Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Blechta vs. Delany: a formulaic smackdown

I think for purposes of this ongoing discussion, we need to define what is meant by a formula. Here's my attempt.

First of all, putting bogus information on a cover, whether it be in the art, copy, or blurbs, is a problem of truth in advertising, not formula. If things implied on the cover are not delivered in the text, a reader has a right to feel cheated. They've been lied to in the packaging.

Also, when you get a book by an author in a series and it’s completely different than what you thought you’d be getting (and quite possibly disappointing because of that), you have to stop and think for a minute. Maybe the author was trying really hard not to write “the same book yet again”. How many times have you heard that criticism leveled at authors 8 or 10 books into a series?

Now if you’re expecting Miss Marple and you get James Bond instead, I think you have a legitimate gripe. But if things are shaken up or stirred, and you just don’t happen to like what the author has done, then maybe it just wasn't your cup of tea. As far as you’re concerned, you can feel that they’ve written a bum book. But maybe the person next to you on the train felt that this was the best book in the series. It’s all a matter of taste. Clearly, just like every author hopes to one day write a truly great novel, there is also the apprehension that someday they’re surely going to pen a dog. What's one way around this? Give your audience just what they want.

Now let’s get to formula and why I feel it's not a good thing. Ever watch any of the CSI shows, say, when they’re doing a marathon so you get to see 4 or 5 shows in a row? (That happened to me in a NY hotel room last December.) It doesn’t take a genius to soon see that A must happen in chapter 1, B must happen in chapter 2, etc. By the time the fourth episode came on, I could make a pretty good guess as to what would happen during the rest of the show. That’s a formula.

Some readers may prefer that. It’s their right and they can vote with their feet if the author doesn’t deliver to their satisfaction. And there are a lot of crime fiction authors who are willing to write to a formula, book after book. That’s their right, too (and their publishers’).

But don’t turn around and then say that crime writing don’t get no respect from the literary crowd. It’s just that sort of formulaic writing that most gets up the nose of those only interested in serious literary pursuits, and helps keep our craft in the artistic gulag where it’s been relegated since nearly the beginning. In the great scheme of things, too, it won’t be those formulaic books (no matter what the literary aspirations behind their creation) that will be remembered. It will nearly always be those novels that broke the rules, stretched the boundaries and left an indelible mark on those who have read them.

1 comment:

John R Corrigan said...

Great post, Rick. Love the last paragraph and concur.