Inside the List
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
BONANZA: Charles Portis’s “True Grit” (1968) has popped up on the trade paperback list — it’s No. 11 this week — thanks to the Coen brothers’ film adaptation.
It isn’t the first time the elusive Portis, now living quietly in Little Rock, Ark., has been buoyed by Hollywood. The producer Bob Rehme recently boasted to Michael Cieply of The Times that back in 1968, Paramount staffers bought boxfuls of “True Grit” from stores they thought were being monitored for this paper’s best-seller list, to ensure it would hit in advance of the 1969 John Wayne movie. The book entered the hardcover fiction list at No. 3 and hung on for a 22-week run. It remains Portis’s only best seller, though its heroine, the eloquent underage avenger Mattie Ross, does report working years later on a sure-fire hit of her own, titled “You will now listen to the sentence of the law, Odus Wharton, which is that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead! May God, whose laws you have broken and before whose dread tribunal you must appear, have mercy upon your soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge”
BEST WESTERN: A western novel may need lily-livered varmintry to make the list. Despite the commercial success of highbrows like Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx and Larry McMurtry, we’re a long way from the dust-streaked glory days of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. But while Jorge Luis Borges may have dismissed the American cowboy novel as “a tardy and subordinate genre” (not to mention vastly inferior to Argentine tales of steak-on-the-hoof), the western still gets some serious critical love. As Allen Barra recently pointed out in The Daily Beast, no less a hanging judge than Harold Bloom once called McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” the “strongest imaginative work by any living American writer.” Barra’s own vote for best western goes to Thomas Berger’s “Little Big Man” (1964), followed by McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” (1985). McMurtry’s novel spent 24 weeks on the hardcover list, while Berger got goose eggs. Then again, who needs Borges, Bloom or the best-seller list when you’ve got Janis Joplin? According to Barra, “Little Big Man” was reportedly one of her favorite books.
SHORT CUTS: Short stories — three collections are reviewed on our Jan. 16 cover — are almost as scarce on the list these days as westerns (though L’Amour scored with a collection of adventure tales as recently as 2001, despite being dead for 13 years). Jhumpa Lahiri scored an unusual coup when her highly literary collection “Unaccustomed Earth” hit No. 1 on the hardcover fiction list in 2007. In 2010, only hardened uber-sellers like John Grisham, Stephen King and Charlaine Harris put non-novels on the list. In 2007, King contributed an essay to the Book Review called “What Ails the Short Story.” Though less downbeat than its title, it prompted some grumbling, with one blogger at The Smart Set declaring that “nothing dies more quickly than the ‘death of’ article.” Point taken. Here’s to the life of the short story in 2011.