The secret of a bestseller is to cut across genres, to have multiple objectives, and in doing so, to appeal to a wide group of readers. At least this is what one can deduce from reading Leon Uris's QB VII.
Many contemporary bestsellers, as well as bestsellers over the course of the twentieth century, are written primarily to entertain. There are spy novels, romance novels, adventure novels, novels about the rich and the famous, and many more. Less common are those that cover "serious" subject matters, which are often incompatible with the light entertainment of most bestsellers. Serious topics such as the Holocaust, are generally relegated to the pages of serious literature. Is there room in the ranks of the bestseller lists for a novel that tackles such serious, and often thorny, issues? Again, QB VII serves as a useful example of a bestseller that confronts serious issues without becoming overly heavy and dry, and without alienating a huge portion of the reading public in the process.
Uris has constructed his career out of writing modern historical fiction. He covers historical events in the form of novels, and in doing so manages to entertain and educate at the same time, making him a perfect candidate for the so-called high-school canon. High schoolers read books such as Exodus in order to learn about real events and real issues in a relatively painless manner. Uris, along with authors such as James Michener, has garnered a substantial audience writing historical fiction, and, in the process has produced multiple bestsellers. Michener's works have been characterized as "dramatized journalism" (Michener entry in bestsellers database), and a similar claim could be made for Uris's works. As is the case with Abe Cady, the protagonist of QB VII, Uris conducts extensive research before writing each of his books, and exhibits an extensive knowledge of the subject at hand, which in this case is the English legal system and the history of forced sterilization in Nazi concentration camps. According to one reviewer, "[Uris] seems to have mastered a vast range of information in many fields, from heap-big medicine men and bare-bosomed natives in Sarawak to time-honored court traditions in London," (Rogers 70) knowledge that he usually painlessly imparts to the reader without ruining the fast-paced nature of the novel. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, as there are parts of the novel that do not advance the plot, yet, in journalistic style, serve to educate the reader on a variety of topics. For example, Uris gives a detailed, albeit dry, description of the geography of London, the backdrop for much of the action of the novel: "Greater London encompasses the city of London and thirty-two boroughs, among which are the former city of Westminster, and the former Royal Borough of Kensington, and such other famous areas as Chelsea, Harrow, Hammersmith, Lambeth, and the picturesquely named Tower Hamlets. The city of London is a fiefdom of one square mile running along the Thames Embankment from about Waterloo Bridge to Tower Bridge?" (Uris 169). Michener writes in a similar fashion, "He was sole owner of the vast Rancho El Codo, twenty-five thousand acres named after an elbow of the Medina, that river which marked the boundary between the two provinces of Coahuila and Tejas?Most important, it bordered a segment of Los Caminos Reales, that system of royal highways which reached out like spokes from Mexico City, the hub of New Spain." (Michener 129). It is this similar journalistic style that anchors the historical fiction of both of these authors, introducing an educational element to the novels, without sacrificing the broader entertainment value of most best-selling narrative fiction.
Despite this commonality, there is a distinct difference between QB VII and many of Michener's works, though. Uris, in keeping with the trends emerging in the latter half of the twentieth century chooses as his subject matter, something relatively recent and modern, whereas Michener writes novels spanning generations, often beginning in distant history (Hawaii entry in database). According to Alice Payne Hackett, beginning in the late 1950s, "The modern world was decidedly replacing history as the basis for best-selling novels," a trend illustrated by Uris's 1959 bestseller, Exodus, and his later novels including QB VII.
The historical events Uris treats in QB VII include both an actual libel suit in which he was involved, and the forced sterilization that occurred in Nazi concentration camps. The latter is a topic lacking in popular appeal if the subjects of other bestsellers are any indication. He presents a relatively in-depth examination of the forced sterilizations, without shying away from graphic descriptions that may disturb readers: "I tried to jump off the table and was hit a blow on the side of the head?One of the orderlies held a piece of glass under my penis and the doctor or someone in white shoved a long wooden stick like a broom handle forcing me to eject sperm on the glass" (Uris 312). What makes the account even more disturbing is the fact that similar events actually happened. Such a description had become acceptable in mass market literature, because over the course of the century people had become increasingly tolerant of sexual and repugnant content in novels, as proven by the overwhelming success of the Portnoy's Complaint (1969) and The Exorcist (1971) respectively.
It is significant, though, that Uris's treatment of the Holocaust stands in stark contrast to more serious literary accounts. For example, Elie Wiesel's personal account of life in a concentration camp presents a deeply personal account based on first hand experience. Wiesel grapples with questions regarding the existence of God, and throughout, seeks to confront deep theological and philosophical issues. Although his book was an international bestseller, it did not appear on bestseller lists in the United States. Uris, on the other hand avoids these heavier treatments of the subject matter, and rather, presents a much more journalistic account of the story, skimming over the deeper implications of the events, and earns himself a place on the bestseller lists.
The other crucial element in this balancing act between education and entertainment is suspense. The modern suspense novel entered the foreground of the publishing world in the 1960s, paving the way for novels such as QB VII (Hackett 118). Although not a spy novel like many others introduced at the time, including John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, QB VII was praised by critics and readers alike as being a fast-paced, suspenseful novel. W.G. Rogers comments: "As Cady-Uris theorizes, a novel must move and this one does: it's a professional job all the way" (Rogers 70). Thus, by providing readers with a knowledgeable account of recent historical events in the form of a fast-paced page-turner, QB VII was in line with appetites of the day. As an interesting side note, QB VII was also ahead of its time, a trial novel preceding the recent wave of courtroom dramas in the publishing world, on network television, and in the movie theaters. Such recent blockbusters include the works of authors such as John Grisham and Scott Turow, while television shows such as The Practice, Law and Order, and Ally McBeal continue to dominate network ratings.
Perhaps even more significant that issues of genre, are issues of audience, because it is, after all, the audience that determines whether or not a book will even appear on bestseller lists. An interesting facet of the world of publishing at the end of the twentieth century is what has been dubbed the "Oprah effect." According to D.T. Max, much of its power is derived /derives from the fact that the books selected are "springboards for self-reflection," and present characters with whom readers can identify (Max 36). Although few readers can probably relate to the experience of the Holocaust victims presented in QB VII, an entire group of people can relate to the Jewish experience related in QB VII. Despite the fact that the bulk of the book presents the libel trial and the events behind the trial, the final lines of the book are: "Tel Aviv, June 6, 1967 (AP) The Israeli Defense Ministry announced that its casualties were light in the strike that destroyed the Arab air forces. Most prominent among those killed was Sergent (Captain) Ben Cady, son of the well-known author" (Uris 426). Thus, Uris draws the reader's attention back to the Jewish experience which lies at the root of the book. It is Cady's Jewish identity that compels him to write The Holocaust, the book involved in the libel suit: "He's a Jew and he wants to write about Jews" (Uris 150). It is every victim's Jewish identity that caused them to be singled out for torture in Jadwiga, the Nazi concentration camp at which the alleged atrocities took place, and it is Ben Cady's Jewish identity that leads him to fight for and to die for the Israeli army. Through the centrality of the Jewish experience in the book, Uris appeals to a particular ethnic group, as do books such as Chaim Potok's The Promise, William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. It is further notable that seven out of the eleven novels Uris has written have focused on the Jewish experience, primarily in the Middle East, suggesting that once an author has appealed to a particular group of readers and has concentrated on a particular theme, he has done much to secure readership for his future novels on similar subjects.
Along with the previously mentioned The Confessions of Nat Turner, Uris novels seek to target a segment of the population with a well-developed social conscience in the battle to fight injustices. Uris has said that "the finest thing a writer can be doing is exposing injustice and trying to correct it?" (Downey 193). Again, along with The Confessions of Nat Turner the timing of the publication of QB VII was hugely important, allowing it to tap into the anti-war fervor, the general atmosphere of activism and low tolerance for social injustices, while The Confessions of Nat Turner had an audience in all the civil rights activists of the 1960s.
QB VII is a brilliant balancing act, and as with many other such balancing acts, including Gone with the Wind, Exodus, Dr. Zhivago, and The Thorn Birds, was a highly successful bestseller. While it is easy to read, fast-paced, and entertaining, it avoids falling into the morass of low-level, mass market fiction with little literary value by presenting readers with an informative, educational account of tragic historical events. Furthermore, it could have had limited appeal, attracting only Jewish audiences, but it succeeds in not alienating other readers by appealing also to people desiring to fight social and historical injustices, and to people who just want a good page-turner. It is its very resistance to being categorized that leads to its resounding success as a bestseller.
Downey, Sharon D. and Richard A. Kallan. " Semi-Aesthetic Detachment: The Fusing of Fictional and External Worlds in the Situational Literature of Leon Uris." Communication Monographs, September, 1982.
Hackett, Alice Payne. "Best Sellers in the Bookstores 1900-1975." Bookselling in America and the World. Ed. Charles B. Anderson. Quadrangle. 109-137.
Max, D.T. "The Oprah Effect." The New York Times 26 December 1999: sec. 6: 36.
Michener, James A. Texas. New York: Random House, 1985.
Doris Lum's entry in this database on Michener's Hawaii.
Rogers, W.G. "Dr. Adam Kelno: Hero or Villain?" New York Times Book Review 15 November 1970: 70.
Uris, Leon. QB VII. New York: Bantam, 1970.