A book has come out recently on the subject of bestsellers:The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel. In it the authors, two Stamford academics, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, describe how they created an algorithm and then used it to scan 20,000 New York Times bestselling novels, in order to find out what components they have in common. Among the topics you should focus on apparently are marriage, funerals, guns, schools, children, mothers and vaguely threatening technologies. I wonder what that last one means? These are the topics you should avoid: sex, drugs and rock and roll. Makes you wonder about where Fifty Shades of Grey fits in, doesn’t it?
I would propose that one of the simplest predictors is the presence of a name like ROBERT HARRIS on the cover of a book.
His most recent book CONCLAVE is set in the Vatican. The skeleton of the plot is this: The pope dies, the cardinals gather for the Conclave, the cardinals vote and keep voting until three quarters of them agree on a successor, the pope is chosen, the book ends.
Not, you might think, particularly promising material. The book however is very entertaining – both page turning and wickedly funny. Along the way you will find out all kinds of things about the Catholic Church that you probably didn’t know. It also has a very modern twist at the end that I am not going to divulge but which amused me.
Part of the pleasure of Robert Harris’ books is the combination of elegant writing, gripping hooks to make you want to know what happens next, and some excellent jokes.
Here’s a lovely description of the recently dead Pope as Lomeli, the Dean, leans forward to kiss him:
Often the faces of the dead, in Lomeli’s experience, were slack and stupid. But this one seemed alert, almost amused as if interrupted in mid-sentence. As he bent to kiss the forehead he noticed a faint smudge of white toothpaste at the left corner of the mouth, and caught the smell of peppermint and the hint of some floral shampoo.
But later Lomeli frets about the treatment of the Pope’s body and thinks about some of the unfortunate things that happened to the bodies of previous popes. In 1978 the face of Pope Paul VI’s body in St Peter’s
. . . had turned greyish-green, the jaw had sagged, and there was a definite whiff of corruption. Yet even that ghoulish embarrassment wasn’t as bad as the occasion twenty years previously, when Pope Pius XII’s body had fermented in its coffin and exploded like a firecracker outside the church of St John Lateran.
Here is the description of the Pope’s apartment. He had insisted on living in the Casa Santa Marta rather than the Apostolic Palace.
Fifty anonymous square meters, furnished to suit the income and taste of some mid-level commercial salesman.
Lomeli casts a somewhat jaundiced eye over his fellow cardinals. Here he is in contemplation of Cardinal Tremblay, one of the more ambitious ones:
Despite the hour, his appearance was fresh and handsome, his thick silver hair immaculately coiffed, his body trim and carried lightly. He looked like a retired athlete who had made a successful transition to television sports presenter; Lomeli vaguely remembered that he had played ice hockey in his youth.
And here is Cardinal Simo Guttuso:
His personal chaplain struggled behind him with his three suitcases.
Lomeli, eyeing the suitcases, said, ‘My dear Simo, are you trying to smuggle in your personal chef?’
Little wonder if he was, given the appalling descriptions of the food the Cardinals suffer. Someone needs to give the nuns cooking lessons. ‘Veal scallopini – the meat looked rubbery, the sauce congealed’. ‘Chicken wrapped in Parma ham. It was overcooked and dry but they were eating it none the less’. ‘Some unidentifiable fish in caper sauce.’
If anything forces this Conclave to a swift conclusion, thought Lomeli, it will be the food.
Lomeli, the Dean in charge of the voting, is struggling with his own faith, as he struggles to run the Conclave. There are, of course, various twists and turns along the way.
My feeling is Robert Harris could probably conjure a bestseller from two elderly crumbs playing dominoes inside a paper bag but until he writes that one, I suggest you read CONCLAVE. If you buy the hardback, it has nicely blackened edges to the pages. It’s a new fashion this and I rather like it.
If you’re interested in what makes a bestseller you’d be better off buying a few Robert Harris books and making careful notes, rather than buying a book about an algorithm. To my mind, it is thorough research, lightly used, combined with a finely honed talent to amuse and entertain in words. Incidentally, he does conform to one bit of data that the algorithm throws up; apparently a disproportionate number of bestseller writers have worked in journalism and advertising and Harris was a political journalist before turning his hand so successfully to writing fiction.