Back when I was regularly writing screenplays and trying to determine a strategy to market my work, I paid careful attention to the weekly box office. I would study those charts to see which movies were flashes in the pan and which held up over time.
Sometimes, after watching a film’s preview, considering its stars and its plot (as least what I could gather from the previews and publicity), I would guess how it would fare among film-goers. I recall my delight when films like Josie and the Pussycats and Gigli tanked as I had predicted they would.
My forecasts, however, were not always accurate. (I was convinced, for example, that Double Jeopardy wouldn’t earn back its production costs.) I made sure to see a film which did much better at the box office than I predicted it would, particularly if it earned over $100 million.
After watching it, I would try to figure out why it had done so well. Now I wish I had typed up my notes.
If a movie continues to draw audiences over several successive weekends, something in its story (or its star or its spectacle) resonates with the public. And if it holds up over time, it has succeeded in tapping into something in what Jung called our “collective unconscious.”
As it is with movies so it is with books.
That’s why I think it’s wrong for people to dismiss the significance of books like Atlas Shrugged. That book has continued to sell well long after its publication now over a half-century ago. It’s not just today that the book is flying off shelves. Despite negative reviews when it was first published, its sales have remained strong in the five subsequent decades. In 1998, it was ranked #1 in a on-line poll of the “hundred best novels of the twentieth century.”
As I read it for the second time, I see its flaws more clearly than I did when I first read it as an adolescent. Its characters are one-dimensional, the prose is often flat, the dialogue would sound clunky if spoken and goes on way too long, yet the story is compelling. I kept reading it last night even as my eyelids were becoming increasingly heavy.
In dismissing books which continue to sell well over time as have Atlas Shrugged and The Lord of the Rings, literary scholars discount what once defined literature we now consider classic, its ability to illuminate, through a fictional narrative, something essential about the human condition. And for that illumination to resonate with readers.
Despite her stylistic flaws, Ayn Rand does that. Otherwise, her books wouldn’t have found an audience.