Hit Lit

by Barb, winding down her days in Key West

I’m reading a fascinating book called Hit Lit by Edgar-award winner James W. Hall, the author of fourteen mystery novels featuring Thorn, an off-the-grid loner in Key Largo. Hall teaches writing and literature at Florida International University and he was one of Sherry Harris’s first writing teachers. Knowing that, I went to hear him speak at the Key West Library last year.

His latest book is a thriller with a female protagonist and is published by Thomas and Mercer, the Amazon imprint. I found both of these choices interesting–the female protagonist and the publisher. But I found the premise of his book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers even more intriguing. Over years of teaching popular fiction, Hall and his students investigated what elements made a book a mega-bestseller. They took the books apart and put them together again, looking for commonalities and differences.

In Hit Lit, Hall examines twelve of them. None of these books are ordinary bestsellers. Most have sold tens of millions of copies. They are

  • Gone with the Wind, 1936, Margaret Mitchell
  • Peyton Place, 1956, Grace Metlalious
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960, Harper Lee
  • The Valley of the Dolls, 1966, Jacqueline Susann
  • The Godfather, 1969, Mario Puzo
  • The Exorcist, 1971, William Peter Blatty
  • Jaws, 1974, Peter Benchley
  • The Dead Zone, 1979, Stephen King
  • The Hunt for Red October, 1984, Tom Clancy
  • The Firm, 1991 John Grisham
  • The Bridges of Madison County, 1992, Robert James Waller
  • The Da Vinci Code, 2003, Dan Brown

So already the list is interesting, right? Because some of these giant bestsellers are still with us, whereas others I would guess are rarely read. Despite the inclusion of The Da Vinci Code, Hit Lit, which was published in 2012, focuses on bestsellers of the 20th century, which is perhaps why there is no mention of J.K Rowling. Or maybe Hall didn’t think it would be interesting to have his students analyze books they probably already knew well. In fact, there’s no fantasy on the list at all, though The Dead Zone is about pre-cognition and The Exorcist is about satanic possession.

Hall finds twelve features that all these books have. I won’t go through them all, just a few that I found the most interesting.

  • The “protagonists share a high level of emotional intensity that results in gutsy and surprising deeds. These actions may not always take the form of swashbuckling heroics, but rest assured, not one of these heroes or heroines sits idly on the sidelines pondering or strikes endless matches to watch them burn while stewing about the great issues of the universe…Our heroes and heroines act. They act decisively.”

This isn’t much of a revelation and indeed it’s one of the early observations of the book. Almost a gimmee. I’ve thought about this a lot in the context of cozy mysteries. I have noticed in my own writing and in others that once the protagonist commits to the hunt, the book comes alive. Her relentless forward motion drives the same in the book. When I critique manuscripts for unpublished writers the most common issue I see is an amateur would-be sleuth wandering through her day, “observing” things that will later become clues, but not driving the action of the story. These manuscripts are always flat.

The idea of relentless forward motion goes along with Hall’s twin observation about emotional intensity. The protagonists in these books believe in something intensely and are willing to fight for it. We may not agree with Scarlett’s romantic notions of antebellum plantation life, but we get the idea of home and why that’s worth fighting for.

  • These books tell a human story set against a sweeping backdrop. The story itself may be on a small scale–an immigrant family making it in the new world, a young girl coming of age in a small southern town, a top Harvard Law grad starting his first job. But while the story is small, the canvas is big–organized crime, racial upheaval, the “greed is good” ethos of the 1980s.

I thought this was a fascinating observation. It reminded me of a more recent bestseller, Gone Girl. The book is inextricably anchored in the aftermath of the recent recession. Both lead characters are journalists, and junk journalists at that. The dislocation of the move from print media to digital, accelerated and exacerbated by the recession, results in both losing their jobs at the same time Amy’s parents lose their money and hers. Since both main characters are journalists, they knew how to manipulate the media, as it goes through its own changes. Small story. Huge backdrop.

  • The Golden country. The idea of a beautiful home, a beautiful time and an inevitable exile. Tara before the war. Michael Corleone in Sicily. Scout’s innocent summer days with Gem and Dill.

The Eden story is never far away, and all of these books include an element of it. I wondered how, in more recent books, where the action must start right away, authors painted this picture. As Hall tells us, in The Firm, Grisham begins with the protagonist Mitch McDeere’s wife returning to their law school student apartment. He tells her of his great (too great, as it turns out) job offer. They eat Chinese food and drink white wine. This all happens in a few paragraphs. The call back in the book to this Eden is a single sentence, when Mitch says to his wife, “I think we were happier in the two-room student apartment in Cambridge.” It’s brief, but it is there.

In cozies the Eden is our communities before the murder, which may play out in chapters or a half a scene. The murder upends that and the hero must find the snake and chase him out. Though we know things will never quite be the same.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed Hit Lit and may have more things to say on it another time. It’s written in a highly accessible style and packed with examples. At times, Hall really has to strain to prove all twelve books have all twelve elements, but I forgave that because I was buying what he was selling.

Readers: What do you think? Do mega-bestsellers have common elements? Remember it’s not about whether you liked the books, it’s about why they sold.

24 thoughts on “Hit Lit

  1. They sold because of advertising hype. How many of them sit on shelves half-read? or not even started? You gals (and guys) just keep writing what you do. You may not get the acclaim of those mega best selling writers, but your readers actually read your books multiple times and love you for them.

  2. The book and subject sound fascinating. I think the points you brought up from their research interesting. That idea of Eden is provocative. For some, you probably can’t beat word of mouth or that sense of scandal. Books like Peyton Place and Valley were almost risque for the time.

  3. I am very curious about the book and all 12 theories of commonalities. May have to get it. I do agree with the comment that the hype are the major reasons for the sales numbers but please add word of mouth. Peyton Place and The Bridges of Madison County sales were also a lot about word of mouth. I would love to know the numbers of male vs female readers for them. Know thy genre and find your place in its market?

    • I agree about word of mouth. At the end of the day, you can’t have a mega-bestseller without a lot of it. One point Hall makes is that male or female reader, you can’t hit this level of sales unless you are selling to people who buy books infrequently. I’ve heard Lee Child say this as well.

  4. I have bought and read all but two books on his list. The interesting thing to me is my mom has also bought and read the same ones. They are not just hits in their own generations, but have lasted the test of time. We are now to the point where the kids who loved Harry Potter are now sharing those books with their own children. Whether Gone Girl will be part of some summer reading list years from now remains to be seen. It’s also interesting how many of these have been made into movies. Do we remember them for the words written or for what we have seen on the screen. Great post!!

    • Not just movies, but hit movies. Hall makes the point that most of these books are cinematic in structure and prose that therefore make good movies. I remember my parents and grandparents reading most of these books.

  5. Does he mention if they were bestsellers before their movies came out? Each of these has been a movie .I would think that would have a good deal to do with whether they are bestsellers or not. He probably didn’t include Harry Potter, because those might’ve been in the YA or juvenile category when determining their sales. This sounds like such an interesting read! I may have to get it myself.

    • To make Hall’s list, the book had to be a mega-bestseller before the movie came out, though I’m sure in several cases, the movies kept it a bestseller for a longer time than it might otherwise have been. Not only were all of them movies, several have become classics–Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Godfather.

      Good point about Harry Potter being considered YA. Of course, To Kill a Mockingbird probably would be published as YA today.

  6. I agree with BarbaraKay…I have only read the first four on this list and have no desire to read any of the rest – hype or not.

    • Hi Liz- Not so much dated because the material covers larger themes, which seemed to me to be pretty universal. In the material he pushes it back to the earliest novels like Pamela and Fanny Hill, but not much forward beyond 2003.

  7. I have found this book fascinating too. In one of the classes Hall taught he was working on the book. One of the things he said was he thought lots of people wanted to learn something while they read. That way they didn’t feel like they were “wasting time” reading. I love the connection to Eden and am pondering that in relationship to my books. Thanks for this great piece, Barb!

    • That was the other point I was going to include but the post was already so long. Hall talks about learning–about submarines, organized crime, antebellum manners, the inner workings of a top shelf law firm. I don’t disagree about the learning, but I think even more important is the world-building. If you give a novel a firm, confident element of truth, I think people are more likely to buy into the fiction–ie the characters and the action of the story.

  8. Very interesting. I do think there are elements that connect with us, and that make a book very special to us, which leads to word of mouth and more people reading it.

    It’s not a formula, of course, but I’m sure there are ways to incorporate these into any style book. Word of mouth, luck, lightning strikes all help, naturally, but if you can incorporate these things into the book, so much better.

    I absolutely agree about the protagonist driving the action. If that isn’t happening, the book feels slow even if things are happening we don’t appreciate yet.

    • I’ve noticed you’re very aware of this, Mark. You even noticed that I’d slipped an extra day into Stowed Away before the murder (though you didn’t express it that way.) When I read your review, I thought, “He is so smart.”

  9. I’ve read all of those books. Common element? That’s a stretch. I agree that a lot of it was advertising. It’s a shame that some schools have now banned ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. As for ‘Gone With The Wind’, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthing babies!

    • Some of them are more classic than others, in my opinion. Advertising may start the fire, but I firmly believe you can’t have a long-term bestseller–one that stays on the list for month or years–without word of mouth.

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