Welcome to Sellouts: 50 Years of Bestsellers, the feature where we pore over the
best most popular fiction in America from the last half-century, one year at a time.
For our first installment, we visit an all too familiar setting: a United States fed-up-with and angry about government ineptitude and civil rights inequalities. No, not 2020. This was 1970, when the endless Vietnam war and an increasing awareness of social injustice—white people’s awareness, as everyone else already knew—had reached a boiling point. Protests were commonplace, and the populace, cynical. Folks’ nerves were frayed, and they needed some form of cloying, low-stakes, white bread escapism. Unfortunately, The Great British Bake Off had yet to be invented, so 1970’s basket cases had to find comfort elsewhere. Little did they know, their solace would arrive in the pages of a slim tearjerker written by 30-year old Yale Literature Professor and Boston Marathon runner, Erich Segal. The novel, Love Story, never should’ve been one of the great publishing successes of the 20th century. In fact, it wasn’t supposed to be a novel at all.
In the late sixties, a then-unknown Erich Segal wrote screenplays to supplement his Yale income (he’d lose the Yale gig as a result of Love Story, but more on that later). After making a small fortune writing, of all things, The Beatles animated feature film, Yellow Submarine, Segal shopped his other projects around Hollywood. Segal and his agent felt strongly about one of those scripts, a tragic love story inspired by a former student who’d lost a spouse to cancer. But in a time when gritty, cynical reworkings of the Western (Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, True Grit, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and zany comedies (The Love Bug, Cactus Flower) packed movie theaters, no Hollywood studio wanted anything to do with a simple and, worse yet, earnest story.
Enter a close friend of Erich Segal, Ali MacGraw, an actress known for one film role and a handful of commercials, including an ad that feels like a Michael Scott Joint: International Paper Company outfitted MacGraw in a paper bikini, then had her jump in the ocean as proof of their paper’s durability (Great Scott!). Enamored with Segal’s script, MacGraw insisted her boyfriend at the time, Hollywood wunderkind Robert Evans, give Segal’s story a chance. Evans and his iconic eyewear jumped aboard and got the ball rolling, though, admittedly, the players at Paramount Studios knew Love Story would be a small-scale endeavor, one step up from a TV movie. MacGraw agreed to lend her meager star-power to one half of Love Story‘s couple, and, for her male counterpart, the studio signed a young soap heartthrob, Ryan O’Neal. Here’s where we get to the novel.
With modest box office prospects at best, and in need of a modicum of hype before the film debuted around the holidays, the studio petitioned Erich Segal to write a novelized version of the script. Segal dashed out the manuscript, which initially found readers as a Ladies Home Journal serial. Subsequently, Harper & Row published a run of a few thousand copies to coincide with Valentine’s Day, 1970. The novel became a minor sensation, necessitating a few more printings until things went stratospheric when Barbara Walters announced she’d wept upon finishing the book in a single sitting (the 1970’s equivalent of being anointed by Oprah’s Book Club). Bolstered by Babs, Love Story would go on to sell over five million copies in 1970 alone, hurling John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman from the top of the best-seller list, and maintaining #1 status on the bestseller throne for the rest of the year and well into 1971. Translated into over 20 languages, Love Story is still one of the great underdog stories in publishing history. But, as a novel of social substance or literary value, the book doesn’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny.
Released in a time when Americans railed against the establishment and became increasingly progressive, Love Story offered a diversion of old-fashioned, heteronormative escapism. The message, banal: Love conquers all. The story, unoriginal: A wealthy Harvard preppie, Oliver Barrett IV, falls in love with Jennifer, a blue-collar student at Radcliffe. Parental and class dynamics complicate their relationship. Sound familiar? The story also cribs from Romeo and Juliet in terms of overall structure; the characters’ romance is just a tee-off for a fourth-act tragedy.
Segal sets up Love Story’s tragic finale by employing an idiosyncratic structure. While the Romance Genre typically climaxes and concludes after a long-awaited, will-they, won’t-they first kiss, or when a couple overcomes a variety of difficulties followed by a slobbery reunion, that’s where Segal’s tale begins. In Love Story, Oliver and Jennifer make out by Chapter 2, shack up by 5, get engaged in 6, and are married and broke by Chapter 11 (accidental pun, I swear). At that point, we’re barely halfway through the book, and they’re married? Where do you go from there? And nuptials weren’t exactly a steamy storyline in an era seeing marriages increasingly succumb to separation (the first no-fault divorce act had just passed in California).
But Segal knew exactly what he was doing. Rubbing his hands together like a Bond villain, Segal made sure his hapless lovers would avoid the two primary downfalls of a blushing romance: kids and aging. And Segal’s not subtle about it. First, Segal makes the couple infertile. Snip-snap snip-snap! Then, in order to dissolve the marriage he previously engineered for his naïve duo, Segal pulls the ultimate deus ex machina. He sends in cancer. After all, if you kill one-half of a couple, they can never fall out of love. Brilliant. James Cameron did the same in Titanic. Cha-ching! You also see this DNA in every one of Segal-acolyte Nicholas Sparks’ books. Shakespeare, to his credit, was merciful enough to kill both lovers, and he never sank to using cancer as a ploy.
On that note, as someone who’s lost young relatives to cancer, I’ve been around for those moments when the body is eaten away, and hopelessness fills a loved one’s eyes. That’s why, though I’d fully intended to watch the film version of Love Story after reading the book, I didn’t have the stomach to sit through more than the cheesy trailer and a couple scenes on YouTube. I had no desire to let my own grief and vulnerability get tangled in a story that uses cancer as a plot device to manipulate the reader into feeling loss about a couple who, by the way, are pretty unlikable. For one, not only are Segal’s characters the epitome of Ivy League privilege, but Oliver and Jenny’s repartee is cynical and annoying. She disparages Oliver by calling him a “preppie,” and he snipes back with the unwieldy, “narcissistic bitch.”
Yet folks in 1970 devoured Segal’s novel, to say nothing of the movie. Not only did the film win an Oscar for best original score and supposedly save Paramount Studios, but, adjusted for inflation, Love Story is the 41st highest-grossing film of all time (higher than Home Alone and Star Wars: The Last Jedi).
Whatever the reason, readers loved the characters in Segal’s book enough to make Jennifer the number one girl’s name in America for the next 14 YEARS! On the flip side, as in most years, weightier books dealing with social, racial, or cultural issues were generally ignored, such as Toni Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye, which came out the same year as Love Story but practically went unnoticed. Besides Morrison’s novel – which, as a single mother, she managed to write in bursts at 4am – other bona fide classics released in 1970 didn’t even make the bottom of the bestseller list: Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays, the first English translations of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. We adore these authors now, but for a few years after 1970, no one had a clue about future Pulitzer and Nobel winner Morrison – except censorious teachers, parents, and librarians – but everyone loved Erich Segal. Well, not everyone. Segal’s populist fame went hand-in-hand with infamy. When Love Story was nominated for the National Book Award the following year, head judge William Styron said the “banal” book didn’t “qualify as literature,” and insisted the entire fiction jury would resign if Segal’s book wasn’t withdrawn from consideration.
Critics were unkind to Segal as well. For example, during one acerbic exchange on the Dick Cavett show, John Simon made the withering claim that Love Story was the equivalent of “a cheaper substitute for margarine.” Sitting to Cavett’s left, Segal defended his book, the studio audience audibly taking his side over the fussy, Hungarian critic.
So much was the public enamored with Erich Segal that he appeared on the Johnny Carson show four times in one month! Leveraging this sudden fame, Segal not only became a judge for the Cannes Film Festival but even acted as ABC television’s commentator for the 1972 Olympics. Later, Segal would regret the effects fame had on his personality, describing his attitude as “egotism bordering on megalomania.” But in the early seventies, Segal didn’t mind comparing himself to a rock star, announcing he was as popular as The Beatles at Yale, where his courses drew hundreds of students. The Yale administration wasn’t as thrilled, and, in another affront to Segal’s populist persona, denied the author tenure in 1972.
As with old Polaroids, Segal’s celebrity would fade along with the public’s fondness for his book and movie. Fifty years later, those iterations of Love Story seem like quaint artifacts from a forgotten era, a time of mod-style pants and the very first McDonald’s shamrock shake. I bet there are even some women who don’t know why they were named Jennifer. Perhaps Love Story’s legacy is best summed up by the sentiments embedded in its most famous line, which AFI lists as the 13th most popular movie quote of all time, just below, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” The quote is banal yet reassuring, nesting a bit of truth yet being outright bullshit at the same time. It was the balm people needed in 1970, and Segal knew it: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
God help me if I ever try that line on my partner.
- The character, Oliver, was based on two men Erich Segal met at Harvard, Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore. Al Gore would later say Love Story was modeled on his relationship with his wife, Tipper (it’s not). And, as you know, Tommy Lee Jones went on to star in countless films, but his first movie role was as a minor character in, you guessed it, Love Story.
- I have no way to verify this, but if you grew up in my generation, you’ll know this to be a fact: the “Theme from Love Story” was, at one point, tucked inside every piano bench in America.
- I never mentioned the best-selling non-fiction book of 1970, which even outsold The Bible. It was a homophobic classic of the Sexual Revolution, written by Doctor David Reuben: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).
- Several Indian films have been based on Love Story. The first, Madanolsavam (1978), doesn’t credit Segal and switched the leads from a hockey player and schoolteacher to a race car driver and switchboard operator. The movie features a car race around hay bales, some jazzy tunes, and adds musical numbers that won two prizes at the Kerala State Film Awards.
- The most recent Indian film based on Love Story, Sanam Teri Kasam (2016), features 100% more ripped abs, teddy bears, and guns than the versions mentioned above, and features this tagline: “I love you to the square of infinity.” Arguably, an improvement on Segal’s iconic line.
KIRK SEVER teaches writing at three colleges in the Los Angeles area. You can find his film, music, and book reviews in The Colorado Review, No Ripcord, the Literary Review, and Rain Taxi, and his stories and poetry in Permafrost, Storgy, and The New Short Fiction Series. In addition to being recognized by the Academy of American Poets, Kirk’s short story collection, They Crawl to the Surface, was a semi-finalist in Ohio State’s The Journal Book Prize. Currently, Kirk is editing the last twenty pages of his novel, Bruises That Won’t Heal.