In the November 1980 issue of The Writer, Sidney Sheldon relates to his readers that one of the questions he is frequently asked is "How does one write a bestseller?" And his quite long but apt response is: "I don't know. If someone deliberately sets out to write a bestseller, what he is really saying is that he is going to try to write a book that will appeal to everyone. In essence, he is looking for the lowest common denominator. I believe when you try to appeal to everyone, the result is that you end up appealing to almost no one. Every good writer that I know writes to please himself, not to please others. He starts with an idea that excites him, develops characters that interest him, and then writes his story as skillfully as he knows how. If one worries about quality rather than success, success is much more likely to follow." One thing fore sure is that Sidney Sheldon definitely does not write to please the critics, for most of his bestselling novels have been dismissed as "potboilers" and "airplane novels" by the majority of these book reviewers. Yet Sheldon has always cracked the top of the bestseller lists with his novels and has continued to delight millions of readers (ss.com). A Stranger in the Mirror is no exception in this case. So what does this particular novel teach us about bestsellers? It teaches us that a bestseller is not necessarily one that is very intellectually challenging (especially in the eyes of critics), but one whose genre, formula, and other elements are popular with the common, everyday people who purchase these novels.
This novel can be included in different categories with other books that have also become bestsellers. For instance, A Stranger in the Mirror fits well into a category that involves the Horatio Alger Paradigm, or the struggle for success. This type of theme is evidently very popular among readers because it is an idea that many people can attest or aspire to, especially in the United States, with its "American Dream." Horatio Alger was one of the most popular American authors in the last 30 years of the 19th century who found a very successful theme using a rags-to-riches formula. After his publication of "Ragged Dick; or Street Life in New York with the Bootblacks," in 1868, almost all of Alger's books centered around boys who rose from poverty to wealth and fame through perseverance and a small stroke of good fortune (www.eb.com). Similarly, A Stranger in the Mirror is largely about a character named Toby Temple who is born into a poor German immigrant family but later finds success. Before he is even old enough to understand what his mother is saying, Toby is instilled with the idea of success as she tells him of his definite greatness to come. After obeying his mother and leaving home in order to avoid a shotgun marriage, Toby goes to New York at the age of 18 with visions of becoming a famous comedian. But of course there is a long road ahead of him at first as he is rejected from theatres and other venues, only to find small jobs such as a dishwasher, magician's assistant, etc. Finally, he makes some contacts in Las Vegas and Hollywood and is able to get a workable act together. By the 1950s, he is a top comic in film, television, and night clubs. But he also becomes a very lonely man with no real friends, until he strikes up a romance with Jill Castle, a slightly brain-damaged woman whose beautiful face and body conceal her sometimes psychotic compulsions. This female character also tries to gain success of her own. The novel relates her various struggles on the way to the top, including her being secretly drugged and then forced into being in a pornography film during the beginning of her Hollywood career (Sheldon).
Another genre of bestselling novels in which A Stranger in the Mirror could be placed are those in which a conclusion is foretold or hinted at during the beginning of the novel, followed by some sort of flashback for the remainder of the book. This flashback will encompass the main plot of the novel, with the story-line making its way back to the actual events mentioned in the beginning of the book. Bestselling novels that use this tactic seem to be very popular among readers because of their ability to pull in the audience through suspense that seems to last for the entire book. In Sheldon's novel, we are given a series of bizarre events that occur aboard a luxury liner one morning, which evidently involve Jill Castle, a very famous and admired woman known all over the headlines at that time. These events include a delivery of flowers from the President of the United States to Castle, a locked theatre door with a blood trail leading from it, a wedding cake with the head of the bride at the top crushed in, and sounds of "You've killed me!" and screaming coming from Castle's room. Knowing that Castle will be one of the main characters in the novel, we are thus given a hint of some sort of tragedy that will occur at the end of the book that involves her, and this suspense is enough to pull readers into the book and captivate them (Sheldon). Another book which falls into this category of bestsellers is Judith Rossner's Looking for Mister Goodbar, for which Gwendolyn Kern did a database entry. According to Kern, this book also can be placed in the category of books that contain extensive foreshadowing followed by a flashback. In this novel's case, the story starts off with a confession of the man who would later be found to murder the heroine. Subsequently, the rest of the novel is a flashback building up to this moment in time. Yet another of the many examples of books in this category would be Stephen King's It. Suspense through foreshadowing definitely seems to be a category or quality which gives many bestsellers their success.
Another aspect of bestsellers about which A Stranger in the Mirror teaches us is that authors will often follow a formula for their novels that has given them immense success in the past. The idea here is that they have found themes and other elements which seem to be very popular among readers, and there is no sense in moving to a different and possibly less popular formula. Perhaps one author whose formula immediately comes to mind would be that of Stephen King and his continuing formulaic use of the horror thriller novel. This kind of formula has enabled him to remain on top of the bestseller lists since the 1980s. Another example would be James A. Michener and the authenticity in his novels evident to his readers, due to his extensive research of the setting of a book before he begins writing it. Doris Lum's database entry on Michener's Hawaii talks about this authenticity when she relates that "Michener's reputation had already been established as one who traveled extensively and specialized in writing about the cultures he came across." In the case of the writing of Hawaii itself, Lum states that "Michener, at that time, was a resident of Hawaii, giving his version of the islands more credibility." Another example of a well-followed formula among authors is the use of romances containing plenty of sex and intrigue, and Danielle Steel is one author that fits this mold perfectly. In her entry for Danielle Steel's Wings, Ericka Karnaszewski mentions that "The romance novel has long been a staple on bestseller lists; the fact that all 3 of Steel's 1994 publications: Accident, The Gift, and Wings, all appeared on the yearly bestsellers list and are all romance novels furthers this notion." Like these previous two authors, Sidney Sheldon also writes novels that show extensive research as well as inclusion of romance and sex. In one interview, Sheldon relates that he spends as much time as possible researching an area before he begins writing on it, in order to give authenticity to his material. And like many of his other novels, A Stranger in the Mirror contains plenty of romance and sex, as the main character sleeps around with countless women during his rise to stardom, only to engage in a steamy romance with a main heroine of the story (Sheldon). Although many critics would consider this sort of content the making of a "trash" novel, this is exactly the type of material that has satisfied the majority of readers in our leisure-based American society for years, and Sheldon is not about stop to quit a good thing. Another formulaic use among Sheldon's novels is the depiction of a female character who overcomes many odds on her way to success. In A Stranger in the Mirror, we meet a woman from a poor immigrant family in Texas who is struggling with the lower fringes of show business in Hollywood, but then becomes much more famous when she marries a famous comedian, Toby Temple. Likewise, in a database entry on Sheldon's Rage of Angels, Kate Caples shows how this Sheldon novel also falls in line with many his others in being about a female character who struggles for success. In this case, the character is a blond, intelligent, attorney named Jennifer Parker. In her entry, Caples relates that "The injustice brought upon Jennifer Parker from the beginning seems to be career ruining however, through her wits, cunning, and perseverance she is able to prove the public wrong." In general, bestsellers also need to be quick and easy to read in their structure. Although linear plots are often a staple of this format, Sheldon's cinematic plots also seem to have the same effect in keeping the readers interested and in keeping his material popular. A cinematic plot is one in which the perspective frequently changes, just like that of a camera on film. In A Stranger in the Mirror, Sheldon frequently switches the plot back and forth between his two main characters, Toby Temple and Jill Castle, who at first are undergoing different lives. He later hooks them up and continues the plot in a more linear fashion (Sheldon).
Another trend in bestsellers that is often seen is that those books who deal with or contain issues popular at the time of their publishing will often fare well in sales figures. In her database entry on Danielle Steel's novel Message from Nam, Candice Pratsch mentions that this book is not only a romance but also a war-novel. And she also relates that "Message From Nam was published during the year of tensions that led up to the Gulf War?. Throughout these months of tension, "Message From Nam" remained on the New York Times Best Seller list. Readers who bought the novel in its first few weeks of publication may have wanted to remind themselves of the last war in which America had been involved. Many readers may have had loved ones going to war once again." Likewise, Sheldon's "A Stranger in the Mirror" also contained issues of its time that were evidently popular with readers. For instance, like many of his other novels, "A Stranger in the Mirror" contained plenty of sex. This sex was often centered around the main character and famous comedian, Toby Temple, who slept with countless women during the course of the novel. In addition, the author had no qualms about being almost overly sexual in this novel, such as constantly attributing Toby's "sexual success" to his "unusually large penis." Around the mid-1970s, which was the time of the book's publication, open sex was a very popular issue. In fact, many other books on the fiction and non-fiction bestseller lists of that time dealt with sex, such as "Everything you always wanted to know about Sex but were afraid to ask," and "The Joys of Sex." Thus, Sheldon's openness with sex in his novels was evidently falling in line with other popular books being published around the same time. Another trend being seen in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the rise of the celebrity and the idea of being famous. For instance, the early 80s marked the time in which both MTV and "People" magazine got their start or became widely popular. Thus, it is no surprise that "A Stranger in the Mirror" and its story of two characters' rise to success in Hollywood was popular among readers.
Bestselling novels also often arise because of the previous name recognition, public image, or marketing of a particular author. Authors such as Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and Michael Crichton are all bestselling authors whose new works will often sell millions of copies just because of the fame of their name in association with their previous novels. Also to be included in this list is James A. Michener, who definitely developed a name for himself. In her database entry on Michener's "Hawaii," Doris Lum relates that "What made the road to success a little easier for the novel was that Michener had already established his name before the publication of "Hawaii." Michener, at this point, had already published "Tales of the South Pacific" as well as "The Floating World" and "The Bridge at Andau." Michener's reputation had already been established as one who traveled extensively and specialized in writing about the cultures he came across." In Sheldon's case, both his previous novel successes as well as his public image as a former TV show producer/writer/director came into play. For instance, in several advertisements for "A Stranger in the Mirror," such as those found in Publisher's Weekly (1/1/76, 1/5/76), Sheldon's previous immense success with his novel "The Other Side of Midnight" was mentioned in all capital letters. In this way, publishers hoped to continue developing a fan base by pulling in readers who might have read this previous novel. Since his novel did not appear in stores until April of that year, this also shows that bestsellers are often hyped up long in advance of their actual appearance. Also, in many other advertisements and interviews of Sheldon, his former successes such as being creator and producer of such smash TV hits as "I dream of Jeannie" and other Broadway plays were highlighted (ss.com). Thus, one can see that bestselling novels often have a lot of name recognition and reputation of their author driving them forward in sales.
Although there are many trends which bestselling novels follow and many popular reader categories into which they fit, some books seem to become bestsellers because the author has chosen to "violate" a rule or a category. For instance, many bestselling books of the past thirty years can fall into the category of having a happy ending. "A Stranger in the Mirror" represents a deviation from this principle. The story-line, which is basically a huge flashback, builds back up to the tragic happenings that were hinted at in the beginning of the novel. Jill Castle, who had remained fiercely loyal to her husband (Toby Temple) only so long as it was to her advantage, drowns her paralyzed lover who has suffered from two massive strokes and is basically becomes useless. She then catches up with a childhood sweetheart and is getting ready to be married, when her past catches up with her. A former friend of Toby Temple shows Castle's new lover her tainted past, such as being in a pornography flick; but he is never aware that this was not her fault. Her lover David Kenyon can not accept these scenes and runs away from the marriage, causing Jill Castle to commit suicide out of grief at the end of the novel. So basically, the reader is presented with the life struggles of two main characters to become successful and engage in a wonderful romance, only to cause each others' death in the end. Similarly, in her database entry on "Looking for Mister Goodbar," Gwendolyn Kern relates the unhappy ending of her novel, as a man confesses to killing the main heroine of the story. Also, in a database entry of Sheldon's "Rage of Angels," Kate Caples relates that "In Rage of Angels, while the heroine does not die as we suspect she might in the end, she does not get either of the men she has loved throughout the novel, Adam Warner and Michael Morretti. Both men go on with their lives and Jennifer must sit back and watch their success, namely Adam Warner's as he is inaugurated into the Presidency of the United States with his wife and child by his side." Thus, we can see that bestsellers sometimes attract readers due to their violation of "norms." Overall, "A Stranger in the Mirror" is no stranger to bestselling status, and it teaches us many things about the overall trends in bestsellers.
Kate Caples, on Sidney Sheldon's "Rage of Angels"
Gwendolyn Kern, on Judith Rossner's "Looking for Mister Goodbar"
Doris Lum, on James A. Michener's "Hawaii"
Candice Pratsch, on Danielle Steel's "Message from Nam"
Ericka Karnaszewski, on Danielle Steel's "Wings"
-www.eb.com (Encyclopedia Brittainica)
-Publishers Weekly: 1/1/76, 1/5/76
-Sidney Sheldon. "The Magical World of the Novelist." The Writer. November 1980, vol. 93, number 11, p.13.
-Sidney Sheldon. "A Stranger in the Mirror." New York: William Morrow and Company, 1976.