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Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth…

Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest… (2012)

by James W. Hall

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I thoroughly enjoyed this critical but unpretentious look at popular fiction. Easy to read and to follow, Hall deconstructs some twelve books written in the last 70 years, choosing from different eras and genres to show the mechanics at work. The structure was somewhat repetitive, which made some passages lengthier than others, but a good dose of humour made up for the dreary parts and kept me interested.
Lovers of literature will not learn much from the themes which are far from new, but the book is a great reminder of the elements at play.
I particularly enjoyed the conclusion: writing is first and foremost an exercise of the heart and passion; formulas help, but do not a success make. ( )
  Cecilturtle | Jul 28, 2012 |
When I think of capital-L Literature, I usually think of what you read in high school and college: tomes or thematically difficult books that I analyzed to death as an English major. So it surprised me to discover in the foreword of Hit Lit, an exploration of bestsellers, that author James W. Hall had his start in academia with a specialization in postmodern literature. When he had this idea to teach bestsellers - and not just your run-of-the-mill gets on the list for a few weeks and then drops away, but multimillion copies selling still popular books - he discovered that these books had several things in common.

He focuses on the following twelve titles:
Gone with the Wind
The Godfather
The Dead Zone
Valley of the Dolls
The Hunt for Red October
The Exorcist
Peyton Place
To Kill A Mockingbird
Bridges of Madison County
The Firm
The Da Vinci Code

I recommend that you read the books on the list that you intend to before tackling Hit Lit, unless you don't mind massive spoilers. If you haven't read some titles, or don't intend to, the Appendix has an overview of the plot of each. Hall explains why he chose each book, and then goes on to argue what they have in common and what the American public finds so appealing about them, including elements such as the pace and sympathetic charaters. Hall's points are thought-provoking, though his comments about each book did get a little repetitive; since I tended to read it in large chunks, I hadn't had time to forget the last time he mentioned some examples that get repeated when making a different point later. He is tongue-in-cheek at times, but generally is not snobby in his approach and truly seems to have respect for popular reading. An entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking read. ( )
1 vote bell7 | May 12, 2012 |
In this book, Hall takes 12 American “mega-bestsellers” and, in a very accessible manner, identifies and discusses 12 features they have in common. He first discusses his choice of books, provides both a short and long synopsis of each (longer version in the back of the book), before beginning the discussion of the commonalities.

He took most of his 12 book choices from a list of top ten bestselling novels in the US from 1895 – 1975 as established by Alice Payne Hackett in her book 80 Years of Best Sellers but jettisoned a few as “mushy” or redundant, and added four more. Before naming his choices, he discusses factors such as the gender of the actor, out-of-print status, first novels, and, yes, Oprah.

So, bearing in mind his methods, here are his chosen 12:

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936)
Peyton Place, Grace Metalious (1956)
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)
Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann (1966)
The Godfather, Mario Puzo (1969)
The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty (1971)
Jaws, Peter Benchley (1974)
The Dead Zone, Stephen King (1979)
The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy (1984)
The Firm, John Grisham (1991)
The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller (1992)
The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (2003)

Much of what Hall is writing of has been worked out in his “Popular Fiction” classes over the years. And certainly the premise makes for interesting discussion. Hall, to his credit, to has made his thesis more accessible and digestible to a larger audience, has kept his discussions fairly free from academic jargon, and has kept discussions as succinct as one can get away with and still make the point. While I didn’t get the sense that each of the 12 stories were discussed under each of the 12 features, the discussion is still fairly dizzying as one continuously moves back and forth betweeen books.

To be honest, I haven’t read most of these books (I’ve seen most as movies), but I don’t think it’s necessary to have read them to enjoy this book. While generally I agree with most of these commonalities, the application of a few of them to some of the stories seemed a bit of a stretch. But, generally, popular literature, so often dismissed in literary circles, critiqued in this way can be pretty interesting. Though most of these titles will disappear with the era they were a part of, it seems that core elements keep getting rewritten and could be considered on some root level as ‘classic.’

Note: I have a slightly expanded review which names the 12 commonalities on my thread in the Club Read group here (message#41), if you are interested. ( )
7 vote avaland | May 6, 2012 |
Have you ever wondered why certain books make it onto bestseller lists, or even more so, why some books will rank high in sales for decades? In Hit Lit James W. Hall takes a closer look at twelve such novels from the last century, presenting the common features which propelled them into the realms of bestsellers.
Looking at the selection of American bestsellers of the 20th century, from "Gone with the Wind" to "The Da Vinci Code" the selected books seem to be a rather wild mix and I was curious to find out what they could possibly have in common and how these similarities make them some of the most read novels of our time. From the rather obvious such as being unputdownable fast paced tales with contentious topics and colossal characters doing great things, to the not quite as conspicuous such as the importance of geography, religion and sexual encounters this was a both surprising and insightful read.
Engrossing, informative, and accessible, which shouldn't be taken for granted when it comes to authors dissecting literature, this is a truly fascinating view on the bestseller-making parts bestsellers have in common - though ultimately a great book will always be more than its individual parts. Admittedly I would have loved a broader approach to the topic and not just the focus on American bestsellers, then again maybe such a book is already on the author's to-do list. I certainly wouldn't mind!
In short: Revelatory journey into the world of bestsellers! ( )
  BLehner | Mar 16, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812970950, Paperback)

What do Michael Corleone, Jack Ryan, and Scout Finch have in common? Creative writing professor and thriller writer James W. Hall knows. Now, in this entertaining, revelatory book, he reveals how bestsellers work, using twelve twentieth-century blockbusters as case studies—including The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Jaws. From tempting glimpses inside secret societies, such as submariners in The Hunt for Red October, and Opus Dei in The Da Vinci Code, to vivid representations of the American Dream and its opposite—the American Nightmare—in novels like The Firm and The Dead Zone, Hall identifies the common features of mega-bestsellers. Including fascinating and little-known facts about some of the most beloved books of the last century, Hit Lit is a must-read for fiction lovers and aspiring writers alike, and makes us think anew about why we love the books we love.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:04 -0400)

Analyzes the common themes in many of the 20th century's best-sellers, what made them best-sellers, and recounts the experiences and discoveries the author shared with students in his popular modern literature college courses.

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