By Mark Alpert
This is an exercise I invented the other day when I should’ve been working on my novel. I tried to come up with a list of surefire hooks, subjects that have an irresistible appeal to a vast number of readers. A novel that incorporates one or more of these hooks, I thought, is sure to attract some interest, even if it’s a terrible book. I used gut instinct alone to compose the list. Some subjects just seem to be universally popular.
The first hook on my list is Albert Einstein. I thought of this one because my first novel, Final Theory, was about Einstein, and I think that’s one of the reasons why the book sold fairly well. Who doesn’t like Einstein? Well, the Nazis didn’t like him, and neither did J. Edgar Hoover, but other than that, the guy has pretty widespread appeal.
The second hook is Marilyn Monroe. I’m surprised more books haven’t been written about her. Yes, her appeal was mainly visual, but her story was also pretty interesting. And she was a good actress too, at least in some of her movies. I thought about adding Elizabeth Taylor to the list — she was an even better actress — but I’m not sure her appeal is as deep and wide. Would just about anyone want to read about her?
Two U.S. presidents made my list: JFK and Lincoln. Everyone loves those two. Look at the popularity of the recent Stephen King book (11/22/63) and the Steven Spielberg movie. President Washington seems harder to warm up to. The audiences for FDR and Teddy are a little narrower too, I think.
Even in this secular age, the Bible is still a damn good hook. If you can work Jesus into your fiction, God bless you.
War can also be a good hook, but it really depends on which conflict you choose. The Civil War has the most appeal, I think, followed by World War II. I love books about the Vietnam War, especially Tim O’Brien’s novels and short stories, but I think they have more of a niche readership.
Babe Ruth also made my list. My favorite part of Dennis Lehane’s novel, The Given Day, was his fictionalized Bambino. And at the last minute I added Elvis to the list. I know at least three novels with the title Heartbreak Hotel.
It was a fun exercise, but then I ran out of steam. (And I had to get back to writing my novel.) Please feel free to add to the list or tear it up, as you see fit.