Bestsellers earn their places on these distinctive lists for a variety of reasons. Most harbor a coveted combination of captivating content and contextual relevancy; others, such as Anne Rice's 1997 supernatural romance bestseller Violin, offer neither, and thus owe their acclaim to elements beyond those found within their pages. A popular writer, Rice has sold more than 100 million books and appeared on numerous bestseller lists. In contrast to her other largely well received works, Violin's heatedly negative reception indicates that this particular novel garnered its fleeting flame largely because of its author's name, rather than because of its own contextual significance or narrative quality.
Known under the pen names of Anne A. N. Roquelaure, and Anne Rampling, Anne Rice was born "Howard Allen Frances O'Brien Rice" on October 4, 1941 (12)(11). Following a troubled childhood, Rice's adult life was marked by bereavement and tragedies that show through in her writing. Though fiction often resembles reality, in the case of Violin, aspects of Rice's story appear to not only resemble, but nearly replicate the narrative of her heroine Triana Becker. Such eerie parallels suggest to readers that they are gaining insights not only into Becker's fictional life, but also the personal life of Rice, a reality that does not sit well with fans. Amidst Rice's popularity, Violin's disparaging reception is a testament to the reality that even bestselling authors sometimes misjudge or fail to judge their audiences. Like other authors of serial publications, Rice's fame and acclaim arise as much from the quantity of her works as their quality. Yet here she seems to have relied too much on fans' previous adoration of both her narrative style and her literary identity, crafting a story that does not convey either in a manner engaging to readers accustomed to her gothic tales of vampire romance.
The vehement animosity with which reviewers condemned Violin, following the book's status on bestseller lists, is a testament to the potentially aphrodisiacal power of an authorial name stamp. Heralded as one of the most "widely read authors in modern history," Rice's name emblazoned across the cover appeared to enthrall readers who might otherwise have abandoned Violin with distaste, or failed to attempt it at all (1). However, given the Anne Rice branding, fans not only purchased the novel, but became irate upon its failure to live up to their expectations. In this way, Violin stands less of a failure than a testament to the unique ability of bestsellers. For better or worse, they appear as works able to reach, and even elicit reactions from, masses of readers, even if, as in Violin's case, this widespread proliferation is not profitable.
The notion that Violin's fame arose out of authorial rather than narrative distinction is reinforced by its lack of lingering popularity or appearance in other mediums. Following its October 1997 release, the novel remained on the New York Times fiction bestseller list from November 1997 until January 1998 before falling out of the public or literary spotlight entirely (1). The novel's initial status on the list, combined with this relatively short lifespan, is, according to its unfavorable reviews, the byproduct of poor narrative quality coupled with notable name brand.
Violin is often criticized as lacking a relatable or inspiring storyline, yet it hardly stands alone in these qualities, indicating that such factors cannot be the sole determiners of reader value. The Harry Potter series, one of the highest grossing in history, takes place in a world entirely unlike our own yet has attracted millions of readers and earned its author billions of dollars. Unlike Harry Potter, however, Violin does not make up for what it lacks in familiarity with distinctive narrative content or quality. On the contrary, Rice's plot development is slow and periodically punctuated by disorienting lamentations from Triana's life, which are often indiscernible from Rice's own woes. The two women share nearly identical pasts, rendering the novel confusing and at times frustrating, and making it appear less a work of horror fiction than fantastical autobiography.
The sluggish plot development is especially so in the first half of the novel, where the slow narrative progression is regularly punctuated by references to the narrator's culpability in the deaths of her alcoholic mother and cancer-inflicted daughter (misfortunes shared by author and heroine). Like Rice's life, the novel begins and largely unfolds in New Orleans. Having lost her five-year-old daughter to cancer (Rice's own daughter Michele died of cancer in 1972), Triana is dealt another blow by fate when her husband Lev dies of AIDS. This is another tragedy eerily similar to Rice's fate, as six years later she would lose her husband of 41 years to disease (10). Just as Rice's father relocated her family following the death of her alcoholic mother (Triana's fictional mother also struggled with alcoholism), and Rice herself, following her husband's death, relocated to California, so did Triana embark on her sepulchral adventure from New Orleans following Lev's death (5)(4).
Yet it is the novel's bizarre, not tragic narrative quality that turns readers off. This complaint is initially understandable in the first chapters of the novel, which follow the fictional aftermath of Triana's husband's death. Instead of contacting authorities, the heroine shuts herself in her home for several days, spending her time cuddling with or bathing her husband's corpse, ignoring the arrival of a 19th-century Russian aristocratic violinist named Stefan Stefanovsky. Even this initial peculiar plot twist is slow to unfold, its progression regularly punctuated by lengthy descriptions of the grating family members that she, and in turn readers, must now contend with in the wake of the tragedy. These arduous tangents grow in frequency and despondency as the novel progresses, as if the narrator is bent on impressing, to the point of inflicting, her guilt and despair upon readers. A Denver Post book review quoted disgustedly, "'Love and love and love I give you - let the earth grow wet,' wails Triana... 'Let my living limbs sink down. Give me skulls like stones to press against my lips, give me bones to hold in my fingers, and if the hair is gone - like fine spun silk, it does not matter'.... Give us a break" (9). That same Post review also remarked, "Stylistically, there's nothing new. It's the familiar thick stew, bubbling with torment and titillation, overheated tin-eared dialogue, strained allegories, head-case characters and the kind of awkward, intense monologues usually associated with acne and angst... Anne, it's time to get off that streetcar named Bizarre " (9). Triana's regular elegies coupled with the slow plot development earned the novel the classification (often in less kind words) of "slow-moving" (8).
In fairness to Rice, perhaps readers should have been prepared for a semiautobiographical plot in the wake of her mournful, slightly ominous prologue. It begins, "What I seek to do here perhaps cannot be done in words, perhaps it can only be done in music..." and continues by introducing Triana as identical to Rice in physicality and tragic life experience. Speaking from the first person, she often fails to clarify whether she is describing herself or speaking through the perspective of Triana. Rather than becoming clear, this distinction only becomes more convoluted as the story unfolds. Though similar sufferings might have afforded Rice's work a unique narrative depth, here it appears only to have afforded it a distinctive narrative gloominess, unappealing to even devoted fans. One reviewer, speaking more kindly than most, described Violin as "dreadfully in need of an edit" (5). As the novel unfolds, it is not without plot, but it is frequently punctuated by mournful musings such as, "Why think of it? Hasn't enough common tragedy thundered down the road since then? Mother, child, first husband long-lost..." (7). Lamentations aside, the narrative is presumably intended as an adventure story. Following her period in mournful reclusion, Triana steals Stefan's violin, and the two venture into the world of the dead – or perhaps it is the past; the distinction is never clarified. While an inventive premise, it often diverges into the realm of absurdity, rendering the novel more strange than exciting. Despite her self-proclaimed ineptitude as a former violinist, upon stealing Stefan's instrument (which, inexplicably, he is unable to recover) Triana is transformed into a prodigy, and proceeds to travel around Europe being heralded by royalty and audiences. Here the novel may have bordered on uplifting, yet her persistently "self indulgent tone" seems to have rendered it more sickeningly self-aggrandizing than inspiring (5).
The plot finally returns to the present only to conclude the novel. Triana ultimately makes a pilgrimage to Brazil where she believes her daughter may be reincarnated (again an aspect unfounded in the context of the narrative), at which point Stefan finally recovers his stolen instrument and departs for the afterlife. This slightly anticlimactic ending is perhaps fitting for the novel's largely listless narrative pace, yet it does nothing to ameliorate the opinion of those appraising it in context of Rice's other novels. Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman observed, "Readers would be hard-pressed to understand Rice's enormous popularity if they were to read only Memnoch the Devil (1995), Servant of the Bones (1996), and Violin (1997), her last three abysmal novels" (15).
Part adventure story, part elongated elegy, and not entirely out of her typical Twilight-esque literary niche, Violin is ill adapted to any particular genre, which may have contributed to its ill-favored reception with any particular audience. Despite unflattering reviews, Violin retained its bestseller status for a few months. One literary blogger summarized best why this may have occurred in stating, "I love Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, so... I was curious" (6). Such inquisitiveness was unrewarded however, and the widespread disappointment that ensued in the wake of fans' dissatisfaction was notably heated. Another review blog asked, "How can I review a book I didn't even understand? ...This book clearly has no point" (6). Following an unfavorable evaluation of the novel's content and style, Booklist reviewer Brad Hooper went on to predict stoically,"[Rice] has fans galore, so be prepared for high demand" (11). Kristin M. Jacobi echoed such in her audiobook review, "Rice's fans will want this production but will be disappointed" (12). On both counts, this is precisely what appears to have happened.
Though fiction often corresponds to the realities it represents, it would appear Rice has taken this resemblance as justification for replication. For stories to reach the threshold of popularity necessary to render them bestsellers, they typically harbor either realistic or relatable undercurrents, themes, or characters so as to appeal to mass audiences. Yet Violin offers none of these. Because of the obvious and extensive parallels between author and heroine, Violin comes off as less the byproduct of Rice's attempt to compose a quality work of fiction than a need to vent misplaced grievances. As its Publisher's Weekly review stated, "With so many parallels between the novel's details and what Rice has revealed of her own life from her battles with weight to her Brazilian odyssey--one almost wonders whether Rice has seen something like the apparition that her heroine describes" (10). For those seeking a semblance of realism, the novel offers little to no appeal; it fails to connect to any contemporary social or political events, and harbors no undercurrents of social, political, historical, or cultural realities. Reviewer Rachel Connolly called the novel's musical references "poorly researched [and] lacking in knowledge" (8). The singular notable exception is the presence of renowned musicians such as Beethoven and Paganini. Even here, though, her work cannot be considered historically accurate, as Rice's descriptions of these musical legends do not align with history. Yet, though poorly written, Violin's content was far from offensive. Thus, the fact that critics appeared nearly offended by the novel's unappealing content stands testament to the power of a bestseller, as able to entice audiences enough to provoke such a reaction.
Here the motivation behind reader's vehement distaste may spawn from not only its poor narrative quality, but also from the way it complicates Rice's public persona, which had before been largely shaped around her Vampire Chronicles. This image is one that that Rice actively endorses by supporting Facebook pages, websites, and apps centered around the characters. She has even been known to arrive in costume to certain publishing events. Because of this, devoted fans may not have appreciated Violin's contradictory suggestion that Rice, by virtue of her similarities to Triana, is more akin to her slightly deranged grief-stricken heroine than readers would care know. Through mournful asides and morose narration, Violin appears aimed more at earning readers' sympathy than approval. Regardless of intent, she fails on both counts.
Yet Violin is hardly the first bestseller to apparently lack the fan base to render it so. A further example of this phenomenon is bestselling author Joseph Heller's 1979 novel Good as Gold. Despite success with works such as Catch 22 and Something Happened, Good as Gold received mixed reviews despite its status as a bestseller. A March 5, 1979 New York Times book review stated, "The honeymoon is over for Joseph Heller. He will be thumped on for having written this savage novel" (15). A further example is Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and into the Trees. Researcher Christopher Hancock had this to say of the 1950 novel's contemporary reception,
Unlike many of Hemingway's other works, Across the River and Into the Trees was not as critically acclaimed. Although it was very popular among readers, critics found the book to be one of Hemingway's worst achievements. In fact, even the best reviews refer to the book as "a little less than perfect." Even those critics who saw quality in the novel also admit that it is below the Hemingway standard for writing (17).
Hemingway's novel bears striking resemblance to Rice's in more than reception. Like Violin
, despite its fictional categorization Across the River and into the Trees
left readers and critics questioning its potentially semiautobiographical nature. In Jeffery Meyers' book Hemingway: A Biography,
he is less critical than many other reviewers of this work, though he poignantly calls it a "confessional" work (18). So rampant were the rumors regarding this notion, that the novel is now prefaced with the disclaimer,
In view of a recent tendency to identify characters in fiction with real people, it seems proper to state that there are no real people in this volume; both the characters and their names are fictions. The names of designations of any military units are fictitious. There are no living people nor existing military units presented in this book. (17)
Further evidence of the power of authorial name is shown by instances in which novels are originally published under an ambiguous pen name, whose popularity drastically improves following the eventual release of the author's real name. An example of this is the 2013 crime fiction novel The Cuckoo's Calling
by Robert Galbraith, which only became a bestseller once its author's true identity of J. K. Rowling was revealed. As CNN reporter Josh Levs stated, "While the novel received praise before the secret was out, the disclosure that Rowling was the author--to little surprise--skyrocketed the book's sales. Reagan Arthur, publisher of Little, Brown and Company reported "a reprint of the book is underway and will carry a revised author biography that reads 'Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling'" (14). On Amazon.com sales soared more than 507,000% after Rowling admitted to being the author (16).
Despite vastly differing narrative content, and all for different reasons, Good as Gold, Across the River and into the Trees
and The Cuckoo's Calling
all stand, like Violin
, testaments to the power of authorial following as a factor able to drastically influence the audience the books reach. Particularly in the case of famed writers such as Rice and Hemingway (very different classes of such, yet still two figures with loyal followings), the fact that their novels failed to match standards set by literary ancestors is an attribute often touched upon by critics. Something less acknowledged is the possibility that that these novels might speak less necessarily to their own poor quality than to the superior quality of those previously released by the same author. In this regard, perhaps novels such as Violin
and Across the River and Into the Trees
should be viewed less as failures due to their lack of popularity, than as testaments to the popularity of those that came before. That both novels bear striking resemblance to the lives of their authors complicates the matter as it suggests a certain customer disinterest with the reality behind the fantasy of the authors they otherwise enjoy.
Adding further complexity to the matter, in the case of Violin
, it must be noted that its autobiographical references might, on the other hand, have actually aided in its reaching any position on the bestseller list. This particular year, according to sales figures, depicted a consumer environment less receptive to fictional work than those in years previous.
Total sales figures for Violin
are unknown, according to a March 23, 1998, article in Publishers Weekly
, entitled "Jockeying for Position," though the novel was listed as selling 501,702 copies since its October release (9). Curiously, during this time, demands for securing the place Violin
held at number thirteen appear to have marginally diminished. That same article went on to state, "In the top 15 fiction books for 1997, #15 sold well under 500,000 copies -- the lowest sales figure since 1992 for that position...there seems to be a reversal of trends that began the decade, when fiction sales outpaced nonfiction"(9). Of course, a novel cannot be un-purchased, yet were this slightly unusual literary climate not present, the number of disgruntled readers might have lowered the novel's position on the list.
would not be the first or the last of Rice's works to mirror her personal life in content or context. Just as this novel nearly replicated its author's personal tragedies, Rice's years of convoluted relations with the Catholic Church, which included several very public renunciations, were often mirrored in the contrastingly devout or irreligious nature of her subsequent novels. While not as overtly religious as these, Violin
raises the question of afterlife as Rice's heroine is "both haunted and inspired" by the ghostly figure of Stefan (13). Despite heated interactions, the two appear oddly codependent. Triana's ability to level with her specter, retorting at one point, "Your torment wants a witness... eager as any dying human... before the dying forget everything and see things we can't see," adds a peculiar plot dynamic, and gives off the unsettling impression that Rice is attempting to mitigate her own grief by fantasizing a world in which the living and dead coexist (7). While she eventually renounced the Catholic faith in 2010 after a lifetime vacillating between follower and disenchanted advocate, at the time of Violin's
release in 1997, Rice was beginning a personal and literary evolution away from vampires and towards God, promising to, "renounce her vampire novels, [in order] to focus on subjects more in line with her renewed beliefs (4)." This progression culminated in 2002, when, following her husband's death, Rice published Christ the Lord,
in which she calls Jesus the "ultimate superhero" (4).
All bestsellers differ in factors propagating their popularity, which can be as much a byproduct of the social context in which they are published as the narrative content of the publications themselves. While some novels earn their places on bestseller lists for adherence to the former, or superiority in the latter, Violin is not one of them. Yet the sheer fervor of the novel's negative reception is in itself remarkable as it speaks to the influence of bestsellers. While not always well received, they appear to be books that are not only read, but also cared about. If nothing else, the oddities of Violin's
content, author, and reception are a testament to the reality that identifying the factors determining a novel's success is often a convoluted matter. Furthermore, attempting to attribute any work's immediate and subsequent reception, especially in the case of a bestseller, to a single cause can prove more confusing than helpful. Whether coincidental or not, Rice's personal story often proves as tragic and bizarre as those she puts on paper, adding further complication to those attempting to answer this question in the case of Violin
. Despite her statement in The Vampire Lestat
, that "...most women are weak... But when they are strong, they are absolutely unpredictable" (2), Rice seems here to have heeded popular consensus, abandoning fantastical grief stricken passages in favor of The Denver Post
review's recommendation to "stick with vampires" (9).
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