HIT LIT: CRACKING THE CODE
OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY’S BIGGEST BESTSELLERS
By James W. Hall
Random House, $16 softcover; 336 pp.
Of course I read James W. Hall’s Hit Lit hoping for the secret to writing a best-seller. Surely Hall, a best-selling mystery writer, would show me how to do it.
Hall sets out to analyze a dozen high concept megasellers, like Jaws, and finds the same elements: country bumpkins versus city slickers; action rather than thought; and issues that are much bigger than the problems of two little people in a crazy world. The novels take on 2,000-year-old religious cover-ups, as in The Da Vinci Code; vast illegal conspiracies, as in The Firm; and brutal family values, as in The Godfather.
Best-sellers also teach us to be afraid. A coma can turn an ordinary man into a psychic, as in The Dead Zone. Or Satanic forces can invade an unlucky girl, as in The Exorcist. The hero has to make major moral choices, often after a pivotal sex scene (Hall has to stretch that rule for To Kill a Mockingbird).
The writers aren’t necessarily great stylists. The Bridges of Madison County’s hero, for instance, runs his tongue along his partner’s neck, “licking her as some fine leopard might do in long grass out on the veldt.” But better writers do produce unforgettable phrases: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” and “Make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
Hall’s big blind spot is the gender gap in best-sellers. The Hunt for Red October is a classic technical novel for male readers, but women are more apt to read for relationship advice — and Hall stumbles badly with women’s books. Scarlett’s pursuit of Ashley isn’t the main plot of Gone with the Wind, nor does she have a “heaving bosom” (the first chapter says she doesn’t). Valley of the Dolls isn’t mainly about drugs, but about women friends who learn from each other (as in Sex and the City). Hall writes that Peyton Place has one main female character, but it has three. And his description of the virginal rape victim is factually wrong as well as callous. He calls her “the town slut.”
Hit Lit won’t tell you how to write a best seller, since the elements Hall describes are in plenty of failed novels: esoteric information, maverick heroes and good-hearted people trapped in terrible families. Tastes change, too. In its day, Hall’s top seller, Gone with the Wind (1936), won the Pulitzer Prize and enthralled Depression-era readers with its plucky heroine, who does what she has to do to survive. Rhett Butler? Frankly, they didn’t give a damn.
I do agree with Hall about the basic qualities of a best seller — a fast-paced plot and intense, endangered characters we care about. Charles Dickens had the formula 200 years ago for his readers: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” Hit Lit gives me reasons to laugh and cry — but as for how to write a mega best-seller, I’m still waiting.
Emily Toth, who teaches at LSU, is the author of Inside Peyton Place: the Life of Grace Metalious, with movie rights sold to Sandra Bullock. She can be contacted by email at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.