Unreadably New? Boringly Formulaic?

The Comments to last week’s WW wandered (as well they should) onto the subject of why so many early twentieth century artistic works – in which literature, music, and visual arts were all included – became so stylized as to be enjoyed by a limited group, often, but not always, made up of those who were specialists in that particular field.



This contributed to a split between popular culture and “unpopular” Culture that remains to the current day—although, as heteromeles noted, very amusingly, some of the techniques of  Culture have been borrowed by pop culture to very interesting effect.

This got me thinking about which side of the division I come down on – at least in regard to SF/F, a field in which I both write and read.

As a long-time reader of SF/F, there are certain books I read which – while not bad in and of themselves – simply stick too close to formula to provide me with much pleasure.  Therefore, if they have any weaknesses at all, those weaknesses stick out, leaving me feeling worse about the book than I might have if the same weaknesses had appeared in a less formulaic piece.

Basically, I don’t much care for a novel where I can inform Jim, as I have from time to time: “Okay.  Here’s what’s going to happen, in this order.”  I really dislike books where characters seem churned off a template – something that happens all too often when a writer is either trying to catch hold of a trend or writing his/her variation on some story he or she loved deeply.

Formulaic settings, especially those that use elements drawn from some other work – whether Tolkien or the latest video game or some movie – also annoy me, especially since the further from the source material the work gets,  the less reasonable the combinations.

Does this mean I love innovative works?  No, not automatically, especially if I can “see” the author doing a variation on the Joycean “look at me” that I mentioned in last week’s piece.  Literary special effects don’t impress me unless they serve the story.  Otherwise, they’re just as much of a yawn – and frequently more annoying – than formulaic fiction.

The annoying factor in innovative works was well-illustrated by the New Wave SF/F “movement” some decades ago.  Since Alan and I discussed this in a Tangent back in 2013, I won’t repeat myself.  I’ll just add that please don’t expect to impress me by inventing a new word or pronoun or inverted narrative style or using weird fonts.  Been there, done that, rode that pony.  Innovation is when these things serve the story, rather than the story being a Christmas tree on which FX lights have been strung.

When I started reading SF/F, there were a lot of magazines serving the genre – and this was way down from a couple decades earlier.  Now there are hardly any, yet SF/F has never been more in the popular eye.  My personal opinion is that the magazines began to serve not the wider readership but the narrower one that nominated for awards.  In doing so, they lost the audience who wanted a good, ripping yarn.  They might have won the battle of getting some SF/F recognized as Literature, but they lost their readership.  A Pyrrhic victory, indeed.

Yet is formulaic completely horrible?  Is new and innovative completely great?

I really don’t think the question is so simple.  Formulaic fiction is most often attractive to those new to the genre.  There was a series a few years back – I won’t name the titles, since I haven’t read the series in full myself – that sold amazingly well, despite the fact that just about every element in the books was transparently cut and pasted from popular movies and books of the previous decade.  A young cousin of mine was in love with these books but, when we talked about them, he admitted he’d never read any Fantasy before, so what was derivative in the extreme to me, was new and fresh to him.

As an aside, I’ll note that there seems to be a serious glut of retold fairytales out there – in prose, graphic novels, on television, and even in “fashion dolls.”  So clearly the audience for the familiar story is alive and well.

I can take pleasure in a book that has elements of formula, if the author does something fresh within the formula.  The easiest way to grab me is with a character or set of characters I get attached to.  Next comes an innovative setting.  Both will keep me going through some variation of “Character discovers he/she is the Powerful One everyone has been Waiting to Save the World.”

I’ll admit, probably because writing is my craft, innovative storytelling techniques that serve the story excite me a lot.  A couple years ago, a friend suggested I try YA author A.S. King.  I did.  Her Please Ignore Vera Dietz blew me away. I’ll admit, while I told Jim I liked it, I didn’t press him to read it, because I wasn’t sure he’d like the style.

Recently, I read A.S. King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future and was, again, impressed by how the narrative tricks served the story.  But reading her books isn’t easy – and not just because (at least in these two examples) her main characters begin depressive.  I couldn’t sit and read a string of her novels in a row, any more than I’d down a bunch of cups of espresso in one sitting – at least not if I expected to sleep without my head buzzing in circles.

So, which side do I come down on?  Probably slightly in favor of innovation.  There’s a reason I don’t read Romance novels.  A variation on the same story doesn’t interest me.  However, I’ll take a good story with not a single bell or whistle over a dull story slumming in fancy prose.

Which way does the balance between the two tilt for you?

5 Responses to “Unreadably New? Boringly Formulaic?”

  1. Peter Says:

    As much of a fan of innovation as I am, the thing about innovation is that (pretty much by definition) it only works the first time, and the SFFnal field does somewhat tend to the bandwagon effect. When I first read A Game of Thrones, just after it was released, I was caught completely off guard when [MASSIVE SPOILER REDACTED] at the end – I didn’t see that coming at all. A few years later I was reading a trilogy that a friend had highly recommended to me because I’d mentioned really enjoying ASoIaF, and by halfway through the first book I found I could reliably predict every single plot point and character development just by asking the question “What is the most self-destructive decision this character could make/what plot twist would make the characters more miserable?” The new, unexpected, and gripping had evolved quickly into the tired and cliche.

    I guess where I fall on the spectrum depends on the purpose – is the technique being used to further the story, or is the story a framework being used to launch the technical fireworks from?

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Me? I like good stories, whether they’re derivative or innovative.

    Here’s the deal: there are some really good ways to write stories in English. There are even more bad ways to write stories, most of which we never see unless we read a (usually remaindered) monograph written by some hapless young anthropologist trying to write down a story that someone translated for him from some other culture, especially if said hapless anthropologist has no gift for storytelling and is trying to fit the story into some typology that their adviser’s friend is a champion of.

    I’m not going to castigate someone for writing following a formula, but I will judge them on how well the result turned out. To me, it’s kind of like baking bread. Basic bread only has a few ingredients, but there are a lot of ways to make the result inedible. Good bread is worth eating, even if you’ve eaten bread before, and good bread bakers deserve respect.

  3. Laura L Says:

    Reading is an intimate thing for me. I am inviting these characters into my imagination (and if I am lucky, into my heart). So I am looking for characters with humanity; characters that I can connect with, regardless of the story. If I care about the characters, I can accept or tolerate formula. Luckily, I have found that usually if a writer can portray characters with humanity, they are also able to have some freshness in their stories or use of formula.

    The best, is when a story has characters I connect with, AND innovation – I can remember how excited I was last year while reading Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – I connected to the characters, and the story surprised me and captured my imagination in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time.

    So, in the end, rather than plodding through some story with flat, trite, or obscure characterizations, no matter how innovative, I would rather re-read a favorite book or books by a favorite author, knowing that because I have grown and changed, my experience with the characters / story may reflect new insights. And if not new insights, then at least good stories to revisit, like trusted friends.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Ah, yes… Re-reading is always a temptation, isn’t it?

      I really like your comment about new insights in an old favorite. That’s so often the case for me when I’m not rushing just to figure out how it’s all going to turn out.

  4. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Sometimes predictability is comforting – like the nostalgia of watching old B-westerns from my childhood, whose plots were much of a kind. But then it was always a delight when something verged in a different direction once in a (long) while.

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