James W. Hall, who wrote “HIT LIT: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers,” is a college professor who had written a number of contemporary, trendy, experimental, praiseworthy novels that didn’t sell worth a damn. Then he had an epiphany something like that of Abraham Maslow, who was finding the study of mental derangement to be a downer. “Why not study successful happy people?” asked Maslow. It was a psychological revolution.
So James Hall’s revolution was to ask “Why not study those trashy genre novels that sell like hotcakes even though I and my colleagues sneer at them?” Generously, he included his students in the discussion and called it a class. This book offers discussions of twelve books according to fourteen or so “features” that correlated among all the samples, the aspects that seemed to make them so successful.
To show what a nerd I am, I’ve only read three of them -- all long ago -- as it happens, the first three. I’ve only seen five of the movies made from them. Hall assures us that they were best sellers before they were movies and that the sales figures for these specific books were waaaaaaay higher than the usual books on best seller lists. Also, he is surprised by just how good they really are after all, except that he did NOT like “The Bridges of Madison County.”
1. Gone with the Wind
2. Peyton Place
3. To Kill a Mockingbird
4. Valley of the Dolls
5. The Godfather
6. The Exorcist
8. The Dead Zone
9. The Hunt for Red October
10. The Firm
11. The Bridges of Madison County
12. The Da Vinci Code
Here are the “features.”
1. Simple, straightforward “earthy” writing with “high concept” plots. (High concept means simple enough to state in a sentence.)
2. Hard driving, understandable, passionate motives.
3. Some kind of grave danger that increases and is pressed by limited time.
4. Controversial background in some larger culture clash crucial to Americans.
5. The scope is large though the central story may be personal.
6. At some point an Edenic image with idealized sense of innocence and purity, maybe sexual.
7. Lots of stuff to learn about how the world works.
8. A secret society, not up to any good.
9. Tension between city and country.
10. High-falutin’ religion is discredited.
11. Severe criticism of the American promise.
12. Rebels, loners and mavericks struggle at the center.
13. Broken families abound.
14. A pivotal extreme sexual act at some point is crucial to the plot.
He adds that none of the things on this list will work unless the writer has some sort of emotional investment, some obsessive issue that drives him or her through the long days and weeks and months of shovel work it takes to get it on paper. He is aware that agents, editors, and publicists will try to remake the work in their own image, but that should be resisted. They do NOT know what will sell.
The discussion of each of these features is fun to read but also startling sometimes when these well-known characters are compared with each other, The dilemmas turn out to be quite similar, even such unlikely pairs as Scout and Scarlett O’Hara. Hall’s quick summaries of plot reveal that they are similar in many ways, but a small difference in emphasis or point of view could have taken the reader in quite a different direction. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of the book by telling you too much or quoting a lot of his quips.
What I was after was the mechanics of writing, not reading. How can I use these features in the two novels I have fermenting on the back burner? One, “Both Sides Now,” is about the widow of a much older anthropologist who has died. While she sorts through the dead man’s personal papers, she’s living up by Heart Butte in a house she rents from a Blackfeet father and son. She’s also a painter of scenery. The father is ancient and the son is a gifted classical composer. It’s easy to see how to develop the Eden of the place, and it’s clear that the invading dilemma will be either oil drilling or a high-tension transmission line, both of them threatening the peace and beauty of the East Slope.
The broken family is the Blackfeet one -- all women gone, all children gone -- and the secret society is the corporation executives who have sneakily managed to control the legal mineral rights. I think I’ll throw in a same sex love affair for the pianist and AIDS, plus a lot of ceremonies, vision fasts, and rare artifacts. The gimmick is that anthropologist’s papers supply a steady stream of clues about everything. I’d like to include a grizzly bear somehow.
The other one is “Prairie Gladiators” inspired by my brief months of teaching in Cut Bank about ten years ago. “Cut Bank” is also a movie that’s supposed to be shooting in Cut Bank this fall. Since it includes in the cast John Malkovich and Ben Kingsley. I don’t think it will be about football or cowboys. (It’s making the town a little nervous.) I’m folding my story, which IS about football and cowboys -- as well as extreme fighting and the ten thousand year old advent of grain raising, which totally changed human life -- into that thing about city/country. An English teacher in late middle-age returns to her childhood town expecting Eden and finding something quite different, including an alcoholic rancher. The danger is people turning against each other, tolerating violence like football head injuries for the prestige of the town, not standing together in a climate that will kill loners. In short, destroying their seed grain.
This second tale has a plot outline but so far only a chapter written, which is a short story by itself. The first one has several short story/chapters. I post bits on this blog as I go along, which is the modern way to create a novel, almost participatory. The idea of a work of genius scribbled in a solitary attic was a poetic construct from the beginning. This stuff is coming out of the lives of the people right here and now. In fact, I know quite a bit about these things, some of them to the level of passion.
At the end of his book, Hall notes the members of his classes who have used these ideas to go on to writing careers. I don’t recognize any of them, but I don’t read genre anyway. The best sellers on this list were so famous, even notorious, that they have become part of our cultural vocabulary. That is not in the power of any author to control, but it can be made more likely with a checklist like this one.