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How to Sell 60 Million Books in Spite of the Critics

Updated: Mar 17, 2020

A look back at Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County

A little book with a lasting impact

The bookrack of $2.00 books called my name as I ambled through an antique store. I’d been on the lookout for any book by Mary Oliver, and my treasure-hunting eyes scanned the shelves. My heart lurched when I recognized a small book with a parchment-paper looking cover.

The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller, 1992.

This perfect copy — no marks, tears, discoloration — practically jumped into my eager hands, and I fondled it tenderly, remembering a time nearly thirty years ago when I cried for three whole days after reading Bridges.

If you’re not familiar with Robert James Waller’s novel, The Bridges of Madison County, here goes:

Francesca’s an Italian woman who, lacking prospects because so many men had died in Italy, marries a US soldier and moves to a small town in Iowa after WWII. Her husband is kind, and together they have two children. But the town is small, behavior is prescribed, and her husband does not affirm her. Her family goes to the Iowa State Fair in August of 1965 and leaves her on the farm.

Enter Robert Kincaid, a free-spirited, freelance photographer with a truck named Harry, who has come to Iowa to photograph the covered bridges for National Geographic. He stops at the farm to ask directions, and what starts is a passionate four-day affair where Francesca and Robert become so entwined that Robert suggests they’ve actually left themselves behind and created a third entity of “us.”

Ultimately, Francesca has to decide what to do. Should she leave her husband and kids, knowing they would be shattered and humiliated by their existence in a town where everyone talked about the wife who ran off with an itinerant photographer? Should she run away with Robert Kincaid and explore the world? Should she take him up on his offer to live close-by?

She chooses to stay with her husband, and in a painful scene, she is in the truck with her husband as she watches her lover drive out of town.

For the next 22 years, she follows Robert’s career through issues of National Geographic. She notes that in his byline photos, he starts wearing a small medallion with the word “Francesca” on a chain around his neck. But they never see or talk to each other again.

Eventually, Francesca, now a widow, learns Robert has died. She dies shortly afterward, but not before leaving her children with a full account of her undying love for Robert, along with mementos of their affair, hoping they’ll understand what she gave up for them.

What the critics said

New York Times called The Bridges of Madison County,

“a bodice-heaving, swept-away-by-romance, a soft-focus-fantasy about an Iowa farm wife’s brief affair with a National Geographic photographer in the summer of 1965.”

They are highly critical of Robert James Waller’s talent as an author:

“Mr. Waller depicts their mating dance in plodding detail, but he fails to develop them as believable characters. Instead, we get a lot of quasi-mystical business about the shaman-like photographer who overwhelms the shy, bookish Francesca with his sheer emotional and physical power… Their love belongs more to the world of fantasy than reality, and their ability to sustain memories of this passion across decades of absence seems more perverse than admirable.”

What this critic got wrong

The characters were believable. In fact, people believed so much in Robert Kincaid, that they wrote to National Geographic and wanted more information on him.

“I still have eight or nine people a day coming in wanting to buy the magazine with Kincaid’s bridges story,” said Pat Tobin, a receptionist at Geographic’s Washington headquarters. “When I tell them this is fiction, a novel, they say, ‘I understand that. But I’d still like to see some of the things he’s done.’ ”

Robert Kincaid, a fictional traveling photographer, got more press and more attention than the real photographers ever had.

The New York Times wasn’t the only source to slam the novel

Kirkus Reviews said this:

“Here’s a Hallmark card for all those who have loved and lost: a mushy memorial to a brief encounter in the Midwest….”“As fake and pretentious as it is, this first novel is based on hard-nosed commercial calculations. The publisher, promising a big push, clearly expects its silly goose to lay a golden egg, and who knows, maybe it will.”

What Waller knew that the critic didn’t

  • Millions of people relate to a lost love

  • Thousands upon thousands of people feel trapped and unfulfilled

  • While cynical critics may not be open to a display of emotions, “a mushy memorial” to a lover isn’t a bad thing

  • The Midwest is called the “heartland” for a reason

  • The “Hallmark card” approach resonated with the world

  • Everyone on earth longs to have a love like Robert and Francesca:

“… In a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once, and never again, no matter how many lifetimes you live.”

Waller’s techniques — unappreciated by the critics — made his book sales soar

Simple language

Robert and Francesca quote poetry to each other. He is, after all, a writer with a soul, and she is an English teacher with a degree in comparative literature unable to express her knowledge. But other than the lines of poetry, Yeats in particular, the language of the book is simple and lovely, shooting straight to the heart of the matter. Opening with,

“There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads. This is one of them.”

Waller sets scenes with plain language, a Hemingway with a heart:

“The watermelon was perfect. The beer was cold. The evening was blue. Francesca Johnson was forty-five years old, and Hank Snow sang a train song on KMA, Shenandoah, Iowa.”

Condensed time and simple plot

The novel takes place over just four days, and the only action is the interaction between these two lovestruck people. They talk. They eat. They go to the bridges to take photographs. They make love, satisfying, physical, soulful love. Condensing the action into a short period of time makes for a quick read.

There are not dozens of characters to contend with. No subplot mingles with the main story. There is only one location in the book, the farmhouse and the Roseman Bridge, just a mile or two away.

The book itself is small. It measures only 5"x 8" instead of the 6" x 10" of most books, and I’ve wondered how much difference the size of the book made to my physical memory of it. Did I remember it better because it was so easy to hold? Because it fit into my hands so well?

The Bridges of Madison County’s original hardback copy was 171 small pages of an easy-to-read print. Had it been 400 pages in an ordinary layout, it might never have achieved the status it did.

Waller’s Fictional Non-Fiction Approach

Why did so many people think that Robert Kincaid was a real person? Because Waller’s technique was to make the book sound like it was NON-FICTION. That was a ruse. Everything Waller wrote was a made-up story, including the opening and closing chapters that set up the plot.

In the opening chapter, Francesca’s two adult children come to talk to Waller, the writer, asking him to tell their Mother’s story as it’s been pieced together from documents they found after her death. Waller creates an aura of reality by talking about how many visits he had with Francesca’s kids, the kind of research he did, and the stipulations he agreed to when he said he’d write the story.

The ending of the novel also feels like fact, but it’s fiction. Waller creates a feeling of authenticity by creating another story for the ending. He writes that in the course of his research on the life of Robert Kincaid, he is able to locate a jazz musician at a club that Robert use to frequent. The last chapter is written as an interview with this old musician who had been the recipient of Robert’s love story.

Waller’s fiction sounds like fact.

The “silly goose” and the “golden egg”

People did not perceive The Bridges of Madison County as a silly goose, regardless of what the Kirkus critic said. But it did lay gold.

Robert James Waller’s novel has sold 60 million copies worldwide. In 1995, the book was adapted into a movie directed by Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep who got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her performance. The movie grossed $182 million dollars worldwide. In 2014, the novel was transformed into a Broadway musical, but it did not do well.

It’s hard to live up to a book that takes two hours to read and stays with you a lifetime.

Robert James Waller died in March of 2017, a millionaire, and I bet he’s laughing at the critics even now.

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