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Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers

3.44  ·  Rating Details ·  300 Ratings  ·  90 Reviews
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
Paperback, 336 pages
Published April 10th 2012 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published January 1st 2012)
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Karan Bajaj
Apr 06, 2015 Karan Bajaj rated it it was amazing
I love this book, and recommend it to all writers. Here's the thing - he doesn't give you a "plug and play" formula that will cheapen your writing. He does however highlight a list of elements that were probably going to be present in your story anyhow, but makes you think of turning up the volume on some of them. For example, he says that readers love to learn about a secret society or hidden world. So if that was going to be part of your story anyway, you may ramp it up after reading this and ...more
Ray Bearfield
Jun 17, 2012 Ray Bearfield rated it really liked it
James W. Hall wrote poetry and taught literature before he ever wrote best-selling Florida-based crime fiction. Reading Hit Lit suggests that signing up for his class in popular fiction would be as big a hoot as finding out what Thorn, his recurring protagonist, is up to.

Hit Lit sums up the analysis, rumination and brainstorming that informed that class, and he graciously credits the students whose interest and curiosity kept his passion alive. Subtitled “Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Centu
Elizabeth Quinn
Jun 27, 2012 Elizabeth Quinn rated it it was ok
I looked forward to this book -- what novelist wouldn't want to learn the secrets of building a bestseller from a lit prof who doubles as a successful commercial novelist? But I found the book disappointing on a number of levels. The first disappointment was that I found very little new in this book -- no lightbulb over the head insights that prompted me to say, "Ah, hah! That's how it's done." Many good books have covered the same ground. The second disappointment was the selection of bestselle ...more
Sep 05, 2012 Whitney rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
A study of twelve of the best selling novels over the twentieth century, Hit Lit had potential, that quickly dropped off. The main issue I had with this book was the large amount of repetition. Not only are the general plot lines described in detail in their own section in the back of the book, but they get rehashed, in even greater detail in each individual chapter.

There were several interesting points raised in this book about common subject matter to be found amongst these 12 best sellers. Th
Feb 22, 2012 Birgit rated it really liked it
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 t
Fred Forbes
Apr 27, 2012 Fred Forbes rated it really liked it
James Hall is one of my favorite authors and this non-fiction book is quite a change from his Thorn series of thrillers. Although it is somewhat repetitive in places, it was a nice recap of the 12 books selected, many of which I read years ago. His collection of essays, Hot Damn, is one of my favorites so I knew the non-fiction arena would not be too much of a challenge for him. I appreciated the insights into his own writing. Since the titles discussed and their commonalities have been describe ...more
Jun 03, 2017 LiNCOLN rated it really liked it
I finished HIT LIT in one afternoon. He gives thorough analysis of twelve bestseller novels; reflecting dedicated ponderance of how each book interconnects with prose and plot.

I took some issue with the way he dismissed Oprah's picks with two books on his list as "suitable" replacement -- because he just kicked bestselling novels by anyone of color right out of the room. I mean, does Toni Morrison not have an impressive book sales figure, or two? Whatever...

ANYhoo, besides reminding us that sex
Cathy DuPont
May 21, 2012 Cathy DuPont rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Cathy by: Love Jim Hall's writing
Loved it, just loved it. Although this book is not for everyone, it was right down my alley.

When I find a writer I enjoy, even before the end of the book, I'm looking up who he/she is, where they're from, their education and background, other books they've written and anything else I can find out about them.

Knowing this is a personal defect of mine due to my background in newspaper/radio and communications, I enjoy reading about the writer and all the sidebars and backstories I can locate. So
Sonia Lal
Apr 05, 2012 Sonia Lal rated it really liked it
Hit Lit explains or attempts to explains what American bestselling books have in common. It talks about 12 books:

1. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. 1960. 134 editions, over 140,000,000 copies sold.
2. Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. 1956. 10, 670, 302 copies sold.
3. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. 1966. About 30, 000, 000 copies sold worldwide.
4. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. 1936. Close to 30, 000, 000 copies sold in the 1990′s.
5. Jaws by Peter Benchley. 1974. By
Jenny Maloney
May 07, 2012 Jenny Maloney rated it really liked it
There are a couple things you need before you jump into this book:

1. A love of reading or writing. If you're not interested in either of those things, you will not find fascinating what I found fascinating.

2. You need to have read at least half of the books Hall discusses (Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls, The Dead Zone, Bridges of Madison County, Jaws, The Da Vinci Code, The Hunt for Red October, and The Firm) AND/OR be w
Feb 17, 2012 Charlotte rated it really liked it
In his new book, Hit List, Author James W. Hall takes a look at twelve novels published in the 20th century and shares his thoughts on why they were wildly successful. The books he chose are listed as follows:
Gone With the Wind
Peyton Place
Bridges of Madison County
The Firm
The Davinci Code
The Exorcist
Dead Zone
Valley of the Dolls
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Godfather
The Hunt for Red October.
I admit to having read five of these novels and have seen several other of the movies. (lol - does that count
Leanne Ritchie
Dec 26, 2015 Leanne Ritchie rated it really liked it
James Hall's review of best-selling American fiction managed to reinvigorate my desire to read bestsellers and understand their common elements. His enthusiasm is catchy and his advice to writers is sound. My only criticism is that he dips his toe in rather shallow, tepid waters when it comes to relating the common themes of modern day bestsellers to the folk tales and myths that proceeded them.
Rita Ciresi
Nov 08, 2015 Rita Ciresi rated it it was amazing
This is a wise and witty look at why certain books rise to the top of the bestseller list. I really enjoyed Hall's analysis and found myself going back to revisit the opening of Gone With the Wind and Peynton Place. And yes, I admit: this book made me finally try to read a novel by John Grisham. I actually got halfway through The Firm!
Susan Oleksiw
Jul 13, 2012 Susan Oleksiw rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing
This is a fun, incisive and thoughtful guide to what makes a best seller. The author examines 12 best sellers, drawing out the common features in them, and discussing why they have such appeal to readers. It's very insightful and worth reading no matter how many books you may have read or written.
Joanna Slan
Jul 20, 2012 Joanna Slan rated it it was amazing
Fascinating look at what we buy and the themes in best sellers.
Kim Garza
Jul 18, 2012 Kim Garza rated it it was amazing
As a professional librarian I found this to be a great read. It provides a lot of insight into why we read what we do, and the fact that it is written by a novelist makes it an easy and quick read.
Jun 26, 2017 False rated it really liked it
An interesting book that takes best sellers of the 20th-century (questionable adding Valley of the Dolls, Dead Zone and Bridges of Madison County.) Hall then creates a list of features found in each novel which he believes contributes to it's success: adversarial conflict, a golden country, moral choices, etc. I think he was stretching the guidelines to meet the theory, in some cases. He never established "secret society" for me successfully with Gone with the Wind unless you argue Southern ruli ...more
Mar 15, 2012 Trey rated it liked it
Shelves: first-reads
I received a copy of this book through the First Reads program.

After teaching "metafiction and postmodernist" works for 10 years, James W. Hall decided to teach a course in popular fiction (bestsellers), and he liked the results so much that he decided to share his thoughts in the form of Hit Lit. You might think this class (and this book) would be akin to fluff courses like "The Science of Superheroes" or "Simpsons and Philosophy" at one of those California universities (or better yet, a class
James W. Hall takes a careful look at twelve blockbusters of the Twentieth Century and attempts to determine why they were so successful in Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers. Unlike many analysts in this field he is also a successful novelist in his own right and has spent the better part of his life teaching literature classes. Today this is unusual in those that write books about writing. Many of these analysts have one or two books beneath belts and tha ...more
Vicki Roberts
I'm only on page 59 of this 200+ page book, but it's worth a mention, and I'll do a final review when I've completed it...we'll see if I change my mind!

In Hit Lit, James Hall dissects 12 American best-selling novels to show readers and writers that while times may change, there are several common features that, when combined, have a better chance than not of pleasing the masses.

The books Hall compares are:
Gone with the Wind, Peyton Place, To Kill a Mockingbird, Valley of the Dolls, The Godfathe
Michelle Cristiani
Nov 11, 2012 Michelle Cristiani rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
I will admit to being contrary by nature: I get suscpicious of people when they me what to do. That said, I don't really get this book. It is an expansion of Hall's college course where he chose twelve hit novels and analyzed what they had in common. The analysis is completely plot-based; Hall makes clear he doesn't account for advances, publicity tours, or agent efficacy. He doesn't take into account the culture at the time each book broke, and he doesn't touch on writing style, using very few ...more
Sarah Beth
Mar 15, 2012 Sarah Beth rated it it was ok
I won this book as a giveaway on Goodreads.

I was intrigued by the premise of this novel - Hall analyzes 12 mega bestsellers to dissect what makes a bestseller a success. However, this novel fell flat for me. First of all, I think Hall took on too many books to discuss in too little space. Discussing the plots, characters, etc. of 12 novels is a lot to cover and puts a lot of burden on the reader to be able to remember 12 separate story lines. I've only read 5 of the 12 books discussed, and I th
Apr 30, 2012 Kathy rated it liked it
I was a bit disappointed with this book, which purports to show us twelve things that twelve of the biggest 20th-century blockbuster books have in common. The list of books is interesting and diverse, from Gone With the Wind (1936) to the Da Vinci Code (2003), but at some point I began to realize that many of the elements Hall points to are somewhat self-evident in that nearly *every* American novel has them to some extent, not just the biggest "hits." For example: the American dream/American ni ...more
Nicki Markus
Jan 04, 2012 Nicki Markus rated it liked it
Shelves: read-non-fiction
This is a book that I found hard to rate and review. There was nothing wrong with it as such, but it really didn't inspire me in anyway.

In this non-fiction work, James W. Hall examines twelve bestselling novels, looking at the themes that run through each to determine what makes them so popular. He considers a range of ideas such a country vs. city and ideas of the family unit and there is nothing wrong with any of his arguments - it's just that they are all pretty obvious to any avid reader an
First, I think that in order to get a full appreciation of this one, readers need have read at least half, if not all, of the books Hall references and have a wide base of literature of the non-bestselling variety ready for comparison

While I think Mr. Hall is on to something in several of his analyses, I also think it's possible to find several of these elements in most all books published. My sense that some of these of these instances have been boiled so far down to their most basic roots that
Elizabeth B
Apr 26, 2012 Elizabeth B rated it liked it
As with most non-fiction titles, this book has specific audiences to which it will appeal. For students of literature, it provides a good foundation for a beginning survey of popular fiction writing. It compares top books (other reviews list them all so I won’t repeat that information) and the themes that bind them together. Aspiring writers will find this book interesting but, I hope, not take it for gospel and start writing every story to include the themes in the mentioned books. The analysis ...more
Jun 12, 2014 Jen added it
The author, who also taught a college course on the subject, looks at twelve bestselling books from the last 100 years to discover common elements between them. So what do Gone with the Wind, Peyton Place, To Kill a Mockingbird, Valley of the Dolls, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Dead Zone, Jaws, Hunt for Red October, The Firm, The Bridges of Madison County, and DaVinci Code have in common? Some of the similarities include a broad scope, a hot-button issue for the time, a sexual scene as a turning ...more
Not a bad idea for a book - take a look at the bestselling books in the US of the last 100 books and figure out why they sold. Too bad that's not what this author did. Did he analyze the books, sure. And some ideas for how the books were similar were found - and when they didn't all have the same thing - he'd say they did anyway. Or the same or the opposite. So all the books were rags-to-riches, or riches-to-rags, or riches or rags. Or all the books revolved around a specific sexual incident, or ...more
Rodney Farrell Sr
Nov 12, 2012 Rodney Farrell Sr rated it liked it
This book presents an interesting take on 12 of the bestselling novels of the 20th century by identifying 12 themes (hot buttons) within each novel. Robert Langdon may find that fascinating but is not the holy grail of literature. The work is an accumulation of discussion and notes from Hall’s graduate course in popular literature. I would recommend the book as it may stimulate your thinking about what and why you read what you read. There is a section of 17 questions to reflect on the themes an ...more
Jan 21, 2013 Nic rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I admit, I'm initially skeptical when any person - especially a writer, and most especially a writer who also writes fiction but of whom I've never heard - claims to know how bestselling books "work." But a lot of this analysis is interesting and seems legit. And in terms of credentials, it turns out that some of Hall's crime books actually have made the bestseller lists, and students of his class on bestsellers include authors I have heard of, like Dennis Lehane.

The analyses of various factors
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Author Interviews: Hit Lit Interview (Audio) 1 3 Feb 17, 2013 03:43PM  
Author Interviews: Q & A on Hit Lit (Text) 1 4 Feb 17, 2013 03:37PM  
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

James Wilson Hall is an Edgar and Shamus Award-winning author whose books have been translated into a dozen languages. He has written eighteen novels, four books of poetry, a collection of short stories, and a collection of He also won a John D. MacDonald Award for Excelle
More about James W. Hall...

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