You Wanna Sell A Million Books?
By Dave Shiflett
If you want to make the big money in fiction, don't skimp on the friction—especially the sexual, spiritual and political varieties—and go light on the navel-gazing. So counsels James W. Hall in "Hit Lit," a study of what makes best sellers tick.
Mr. Hall, himself no stranger to the best-seller lists as a thriller writer, teaches a college course on 20th-century mega-best sellers. "Hit Lit" offers insights from his own study of these books and from his classroom discussions.
"Hit Lit" focuses on a murderer's row of commercial best sellers from the past couple of decades: Tom Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October" (1984), John Grisham's "The Firm" (1991), Robert James Waller's "The Bridges of Madison County" (1992) and Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" (2003). It looks back at earlier sensations, too: Stephen King's "The Dead Zone" (1979), Peter Benchley's "Jaws" (1974), William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist" (1971), Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" (1969), Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls" (1966), Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960), Grace Metalious's "Peyton Place" (1956) and Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" (1936). These literary cash cows may tell us something about prevailing tastes, and they certainly share many features that wannabe blockbuster writers might keep in mind while going for the gold.
Job one, Mr. Hall writes, is to hook readers quickly, perhaps by having a naked young woman chomped in half by a shark or a man murdered by an albino monk, or by flashing some thigh (and perhaps adjacent real estate). Once hooked, customers must be goaded to keep turning the pages, the quicker the better. If they hesitate, you are lost. "Hit Lit" warns sharply against going introspective. People in blockbuster land don't have navels. "These characters are not self-absorbed or contemplative," Mr. Hall explains. They are "pitted against large forces, not characters in conflict with themselves" (take that, William Faulkner). Also, don't dillydally with needless personal detail. He notes that in "Gone With the Wind," Scarlett O'Hara "is married and becomes a widow in a single sentence at the beginning of Chapter 7."
Mr. Hall and his students found that protagonists with mass-market appeal tend to be mavericks, misfits or loners and that they often come from fractured families and communities. (In real life, aren't these types often deeply self-absorbed?) They are also often in pursuit of the American dream, variously defined, and find themselves acting against "a sweeping backdrop" such as the Cold War ("The Hunt for Red October") or the civil-rights struggle ("To Kill a Mockingbird").
Then there is the sweeping backdrop of humanity's eternal yearning to legally invade someone else's nether regions. "Sex sells," Mr. Hall reminds us, which is why even non-blockbuster readers have heard of "Peyton Place" and "Valley of the Dolls," books that benefited by being published in the pre-Internet era. They offered glimpses of furtive gropings long before it was possible to find every possible sexual permutation in the sanctity of a palm-cradled electronic device.
All the books surveyed, Mr. Hall writes, include at least one central sexual incident. Some are salacious, some melodramatic—Scarlett being carried upstairs for a thorough pillaging—and some criminal, such as the alleged rape at the center of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Many of the episodes shine a light on sexual hypocrisy. "New Englanders were outraged and offended that their folksy cover had been blown and their steamy bedrooms laid bare" in "Peyton Place," Mr. Hall writes. Warming to the subject, he declares that " 'Peyton Place' is America, the polite, mannered façade pulled back to reveal the squirming reality below."
Not to throw cold water on this literary hot flash, but if Americans were, en masse, really so sweaty and squirmy, would they buy a book describing what they already knew? Safer to say it was the novelty of the "Peyton Place" story that made the cash registers sing.
Religion is another hot-button subject in the most popular fiction, we're told. The church ladies in "To Kill a Mockingbird" are a flock of hypocrites, according to Mr. Hall, and they're hardly alone in best-seller land—you won't find an uncritical portrayal of traditional religion in any of these books. "It would seem that the bestselling authors of all time are a collection of freethinkers and agnostics who share a tendency to ridicule religious hypocrisy and aggressively challenge standard orthodoxy."
Or perhaps the authors are protecting their own orthodoxy by ridiculing those outside it. In any event, Mr. Hall informs us that religious works of an affirming sense sell so well that "most bestseller lists shunt them off into a separate category so the mainstream nonreligious books will have some slim chance of survival."
You're not likely to learn much about the Beatitudes in best sellers, but the books are instructive in other ways: Blockbusters almost always include an "abundance of facts and information," Mr. Hall says, by offering peeks inside glamorous or closed-off subcultures. He calls them "secret," but we may call them mysterious or little understood. For example: big-time law offices ("The Firm"), the entertainment world ("Valley of the Dolls"), organized crime ("The Godfather") and Opus Dei, the Catholic organization ("The Da Vinci Code"). Mr. Hall dubs this the "didactic function," which doesn't necessarily mean that the publisher has a fact-checking department burning the midnight oil. While Tom Clancy's detailed descriptions of military technology may be fairly accurate, Dan Brown's premise that Jesus was a baby-daddy is no more factually based than "The Wizard of Oz." Then again, they don't call these books fiction for nothing.
Mr. Hall, who writes with a light, amused touch, doesn't pay much attention to the literary quality of the books in his survey, and he can sound dismissive of writers who vastly outshine the multimillionaire club. "I'd wager there is more pure data on a single page of 'The Hunt for Red October' than in many entire novels by Faulkner or Hemingway," he writes. Here's a counter-wager: There are more moments of pure literary pleasure on a single page of Faulkner or Hemingway than in the entirety of "The Hunt for Red October." Here is a typical passage in the Clancy novel, describing the hero at a tense moment: "Ryan was chain-smoking at his station, and his palms were sweating as he struggled to maintain his composure." Faulkner might rather jump off a bridge than commit such pablum to print.
"Hit Lit" seems to take these books a bit too seriously, as when Mr. Hall contemplates the greater meaning of the opening dining scene in "Jaws," in which the main course has gone for a skinny-dip: "One could ask if the self-sufficient woman who abandons her man in a drunken haze is being punished for the sin of independence." Perhaps the shark ate Quint for the sin of drinking too much brandy.
Faculty-lounge politics pop up here and there in "Hit Lit." In a discussion of the "nuclear family" (a presence in many blockbusters), Mr. Hall dismisses William Bennett's lament over the dissolution of the family as a "a somewhat dire description of what some would say is simply a modernization of the family structure or a set of changes that reflect other transformations in modern culture." As Scarlett O'Hara might say: Pshaw—that professor needs to visit the projects.
But he also makes some sensible observations. "These days it's harder to profitably press the hot button of sex because that button has just about been worn out from overuse." And while acknowledging that seven of the books he studied were first novels, he notes that the other authors needed nurturing before hitting pay dirt, an increasingly rare corporate indulgence. "These days, if a writer does not succeed on the first or second try, his or her career is likely to flatline."
Mr. Hall includes some interesting tidbits. Ben Franklin—"lustful Ben," as he calls him—"was one of the first Americans to own a copy of John Cleland's scandalous novel 'Fanny Hill; or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.' " He quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne's put-down of the "horde of female scribblers" and observes that women make up nearly 80% of fiction readers. Which raises a question. Are male readers kept at bay by design, purposely neglected by publishers? Or were they brainwashed by Opus Dei to avoid fiction? There's a novel in there somewhere.
—Mr. Shiflett is author of a lightly
read novel called "In the Matter
of J. Van Pelt."