I never understood people’s fascination with James Michener novels. Then, it dawned on me that, perhaps, when “South Pacific” hit the big-time becoming a musical and a movie…people went ga-ga over Michener. Is that how it really happened?
Well, Tales of the South Pacific was his first book and the musical happened just two years later, so it’s not like Michner was writing a bunch of books and just happened to hit it big with that one.
Moving to CS
I enjoyed many Michener novels well before coming across *Tales of the South Pacific *
I always liked Michener’s books. My favorite was Hawaii, but I loathed the movie version.
I really began to like that book when I read the following passage. It occurs during the voyage the Bora Borans are making to find a new island. They see a new star in the heavens, in the north, and it is fixed, not moving as the others do. The young navigator Teroro, brother of the king, puzzles out that with this star sailors will always know what latitude they are, and that finding their way on the ocean will be much easier. He is ecstatic with their new knowledge, and, as the book says:
Up to now he had given no one cause to think that he merited his name, the Brain; certainly he could never be a knowledgeable priest like his uncle Tupuna, and that was a pity for priest were needed. Nor had he wisdom in political counsels like his brother, but on this night he proved that he could do somethingthat none of his companions could:he could look at the evidence planted in the universe and from it derive a new concept, and a greater thing than this no mind can accomplish. (Bolding mine)
I’m not ga-ga over Michener. The guy writes like he’s never actually talked to a woman in his life. But I have a certain appreciation for his books, which I developed in the Peace Corps, where books are values primarily for their length.
For many, many years my favorite book was The Source, which was the first Michener book I read. I’ve read many more since then, most of which I really enjoyed (particularly Hawaii, Alaska and The Journey - another Alaska book). I also read some others that I didn’t enjoy as much, including Tales of the South Pacific. The musical and movie may have introduced some people to Michener, but he couldn’t possibly have had the success he had if people weren’t genuinely enjoying his other books.
Yes, but an author can flounder for years not recognized or underappreciated. The fact that Tales of the South Pacific became a musical might have brought him into the right social circles to become big and recognized at last. So, even if it was not his first book…it might have been his first REAL break.
Oops! Wait, did you say it WAS his first book? Hmm, that’s different!
Well, he tried, but he kept getting washed out of their hair.
I thought Michener did a good job on “Kent State”. Non-fiction, of course.
I read and enjoyed “Tales of the South Pacific” before I saw the movie. I tried a couple of other Michener books but found them long and uninteresting.
The Source was also my first Michener book; I remember the first few hundred pages being a real struggle, but then something clicked. I enjoyed most of his books right up until Alaska, which seemed to me like he wrote it by committee and without much interest.
True, I think of Michener’s books more as “tomes” than mere “books”. I sort of mentally class Michener, Uris, and Woak together as writers of THICK historical fiction.
Yes, it took me a while to figure out where he was going with The Source. It did start out sluggishly.
It’s “Wouk” :), but yeah. M.M. Kaye is another tome writer. The Far Pavilions, while epic, is a very long read.
As the title should indicate, Tales of the South Pacific was a collection of short stories that share characters, not a true novel. Short stories traditionally do not sell well and the book was not a bestseller. The musical appeared in 1949 and that probably raised his profile, but the movie wasn’t until 1958 so you have to look at his whole career in that time frame.
His first novel, The Fires of Spring, was published in 1950. It’s the standard account of a sensitive boy growing up, like eleventy zillion other first novels. It went nowhere.
The next book, Return to Paradise, was exactly what the title implied, another collection of short stories set in the South Pacific. That was what the public wanted and it ranked 8 on the fiction list for 1951. Just to remind you what a different time that was, it sold 65,000 copies in hardcover.
He then wrote two short books set in the Pacific, The Bridges at Toko-ri and Sayonara. Neither made the year’s top ten. He didn’t have a megaseller until 1959’s Hawaii, a thousand pages of history and soap opera, finally the kind of novel that people today associate with Michener. That started his string of blockbusters.
The Broadway musical did bring him attention, but he was writing the kind of book that the public wanted to read in the early 1950s. He was successful only as long as he wrote that book. Nothing else really clicked.
The film certainly helped his career, though it’s important to remember that the tv series Adventures in Paradise (sometimes titled James A. Michener’s Adventures in Paradise) also debuted in 1959 and, surprise, surprise, was about a bunch of guys who sailed the South Pacific.
Still wouldn’t have mattered in the long run if he hadn’t come up with the “Michener novel” format at the same time. Media may have helped his career, but he succeeded the hard way, by earning it through his hard work and good ideas and superb execution.
Toss Arthur Hailey onto that pile, who specializes Thick historical novels set in particular industries rather than places.
I enjoyed what little Michener I’ve read (Chesapeake), but my uncle cracked me up with the following:
“Michener isn’t a writer, he’s a typist.”
The Kindle editions of several of Michener’s books were released today. I’ve been wanting to re-read Space. I look forward to reading one of his books without having to maintain a grip on a four-inch thick paperback.
Somewhat true in that he used a large staff to actually research and compile information, rather than do it himself. It’s what made Alaska a boring read.