Lonesome Sales

I read Larry McMurtry's slim and meandering memoir LITERARY LIFE, which had some interesting anecdotes here and there, but overall I thought it was a big disappointment. I was hoping to learn a lot more about his approach to writing and the evolution his novels, many of which are among my all-time favorites. But there was one fact that he shared that I found quite surprising:

Lonesome Dove was my tenth novel, my eleventh book. I had been publishing books from the early Sixties to the mid-Eighties before producing a book that came close to selling five thousand copies, a feat nearly achieved by All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, which came out just in time to profit from the flare of interest produced by the popularity of The Last Picture Show. [Lee here:  McMurtry is referring to the movie adaptation, not the novel]

My lack of rising sales might have been easier for Simon and Schuster to tolerate if I had, along the way, been producing exceptional reviews, but, in the main, I attracted no reviews. […] The lack of interest in my books continues to this day.

It's unbelievable to me that McMurtry's early books — classics and personal favorites like The Last Picture ShowLeaving Cheyenne, Movin' On, and Horseman Pass By (which became the movie HUD) — didn't sell anywhere near as well as, say, a men's action-adventure paperback like .357 Vigilante. That's just wrong. 

When McMurtry says his books still don't inspire much interest, he seems to be referring to reviews from major publications and not sales (my guess is that his books sell well, if not spectacularly). You'd think an author who has won the Pulitizer Prize for his fiction, and an Oscar for his screenwriting, would certainly merit as much critical attention as typical Michael Connelly book receives. But apparently McMurtry doesn't…and I sure don't know why. Do you?

14 thoughts on “Lonesome Sales”

  1. Sort of surprising that. Does he say how many copies Lonesome Dove sold? Lonesome Dove probably IS the great American novel. And I’ve always been struck by the truth and sadness of the title (and the book) of All My Friends Will Be Strangers.

  2. There is such a thing as a literary Establishment, and it is largely an East Coast phenomenon. No matter now well written McMurtry’s early novels were, no matter that they were “literary” rather than popular fiction, they were set in Texas and that meant they would be ignored and little reviewed by the cognoscenti. The Establishment could celebrate John Updike, but not a Texan no matter how brilliant his work. McMurtry has wrestled with depression, and that has affected some of his work, but he is a colossus, and a profound gift to American letters.

  3. I should add that Mr. McMurtry should have won the Owen Wister Award, given by Western Writers of America for lifetime achievement. But he has yet to receive the award. It is a mystery and an embarrassment. He is the elephant in the room.

  4. Huh. I wonder if Mr. McMurtry isn’t succumbing to his depressive tendencies, because I personally reviewed many of his post-LONESOME DOVE books for the San Francisco Chronicle and recall seeing my blurbs, among many others from prominent newspapers, on the paperback editions.
    Of course, I eventually ran out of things to say about McMurtry, and his more recent work hasn’t inspired me to try again. But I’m not sure he has been as neglected as he’s making out.

  5. Maybe it has something to do with the BRAND. With the Monk novels and Robert B Parker, I know what to expect and look forward with enthusiasm for the next book, and make a point of reading it. And my expectations are more than fulfilled so I keep coming back. But what does a Mr. McMurtry novel represent? Why read it? What’s it going to provide? He is a great writer, but the marketing of his brand wasn’t great, I’d argue. Hammet suffered the same way: trying to create a different franchise with each book rather than getting a series up and moving forward with a lot of momentum. No brand, no readers, I guess.

  6. Writing used to be about something more than “branding.”
    And I don’t think Hammet “suffered” from poor sales or ever tried to create “franchises” with his books. He wrote five different novels and was very successful. (And for the record, the Op was a running character in his short stories and Red Harvest.) He only really suffered when the government decided he didn’t deserve the money generated from his work because they thought he was a Pinko.
    Most (if not all) of the great books of the 20th century were stand-alones,not series. Some writers shoot for greatness along with sales. (Or don’t worry much about sales concepts when they are writing. I know that’s an alien way of thinking nowadays, but it used to be more the rule than the exception.)
    Mike and Debi seem to think McMurtry is bitching about his lack of sales and reviews. I thought he was just laying it out plain, the way he saw it. And it was refreshing to read a writer being honest about his perception of his lack of impact on the world in comparison with what his fans may think his impact has been.
    It seems to me that in this brave new world of the internet, people can say any harsh thing they want about anyone and it can be looked upon as “honest criticism”, but if someone takes a critical eye to their own life or career it is perceived as whining (or worse: depression).

  7. Writers are not marketing products that can be branded and the good ones are not assembly line machines designed to churn out predictably similar books. I don’t think that if McMurtry had stuck to a formula he’d have been any more successful. I’m sure, though, that he would have been a lesser writer. Lonesome Dove is part of a tetralogy and yet none of its installments are carbon copies of the other. Good writers can write series characters and still be original and reliably good without becoming predictable.
    Having said that, I don’t know how much more successful can McMurtry want to be. How many writers wish they’d attained the recognition he has in his lifetime? He’s had novels successfully adapted to both the big and the small screen, he’s won major awards, he’s had screenplays produced into Academy Award-winning movies and he’s still being published and relevant after all these decades. In a perfect world, his books should probably get as much attention as the latest Roth (now there’s someone who tends to get repetitive), DeLillo or Auster. His two memoirs, however, just don’t seem as interesting as they could have been. I’ve leafed through both at bookstores and it seems to me he’s leaving out a lot of the literary gossip that make books such as the recent Cheever and Carver biographies so interesting.

  8. Well it’s what Jim Harrison calls the geo-piety of the Northeastern corridor. Novels about the West may or may not be so-called westerns per se, but these days many genres are looked down upon in this way. McMurtry is a legend and a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford in the same year as Ken Kesey. In the end though, it’s also a line that Tom McGuane uses in his talks that derives from a quip by HL Mencken concerning Willa Cather. “I don’t care what happens in Nebraska.”

  9. TL and GB, writing is one thing and marketing the book is another. I’m not suggesting the writer does both. I just think the Mr. McMurtey’s people haven’t been successful in creating a compelling presence for him in the marketplace. He does the writing but they create the BRAND. His writing, to him, is not just about creating a product to sell, but for his team, the book is a product like any other and needs a smart maketing program to help make it into a success. When I think of Mr. McMurtrey, I think of LONESOME DOVE and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, both great stories, but I don’t have an image in my mind of what the writer is all about. So why read one of his books when other writers have more compelling images? I’m not dissing Mr. McMurtry, just questioning his martketing team.
    As for Hammet, he suffered and suffered from writer’s block for over two decades. He probably should have written some sequels to help getting him going again. This is what Shakespeare did: he wrote a series of history plays, a series of romantic comedies, a series of Roman plays, a series of tragedies, a series of tragi-comedies and finally a series of romances. He embodies a philosophy, and a technique, and a depth of character study. You know what you are getting when you pick up one of his plays. So it looks to me as if, no brand, no readers. Even a good book will be turned down by agents in NYC if they can’t see how to sell it.

  10. I’m on a McMurtry tear right now, working through his early novels. Astounding writing. His characters are so real that they invade my dreams at night. I’m in the middle of MOVING ON, which is remarkable in that nothing is really happening but I can’t put it down. Quite a feat… a plotless page tuner! There are big interpersonal gulfs being drawn and plenty of conflict (much of it sexual!), but it’s just a lazy jaunt up rodeo alley with the focus on a fascinating (and somewhat irritating) character named Patsy Carpenter (she draws big crocodile tears like a gun!).
    I’m so glad you commented on this, Lee, because as I plow through these lush, rich texts, I felt like screaming into the night, “Why the hell ain’t everyone heaping praise on the great Larry McMurtry?!”
    Perhaps his lack of appeal stems from the fact that he writes such deeply flawed characters who are usually stuck in self-imposed ruts? Dunno’… that’s the type of character that speaks to me but some people dig their heroes to be the face of perfection… an easier escape from the drudge?

  11. Mr. McMurtry has written a couple of series that are several books long each. But why the sequels didn’t do better, I don’t know. I’m reading his book, “Somebody’s Darling,” and, quite simply, the writing is supurb. This guy is filled with talent.
    However, there are some quibbles I have with the physical book. First, the cover is white, but it’s not a brilliant white like the paperback covers for Graham Greene’s novels. It’s a dingy white, a grayish white and it’s just not attractive. Secondly, the title of the book is as low-concept as it gets, yet this title is presented at the top of the book as the main selling point. I would argue that is a marketing mistake. Instead, the author’s name should have gone at the top. Third, the author’s photo on the back cover is, frankly, horrible. He is wearing nerdy glasses, has a terrible haircut and has a horrible expression on his face. One look at it and I almost put the book down in favor of one written by Alistair McClain, an author whose image is far more compelling. So, as a physical product, the book is not attractive, it won’t sell very well, I’d guess.
    Still, the writing is fabulous. But the narrator is much older than the author was, and this leads to some ambiguities in the narration which tends to undercut the reality of the story. And there are moments when the narrator seems to be disrespectful towards the reader. So I’m guessing these attitudes wouldn’t bring many readers back for more.
    But, anyway, I’m hooked. This book has some of the most satisfying writing I’ve come across in the last decade. I didn’t think I’d come across a contempory literary writer as good as Philip Roth, but I have!

  12. My favorite McMurtry books:
    The Last Picture Show
    Horseman, Pass By (aka Hud)
    Leaving Cheyenne
    Movin On
    All my Friends Are Going to Be Strangers
    Terms of Endearment
    Lonesome Dove
    Streets for Laredo
    Not so good…
    The Evening Star
    Duane’s Depressed
    When the Light Goes
    Rhino Ranch
    Loop Group
    Telegraph Days

  13. I’ve been reading and re-reading, “Somebody’s Darling,” looking for clues why sales should be low when the writing is so good. Maybe Mr. McMurtry went too far and alienated his audience. There’s all the c-words for both male and female. There are three different narrators, none of them particularly admirable. There is no moral center. In fact, the theme of the book seems to center on the concept of reality–that we can never know it, that we can never explain our lives, ultimately. And the book is very attacking. After a while, I think, an audience gives up on a writer after a certain number of books that attack the usual conventions of society. I know I did with Martin Amis. It’s a pity because his talent is outstanding. But if he is bruising my own sensibility in 2010 with the c-words and some of the scenes that go too far for me, how much more abusive would the book have been in 1978 when it came out. I guess we, the audience, expect more from our writers–that they’ve found some kind of truth to live by, something that works, or else why read the book? It’s as if, unless a writer stands for a truth or code, he or she cannot develop a compelling image for the audience, and therefore, there is no compelling reason to read their books.


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