I’ve been recently pondering about what makes certain books “cracktastic”–books that people can’t help read once they start. Books that make some people, literally, into foaming-at-the-mouth fanatics. Is it because of the subject matter? The last time I was at a bookstore, I overheard some ladies raving about some “very steamy” novels. But are all cracktastic novels about sex? Despite the fact that the current zeitgeist is all about erotic novels, I don’t think so. Twilight and The Da Vinci Code are considered cracktastic by many readers, but they are in completely different genres. Are cracktastic books necessarily badly written? Well, no. During Charles Dickens’ lifetime, people were devouring his writing like hot cakes. Are popular books synonymous with cracktastic books? Not necessarily. The Great Gatsby is popular and much loved, but one would hardly call it cracktastic. And on the flip side, I’m sure there are obscure books that are cracktastic for a small subset of readers.
So, it doesn’t particularly matter what the book is about or how it’s written. Or even if anyone else is reading it. But the term “cracktastic” does have a negative connotation, implying that the reading material in question is bad yet addictive. Some people seem to use it as an excuse. That they can’t just help themselves reading it. That if they had the will power, they wouldn’t be reading it. Personally, I find it a bit sad that some people are too embarrassed to admit that they like reading about X or Y without qualifiers.
What does make for a cracktastic book then? I think a cracktastic book pushes a button (or a series of buttons) hard enough and long enough that it engages the lizard brain which swamps whatever objective thoughts we’ve had before. Call it emotion or instinct or gut feeling or curiosity. Whatever it is, it’s a hook that never lets go. Any writer who wishes to share their work probably hopes that their writing has some of this elusive quality. Some work hard to achieve it. Others stumble upon it accidentally. But most will never find it although that doesn’t mean that their books aren’t good. There are a number of authors I enjoy reading (and re-reading) but they just haven’t managed to push that particular button which tips me over the edge from favorite and loyal to absolute obsession.
(What I also want to make clear, though, is that you can never assume that what people read–and especially what sort of supposedly cracktastic stuff they read–defines who they are. Few would consider books heavy in life philosophy to be truly cracktastic. Unless it’s an Ayn Rand doorstopper. It could probably crack someone’s head open if wielded properly.)
“Cracktastic” is a really subjective term. What somebody else considers cracktastic, I may think is mediocre. And vice versa. From my observations, for most people, something becomes cracktastic because it pushes one single button really well. For me, several buttons usually must be pushed at one time or it’s going to be a no-go. It must be written in a style I enjoy, with an emotionally engaging storyline, non-stupid characters, impeccable world building, and exquisite tension which makes me keep turning pages even though it’s already two in the morning. Note that I said usually. Depending on my mood–or just where I am in life–different things push those buttons. For example, I am quite positive that the Harry Potter series would have been cracktastic for me if it had come out when I was younger and less widely read in the fantasy genre. But it came out later when I was already bored with all the stories about wizard schools.
Sure, it might make for a frustrating time if you can’t find anyone else who is as rabid about the same books as you are. But I think it’s a good thing that not everyone finds the same story cracktastic. Otherwise, publishers would only be looking for one thing and there would be only one kind of writer getting published. And while readers lament even now about the lack of diversity in the literary marketplace, it would be even worse if there was just one formula for making a hit book.