Best-Sellers in English | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Best-Sellers in English

Canadian books that have maintained high circulation over the years (such as L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, 1908) reveal persistent tastes in a wide readership. Books with sudden sharp sales show shorter-lived fashions.

Best-Sellers in English

Canadian books that have maintained high circulation over the years (such as L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, 1908) reveal persistent tastes in a wide readership. Books with sudden sharp sales show shorter-lived fashions. Some authors, such as Arthur Hailey, have produced one best-seller after another.

Lists of best-sellers, both fiction and nonfiction, first appeared in 1888 in The Canadian Bookseller, and have been published since 1970 in theToronto Star and since 1975 in Maclean's.

The numbers vary widely: in fiction, the same list of best-sellers may include, in the top 10, books that have sold only 3000 copies together with others that have sold 75 000-100 000; the range in nonfiction is more likely to be between 20 000 and 40 000, although a few have reached 100 000 copies.

Since publishers, bookstores and authors are sometimes reluctant to furnish exact figures and the research is not strictly scientific, such lists give only a partial record. Nor do they include textbooks, although these are frequently sold in great quantities. Nevertheless, both the current and the long-range lists are important indicators of changing tastes and interests among Canadian readers.

Some Canadian books have not only sold well in Canada but have also reached masses of readers abroad. Canadian authors discovered early that international popularity does not depend on the use of non-Canadian settings. T.C. Haliburton's The Clockmaker (1836) quickly found a large readership in Britain and the US. Nova Scotian Margaret Marshall Saunders's Beautiful Joe (1894) was carefully set in New England, but other early best-sellers carried images of Canadian places to the world: Gilbert Parker's The Seats of the Mighty (1896) was set in old Québec City; Ralph Connor's Black Rock (1898) in the Rockies; Robert Service's Songs of a Sourdough (1907) in the Yukon; Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables in Prince Edward Island; and Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) in Ontario.

A successful author's reputation often guarantees large sales for subsequent books. Parker, Connor (pseudonym of C.W. Gordon), Montgomery, Service and Leacock topped best-seller lists year after year until the 1920s, each new book catering to established tastes. Montgomery's Anne, for instance, with its imaginative use of language and its central character's free spirit and vivid response to nature, portrayed an idealized Canadian childhood that had worldwide appeal. By 1918 more than 750 000 copies had sold in the US; in Japan and Poland Anne is still among the top best-selling books for children.

At the end of WWI R.C. Stead's The Cow Puncher (1918) was very successful in Canada, though not so well-received abroad. The next worldwide best-seller to come from Canada was Mazo de la Roche's Jalna (1927), which portrayed a passionate family in an attractive Ontario setting. By the 1980s, De la Roche's "Jalna" series had sold over 9 million copies.

A huge public in the 1920s and 1930s also enjoyed less elegant Canadian fare: Luke Allan's books, such as Blue Pete: Half Breed (1921); Frank Packard's "Jimmy Dale" stories; and murder stories such as Hulbert Footner's Easy To Kill (1931). These books rivalled the sales of quieter rural idylls like Patrick Slater's The Yellow Briar (1933) and historical novels like Frederick Niven's The Flying Years (1935).

History dominated the lists at the beginning of WWII, in Canada as elsewhere. Canadian offerings included F.D. McDowell's Champlain Road (1939); Alan Sullivan's Three Came to Ville Marie (1941); and the more sentimental Thorn-Apple Tree (1942) by Grace Campbell.

No Canadian books had worldwide success after Jalna, however, until Gwethalyn Graham's Earth and High Heaven (1944), a story of family tensions stirred by anti-semitism in wartime Montréal. Ethnic conflicts also form the base of Hugh MacLennan's best-selling novel of 1945, Two Solitudes. Both books sold well in the US despite their Canadian settings, and Graham's book was among the top six on American lists for the year. Morley Callaghan's The Loved and the Lost (1951), with a Montréal setting and interracial conflict, took advantage of the taste established by Graham and MacLennan.

In the postwar years, war stories came into mass circulation, eg, Lionel Shapiro's The Sealed Verdict (1947); Ralph Allen's Home Made Banners (1946); and Earle Birney's Turvey (1949). But a social history of the 1950s would also have to note the proliferating sales of romances such as Thomas Raddall's The Nymph and the Lamp (1952); comic sketches such as Eric Nicol's The Roving Eye (1950); and children's literature, including W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind (1947) and Farley Mowat's Lost in the Barrens (1956).

In 1959 the Canadian fictional best-seller was Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, set in Montréal; whereas in 1960 David Walker's Where the High Winds Blow showed there was still a market for tales of adventure in Canada's barren North.

In the 1960s the reading and buying habits of Canadians changed under the impact of television and a surge in paperback publication. The New Canadian Library, book clubs and authors' reading tours all boosted sales. Between 1960 and 1970 the number of English Canadian books in print increased by about 250%, although no single Canadian book became a worldwide best-seller.

In the early 1970s, world best-sellers illustrated shifting attitudes toward violence, feminism, race relations, drugs and family life, and Canadian writers tried plots featuring the new attitudes. But traditional formula fiction also flourished (see Popular literature in English); Canadian novelists turned out Harlequin romances about spunky, beleaguered working girls and their struggles (in exotic settings) toward luxury and married happiness.

Publishers faced difficult, inflationary times and rejoiced in clever authors like Richard Rohmer, whose fiction capitalized on current sensations in finance and politics. Nonfiction lists featured Pierre Berton's The National Dream (1970) and The Last Spike (1971), and Peter C. Newman's The Canadian Establishment (1975).

A list of best-sellers in the 1970s and 1980s would probably include political memoirs and biographies, eg, J.G. Diefenbaker's One Canada (1975-77), L.B. Pearson's Mike (1972-75) and Richard Gwyn's The Northern Magus (1980); adventure stories such as William Stevenson's A Man Called Intrepid (1976); humour such as Don Harron's "Charlie Farquharson" books; financial guides such as Morton Shulman's "How To Invest" series; novels such as Robertson Davies's Deptford trilogy, especially Fifth Business (1970), and Margaret Laurence's Manawaka novels, especially A Jest of God (paperback, 1974; sales were increased by the movie version, Rachel, Rachel); Alice Munro's story sequences, especially Lives of Girls and Women (1971); and the entertaining tales by Harry Boyle and Constance Beresford-Howe. Margaret Atwood's cool, honest and acidly funny novels have had wide sales, especially The Handmaid's Tale (1985), which outsold all her earlier books. Some Canadian best-sellers have won prestigious international prizes such as Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries (Pulitzer). Others have had an extended reach, such as "Talking books" on tape (Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion).

The 1990s saw a number of Canadian books achieve substantial success at home and abroad. Leading the charge was Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992), which won the prestigious Booker Prize and was transformed into an Academy Award-winning film. Jane Urquhart's Away (1993) set a record by remaining on The Globe and Mail's National Best-Seller list for 132 weeks. Margaret Atwood won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Alias Grace (1996) while Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version (1997) also won the Giller Prize and a renewed following for Richler. Anne Michaels's beautiful first novel, Fugitive Pieces (1996), winner of Britain's Orange Prize, became a runaway national and international best-seller.

Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall On Your Knees, both published in 1996, had huge international sales after their inclusion in Oprah Winfrey's book club. Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony also sold very well at home and abroad. Radio host Stuart McLean published his first of many best-selling Vinyl Café story collections in 1996. Robert J. Sawyer had achieved international prominence as a major science-fiction writer by the mid-1990s. Carol Shields was on the best-seller lists in the late 1990s, with her award-winning novel Larry's Party, as was Wayne Johnston for his Newfoundland epic The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

Nonfiction writers also found big Canadian markets in the 1990s. Jay Ingram published The Science of Everyday Life (1990), his first of many popular and accessible science books, and Burning House: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Brain (1995). Boom, Bust, and Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift, by David K. Foote and Daniel Stoffman, remained on best-seller lists for 3 years. Cookbooks by Canadian chefs such as Bonnie Stern, Elizabeth Baird, and Lucy Waverman continued to be very popular, as was The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (1998).

Margaret Atwood's name dominated the lists for prizes and best-sellers at the turn of the 21st century, first for the 2000 Man Booker prize-winning The Blind Assassin, and then for her dystopian science-fiction novel Oryx and Crake. The 2002 Man Booker prize was also awarded to a Canadian, Yann Martel, for his internationally acclaimed Life of Pi. One year later, Life of Pi was selected as the book all Canadians should read in CBC's Canada Reads. Other best-sellers featured in this annual competition include Guy Vanderhaeghe's 2002 The Last Crossing, Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness (2004) and Joseph Boyden's 2005 Three Day Road. Alice Munro's short fiction collections, including Runaway (2004) and The View from Castle Rock (2006), continue to captivate readers and critics in Canada and elsewhere.

Peter C. Newman's profiles of Canadian business and political leaders, such as his 2005 The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister, always make best-seller lists, as did his own 2004 memoir, Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power. Naomi Klein's critique of multinational corporations, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, caused an international sensation and galvanized the anti-globalization movement when it was published in 2000. International power broking of a different kind, and time, is analyzed in Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. MacMillan's book garnered many national and international honours, including the 2003 Governor General's Award for nonfiction. The following year, the award went to Romeo Dallaire for his best-selling, harrowing memoir Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.

The best-seller lists reflect Canadian choices, and perhaps Canadian needs: the need for escape, for unavailable pleasures, for information and guidance on urgent questions. Best-seller lists reveal not what Canadians should read, but what they do read.

See also Best-Sellers in French; Popular Literature in English; Political Autobiographies.

Further Reading