Hit Lit by James W. Hall

HitLitPic

HIT LIT examines twelve mega-bestsellers of the twentieth century, showing what they have in common, and why they sold millions of copies. These are books that broke out on their own: not because of the author’s name (many were first novels) and not because of the movies made from them (the movies all came later). These books spent weeks and years on the bestseller lists because there was something in them that spoke to a huge number of people. Hall sets out to discover exactly what it is.

Hall has chosen his twelve books carefully, starting with Gone with the Wind in 1936 and ending with The Da Vinci Code in 2003. He also examines Jaws, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Exorcist, The Hunt for Red October, The Godfather, The Bridges of Madison County, Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place, The Dead Zone and The Firm.

By reading these books deeply and critically, analyzing them the exact same way he’d analyze classic literature, Hall has identified twelve key factors that all bestsellers have in common.

Every single one of them deals with fractured families. Each one focuses on a small story played out against a huge backdrop, such as one defecting submarine captain played out against the entire cold war. They cover hot-button issues that reflect our national psyche. They all have intricately described worlds (such as the Civil War south or the inner workings of a law firm or the details of a mafia family) that are so well-described we feel like we’ve been there. Each book also deals with sex and religion in some way.

The books are also fast-paced, emotionally charged, and have prose that is rather plain. There are some exceptions to Hall’s rules, but aren’t there always exceptions? Sometimes his insistence that all twelve books share all twelve elements was a stretch, but overall, his arguments were sound. I found myself thinking about more modern-day bestsellers such as The Martian and The Kite Runner, and darned if they didn’t check all the boxes, too.

That’s not to say that one could reverse-engineer a bestseller out of Hall’s rules, and he cautions writers against trying it. Any writer looking for a shortcut here will be disappointed. The books on the bestseller list have a sincerity to them that can’t be faked.

But that’s beside the point. HIT LIT is just plain fun to read, with insights on every page. HIT LIT teaches you how to be a more critical reader, even of the books critics dismiss. Hall likes these books, and treats them with respect, explaining them on a deep level that makes you want to read (or re-read) them all.

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HIT LIT can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

9 thoughts on “Hit Lit by James W. Hall

  1. this sounds cool! I remember how popular Davinci Code was (I probably read it 3 times, and read Angels and Demons maybe 4 times), but after you read it, you’re like “that was a really simply put together book”.

    Does the author mention anything about if there’s a connection between a book being a bestseller over time, and there being a movie? I’m a perfect example: I read Jaws and Hunt for Red October *after* seeing the movies.

    • Hall has run the numbers and he says the books were all bestsellers before their movies came out. I imagine the movies only added to the popularity of the book. But now I’m wondering something… Does just knowing a movie is in development help book sales as many people want to read the book first before the movie comes out? I guess there’s no way to measure that.

  2. This book has sat on my shelf since I got it right after it was released. As a fan of Hall’s fiction, I’d heard him mention he was writing it at least two years before it came out. Funny that I waited all that time, got it right away, then never got around to reading it. Where does the time go?

    Sounds like I’ll have to slot this somewhere higher on my TBR pile. 🙂

  3. You’ll note that other than The Da Vinci Code it’s also character-driven. The Da Vinci Code was mostly plot driven but we did follow one/two specific characters. Interesting. I’ll have to read the book.

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