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Sparks Flies With Readers, Not Critics

April 16, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | NEWSDAY

The writer called "The Most Romantic Husband in America" by Ladies' Home Journal was giving credence to the title this week when he stood in the middle of a bustling hotel lobby, embracing and kissing his wife.

One hates to interrupt this sort of thing, especially on a sunny afternoon in grumpy New York, but something about Nicholas Sparks' simple love stories and his fresh-faced portrait on the book jackets suggests that he's been caught lip-locked many times during nine years of marriage.

The 32-year-old Sparks, who grew up in Fair Oaks, Calif., is the new golden boy of commercial fiction, one whose impressive success in a relatively short period highlights the wide gulf that often separates critical reviews from popular acceptance.

Think Erich Segal and "Love Story," Robert James Waller and "The Bridges of Madison County," perhaps even Nicholas Evans and "The Horse Whisperer."

Sparks was a pharmaceutical salesman when Theresa Park, the only agent who would agree to represent him, sold "The Notebook" to Warner Books almost overnight for $1 million. Published in the fall of 1996, Sparks' tale of a young love rediscovered by a couple after World War II and sustained through their old age took immediate root on the New York Times' national bestseller lists and stayed there for 56 weeks.

"The Notebook" has returned to the bestseller ranks of the Los Angeles Times and other papers in its new Warner paperback edition, despite those lashings from the critics. Kirkus Reviews called the book "an epic of treacle."

"I worked hard on it, but oh my gosh!" Sparks said of the sales. "I wanted people to respond to an emotional story in a positive way, but every one of those weeks on the bestseller list I expected to be its last."

He didn't quit his selling job, in North Carolina, until early last year.

His encore, "Message in a Bottle" (Warner), the story of a divorced mother and a grieving stranger who become connected by a letter to his dead wife that he consigns to the waves, went on sale April 7 with a first printing of 750,000 copies.

"Message" was received Friday by Elizabeth Bukowski, a reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, with a gag reflex. "It is tempting to write off 'Message in a Bottle' as a ploy to extract money from innocent readers by playing on their deepest desires. . . . But there is more to this book than commercialism; it annoys at several levels." Bukowski then went on to condemn writing that "has all the subtlety of a traffic report" and, well, you get the idea.

"I read the reviews, sure," said Sparks, who is scheduled to appear at next weekend's L.A. Times Book Festival. "They come with the territory. All I can hope is that more people will like the book. It's a good book. And I didn't intend to write a highly literary novel, but an easy, entertaining novel with an uplifting love story."

Hollywood appears to agree, and at a marquee-topping level. Kevin Costner is playing the message writer, Paul Newman his father and Robin Wright Penn the bottle finder in the Warner Bros. movie version, which went into production this week. Meantime, Variety reported the other day, Steven Spielberg may choose "The Notebook," bought for the screen by New Line Cinema, as his next directorial effort.

Lists and More Lists: Numbers, numbers, numbers: Fortune is out with its 1998 edition of the Fortune 500, a list of the largest U. S. corporations that is led by General Motors, with revenues of $178 billion . . .

Forbes' issue of April 20 weighs in with the magazine's 30th compilation of the Forbes 500s, which lists GM as No. 1 in sales but puts General Electric atop the list of "Super 100" companies, a ranking based on sales, profits, assets and market value . . .

Meanwhile, Premiere's May issue contains its much-discussed "Power 100" ranking, which proclaims Disney Chairman Michael Eisner as the most powerful person in Hollywood. He rises a notch to supplant News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, now No. 2; Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone is No. 3 . . .

And "The Spin Top 40," in the May issue of Spin, identifies the 40 "most vital artists in music today." The top three are Beck, Radiohead and Missy (Misdemeanor) Elliott.

Afterwords: Book dedication of the week: David Dary offers "Red Blood & Black Ink" (Knopf), a history of journalism in the Old West, to "the memory of those 19th-century Western newspaper editors who used no weasel words in speaking their minds." Mark Twain and Bret Harte are among the newspapermen who turn up, along with such California papers as the Call (San Francisco), the California Star (Yerba Buena) and the Californian (Monterey). Dary heads the University of Oklahoma's School of Journalism . . .

Book title of the week: "24 Years of Housework . . . and the Place Is Still a Mess,' the political memoir of former Rep. Pat Schroeder, who's now president of the Assn. of American Publishers. The book is published by Andrews McMeel.

* Paul Colford's e-mail address is paul.colford@newsday.com

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