Sep 14, 2007

Gag me with a million little pieces

So you may have heard that James Frey has a new novel coming out and this time he's actually calling it fiction. Fine, good for you, James. At least you're sort of telling the truth this time. I guess I might be willing to forgive you.

Wait a second. I'm not ready to forget the whole debacle. Especially after I read how publishers have been falling all over themselves to get their hands on the new Frey book and that it went for something like a million dollars. HarperCollins got to him first. As publisher Jonathan Burnham confirmed the news, he gushed over Frey's writing skills, saying, "James Frey is an immensely talented writer who has written a truly extraordinary and original novel, one of great breadth and ambition."

Oh, gag me, Jonathan. As if it were really about extraordinary writing and not dollar signs.

Last winter, I set forth to try to figure out exactly what magical ingredients made a bestselling nonfiction book. I analyzed "A Million Little Pieces," by you know who, Jon Krakauer’s "Into the Wild," Jonathan Harr's "A Civil Action," and of course, Mitch Albom’s "Tuesdays with Morrie." I suppose the writing did play somewhat of a roll, but there seem to be other overriding factors. Here's an excerpt of my piece and a link to the rest of the story.

What Makes a Bestseller?
So different, yet so much the same
By Katie Campbell

I finally decided to give James Frey’s book a chance.

While A Million Little Pieces was causing such an uproar this past year, I was busy shunning it, ignoring Oprah’s recommendation and subsequent condemnation, and striding past the strategically placed stacks of hardbacks at bookstore end-caps without being enticed in the least.

My years immersed in canonized nonfiction made me scrunch up my nose at the thought of wasting my time with such tripe. But a question always lingered. The mass attraction of this book and its sky-high sales befuddled me. What was it about Frey’s much-beleaguered trauma memoir that catapulted it into the bestseller list? In fact, what makes any book popular?

To understand the bestseller phenomenon, I decided to see how Frey’s book measured up to other nonfiction bestsellers. I chose three additional books that seemed to have nothing in common aside from their impressive financial success: Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, an intriguing but small-scale narrative of the disappearance of an unheard of young man; Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, a simple story of a dying man’s final days that has become an international phenomenon on the scale of Harry Potter; and a serious, critically acclaimed legal thriller, A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr. Then I hunkered down, attempting to discover if these books had any similarities that might give clues as to why they became so widely irresistible.

Some parallels weren’t all that surprising. All four authors write with no-frills vocabulary and simple sentence structure. Of course, I thought, accessibility and bare-bones writing are keys to making the books fast-reads. These books were almost effortless. Albom’s book I consumed in one sitting.

Another common aspect of all four is the universal allure of the topics. We’re attracted to the themes in the same way we’re drawn to watching the tragedies on the evening news. We become absorbed in other people’s misfortunes because of the frightening knowledge that it could happen to us (or the happy relief that it isn’t happening to us). In Albom’s book, the theme is facing terminal illness. In Frey’s it’s the grip of addiction. In Harr’s it’s the scary environmental health threats that surround us. In Krakauer’s it’s the mystery of self-destruction, a young man’s suicidal journey. These topics embody our collective fears and pique our interests.

While any of these themes would be fine choices for fiction writers, as nonfiction they become more potent. Think of the end of a film when the words “Based on a true story” roll across the screen. Knowing the story is authentic makes it more significant (and knowing that it was, in part fabricated, as with Frey’s book, makes us feel betrayed).

Adding to the weight of fact is the writer’s ability to create tension. The muscle of these books as page-turners startled me.


For the rest of the piece, visit Etude Magazine.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on what makes a bestseller.

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