonnegut, won Pulitzer Prizes. Books by all three writers are still used in classrooms, but Vonnegut’s are read more both on and off campus.
“Mailer’s books don’t have the same staying power (for our customers),” says Bob Wietrak, a vice president of merchandising at Barnes & Noble, Inc. “People get hooked on Vonnegut when they’re young and they stay with him. ... We have summer reading lists, and we find adults reading Vonnegut and they’re thinking, ‘I’m going to read this again.”’
“I think it has something to do with the fact that Vonnegut has more of a word of mouth following. He’s a little more pulpy and countercultural,” says Keith McEvoy, general manager of Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers in downtown Manhattan. “We had a huge spike after Vonnegut died, but I didn’t see anything like that for Mailer or Styron.”
Other books by Vonnegut are also strongly outselling his contemporaries. “Cat’s Cradle” has sold nearly 130,000 copies since 2006, according to Nielsen BookScan, and “Breakfast of Champions” totals 74,000. Meanwhile, Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” winner of the Pulitzer in 1968, has sold less than 2,000 since 2006, while Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night,” a Pulitzer winner in 1969, sold just 3,000.
‘Broad appeal’Size is an advantage for Vonnegut. Many of his books were less than 200 pages and easily read at a single sitting. You could likely speed through half a dozen of Vonnegut’s novels in the time it takes to finish the 1,000-plus page “Executioner’s Song.”
Sensibility also matters.
“First of all, Vonnegut’s funny, and humor has a broad appeal,” Gioia says. “Secondly, he worked in genres like science fiction and political satire that have an enormous appeal to boys, and boys are the ones usually reading Mailer and Vonnegut and those authors. ... Vonnegut was a very open and inviting author, less conspicuously literary than Mailer or Styron, although clearly a fine writer in his own way.”
Mailer and his peers wondered obsessively about which of them would last, and some declined in the public’s mind long ago. James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity,” winner of the National Book Award in 1952 and made into a classic movie, sold 3,000 copies the past two years, while Irwin Shaw’s “The Young Lions,” another major war novel and film, sold less than 2,000.
Other writers of that era remain favorites, such as Joseph Heller, whose “Catch-22” has a similar satirical appeal to “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and Truman Capote, whose popularity was greatly helped by the release of two movies based on his writing of his “nonfiction” crime novel, “In Cold Blood.”
“There was a period after Capote died (in 1984) when his books seemed to disappear,” says Lennon. “But now he’s back. I think you’ll see that with a lot of these writers, as new films and books and biographies come out. I’m working on Mailer’s letters and I hope there will be a resurgence as new sides of him are revealed.”