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14 December 2016

When Harry met Fifty Shades: what makes a book popular?

The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archie and Matthew L Jockers reveals what literary hits have in common.

By Frances Wilson

In the 19th century, when the term “bestseller” was first coined, the secret of its success was revealed by Charles Reade: “Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait.” We’d have to wait a mighty long time to see The Cloister and the Hearth, Reade’s most popular book, back on the Sunday Times bestseller list, but his fiction was the staple diet of our great-grandparents. Not only could he control his readers’ emotions like a puppeteer, but he knew everything there was to know. The pages of Charles Reade were stuffed to the rafters with facts and lists and explanations of how things worked; he was the Victorian Google. As an admiring critic observed, he could describe equally well “a sea-fight, a storm, the forging of a horseshoe, the ravages of an inun­dation, the trimming of a lady’s dress [and] the tuning of a piano”.

Bestsellers, says the academic and critic John Sutherland, provide “a snapshot of an age”, and Reade caught the ephemera of the 1860s. So why have we forgotten The Cloister and the Hearth? Because bestsellers are the mayflies of the book world: they live only for a day.

Bestsellers are different from fast sellers, cult favourites or the brand known as “instant classics”. They bear no relation to those books we call “the canon”, such as Pride and Prejudice – which became a “bestseller” relatively recently, when it was remodelled as chick lit. The term has become a slippery one and is often used to describe the thing it’s not. Most of the books promoted by Waterstones as bestsellers are nothing of the sort. They don’t come close to the sales figures required (4,000 to 25,000 copies a week in hardback). Bestsellers are not simply the summer’s top beach reads; they are cultural phenomena, and we like to think that they come, like J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, out of left field.

The success of such books is a rags-to-riches story, the stuff of fairy tales: Rowling planted a seed and grew a beanstalk; an unarmed author going it alone, E L James beat the monsters of the publishing world. We love being reminded of how Harry Potter was rejected a squillion times before being picked up off the slush pile at Bloomsbury, how Fifty Shades began life as online fan fiction, how nobody wanted Lord of the Flies, how Jack Kerouac’s agent didn’t “dig” On the Road, how T S Eliot thought Animal Farm “not convincing”, and how some ­benighted editor, having read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, told John le Carré that he had no future as a writer.

“[The bestseller’s] peculiar fascination . . . derives from two facts,” Clive Bloom wrote in Cult Fiction (1998).

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On the one hand, it touches upon literature, aesthetics, psychology (individual and national), education, taste, as well as the business acumen of publishers and their publicity agents . . . On the other hand, it has never been possible to explain the phenomenon to such an extent as to give future guidance to authors, publishers and the reading public – in fact, your guess is as good as anybody else’s, and every opinion can be contradicted by opposing examples.


Until now, that is. Why has Danielle Steel sold 650 million romances and a far better author sold only seven books? The Bestseller Code will tell you. And making us laugh, cry and wait has nothing to do with it.

Jodie Archer, formerly a publisher, and Matthew Jockers, an American academic specialising in Irish literature, approached bestsellers by teaching a computer to read. Predictions are based on established patterns and so there must, they reasoned, be a pattern to these books. The Bestseller Code lays bare nothing less than the DNA of bestsellers, which makes Archer and Jockers the Watson and Crick of their age.

The “bestseller-o-meter”, as the authors call their computer, not only detects – by tracing word patterns and measuring emotional language – the double helix that makes some books more fit for survival than others; it can also, by examining the use and positioning of prepositions such as “from” and “of”, tell you if the author is male or female, American or British.

The Bestseller Code is certainly American: we don’t need a machine to discover that. No concessions are made to non-American readers. A book’s success is measured by its place in the New York Times bestseller list and on whether or not it has won a Pulitzer prize. A good number of the authors mentioned have no market in the UK. And the prose of Archer and Jockers can read like a foreign language: “Grisham novels and the number one slot go together,” they write, “like potato salad and the Fourth of July.”

But what on earth does the bestseller-o-meter look like? Is it a vast Heath Robinson affair, all cogs and steam with a great underbelly of cast iron and a music stand poised at the helm, on which each novel is delicately placed? Or more like a photocopier, on to whose glass surface the authors place each page for scanning and analysis, after which, with some clunking and whirring, a book report is deposited on the floor?

Archer and Jockers took 20,000 books and divided their contents into 500 topics, such as fishing, firearms, FBI, monetary matters, crime scenes and kids and school. They then asked the machine to calculate what proportion of these topics appeared in each book. While a third of John Grisham’s paragraphs deal with the legal system (Grisham was formerly a lawyer), a third of Danielle Steel’s are concerned with domestic life (she has been married five times). Rather than packing their pages in the manner of Charles Reade, the most successful authors of today devote 30 per cent of their books to just one or two topics. A less successful novelist will focus on six. The topics least likely to be found in bestsellers are those connected to fantasy or other worlds, with the exception, Archer and Jockers hastily add, of G R R Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire and Andy Weir’s The Martian. No mention is made of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga.

Other topics that score low on the bestseller-o-meter are smoking, drinking, deep grief, revolutions, dinner parties and dancing. So do books set in the ocean, desert or jungle. Beaches, not listed here, must surely score high, given Alex Garland’s great success. But perhaps The Beach is also an exception. Bestsellers are usually based in the home, with dog storylines scoring better than those involving cats. Wizards and dwarfs don’t sell; nor, apparently, do sex and drugs. Which suggests – given Harry Potter, the bonkfest that is Fifty Shades, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, whose subject is drug-addicted women, and the appeal of Tyrion Lannister (the heroic “half man” in A Song of Ice and Fire) – that the bestseller-o-meter has caught a virus.

We also learn that putting numbers in a novel – such as “911” and “$1,000,000” – makes no difference to sales figures, and nor does the “geopolitical setting” for a book. It matters not a jot that The Bonfire of the Vanities is set in New York, or Gone With the Wind in Georgia. Both could be based in Battersea without losing narrative propulsion.

A winning style will not, the computer says, employ rows of explanation marks. It is light on the use of “very” but heavy on “okay”, and prefers “n’t” to “not”. Characters in bestsellers speak the language of men, as Wordsworth put it. They are also goal-orientated; these people grab, do, think, ask, look, love, reach, tell, smile and hold more often than those in less popular books. Most importantly, they know what they want: “need”, “want”, “miss” and “love” are the top four verbs describing the mental and emotional expressions of bestselling characters. Bestsellers are driven by wanting, rather than waiting.

What about titles? A CEO of a New York publishing house, asked to come up with a bestselling title, suggested the tongue-twisting Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog, thus yoking together America’s three obsessions. Two books thus named were published, both of which flopped. He’d have done better to suggest Girl Doctor’s Dog or Lincoln’s Girl’s Dog or Lincoln’s Doctor’s Girl, because anything with “girl” in its title, however nonsensical, seems destined for success.

Archer and Jockers discuss Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women), Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, but there is also Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted. Girl power took over in the 1990s, when the headgirl was, of course, Bridget Jones, whose role in the revolution (bad word, I know) is elided by Archer and Jockers. It’s the Goth girls and Spicey girls and singletons, rather than the boy wizards, who give us the snapshot of our age. Often bruised and embattled, these girls are the new brand of femininity, out of tune with traditional domestic models and ill at ease in the home. Girls are women who know what they really really want.

Archer and Jockers are not the first to have a crack at decoding stories. In 1959, William Foster-Harris argued that there were three narrative models: happy ending, unhappy ending and the literary plot. In 1947, Kurt Vonnegut submitted a thesis to the University of Chicago arguing that our classic stories shared a certain shape. His work was rejected for lack of data but Vonnegut remained faithful to the theory. “There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers,” he said. “They are beautiful shapes.” These shapes are the ones made when the movements of stories are translated into curves on a graph. The rising and falling of fortune describe the letters U or W; the progress of Snow White looks like a line drawn by Paul Klee.

Inspired by Vonnegut’s thesis, researchers at the University of Vermont recently fed 1,330 simple stories through a database called a hedonometer, which ranked words according to the positive or negative emotions described. They concluded that there were six “basic shapes” or narrative trajectories: rags to riches (rise), riches to rags (fall), man-in-a-hole (fall followed by rise), the Icarus model (rise followed by fall), the Cinderella model (rise, fall, rise) and the Oedipus model (fall, rise, fall). Christopher Booker, having spent 34 years studying the patterns of a thousand tales from ancient myths to soap operas, concluded in 2004 that there were in fact seven basic plots, which boil down to Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Rebirth, Comedy and Tragedy. For Ronald Tobias, there are 20 plots (see his 20 Master Plots: and How to Build Them); in 1916 Georges Polti had found in our stories “36 dramatic situations”.

The conclusions of Archer and Jockers concur with those of Booker. The bestseller-o-meter identifies seven plot shapes whose peaks and troughs appear on a graph (there are graphs throughout this new book) like a heartbeat. Every story has its tempo, but what differentiates the bestseller, Archer and Jockers suggest, is the rapid rhythm of the narrative as it dips and arches from conflict to resolution: “The million-dollar move is a good, strong, regular beat.”

Pared down to a pulse rate, very different novels can be seen to share a shape. Archer and Jockers show that the rhythms of Fifty Shades rise and fall with the same frequency as those of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. But while the peaks in the graph for Fifty Shades describe the excitement of sex, those in The Da Vinci Code occur in “moments of ­relief between being chased and on the run”. “Not since the advent of Harry Potter,” as the New York Times said of Dan Brown, “has an author so flagrantly delighted in leading readers on a breathless chase.”

It is breathlessness that explains the appeal of Fifty Shades. Fans of E L James describe reading her books with their bodies: they tremble, blush, flush, faint; their hands wander, their hearts thump. In the 18th century responsiveness of this kind was called “sensibility”, regarded as the highest virtue in a woman. Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the poet, had sensibility in spades. As a child she burst into tears when she first heard the sea; as an old woman she wept at the sight of the first spring flowers. In the readiness of her responses, Coleridge said, Dorothy was “a perfect electrometer”, referring to a recent invention consisting of a fragile piece of gold, enclosed in glass, which responded to the most minute fluctuations of electrical charge. Readers of Fifty Shades are also perfect electrometers; or rather, as Archer and Jockers put it, “James writes emotional turns with such a regularity of beat that the reader feels the thrum of her words in their bodies like the effect of club music.”

The Bestseller Code is not such a thrilling experience. There is a bleakness to the methodology, a cynicism at the heart of the project. What is depressing is not that we have taught computers to read like ­human beings: it is that human beings are shown to read like computers. Are our responses really so humdrum?

The bestseller-o-meter tells me little about why I enjoy certain bestsellers. What kept me glued to The Girl on the Train wasn’t the absence of numbers or the use of “OK”. It was Rachel’s crazy, obsessional nature. She is a stalker, a voyeur, a detective, an alcoholic whose ex-husband, now remarried, persuades her that she has no memory. The book tapped in to my nerve centre because it addressed what I fear to confront: that the home is not a safe place to be.

It was the discomfort I felt when I read “Cinderella” as a child, or “Snow White”. But the narrative shape of The Girl on the Train recalls those of the female paranoia films of the 1940s. Remember George Cukor’s Gaslight, in which the Ingrid Bergman character’s husband persuades her that she is going mad? Hitchcock’s Suspicion, where Joan Fontaine is afraid that her husband is trying to kill her? The “topic” of these stories, fed into a computer, might be “women who don’t know the men they are married to”. Paula Hawkins takes this anxiety and adds to it the horror explored in All About Eve and Single White Female: that another, trusted woman will inveigle her way into our lives and steal our identity.

Gone Girl had me similarly electrified. Here, in Amazing Amy, was a perfect description of the masquerade so many women adopt. In the pages of her fake diary (a parody of Bridget Jones’s diary, with its
flat-footed honesty), she performs her feminine role to perfection. Is Nick, “husband of the year”, a murderer or a victim? Gone Girl employs the same plot as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, but rather than the husband killing his demonic wife and dumping her body in a boat, it is the demonic Amy who avenges herself on Nick, and gets away with murder.

The point about bestsellers, from Grisham to Gone Girl, is that they echo stories we already know and which have sunk, like shipwrecks, deep into our psyche. The books that sell by the shedload are those that return us to the narrative shapes of our childhood, to the plots that shaped us. Bestsellers, like myths and fairy tales, engage with readers on a primitive level. They don’t try to break the mould or dazzle the critics or perform any high-wire acts with style. Their rhythms feel familiar; the characters may be different, the settings may have changed, but we have been here before.

The Bestseller Code is not, Archer and Jockers stress, a how-to manual, but they do “believe it has the potential to change how we write, publish and read new fiction”. I don’t imagine for one minute that bestsellers can be produced by following a set of rules. Bestselling books come from, and feed into, our least conscious selves. And bestselling authors, like the young Harry Potter, have no idea of their power until it is released on the world.

Frances Wilson’s biography “Guilty Thing: a Life of Thomas De Quincey” is published by Bloomsbury

The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archie and Matthew L Jockers is published by Allen Lane (256pp, £20)

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This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump