One of my favourite bookish blogs is the online home of a present-day publisher who, needing to keep their real identity a secret for obvious reasons, goes by the name Agatho. Because Agatho is dealing in real life with the chaotic and changing world of modern publishing with its format wars, retailing behemoths and ever-fickle public the blog’s posts are generally ones I save for reading when I’ve got some time and are often ones I ponder for many days. This week’s post concerns itself with the role of formula in publishing and it’s a fine example of the sort of issues that the blog raises, namely that we readers can be damned hard to please.
Agatho describes formula’s role succinctly
Primarily, Formula serves two functions: It gives readers an easy entry into the story and it keeps the story going until the end.
Formula does NOT do a few things. It does NOT challenge readers. It does NOT lead to an unhappy (or even an unresolved) ending. It does NOT ask readers to think subtly. It does NOT offer gradations of emotion. While good Formula is well written, it does not have any aspirations for its language other than to tell a good story and entertain the reader.
Ultimately, Formula comes down to a single idea: “This is what readers want and expect. I’m going to give it to them.”
I think it’s fair to say that a lot of my very favourite books – the ones I love and
force upon gently recommend to friends – tend not to follow conventional formulas, or at least not totally. Looking at my list of favourite reads of last year for example there are a couple of unresolved endings, a couple more unhappy ones, quite a few challenges (I defy anyone to get through Caroline Overington’s SISTERS OF MERCY without some serious thinking about your views on disability care) and more than enough beautiful writing and subtlety to be going on with.
But it would be dishonest of me to say that all my reading falls into this category. I will still happily read (or re read) a Dick Francis book and the man essentially wrote the exact same novel forty-odd times. I count Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, Chris Grabenstein’s Ceepak and Boyle tales and Sulari Gentill’s Rowly Sinclair novels among my most looked forward to releases and all of these follow their own formulas.
I think, for me it largely comes down to my mood. If things are going swimmingly in my non bookish life (which, let’s face it is most of the time) I like to be challenged and have my thoughts provoked by my reading. But when I am stressed or over tired or dealing with the hell that is Christmas there is nothing quite so comforting as a well written novel that does almost exactly what I expect it to do.
And I can certainly see why authors – and publishers – are wary of taking a risk with a novel that breaks all the rules. For all my professed love of novels which don’t follow a formula there are plenty of rule-breakers I’ve utterly hated (including my new worst book ever finished which I read earlier this year). I suspect we all have rules we can deal with being broken and others which we can’t and they’re probably all different so what’s a poor publisher to do?
What about you? Does your reading have room for for formulaic and non formulaic novels? Or perhaps you don’t notice? Are there some broken rules you find it easier to deal with than others?
And if you’re even vaguely interested in things publishing do follow Mysterious Matters. It’s a treat.