What makes for a bestselling novel?

“Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers,” by James W. Hall. Random House. 336 pages. $16.00.

James W. Hall, best known as the prize-winning author of the Thorn thrillers, has fashioned a practical guide to the must-have ingredients for commercial success as a writer. Drawing upon his own experience as well as the insights developed from teaching his popular college course on bestsellers, Mr. Hall presents a lively discussion of twelve blockbuster novels. While each is distinctive, they share many features in ways that are sometimes immediately obvious, sometimes less so. 

The author focuses on twelve well-known titles, including “The Godfather,” “Gone with the Wind,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “The Firm,” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” He shows how each of the twelve, to a greater or lesser extent, orchestrates twelve features. One of these features is the centrality of a “hot-button” item that reveals “some larger, deep-seated, and unresolved conflict in the national consciousness.” For example, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in 1960, tapped into the nation’s concern with the stresses and strains of the civil rights movement and vigilante justice while probing the longer, deeper issue of America’s troubled history of slavery and racial prejudice.  

Another shared ingredient is the presentation of America as the golden land of innocence and opportunity, or at least the nostalgia for such a vision. While some of the novels under consideration tap into this vision in a positive sense, others invoke it only to mourn its contamination. Mr. Hall explores “Peyton Place” and “Valley of the Dolls” from this perspective, but it becomes clear that the other ten novels also make use of this ingredient. “The Exorcist,” “Jaws,” “The Dead Zone,” and “The Da Vinci Code” are the titles not previously mentioned that are also treated in this entertaining, informative, and totally reader-friendly study. . . .

James W. Hall

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the May 16, 2012 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the May 17 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, and the May 31 Palm Beach Gardens edition, click here: Florida Weekly – HitLit pdf

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