The Sunday Salon: Genre and Formula

I’m a woman who likes everything tidily in its place, and this applies to my particular literary taxonomy. A few months ago, I was feeling particularly antsy about how “romance”, “thriller”, and “mystery” fell into my otherwise setting-based genre labels, since they refer to plots rather than settings, but I don’t read nearly enough of those for it to have come up often enough to continue bugging me. But I recently read The Film Book as part of my summer of cinematic education, where they define genre as works that “share comparable, recognizable patterns in theme, period, setting, plot, use of symbols, and characterization” (79). And then things, such as the eternal battle between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” (literally meaningless phrases, I shall add in italics as I cannot breathe fire yet), started clicking into place. In my efforts to categorize my bookish life, I hadn’t factored in formula.

I’ve written a bit on the supposed divide between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction”; if you’re not familiar with my views, essentially, I think “literary fiction” is used to privilege certain kinds of writing over others. I met with one of my college’s professors to look at my issues with poetry recently, and he remarked that in graduate school, sometimes it feels like if it’s not about two people getting divorced, then it’s not literary enough. But a lot of my argument stems from the fact that it is impossible to be without genre—without category—without getting into some serious Dadaism. And this is where this chance quote from a coffee table book about film comes into play. Genre, I have argued, is a sole function of setting. Wicked is fantasy, you can’t just deign to give it “literary fiction” status and immunity from the genre ghetto because people like it. And yet, I have categories to denote romances, thrillers, and mysteries, which refer to types of plots instead of types of settings, which is where my discomfort came from.

Because, honestly, I don’t like formula. But I do. Let me explain. Obviously, formula in and of itself is not inherently bad. I spent a feverish three to four days watching two seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, astounded by how well the simple and obvious formula of the show manipulated my feelings. And, for instance, the romantic comedy formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl at the end (heteronormatively speaking, of course) can be endlessly played with, adapting itself to buddy comedies (The Road to El Dorado has a similar relationship arc between the two best friend leads) and other films. It’s when a formula gets formulaic that things get bad, and that usually presents itself as characters obeying the formula over the actual story that their decisions and choices are generating. I can’t watch crime procedurals anymore; I recently had a conversation with a friend about House that ended in us boasting about when we stopped watching. It’s why I’m scared for Elementary; I fear that the actual interesting parts of the show (…so basically just Joan for me, because I love John and Mary wherever and whoever they are) will be unable to resist the black hole of the crime drama formula.

So if the divide between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” is the presence of formula as defined by The Film Book, then my allegiance should lie with “literary fiction”, right? Well, no. Again, formula is not inherently bad. If Star Wars taught us nothing else, it’s that the monomyth appeals to people on a deep level. And that’s a big example. To a lesser extent, formula gives stories a structure to work with, whether to follow, abandon, subvert, or parody. It’s only when that template is followed slavishly for no reason that things get bad, which is often. It’s Sturgeon’s law. (Which, I might add, also applies to “literary fiction”.) Some people—including—occasionally confuse the formula of a story with its heart. And therein lies part of the maddeningly frustrating way proponents of “literary fiction” look down at “genre fiction”, as if the use of a formula is a bad thing. It’s not. Jo Walton and Michael Chabon, to pull two names out of many, have fine play with genre. Formula can be, and is, useful, as long as it’s used correctly. Just because Alexander McQueen could cut pieces for a coat without a pattern doesn’t make his work inherently superior to someone who did; that value judgment lies in the garment itself, not how it was created. And so, even with this new shift in consciousness, I remain where I was; seething over the fact that the phrase “literary fiction” manages to be redundant, meaningless, and privileging all at the same time.

Let’s see… I got through Booky WookThornfield HallThe Film Book, and Farthing this week, and I think I’ll be starting on Under Heaven today. What I really want is another Jacqueline Carey, but it’s on hold at the moment, so Kay will have to do. I’ve also been writhing in jealousy over those lucky enough to attend Comic-Con and see the big The Hobbit panel yesterday, but I went to go see The Avengers yesterday at the fabulous Fox, so there. (The Fox is a fantastic theater in Atlanta; it used to be a giant, glamorous movie palace, but fell into disuse and was almost going to be demolished before being renovated into a proper theater that still screens movies on the weekends!) Today shall be undoubtedly spent flipping my lid over the revelations of yesterday and figuring out just how to make the coat for my Hobbit costume.

Tor/Forge is giving away a huge Comic-Con swag bundle for those who aren’t there; that ends tomorrow, so hustle!  The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

4 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Genre and Formula

  1. I think you’re on to something when you say it’s not formula per se but the slavish following of formula that can be a problem. I posted a review of a Ruth Rendell book yesterday that some would consider formulaic. At the very least, it follows a pattern that you see in lots of Rendell’s works. But the pattern is something she uses as a structure to play around with character and plot. The overarching structure tends not to vary, but she does lots of clever things within that structure. Formula can also give readers a sense of what to expect, which is not a bad thing at all. And it some cases, it gives the author something to subvert, which can be fun. So formula can be good–it’s all in how you use it.

    One of the signs for me that a formula is going wrong is when the characters and story get entrenched. I see it a lot with TV shows. The writers see that viewers like something–say, a characters’ wisecracks or a twist ending–and then they deliver that thing every single time, with no concern for whether it works.

  2. Yes, “literary fiction” (a phrase I also hate with all my soul, as well as everything it stands for) can definitely be just as badly formulaic as so-called “genre” fiction. Implying that genre fiction is the only type that succumbs to formulaic storytelling is exactly that pretentious elitism…

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