James W. Hall is a Shamus- and Edgar-award winning author with 17 novels under his belt, and an 18th under construction. The prolific thriller-writer recently took a time-out from his popular series featuring Florida PI Daniel Thorn to tackle his first work of nonfiction, something he’s been thinking about in his academic career for some 20 years: a close examination of America’s bestselling modern novels and the qualities that unite them. Called Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, Hall’s survey, out April 10 from Random House Trade, looks at titles as diverse as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Godfather, Peyton Place, and The Da Vinci Code (natch).
How did you decide to take on this project?
It actually started with this course I taught kind of on a whim 20 years ago or so. Back then I was teaching what we called metafiction—Barthe, Cooper, the experimental stuff. And then on a whim I decided to teach this class on bestsellers, basically planning to make fun of them and show how they were inferior to the canon, the “good” novels. Unexpectedly, I was blown away. It was like an intellectual and aesthetic reawakening, put me back in touch with my early days, when I learned to love reading in the first place before I got sidetrack with esoteric novels in my teaching life. So I abandoned the idea of mocking the books, told the class that I discovered that I like these books. The students were relieved, because they liked them too.
I was just giving a talk about that at some venue in California, probably five or seven years ago. Someone in the audience was a producer for the Diane Rehm show (on NPR), who invited me on. And then Kate Medina at Random House heard the show, and called me up to ask if I wanted to write a book about it. I had never written a book that didn’t have dialogue, sex, and a least a little bit of violence in it, but I agreed anyway.
What common qualities did you discover in your research?
Low and behold, we found that books as dissimilar as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Excorcist and Jaws and Bridges of Madison County all had a dozen—at least a dozen—recurring features common to all these books. In Hit Lit, I elucidate those 12 things, and further tried to ask the question I found most intriguing: why these 12 things? Why are they in the recipe of who-knows-how-many huge American successes?
There are some that are pretty self evident. A high nonfiction content, for one—I talk about why it is that novel readers want real-world information in their fiction and how that’s linked to the history of the novel, how we in America value that aspect of the tall tales we read. Everything from Tom Clancy’s very specific, very precise description of nuclear submarines to things that are perhaps a ittle more veiled; Gone With the Wind is valued not just for the Civil War history and the Southern POV, but also the enormous emphasis on social etiquette, how that society worked logistically, how you plan a barbecue party and so forth.
Which common qualities surprised you?
One I didn’t expect to find is something we came to call the Golden Country, which is a phrase from Orwell’s 1984. Winston, the protagonist, trapped in this dull empty world, has created in his imagination this edenic, natural, beautiful landscape called the Golden Country. It’s his ideal world. And not just in these 12 books, but in all the bestsellers we looked at, there is always an image of a place or a time that’s this idealized, edenic, natural landscape that serves a reference point for much of the story.
In The Godfather, the Golden Country is very obviously Sicily, where Michael Corleone falls in love with a kind of idealized Italian woman who dies. That Sicily sequence defines Michael Corleone in a way he wouldn’t have been otherwise.
What conclusions did you draw from all these parallels?
There’s a bunch more [of these common qualities], and they all have a chapter to themselves in which I discuss what the feature is, where I think it springs from, how it pervades and defines each book in separate ways. But the ingredients themselves remain the same, as Americans we’re really reading, and have wanted to read, permutations of the same book for the last 100 years, and probably into the foreseeable future.
Has your research affected your own fiction writing?
Well yeah, obviously after you discover this stuff as a novelist it’s hard to ignore it. But understanding it in a cerebral/rational way is not the same as being able to put into practice naturally. I’m no Dan Brown, but it’s been good to know these things and I believe my books have gone father than I anticipated because of them.
I see this book potentially useful for writers who want to know these not-so-secret secrets but also for readers who want to understand what ignites their passions. There’s a certain provocative aspect too, very anti-snobbery. Sometimes when we get snooty we look down at these books that sell so many millions of copies, which I find silly and counter-productive in all kinds of ways. There is some powerful wisdom at work in these hugely successful books, and there’s a lot to be learned.