In Praise of Formulaic Genre Fiction

A friend of mine posted this article on Twitter a couple days ago (via the New York Public Library):

What Makes Great Detective Fiction, According to T. S. Eliot
by Paul Grimstad (posted by The New Yorker, February 2, 2016)

I love knowing that no less a luminary than T. S. Eliot was a passionate advocate of early detective fiction. But more illuminating is this glimpse into historic perceptions of genre fiction:

Namely, critics have always dismissed genre fiction as low-brow and formulaic, as intrinsically non-literary, and therefore less worthy.

Today, we think of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie as classics, so it’s strange to think their work was so strongly criticized in their own time. But it was, and it makes me wonder how many of the popular genre authors we dismiss today will be reassessed far more positively by subsequent generations. Jane Austen is another good example of this—formulaic, critically panned in her own time, but lauded now.

Turning to my beloved science fiction: Golden Age authors are accorded a level of respect today that was unimaginable to them when they first started their careers. In its early days, SF was almost universally derided as juvenile, puerile escapism, read only by misfits and social maladjusts. It’s really only been in the last few decades that SF has gained mainstream acceptance and recognition. (To be fair, classic science fiction was rather poorly written—genius ideas, incredibly creative, but poorly written.)

And yet, despite negative critical reception, genre fiction has long been, and remains, incredibly popular. Romance novels are the highest circulating items in just about every public library in the United States and have been for several generations. Mysteries & Thrillers are a close second in library circulation and dominate the individual book sale market. Consider the perennial popularity of serial fiction for kids. Epic Fantasy is hugely popular right now, too.

All of these genres are about as formulaic as it’s possible for novels to be. All of them are genres that critics love to bash.

But then I look at the people who read these genres:

T. S. Eliot loved detective fiction. Old-fashioned pulp science fiction and Planetary Romance boast Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin as ardent fans. I’ve known many women in my life who have been unabashed romance readers—and all of them are intelligent, empowered, accomplished people.

Critics may try to dismiss formulaic genre fiction as low-brow but you certainly can’t dismiss its readers that way.

I think about my first experience with Mary Higgins Clark: What struck me most powerfully was both how formulaic her work is, but also how well her formula works. It’s incredibly effective. More than any other author, Ms. Clark has taught me that formulaic isn’t necessarily bad, and to criticize a book (or a whole genre) for being formulaic is meaningless.

Formula is a tool. It can be wielded well or badly, used to great effect or relied on as a crutch, depending on the writer. A good narrative formula, in the hands of a skilled writer, becomes one of the most powerful storytelling tools we have.

Whatever critics and the literati may feel about popular genre fiction, there’s a reason why it’s so popular. There’s something about it that works profoundly well. It resonates with readers in ways that so-called literary fiction often doesn’t.

It’s a form of storytelling that’s somehow more primal.

Many genre fans say they like these books because sometimes you need something fun, something light, some escapism (an assessment which, in itself, underestimates the potential of the genre). My girlfriend in college called her romance novels “mind candy”—and sometimes mind candy is exactly what you need to relax at the end of the day. People don’t want literary art all the time. Genre fiction serves a genuine psychological need.

I wonder, too, if there’s more to it than that…

Human beings are storytelling animals. This, more than anything else, is what differentiates us from most other animals on this planet.

We’re also pattern-seeking animals. All of our math and science is based on this desire to find patterns in the world around us. *

Formulaic storytelling combines these two aspects of our nature. It gives us narrative embedded in a familiar pattern. It fulfills both of these fundamental yearnings.

There are, and have been, movements to try and elevate genre fiction to higher levels of literacy. These movements create great works and also grant a backhanded respect to the genre.

But too often, these movements dismiss the genre formula, rather than fully embracing it. They see the formulaic nature of the work as an impediment to better storytelling, rather than as a tool to be applied with greater skill.

It’s a mistake to dismiss genre formulæ. Formula = pattern. And pattern is something we crave. We crave it with the same essential need as our craving for stories.

Literary fiction offers tremendous rewards and speaks powerfully to many aspects of our nature.

But genre fiction speaks to us in ways literary fiction typically doesn’t. It fills essential needs that literary fiction frequently fails to address.

We dismiss popular genre fiction at our own cost.


* One could argue that storytelling is itself a form of pattern-seeking, and one would be correct. However, not all pattern-seeking is storytelling, and storytelling has enough unique qualities compared to other ways we recognize and create pattern, that it’s easiest to talk about them separately.

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