More Features of Hit Lit

Two days ago, I wrote about the ‘tricks of the trade’ that make a bestseller so gripping. The analysis comes from James W. Hall’s book on Hit Lit. Ultimately I’d like to consider Hall’s twelve features against some of the top historical fiction authors that readers identified in the survey and these posts are a way for me to clarify ideas in my own mind. Writing helps me think.

Let’s have a look at a few more features:

Feature #2: Raise the controversy of the day

For some hot-button issue to have real wallop, it also must express some larger, deep-seated, and unresolved conflict in the national consciousness.

Hall’s book is peppered with references to the American experience. (This is the time to explain that I am Canadian and hence accustomed to living in the shadow of our great neighbour to the south.) He gives examples of hot-button issues from the twelve bestsellers he’s chosen.

Gone with the Wind – published in 1936 where the hot-button issue was capitalism and its many failures. Remember this is a time when The Depression was a recent experience. In Peyton Place – the hot button was sex. To Kill a Mockingbird – published at a time when race issues were boiling. The Hunt for Red October – cold war paranoia. John Grisham’s The Firm – corporate greed. The Da Vinci Code – religious corruption and conspiracy. “And all of these stories explore some hot-button social issue of their day that is rooted in a long-term national dispute.”

Question: does historical fiction explore today’s hot-button issues or those of long ago?

Feature #3 – “Colossal characters doing magnificent things on a sweeping stage”

Hall asserts that bestsellers pit relatively ordinary people against high stakes situations. Readers are intended to connect to these characters, to be inspired by the aspirations, actions and bravery of everyday heroes like Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Mitch McDeere, a small town boy made good in The Firm, Robert Langdon – really just a rumpled professor – in The Da Vinci Code. The characters become colossal because of the fight they take on. David and Goliath come to mind.

Question: are readers fascinated with historical fiction because it allows them to see the everyday person in famous people like Eleanor of Acquitaine or Thomas Cromwell?

Feature #4 – “America as paradise”

America as the new Eden. A land of second chances, fresh beginnings in the virginal wilderness.

Often the novel’s hero is alienated or exiled from their ‘homeland’ and struggles to return. That ‘homeland’ can be the land itself such as in Gone With the Wind and Scarlett’s home Tara, but it can also be a state of innocence, youthful idealism, a time of security, a parent or grandparent.

Feature #5 – “An abundance of facts and information”

Hall explains  that readers want to be informed, to “learn about the larger world”. Whether its the intricacies of a nuclear-powered submarine or the workings of a prestigious law firm or the “double-dealing of showbiz”, readers are fascinated with the facts and figures and the social arrangements and codes of behaviour within these worlds. Readers “read in order to peer inside secret places not open to them otherwise”.

Fact-based fiction has broad appeal because it is simple, hearty fare. No highly refined palate required. Anyone can buy a ticket.

Historical fiction certainly offers an abundance of facts and information.

Feature #6 – “All twelve of these bestsellers expose the inner workings of at least one secret society.”

Let’s have a look at Hall’s examples. The Godfather exposes the mafia. Jaws exposes the secrets of the sea. The Da Vince Code – Opus Dei. The Bridges of Madison County – the secret world of adultery. To Kill a Mockingbird – the KKK.

And here’s the punchline – our simple, everyday heroes triumph over these secret societies. Good over evil.

Question: in historical fiction do we see monarchies and the nobility as secret societies?

The final six features will be posted on Monday.

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10 Responses

  1. Hi Mary. This is a very interesting series of posts you’re working on, and thus far I’d have to say I agree with Hall’s assessment of what makes – if not a bestseller, for there’s such randomness to that – than a really great story.

    To answer one your questions, in my opinion, historical fiction is an excellent venue for exploring today’s issues, particularly if one chooses a time period in which the issue in question was more socially acceptable, e.g. slavery or domestic abuse. Through normalizing it within the context of the story, the reader is able to see the negative effects for him-/herself – perhaps the weirdness of such a thing having been acceptable as well – and may come to empathize with the suffering characters.

    1. Hi Janna – many thanks for your support. In reading Hall’s book, I was looking for inspiration for my own writing and thought that his analysis could be helpful to others. I do wonder how well the American experience translates for other countries – as a Canadian, perhaps you have a perspective to add. I appreciate your comment on historical fiction as a venue for exploring today’s issues – the social, political and moral circumstances of long ago do inform today. I write about WWI which is not too far distant to resonate perhaps even more loudly than, say, the 13th century. But perhaps I’m biased.

      Regarding the blog – I am intrigued at how much interest the survey has created. At the moment, I’m playing around with ways to carry it forward. Suggestions welcome! Best wishes for your writing.

      1. I agree with you that it might be easier for readers to draw parallels between near-past social issues and those of today. Mind you, I don’t believe it impossible to do so with stories set in the ancient past (I’m writing about the 13th century myself), but the writer does have to work a little harder, I think, to get the reader out of the mindset of “Oh, those ancient people were so backwards; we’re so much more advanced than them” and into a place where they can see how much the ancient past still influences us today.

        Regarding America, I heard somewhere recently – sorry, I can’t recall where – that given all the unemployment and economic uncertainty in the US, there’s been a resurgence in the “Great American Novel” glorifying the “American Dream”, so maybe Hall is onto something, at least with American readers.

        But was he suggesting that the would-be bestseller should actually take place in the States – that literally America is the new Eden? I’m not so sure I agree with that. I think that a great story about getting a fresh start or overcoming the adversity of one’s upbringing can take place in any country so long as the writer does a good job in show why this new place is the promised land. Readers of the western world particularly, I would suggest, would be less likely to view America as Eden, as their own countries are also pretty great. Readers in the developing world might be the ones to agree with Hall in this matter.

        Regarding your blog and survey, I will put my thinking cap on and comment with any suggestions for moving forward as they come to me. 🙂

  2. A large number of best sellers are really about the exceptional, not the average person. For example Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicle — the protagonist-narrator, Uhtred is anything but unexceptional. He’s exceptional in all things, from his abilities as a warrior, strategist, appeal to women and sympathy for women, women of all classes and backgrounds. He can even read and write, though he acquired those skills under durance. He also can see through liars and is very clever himself at figuring out what people want to hear and giving it to them. Yes, he’s a Very Special Fellow! And bestsellers are filled with Very Special Fellows, and Very Special Ladies too. Look at Scarlett herself — she’s not like the other women in GWTW.

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