The Bestseller, Olivia Goldsmith

Harper Collins, 1996, 514 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-017822-1

It’s inevitable. After reading a few hundred books, the compulsive reader is not only interested in the stories that the book tell, but in the books themselves. Some become authors; other read about authors.

So, it’s quite a treat to see such a witty and accomplished novelist as Olivia Goldsmith (The First Wives Club) turn her attention on the wonderfully twisted world of New York publishers. Of course, since this is a best-selling novel about best-selling novels, it naturally follows that adultery, crime, punishment, sex, sex, sex, betrayals, horrid incurable diseases, sex, suicides, multimillion contracts and more sex than usual is portrayed here.

In short, The Bestseller is a blast.

At 514 pages, The Bestseller manages to be long and compulsively readable… after a while. The premise is simple: Five books are eventually bought by one of New York’s biggest publishing house. We follow their fates, along with their authors and almost everyone remotely associated with the books’ publication: Editors, agents, librarians and the other members of the family…

Author number one dies in the first pages of The Bestseller: Her mother goes on crusade to publish her daughter’s masterpiece. Author number two is a best-selling romance writer on the decline: Is she going to be able to keep her sanity in addition to the number one spot? Author number three is a young Englishwoman in Italy: Is love or fame the most important thing? Author number four is not only an author, but the publisher himself: Vanity publishing, or honestly good novel? Author number five is a pseudonym for a husband-and-wife collaboration: What happens when the husband “forgets” about his wife and claims the credit?

Then there are the agents (the good and the bad ones), the editors (the good and the bad ones) and the publishers. (again; the good and the bad ones) We visit sales conference, the ABA, bookstores, a few author tours. We read about ghostwriters, famous scandals, publishing lore and wisdom… Truly, The Bestseller tries to reward its reader, who should preferably be a Reader.

Due to the number of plot-lines kept in the air, it does take a while for The Bestseller to cohere. Once it does, however, we’re in for the ride! Goldsmith paints her characters adequately enough to care for them. By the end of the book, it feels like we’ve made new friends.

The Bestseller, however, is rather heavy-handed. As the novel advances, characters are further divided in two mutually exclusive camps: The Good characters will get most of what they want. The Bad characters will get what they deserve. Melodrama happens, but strangely it does not harm the book. In fact, The Bestseller would have been much less enjoyable with moral ambiguity. Everyone likes a happy ending, and it’s refreshing to be in a narrative where everything happens as it should happen.

Escape reading? At its best! Goldsmith’s prose is undemanding yet not without a certain elegance. Whatever happens is clearly described (aside from one unfortunately intentional “Let’s hide the gender of this character” misstep.) and there are very few barriers between the reader and the story.

A few audacious in-jokes pepper this book, further rewarding the attentive reader. But most will be content just to read page after page, sinking in the story like it should be with any big, good bestseller.

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