Friday, November 16, 2007

"Vonnegut Was the American Mark Twain"

The real "American Mark Twain"

The AP has an interesting article comparing the kick in sales that a famous author gets upon his death. This is something that always happens when a famous singer dies, and I can clearly remember all the record shops completely selling out of Elvis Presley recordings within a day or two of his sudden death. I figured that it would also happen, probably to a lesser degree, when famous authors died. In this instance the comparison is between the recently deceased trio of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron. According to the piece, Vonnegut is the clear winner.
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.
"Vonnegut was the American Mark Twain." What the heck does that mean? I always kind of thought that Mark Twain was the American Mark Twain. I sure hope this guy was misquoted.
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."

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.
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.
I'm not surprised that the more literary works sell less than the shorter and easier read books of Vonnegut's. I get the impression that my personal favorite of the three, Bill Styron, probably is coming in a poor third in this comparison.

I still can't get over that "American Mark Twain" quote...


  1. A.S. Byatt is the British George Elliot and Andrei Makine is the Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky - the fun just never ends. . .

    Maybe I could be the American E.B. White?

  2. What's up with that phrase? I'm tempted to try to add some more to andi's list. Makes no sense, but despite your hope that he was misquoted, he probably wasn't. :) And so it goes.

  3. In Canada, where so many define themselves purely on traits they feel aren't American, a statement such as "Alice Munro is the Canadian Margaret Atwood" would probably be seen as some sort of statement that Margaret Atwood's writings don't exemplify typical Canadian Lit and that Alice Munro shares her [Atwood's] level of success without selling out our identity- all this is hypothetical, but could it mean somehow that Vonnegut's books somehow represent the modern American ideal better than an antiquated version defined by Twain? Again, I don't feel that way (necessarily), I'm just trying to make sense of a very silly comment.

  4. I think he had a definite point in mind when he made the statement, Jenclair, but he should have explained himself a little better...or the reporter should have asked a follow up question. It's a bit weird as it stands.

  5. John, you are probably on to something. Maybe he meant that Vonnegut was the "modern" Mark Twain, or some such notion. As it is, he wasted his breath because I don't have a clue as to what he was trying to say.