Published in the Business Standard, February 05, 2007)

At the age of 17, depressed at his growing collection of rejection slips, certain that he would never become a writer, Sidney Sheldon tried to commit suicide. His father walked in on him just before he took a combination of sleeping pills and bourbon whisky, and quietly talked him out of it.

If Mr Schechtel—Sheldon changed his surname during his Hollywood years, to make it more “saleable”—had been less persuasive, the literary world may not have missed out on much. Sidney Sheldon, who died this week, would have been the first to agree that his prose was readable rather than deathless, that his bestsellers were written to keep readers rather than critics up all night. But an entire generation of Indians brought up in more repressive times would have had much more trouble figuring out the birds and bees without “Sidney ke kitab”.

We read his books furtively; copies were passed from hand-to-hand and fell open obligingly at the saucy bits. This was in a relatively innocent age when the Indian taste in bestsellers ran to Alistair Maclean (who never wrote about sex because he felt it slowed down the action), James Hadley Chase (who should have been called Chaste because the well-endowed babe on the book cover was about as exciting as it got) and Desmond Bagley.

Pulp fiction, barring Nick Carter’s risibly lurid concoctions, was remarkably clean in those days. Sidney Sheldon’s books, from The Other Side of Midnight to The Windmills of the Gods, seem almost sweetly old-fashioned to contemporary eyes. But they were greatly prized for the steamy bits in that time, though today any self-respecting Mills & Boon is anatomically more explicit—and more accurate!—than Sheldon’s harmless page-turners. He had quite a following among women readers in Calcutta for a strange reason—many assumed that “Sidney” was a woman, and treated him/ her as a superior romance writer.

The interesting thing about Sidney Sheldon is that he represented a generation of popular fiction writers who have endured. This is disconcerting for the highbrow reader, who knows that one of the ways in which you recognize a “classic” is if the book lasts over several generations. If that is true, then a case must be made for a kind of alternate, mass-market “classic”, and this, to many, would devalue an already debased word.

The original “bestsellers” make a reassuring list for those readers who believe in literary value and in the idea that quality writing will make a place for itself in the world. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, is a classic of medieval literature—but it was also a runaway bestseller in its day. The first printed book to be accounted bestseller status was Thomas a Kempis’ De Imitatione Christi, a rousing, controversial and deeply scholarly work. Most bestsellers in medieval Europe would fit into a modern-day “spirituality” imprint: Martin Luther’s Sermons were hugely popular, as were the lives of the saints, collections of sermons, and editions of separate books of the Bible, conveniently packaged for the reader who wanted only to read, say, Psalms or the Apocrypha.

An early indication that the nature of the bestseller might shift over time came in 1532 with the great Italian romantic epic, Orlando Furioso. That prepared the way for slightly later popular successes, such as Tristram Shandy–an early example of the cult novel—or Richardson’s three-volume novels. The American publishing world initially displayed a reassuring popular appetite for what was seen as quality literary fiction—James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne were the top sellers of their day, for instance.

But there was a fairly rapid shift towards the bestseller as we know it today. A typical early success was The Lamplighter, a domestic novel written by Maria Cummins. It was a sentimental, melodramatic account of a maltreated orphan who is rescued, only to have her faith tested across the rest of an apparently interminable book. The prose was slushy when it wasn’t saccharine, but the book sold 20,000 copies in less than a month.

The Lamplighter reassures readers who believe that quality will ultimately win the day. Twenty years after its publication, it was on its way to oblivion, and few remember it today. But if you look at the bestseller lists for the 20th century, some names have remained steady sellers for close to four or five decades: Wilbur Smith, Frederick Forsyth, early Robert Ludlum, early Sidney Sheldon. In all these cases, the storylines and plots seem dated, what was once shocking is now mildly quaint. But the books still sell, and if they don’t die over the next few decades, we may have to redefine what we mean by a “classic”.