Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Hit Lit by James W. Hall

What makes a bestseller? (No fair saying "a lot of people buying the same book." I mean, that's true, but it's not terribly helpful.) What attracts millions of readers to the same book, and what makes that happen really quickly?

Thriller writer James W. Hall, under his other hat teaching graduate writing students at Florida International University, decided to examine that question some years ago. (He's a little vague about exactly when.) And since he is a professor, the way he examined it was by having a class on the subject, so he could get paid to look into it and his students could pay for the privilege of figuring it out for him. (Professor Hall is no dummy, you can plainly see.)

The class ran for a number of years -- it's not clear, but Hall might still be teaching it today -- even once Hall had codified what he thinks are the aspects all really huge bestsellers have in common. (That's not really a surprise, I guess: professors are supposed to know the thing they're teaching before the classes start at the beginning of the semester.) And, in the grand tradition of "publish or perish," Hall wrote up his findings and set off to have them published. But unlike most similar academics, he already had strong big-publishing contacts from his decade-plus career as a successful writer of thrillers, and he had a topic that was of great inherent interest to Big Publishing. (We all love to hear stories about ourselves, don't we?)

Hit Lit is the book distilled from the years of that course: a class in the American bestseller of the past seventy years or so, organized into a dozen essential traits and embodied in a dozen exemplar books. (Though not all of the books live up to all of the traits, and the books are not quite all of the biggest bestsellers of those seventy years, no matter how you define "bestseller." But a little fuzziness around the edges is expected in an academic theory, right?)

The dozen books are:
  •  Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (which turns out to be an outlier in a number of Hall's areas, making me wonder why he didn't pick something more typical to make his theory work better)
  • Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
  • The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  • The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
  • Jaws by Peter Benchley
  • The Dead Zone by Stephen King (an outlier in a different way: Hall describes it as King's first big bestseller -- though I think he means hardcover, which is a major distinction -- and it doesn't fit his description for a Big Bang-style bestseller)
  • The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
  • The Firm by John Grisham
  • The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
If you're not Professor Hall, you might think what those books have in common -- most of them, at least -- is that they hit a Zeitgeist-y topic squarely at the right time, they were published well and were lucky in the marker, they were almost entirely first novels (or first big novels, early in a writer's career), and they all became big successful movies fairly quickly. But Hall has more detailed analyses to dig into, and a dozen Procrustean beds that these books more or less fit (there are some stretchers, and some severed feet, before we're done).

Hall's dozen elements include -- here I'm being very reductive -- secret societies, maverick protagonists, enough sex to be mildly scandalous without getting completely banned, corrupt cities vs. upstanding country, mild questions about conventional Christianity, similarly mild questioning of and unpacking of the American Dream, hot-button topics, a big scope, detailed-sounding information about interesting real-world facts, and family strife. Hall does his best, but the reader might come away with the sneaking suspicion that his "twelve features" are loose enough to be applied to almost any work of fiction, and thus not all that helpful for showing how big bestsellers are different from other similar books.

(Oh, and the subtitle is inaccurate, since Da Vinci Code was published in 2003, and is not part of the Twentieth Century. As long as I'm picking nits.)

I don't think Hall has really identified anything specific here; his book is so full of caveats and qualifications and explanations of the levels of particular elements in particular books that there are no rules here. This was never going to rise to the level of scientific rigor, but his elements are so vague that, as I said above, a reader can pick basically any piece of mainstream American fiction and find all of these elements. It doesn't work for strongly genre books as easily -- though a lot of crime fiction, particularly thrillers, will fits solidly into all of his elements -- but it basically defines mainstream mimetic fiction by Americans. And that is not the most useful thing in the world.

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