What Did the Fiction Best-Seller List Look Like 25, 50, 75 Years Ago?

The only new name on the fiction list this week is John Grisham, whose book “The Reckoning” debuts at No. 1. It made us wonder: What novelists were popular 25, 50 and 75 years ago?

Well, 25 years ago, Grisham was. In November 1993, his fourth novel, “The Client,” had been on the list for 33 weeks. The Times gave it a double-edged review: “Once again … Mr. Grisham enraptures us with a story that has hardly any point.”

Plenty of other familiar names joined Grisham on the 1993 list: Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Anne Rice, Ken Follett, Dean Koontz. The top spots, though, were occupied by Robert James Waller. His word-of-mouth hit, “The Bridges of Madison County,” was at No. 2, having spent 66 weeks on the list, and his follow-up, “Slow Waltz at Cedar Bend,” was at No. 1. The Times was not a fan: “‘Slow Waltz at Cedar Bend’ and ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ are out of the same mold. But the self-conscious preachiness and gaseous prose of the first book have been toned down. Some.”

Go back another 25 years, to November 1968, and the fiction list gets more interesting. No. 1 was Helen MacInnes’s Cold War thriller “The Salzburg Connection,” which The Times loved — sort of, admitting that the author “has won and deserved a far wider readership than the average whodunit carpenter.” John Updike’s “Couples” — derided by many as titillating and graphic — was No. 4. The Times, however, did not find it salacious. “If this is a dirty book, then I don’t see how sex can be written about at all,” Wilfrid Sheed wrote in his review. “Updike’s treatment of sex … is that of a fictional biochemist approaching mankind with a tray of hypersensitive gadgets.” The paper was a big fan of the novel at No. 8, Charles Portis’s “True Grit,” calling it “a western in a yarn-spinning tradition that goes back at least to Mark Twain.”

Rummage through the paper’s archives and look up the best-seller list from 75 years ago, though, and you won’t see very many familiar names save Betty Smith — whose “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was at No. 3 — and Ayn Rand, whose “The Fountainhead” was at No. 9. The Times had a lot to say about “The Fountainhead,” and most of it was not complimentary: “All the betrayals, all the dirty, crawling, schematic malice, all the lust and lechery … give it an atmosphere so luridly evil and conspiratorial that Cesare Borgia, the Marquis de Sade and Adolf Hitler could walk right in and feel cozily at home.”

Follow Tina Jordan on Twitter: @TinaJordanNYT

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