As a reader, I appreciate books with unique storylines and characters. As a writer, I try to create unique stories and poems. So why am I also drawn to books that seem to be written according to a pre-set formula?
Yeah, I know, right? Such a no-no. Definitely not “literature.”
According to my buddy Wikipedia, formula fiction is described like this:
In popular culture, formula fiction is literature in which the storylines and plots have been reused to the extent that the narratives are predictable. It is similar to genre fiction, which identifies a number of specific settings that are frequently reused. The label of formula fiction is used in literary criticism as a mild pejorative to imply lack of originality.
Still, there is a lot of comfort in finding a series of cozy mysteries where I enjoy the protagonist, the setting, and the first murder–over and over again.
Formula fiction refers to a single book or a series. A book itself can be formulaic in that it is predictable. But book series sometimes are formulaic in that they set a formula for each book of the series with the initial book. Some book series are not like this. For instance, trilogies are often completely different stories, following characters over different plotlines. But a heck of a lot of the series you see on the shelves at the library and the bookstore are formula fiction.
For instance, every Agatha Christie book I read when I was in my 20s ended on page 210. Seriously. Who knew she wrote formula fiction?!
Years ago, I liked the mix of cats and murder in The Cat Who books by Lillian Jackson Braun, so when I ran out of unread books, I turned to another cat mystery series: Mrs. Murphy by Rita Mae Brown. Mrs. Murphy is, of course, a cat that solves mysteries. Once I read the first book in a series I like, I want to keep going in this land I know peopled by characters I know.
I’m the same way about disaster movies. Don’t give me some extravagant budget movie with Denzel and Brad (am I showing my age with them? at least I didn’t say Harrison), please. I like the cheesy ones where the mom, the dad, the boy, and the girl (sometimes 3 kids) gets separated and you know they will be back together by the end of the movie. I know just what I can count on and that the movie won’t allow something strange and “unique” to happen. I want to lie on the couch, maybe eat some popcorn, and relax.
But are reading cozies and watching low-budget disaster flicks like eating McDonald’s and bonbons? Should I figure out a way to limit my reliance on comforting formula literature and entertainment? Is consuming unique literature like eating my vegetables or swallowing my vitamins? Maybe Nancy Drew and her cohorts ruined me and gave me a taste for formula fiction when I was just a fresh young reader. I should have read that copy of Melville’s Billy Budd I got from Scholastic instead!
The more I think about this, the more I wonder how I ever stay in “balance” in my reading!