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The Lost Generation?

The day before the sixty-sixth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pear Harbor, I came across the following tidbit in Cindy Adams’ gossip column in the New York Post:

“The History Channel has nixed future WWII programming. They claim: Doesn’t fit our demographics. The History Channel!?”

I was knocked for a loop by this. There seemed to be an endless parade of new WW II books published every year. And what about all those nights we saw Tony Soprano alone in his den captivated by documentary footage of Rommel in North Africa, the war in the air, and the Normandy invasion? Did the audience for WWII programming fade to black like the Soprano saga itself?

While books about WWII have been published in great numbers, and have probably sold a respectable number of copies (otherwise, so many of them wouldn’t be published every year), it turns out that very few have achieved bestseller status.

I was quite surprised to find that in the fifty years between 1948—when Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and 1998, when Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation became a publishing phenomenon— there were only two WWII books that made Publishers Weekly’s annual end-of-year list of the fifteen bestselling nonfiction titles: William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (which went on to become one of the bestselling nonfiction titles of all time), and Cornelius Ryan’s The Last Battle. Both of those books were published in the nineteen sixties. Walter Lord’s Day of Infamy, published in 1957, was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for a few weeks and then disappeared.

In 1998, Browkaw struck gold with The Greatest Generation. Essentially an oral history, Brokaw compiled fifty sketches of representative Americans that lived through the Great Depression and won WWII, cohorts he described as “the greatest generation any society has produced.” Brokaw’s inspiration for the book came when he was covering the fiftieth anniversary of the Normandy invasion. He wanted to tell their stories before they all died (it is estimated that 31,000 WWII veterans die every month, about 1,100 a day).

Why did Brokaw strike a chord in 1998? Back in 1984, Studs Terkel, the great oral historian, was also troubled by what he saw as our “disrememberance” about WWII and produced The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two. Turkel’s book was a critical success (it was an edgy, unsentimental history of the war from the point of view of the riflemen who did most of the fighting and dying), but enjoyed only modest sales.

Brokaw’s book came along at a time when Americans were enjoying the fruits of the longest-lasting economic expansion in history. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “end of history,” the story of a time when modest people were mobilized in a cause greater than themselves, resonated with many. Some suggested that Brokaw’s book was also a way for the children of the Greatest Generation to bridge the generation gap with their parents (fathers, mostly) and close the circle. While for others, Brokaw did nothing more than produce the perfect gift for dad, like Frank Sinatra’s Duets.

Whatever the reason for its resonance, The Greatest Generation enjoyed phenomenal commercial success. Unlike Turkel’s effort, however, it was not a critical success. Many, like Sean Elder of Salon, thought it was sentimental claptrap (“The Sappiest Generation”), while others, like Jacob Weisberg of Slate, suggested that Brokaw tapped into what he described as “generational loathing” and a powerful nostalgia for the clarity of the nineteen forties (“GI Envy”). In spite of widespread critical condescension, Brokaw sold boatloads of books and went on to produce a very successful sequel the following year that also made the Publishers Weekly annual list of top nonfiction bestsellers—along with the original.

Brokaw’s run of success in 1998-1999 was followed by the very strong showing of Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley and Ron Powers, which was number twelve on PW’s list of nonfiction bestsellers for 2000. Both Brokaw and Bradley were given an added boost by the popularity of movies like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, and the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (produced by Spielberg).

Has the late nineteen nineties WWII boomlet run its course? Will there still be a mass audience for WWII books if or when Steven Spielberg finally moves on?

According to Bowker’s Books In Print database, almost 1,200 books about WWII were published in 2006. This was the most for any American military campaign. The graph below compares books published last year about major U.S. wars:

AGrabois_BarGraph_Books_on_Major_Am_Wars_31Dec07.jpg

While quite a few books on WWII are published every year, the trend has been down since the peak year of 2004, when 1,358 were published. It’s not clear whether the decline will continue, or if the category is in the midst of a “market correction” that will leave it at a relatively high plateau. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but as WWII books peaked in 2004 and then began to decline, books about WWI have increased by fifty percent. When the counting is complete for 2007, the increase will probably be closer to one hundred percent. The graph below compares the output of new books about the two world wars since 2002:

AGrabois__Graph__WWI_WWII_Books_Publ__31Dec07.jpg

So did the History Channel make the right decision when it decided to cancel all new WWII programming? If they’re looking to focus on and capture the 18-34 demographic, probably yes. The current audience for such programming is literally disappearing every day.

As for books , I think that there will always be a market for WWII. In addition to the “buffs” who live for the details of military campaigns and generalship, a broader audience is waiting to be “mobilized” in times of uncertainty and national danger, like 9/11 and Iraq.

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