Best-Selling Women: The 1930s

Daphne Du Maurier by Dorothy Wilding

In troubled economic times, books and movies are necessary forms of comfort and escape. Here we will explore what Americans were reading during the 1930s—the era of the Great Depression, and which of the best-selling books of that decade were written by women. Shown at right, one of the era’s prominent female authors, Daphne du Maurier.

As everyone knows, what makes it to the bestseller lists these days is not necessarily what endures and is most often not literature. I had no idea what to expect when I explored the lists of top 10 best selling novels for each of the years of the 1930s, but what I did find floored me! At least forty percent of the 100 best-selling novels of that decade were by women authors, and of those, many have endured and have indeed become classics.

Others were by authors whose names are perhaps less familiar now, but who continue to be well regarded, and perhaps now underappreciated. Ellen Glasgow is one of them. Take 1931. The #1 selling novel was The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. At #2 was Shadows on the Rock  by Willa Cather. The #3, #4, and #5 novels were also by women. In fifth place was Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, which won the year’s Pulitzer Prize for the Novel.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth was  the #1 the bestseller list for two years in a row

The following year, The Good Earth remained at the top spot, and Pearl Buck also occupied the third spot with another novel titled Sons. In the years to come, the names that grace the top-selling fiction list, both male and female, are literary legends: Isak Dinesen, Edna Ferber, Rebecca West, Daphne Du Maurier, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

virginia woolf on time magazine

Virginia Woolf made the list in 1937 for The Years.

Do you think that, with its dense, complex language, a Woolf novel would make it to today’s best seller list? That would be an interesting debate.

margaret mitchell with Gone With the Wind

Gone with the Wind was the #1 novel both in 1936 and 1937.

To give male authors of that era their due, some of the names on the 1930s lists include Aldous Huxley, Thornton Wilder, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, and George Santayana. I don’t think that there’s a dearth of good fiction these days, but the best novels are not necessarily those that are read by the public in droves.

What makes it onto the top-selling lists is awash with formula fiction by both men and women. I went through the list of top 10 novels for each of the years 2000 through 2008. Compared to the 1930s, what a letdown! The percentage of the top-selling novels by women is less than 25%.

Taken as the sheer number of women, it would probably be even less, since a few of the women appear multiple times — Patricia Cornwall, Janet Evanovich, and, sigh, Danielle Steele. Cornwall and Evanovich write crime/mystery novels, and I haven’t read any, so I can’t be judgmental, but it seems safe to say that they will not be handed down to future generations as classics.

The Little Princess 1939 film with Shirley Temple

You might also enjoy this quiz:
Who Are the Women Authors Behind These 12 Classic Films?

By the way, women authors are currently an even smaller minority on the non-fiction bestseller lists than they are on the fiction lists. Some of their bestselling male counterparts who appear multiple times on the 2000-2008 lists include Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, and Tom Clancy. Lots of formula fiction from both female and male authors.

Notably absent from this decades lists was J.K. Rowling, due to some “rule” made about who can or can’t be on the list. No doubt, she has been the top selling female author of this decade, or indeed any decade. Of all the books on the current lists, I would bet that she would be the one of the only, if not the only, authors whose works will endure.

The few non-formulaic female authors appearing on the list in the first decade of the 21st century include Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones, one of my least favorite books), and Sue Monk Kidd (Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair). Few authors are in the league of Virginia Woolf, and few books are nearly as compelling as the more accessible yet wonderfully written Rebecca or Gone with the Wind.

rebecca by daphne dumaurier vintage cover

Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca (1938) was a critical and commercial success

We can’t entirely blame the publishing industry for this. They give the public what they want. It seems that the paths of literature and commercial fiction diverge more than they did in the past. But the systemic sexism that continues in our culture is certainly to blame for the lack of support for women’s literature in the review publications, and that is why we must continue to read and support women’s literature, both of the past and present.

Happily, more and more women are writing fine and important books, even if they don’t make the bestseller lists. These singular voices need to be heard.

— By Nava Atlas, author of The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life

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