Kirkus Reviews QR Code
HIT LIT by James W. Hall


Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers

by James W. Hall

Pub Date: April 10th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7095-1
Publisher: Random House

What makes a bestselling novel? Longtime teacher and prolific thriller writer Hall (Dead Last, 2011, etc.) explores how certain books strike literary paydirt.

The author animatedly shares a distinct fascination with books and reading that has taught him “secrets about the real world that I could discover nowhere else.” Inspired and developed by a popular fiction course he began teaching more than two decades ago, Hall examines 12 of the most successful novels of the 20th century and “reverse-engineer[s]” them, mining their separate defining qualities and their comparative appeal to readers. Chosen for their dexterity and entertainment potential with consideration for gender diversity, location, familial dysfunction and their “strikingly similar techniques and themes,” they range from melodramas like Gone with the WindPeyton Place and Valley of the Dolls to suspense/horror hits The Exorcist, Jaws and The Dead Zone, as well as classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Godfather. For readers, Hall writes, an emotional connection with a central character is paramount. Social taboos, time constraints and the “threat of danger” also draw (and hold) attention, as does secrecy and mystical mystery (see The Da Vinci Code and The Exorcist). Hall writes that the graphic sex in Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls takes on a deeper adulterous subtext in The Bridges of Madison County and The Firm. Similarly, the author partially attributes the runaway successes of The Hunt for Red October and The Godfather to the irresistibility of the American Dream. Referential and cleverly elucidated, the book raises many good points about the precise methodology of bestselling novels—Hall’s own work included.

Passionately and thoroughly entertaining.