NEW YORK - Within the past year, three of the most famous authors to emerge after World War II have died: Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron. Their deaths all resulted in front-page stories, lengthy appreciations and discussions about their place in American letters.
No writer was more competitive, or ambitious, than Mailer, author of such epics as "The Naked and the Dead" and "The Executioner's Song," and critics would likely hand him the prize for his generation. But if sales are the measure of the public's mind, honors clearly belong to Vonnegut.
"Vonnegut was the American Mark Twain," said J. Michael Lennon, the literary executor for Mailer, who died Nov. 10 at age 84. "He even looked liked him. Everybody loved Vonnegut, whereas Norman was a much more controversial figure."
"I remember being given an honorary degree a few years ago at Lehigh University, when Vonnegut was the commencement speaker, and you could tell these kids had read him in a way that they hadn't read Mailer or Styron," said Dana Gioia, poet and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of industry sales, Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" has sold about 280,000 copies since 2006, more than four times the combined pace of six of the most talked about books of the past 60 years: Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," "The Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song," and Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," "Sophie's Choice" and "Darkness Visible."
While Vonnegut's passing last April led to a significant jump in sales for his books, the change was far smaller for the works of Mailer and Styron, both of whom, unlike Vonnegut, won Pulitzer Prizes. Books by all three writers are still used in classrooms, but Vonnegut's are read more both on and off campus.
"Mailer's books don't have the same staying power [for our customers]," said Bob Wietrak, a vice president of merchandising at Barnes & Noble, Inc.
"People get hooked on Vonnegut when they're young and they stay with him . . . "
"He's a little more pulpy and countercultural," said Keith McEvoy, general manager of Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers in downtown Manhattan.
Other books by Vonnegut are also strongly outselling his contemporaries. "Cat's Cradle" has sold nearly 130,000 copies since 2006, according to Nielsen BookScan, and "Breakfast of Champions" totals 74,000.
Meanwhile, Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," winner of the 1968 Pulitzer, has sold less than 2,000 since 2006, while Mailer's "The Armies of the Night," a Pulitzer winner in 1969, sold just 3,000. *