Recognize the reference? E-mail me — you’re on the honor system, no Googling — and you will win . . . my respect and admiration.
At any rate, this morning I feel like chanting: “We want the formula! We want the formula!” The past two weeks have wreaked havoc on my writing life, and I’m really struggling with the book-in-progress, although I’ve done some work this morning that helps me understand the story better. I’m stuck in the middle and, yes, when I type those words, I suddenly see Michael Madsen dancing in front of me and I feel as if I’m tied to a chair,and things are probably going to end badly.
Meanwhile, over at Sarah’s blog, the genre wars continue even as most of us profess to be tired of them. (I am simply tired, a condition that I think is going to be more or less chronic for the next two months.) As usual, the word formulaic comes up. I usually have a knee-jerk reaction to that, akin to the Leech Woman and her reaction to youth serum: If there is a formula, and all it involves is a little human sacrifice, then sign me up, baby. I want the formula! I want the formula!
But this morning, I think I get what people are saying when they argue that genre is formulaic. Certain things are implicit in genre, depending on the genre. In a crime novel, answers will be provided (although perhaps not all the answers). The status quo will be restored, but not without a cost. That’s the promise in a mystery/crime novel and books that tried to invert the formula — thinking of NIGHT TRAIN here — still more or less fulfilled the expectations. Does that make writing a mystery novel easier than writing a literary novel? Yes, in some sense. That is — it’s easier to write an adequate version of the crime novel. Hit your marks, solve the puzzle, keep the prose simple and you’re home.
Chandler argued that this was why ordinary crime novels get published, while mediocre literary novels seldom do. I honestly believe that must have changed in the last sixty years because I seem to find plenty of very average literary novels. (Hey, with tens of thousands of novels published every year, I don’t see how every literary novel can be B+ or higher.) I see two tendencies in the anointed literary novels that disappoint me — beautiful, but rather hollow writing, with characters who seem constricted by the author’s allegorical/thematic concerns, and third-act problems.
(I also read lots of literary novels that I adore, and I’m pretty sure THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD is going to fall into that category. But I won’t know until the final pages.)
Now, third-act problems are rare in the crime genre. Oh, sometimes the solutions may be a little strained, and some writers cram too much in those final pages, but the genre does provide an edge when it comes to ending. So perhaps this is the elusive formula of which they speak. Now if only someone could direct me to the formula for the other two-thirds, I would be most grateful.
I’m off to the local NPR studio to tape an interview with Liane Hansen of Weekend Edition Sunday. For a certified NPR geek such as myself, this is beyond exciting, and I’ll try not to go fan girl on Hansen. (In interest of full disclosure, I already did go fan girl on Hansen, when I briefly met her at a dinner for E.L. Doctorow.) It’s supposed to air this Sunday, for those who care.