Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers Paperback – Apr 10 2012
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“Passionately and thoroughly entertaining....Hall examines 12 of the most successful novels of the 20th century and ‘reverse-engineer[s]’ them, mining their separate defining qualities and their comparative appeal to readers…Referential and cleverly elucidated, the book raises many good points about the precise methodology of bestselling novels.”
“Fascinating. Every would-be writer, and every knowledgeable reader, should read this book. It brings a valid understanding to publishing phenomena that seemingly were unexplainable. With this book, you see the forest and the trees.”
“I learned more about fashioning a bestseller from Hit Lit than from any other book, or any experience, I’ve encountered in my thirty-five years as an editor and publisher. Even established and successful authors need this guide.”
About the Author
James W. Hall is the author of seventeen novels, four books of poetry, two short-story collections, and a book of essays. He’s also the winner of the Edgar and Shamus awards.See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Hit Lit contains some of the very elements you'd expect to find in those blockbusters - a tantalizing premise, the promise of a secret revealed, some familiar stories, and the chance to learn something new.
James W. Hall, a university English professor, recruited a group of students to read (or re-read) twelve super-bestsellers, novels that sold millions even before movies were made of them (and movies were made of all twelve of these books). They analyzed the books the way they normally deconstruct Henry James or Jane Austen classics.
They found that the bestsellers were similar to each other in many ways. They were often small stories told against sweeping backgrounds (Gone with the Wind, The Hunt for Red October), and they featured heroes who acted without spending a lot of time thinking (Shakespeare's Hamlet could never be a bestseller, apparently).
Hall came up with a list of elements he says are common to all the books they studied, but it seemed to me that there were plenty of exceptions to the rule. (Aren't there always?) Though he claims to have found that little time is spent on backstories and references to the characters' pasts are few, some of the books are quite heavy on backstory and reflective heroes, such as The Bridges of Madison County. In the spirit of Hit Lit, I read first chapters of several of the books Hall analyzed and found that The Godfather, The Dead Zone, and The Hunt for Red October all relied heavily in the opening chapters on explaining the characters' pasts.
On the other hand, what we normally think of as "good writing," - elegant sentences and flowing prose - is not a requirement for bestseller superstardom.
So, as you may have suspected, there's no list of elements that can either describe all bestsellers or can lead you to bestsellerdom. Hit Lit will probably not make you a better or a more successful writer. However, analyzing the books along with Hall and his students may make you a better reader as you consider just what it is you like about certain favorites.
Looking at the selection of American bestsellers of the 20th century, from "Gone with the Wind" to "The Da Vinci Code" the selected books seem to be a rather wild mix and I was curious to find out what they could possibly have in common and how these similarities make them some of the most read novels of our time. From the rather obvious such as being unputdownable fast paced tales with contentious topics and colossal characters doing great things, to the not quite as conspicuous such as the importance of geography, religion and sexual encounters this was a both surprising and insightful read.
Engrossing, informative, and accessible, which shouldn't be taken for granted when it comes to authors dissecting literature, this is a truly fascinating view on the bestseller-making parts bestsellers have in common - though ultimately a great book will always be more than its individual parts. Admittedly I would have loved a broader approach to the topic and not just the focus on American bestsellers, then again maybe such a book is already on the author's to-do list. I certainly wouldn't mind!
In short: Revelatory journey into the world of bestsellers!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the NetGalley book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Some of the aspects I thought weren't very relevant, IMHO. (For instance, he mentions religion as being critical to the book - which I find kind of interesting as religion only played a very minimal role in, say, Gone with the Wind . And sex also was key, according to him, despite that I don't really remember it being all that important in, say, The Hunt for Red October. Plus, these two elements are so prevalent in novels that it would be hard to find one that didn't even have a hint of sex or religion, you know?) But I do think that he made a lot of really solid ones including:
1. To become a mega-bestseller (vs. just a decent seller), you need to appeal to people who don't read books on a regular basis. (Or at least don't buy books.) Even if every single person in the US who normally buys books bought a copy of your book, you wouldn't sell as well as any of these books did. So you need to appeal to a group beyond the regular book buying contingent. This means that your book can't have super fancy, hard to understand language, or elements that would mostly appeal to a serial reader. (For instance, a super unique plot is going to appeal more to someone who's read thousands of books than it would to someone who only reads once in a while. The same is true for vivid imagery, lovely writing, etc. None of these might hurt, but it's not going to make for a mega-seller either.)
2. The characters in these novels are rarely self-reflective. They act. They don't sit around and think and feel and discuss their place in the universe. They go out and do stuff.
3. Most of these novels are movie friendly (and were eventually made into movies). This may not be necessary for a mega seller (as most sold well prior to having movies based on them), but...if you want a bestseller, it may make sense to ask, "Is this the kind of thing that would make for a good movie?" If the answer is no, then you may not have a mega-seller.
4. It hits hot buttons. Virtually every novel covered hit some kind of hot button that was a big deal in the day. (And generally still important now. Valley of the Dolls is really the one exception to the "still relevant now" rule.) Essentially, a novel that doesn't cover any bigger themes isn't all that interesting to most readers. (Even if it covers them crudely, like The Da Vinci Code.)
5. There are almost always intricately described worlds which the viewer may not be familiar with. Whether this is a town, a secret society, or the ante belleum south, readers seem to like learning something new. (Or at least feeling like the author knows what they're talking about.) That world building and research matters!
Looking at books that are too new to be covered (Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games) I think that most of these actually meet these criteria fairly well. So there may be something to these rules, such as they are. Not that I think that writers should write to them. (As there are a lot of books that ping all these boxes and yet still don't become best sellers. And there are a lot of good books that don't sell all that well and are still desirable.) But I think that it's definitely work a read for someone who is either trying to write popular literature or just wants to know what makes people read.
Other Amazon reviewers have captured its strengths, and I won't repeat all of their comments here. Instead, let me just mention something I think is very important: that this isn't just another discussion of bestsellers, or just another series of hints on how to write them. The book shares its insights as a series of brief "keys," but those insights themselves are nuanced and complex.
For writers, the book offers a perspective devoid of cheesy "hints" or "secrets" and focused on the deeper if more difficult to imitate elements of great storytelling. For readers, it provides fun and fascinating insight on why books that seem both tremendously different and, in some cases, rather silly are not just bought but remembered. But its appeal goes beyond those two obvious readerships. This is an exploration not just of books and publishing but of the American imagination, about what resonates for us beyond and despite the dividing lines of class, age, and gender. In that sense, Hit Lit is of great interest not just to us book folks, but to anyone fascinated by our fascinatingly complicated and contradictory national character.
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