Hit Lit

Back in the 1990s — before the current epidemic of crowd-sourcing — the Russian conceptual artists Komar and Melamid commissioned a survey to determine what kind of paintings would be created if public opinion had its hand on the paint brush. When the tabulations were complete they “painted the numbers” as an actual representation of the people’s art.

While that experiment was a winsomely subversive effort at forward-engineering, James W. Hall’s Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers is a far less imaginatively provocative act of reverse-engineering. The author, himself an Edgar-winning noirish mystery writer, chooses twelve bestsellers — and not just any “run-of-the-mill” royalty machines but culture-dominating successes — and puts them on his pathologist’s slide.   

Hall is far from the first person to attempt to unspool the mystery of commercial literary success. Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel and Michael Korda’s Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller were there first, with instructional and zeitgeistian efforts. And then of course there’s the wicked Plotto: The Master Book of all Plots. All of these will provide a putative popularizer with more relevant heuristics than they’ll get from Hit Lit.   

Hall’s reading list includes Gone with the Wind, Peyton Place, The Godfather, Valley of the Dolls, The Exorcist, Jaws, The Firm, The Bridges of Madison County, and To Kill a Mockingbird. (There are three more, but there’s nothing in this book that inspires my completist’s urge.) Hall’s thesis — and it’s not exactly a majestic construction — is that all these bestsellers can be reduced to broth of sameness, that they are “spun out of the identical genetic material” and that they are “permutations of one book written again and again for each new generation of readers.”  

There are no pretensions about the secret depths of pop culture in this book, no attempt to locate the substance in the froth as for example, Sontag famously dissected in “Notes on ‘Camp’” or Perry Meisel plumbs in The Myth of Popular Culture: From Dante to Dylan. Hall observes with a virtual absence of judgment; when he writes that these books are propelled by “high concept” and are skeletal in sensitivity, with a “minimum of back story” or “psychological introspection” he’s neither poking them in the eye nor patting them on the back.

The bulk of Hit Lit is taken up with Hall’s identification of the recurring patterns in the demotic dozen that he selected. Most of these thema are smackingly obvious. In case you didn’t know, bestsellers rely on tension — “within the first quarter of the story…some threat of danger inevitably occurs.”  They are “novels of scope…the stakes are large, the cast of characters represents a broad…spectrum, and the small story told in the foreground is set against a sweeping backdrop of epic consequence.” (Hall writes in a breathless style that matches his subject.)

Another diagnosis offered by the pathologist is that bestsellers leap out of a larger cultural conversation, a “divisive” issue of the day or a “national clash that has existed for a long time and still continues to trouble the heart of American culture.” So the complexity of race relations informs To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone with the Wind. The stress between the allure of the city and rural values is encoded in Peyton Place, when Allison “sets off from her provincial New England home to take on the challenges of NY,” and in The Firm, when Mitch McDeere gives up his promising Boston job for the less cutthroat Memphis. In Gone with the Wind, Atlanta and Tara represent that dichotomy, and in Jaws, the summer versus winter people are the metaphorical proxies.

Of course, these themes and stresses apply with equal weight to many novels that fly in more rarefied air: V. and Infinite Jest fit Hall’s “novels of scope” description. Hall also offers “mavericks” as character motif in bestsellerdom — and in an act of savage imprecision he puts Scout, Rhett, Scarlett, Michael Corleone, and Robert Kincaid (Bridges of Madison County) on the list. Its breadth is its demise. From Heathcliff to Moses Herzog, margin-dwellers have colonized the novel for centuries. It’s like saying consumer electronic devices have to combine ease-of-use and reliability, an undeniably accurate statement that nonetheless makes no distinction between the iPad and an IBM Selectric typewriter. Hit Lit‘s categories are so loose and baggy, so universally applicable, that they are neither enlightening or useful.

At least Hall is predictable. Open Hit Lit to any page and there’s something to cringe at. It’s often the painfully forced vernacular — Ezra Pound is a “political nut job” — or piled-up, chaotic Collyer brothers writing like this passage: “When book buyers decide to spend the price of a restaurant meal on a work of fiction, most want their stories to be more than just a plate of tapas. They want to gorge on big, bustling, manifest destiny, shining city on a hill, sloppy Joe calories.” 

Hall also treads  into the always-treacherous thicket of unrecognized self-parody. Bestsellers, he affirms, must be packageable in a “tasty kernel” and then gives us a summation of To Kill a Mockingbird that reminded me of those terrific parodies of TV Guide program descriptions: “A resourceful young girl’s innocent childhood is shattered and her family members threatened when she is trust into the center of the racial turmoil that erupts in her small southern town.” That’s enough to drive Harper Lee deeper into reclusivity.

In the end it’s not entirely clear whom this book is for. In the same way that fast-food enthusiasts wouldn’t race to read an analysis of the similarities in industrial meat production between McDonald’s and Burger King, I don’t think insatiable readers of bestsellers would be drawn to an analysis that commodifies their titillation. For those looking to join the ranks of James Patterson, there isn’t much here that you can’t find in hundreds of websites designed to help writers hit the jackpot. And readers of literary fiction will need to have Xanax at the ready.

It takes a critic who is warm-spirited enough to recognize the trance of pop culture, whose appreciation is wide open but not unconditional, and who can write with commanding intelligence, to bring something new to a structural analysis of something we think we know but don’t. Here is Umberto Eco on why Casablanca succeeds:

Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion borders on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime. Something has spoken in place of the director. If nothing else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.

There is no awe in Hit Lit. There could have been. The architecture of attraction is always open to sudden shifts in interpretation. And the mechanical engineering of success — in any enterprise — is endlessly fascinating. But when those forensics involve enduring truths and well-explored precincts, the burden is on the examiner to make the familiar unfamiliar. Which means if you’re a serious student of what makes a bestseller work, you’d be advised to skip the theory and curl up in bed with an example of the practice.