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Controversy Sells Books

Controversy sells books, of course, even bad books. But for serious-minded books, a controversial reception can mean the difference between a certain grudging respect and actual success.

You may have heard of a new novel, The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, published in English a few weeks ago. The book was first published in France in 2006 as Les Bienveillantes, and it became a sensation there, selling about 700,000 copies, and winning France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt.

The book is the fictional memoir of Dr. Max Aue, a former Nazi officer who has survived the war and reinvented himself in northern France as an entrepreneur and family man. In his tale, Dr. Aue is a witty monster, alluding to philosophy, literature, and music while narrating a story of deep personal depravity and public horror, including gruesome details of the Nazi genocide of the Jews and other World War II atrocities.

The reviews in this country have been decidedly mixed. In The New York Times, the critic Michiko Kakutani called the book “willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent,” while in The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelssohn, praised The Kindly Ones for “weaving together the dreadful and the mundane in an unsettlingly persuasive way.”

The publisher HarperCollins had a lot riding on this book: it paid close to $1 million for it, and it needs to sell about 75,000 copies to break even, no small thing when the book is close to 1,000 pages.

Yet about a week after its publication, The Kindly Ones appeared on The New York Times extended bestseller list. That’s saying something, when bestseller lists today are dominated by brand-name authors from Grisham to Patterson. Last year, only one newcomer, David Wroblewski, managed the feat of breaking through, with his debut novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which was a bestseller even before Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club (the novel went on to sell close to 1.5 million copies in hardcover).

While The Kindly Ones is unlikely to reach those stratospheric sales heights in this country, its making the bestseller list at all demonstrates that American readers are willing to take a chance on controversy. And controversy itself might have helped stir interest in the novel.

An author friend of mine once noted that it doesn’t matter whether or not your book gets a good review – the fact that it gets reviewed at all is enough for it to gain notice. She told me that after one of her novels was given a so-so review in a major newspaper, it threw her into a brief depression. But she changed her mind after she got an enthusiastic note from a friend who praised her for having gotten the review in the first place.

“She didn’t even remember that it wasn’t a positive review,” my friend told me. “She saw that it was reviewed, and that was positive in itself.”

People don’t really remember whether a review was good or bad. They see that it has gotten some notice, and that’s enough for them to think it might be worth their while.

For a book such as The Kindly Ones to succeed, it has to sell well for a while to earn back its advance. In an age when most books have, at best, a three-month shelf-life, it’s heartening to read that Jonathan Burnham, Harper’s publisher, doesn’t compare this novel to commercial fiction, in terms of sales expectations, and that he expects it to have a long life.

Only time will tell whether this controversial novel will become a literary classic, like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—another book that was both panned and praised upon publication.

But at least more than a few readers are willing to take a chance on something challenging today. They might have been drawn to the novel by the controversy surrounding it, but at least they decided to read the book for themselves.
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Robert J. Hughes, a longtime reporter for The Wall Street Journal, writes on the arts, based in New York.

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