What’s Wrong with Genre Fiction?

Edith writing north of Boston, not quite sure what season it is.

(Warning: /Rant ON/.) My answer to this post’s title question is, NOTHING!

So I was one of three authors on a cross-genre panel at a local library two weeks ago. I know and love both of the other women on the panel, and I love their writing, too. Someone in the audience asked about pros and cons of having a publisher vs. self-publishing.

We authors get this question a lot. I feel a little bit qualified to answer it, because I have books out with big publishing houses as well as a small press, and I’ve also self-published reprints of some of my short stories that originally appeared in juried anthologies.

 

 

(In order, the preceding covers represent big press, self-pubbed, and small press, with two different pen names.)

The other authors and I talked about what a big house does for us in terms of editing, cover art, and distribution – and sometimes publicity. The author has to all of this herself – or hire it out – with self-publishing, but she also keeps all the money a publisher and an agent claim in the traditional model. I chimed in on how Kensington Publishing gets my books in every Barnes & Noble in the country by the release date, and does things like place ads in national puzzle magazines.

One of my fellow authors mentioned a writer friend of hers who has been very successful self-publishing her series of mystery novels. She added that the friend had to hire people to do editing and covers, and “of course, the writing is formulaic,” but that she had made a lot of money from the books.

I about blew my stack at her offhand comment but I kept my reaction in check for the evening. because I respect my friend and I very much enjoy her books (which are not mysteries). Our event was not the venue to get into a discussion of  genre fiction being “of course … formulaic.” Unlike most times we’re together, none of us was free to go out for wine afterwards and talk books, publishing, kids, and whatever else comes up. So I didn’t get a chance to challenge her on her view, and now she’s off on a vacation in some far-flung place.

I don’t understand how someone thinks that any of us “genre” writers – all the Wicked Cozys included – have a formula for our novels. Does she really believe that I follow a recipe for a mystery? That I don’t work and imagine and despair over and craft my writing like she does just because she imagines she is writing women’s literary fiction and I’m not?

literary: 1. Of or relating to books. 2.  Of or relating to authors

Literary? Don’t I qualify? Of course we mystery authors have a plot. We have a puzzle to solve. We have the very sticky problem of tricking the reader until the end while still playing fair. If anybody can come up with a recipe for that, I’d like to see it. And sure, those of us who write cozies play within certain parameters of language and setting. Our stories share certain surface similarities. But it ain’t a formula, folks. (And definitely not a formula for strychnine – shown here.)

Strychnine_formula

In late 2016 all the Wickeds were on a Books and Bagels panel hosted by our good friend Ray Daniel at his temple west of Boston. Someone asked a question about literary as opposed to genre fiction. I remember saying I was proud of my work. “I write the best book I can with the most elegant language I can use that still serves the story. And if people don’t want to read it because it’s genre fiction, then I don’t need them as readers” – or something to that effect.

/Rant OFF./ Whew! I’m glad I got that off my chest. I also plan to talk to my friend about her “formulaic” comment and do a little consciousness raising after she gets back from her trip.

Readers and fellow authors – what’s your take? Do you read both “literary” fiction and enthralling mysteries? What do you like about one vs. the other? Writers – do you write by a formula? (Yeah, didn’t think so…)

92 Thoughts

  1. Thanks for the rant! I read a very broad array of books, in different genres. When discussing reading, I am dismayed at the “I only read…” statements I encounter, frequently accompanied by distant. The formulaic issue can become a real problem for an author and while I love series, I’ve abandoned some when the author’s work seems to become a rotr

  2. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are formula books written by syndicates. My brother has a list of “big name” authors he refuses to read because he claims “their” books are written by syndicates. None of my author friends use formulas nor syndicates. I’ll read whatever you all give me because my budget won’t stretch to purchase books.

    1. A talented and prolific author friend lives near me – and he is one of James Patterson’s writers, as well as writing his own books in several genres and short stories. I haven’t read his Patterson books but I bet they aren’t formulaic, either.

  3. I read everything! I stop reading authors when the books become “off” to me…that must be when they stop giving their best. Love the Wickeds.

    1. Ditto, Gram and Edith. Of course we know the early children’s mysteries we’re formulas, but we all started out our reading there unless you were a NF reader. Then you read the formula bios, only a little bit based on truth. Ooops! My own RANT! Loved this post and the comments from thoughtful readers and writers!

  4. Good post, Edith, and I agree. I can’t say more or I’ll be off on a rant of my own. You see, before I wrote mysteries, I wrote romance, and even some mystery writers dump on romance as formulaic genre writing. (and no, it’s not)

  5. Well said, Edith! If there’s a formula, I’d sure like to find it ( I write as I struggle with the WIP and a plot that just won’t gel!) Not that there aren’t formulaic genre books. Let’s be honest- there are. But that’s just authors doing it badly or lazily or maybe under too much pressure. As any type of author might also do. Sometimes I think the real distinction is simply that “genre” kind of suggest strong storytelling of a certain specified kind? ie. if it’s a mystery there will be a crime. But that’s just the frame, like a 3-act play or a sonnet. What you do with it? That’s where the craft ( and the fun) comes in.

  6. Amen, sister! No formula here either. Well, I do have a beginning, a middle and an end in my cozies (which some of our “literary” friends haven’t mastered yet) if that’s formulaic.

    1. Thank you for the foolproof “formula”, Carol. Now I know how to start writing — with the beginning. Your post made me laugh for the first time today! 😂

  7. If people want to oversimplify, even life is formulaic: you’re born, you live, you die. In a mystery, somebody else dies, people investigate, the murder is solved. Entire civilizations spring up, flourish, and crash.

    The art is in the story-telling–creating believable characters, compelling action, satisfying conclusions, without lapsing into a dry outline or straining to be cute. Readers who pick up a book want to believe in the story, and writers should make that happen..

    Having said that, currently I’m reading a new book by an Irish writer who has won several prizes over there. It has one character, and no punctuation at all. But you know what? It’s still compelling reading. If you’re the writer, you can choose your tools, as long as you make people want to keep reading.

  8. I can’t be bothered with the distinction between literary and genre fiction, except to the extent that the tags give me a clue about the content of a book and whether or not it’s worth looking into further. I like just about every kind of genre fiction, and I’ve found that the “literary fiction” that I like has such strong elements of genre fiction that it may as well be billed as such (I’m thinking especially of some historicals, and some that could easily be billed as romances). I agree with many of the commenters that, while some individual authors may become formulaic in their work, I’ve yet to find an entire genre that can be characterized that way. Let’s be real: aren’t there just too many good books out there to worry about artificial distinctions???

  9. Hi Edith,
    Like you, I write cross genre novels. I’ve been called a mystery writer and a romance writer and a literary writer. But I don’t write to any formula. People who love reading genre fiction understand that there is great variety and quality.

  10. When I wanted to write my thesis on Agatha Christie I did a ton of research. It took a long time to get an advisor. Finally the dean took it on. When I offered to write a introduction to justify the topic, he said that I didn’t have to justify the work of someone who was still being widely read 30 years after her death. He was, of course, correct.

  11. Well ranted! I enjoy cozy mysteries because they are NOT formulaic (and don’t have to depend on lots of sex, blood and gore to grab and hold the interest)!

  12. Put simply – if there was such a formula, then wouldn’t we all be great published authors?

    I personally love cozy mysteries and they are one of my two top forms of reading entertainment – the other being Amish based stories. To me cozies are more entertaining and draw you in making you want to support those solving the mystery and in working your brain to try to figure out whodunit before the reveal. A great cozy writer has you bumfuzzled to the very end which takes great skill NOT some formula to get to the reveal.

  13. This is more than a pet peeve of mine, Edith!
    I’m in favor of “good writing and good stories” along the lines of Ursula LeGuin’s thoughts, (paraphrased) and her essay on the matter. Stories became classified for readers by type to make them shelved together in libraries for ease of a reader to find his or her favorite category.
    These are identifying categories, not meant to be a reflection of the quality you’ll find inside.

  14. I’ve read a couple of your works, Ms. Maxwell, as well as those written by one of the commenters here, and they’re all formulaic. So what? Faulkner is formulaic. Steinbeck is formulaic. McCullers is formulaic. Shakespeare is uber-formulaic. It’s the so-called literati groupies who believe work isn’t good unless readers have to run for a dictionary every two minutes, who think weird-ass, disjointed and, yes, nonpunctuated drivel is good stuff, it’s that group that makes me want to crap a Miata.
    “The literary-type writers, I admire them, you know?. I wish I was smart enough to write a book that’s hard to read.”–Jerry Jenkins

  15. The snobbery in the literary world has always disappointed me. Perhaps I shouldn’t say it but I think the better a writer is, the less he or she looks down on any other form of writing. Good writers look for good writing, and appreciate it wherever they find it. On a writers’ panel, John Updike (Yes, that one) said you learn a lot about structure reading crime fiction. Every fiction, short or long, has to follow a basic pattern–that of the story. If there’s no structure, the reader feels no reason to continue. The formula for every story is, Tell us what happens and why we should care.

  16. Oh Edith – amen! Every genre has expectations and we writers know what those are. But there are so many ways of meeting those expectations they can hardly be called a formula.

    Yet we’ve all probably read books (at least one or two) by authors who have “phoned it in” and the plot/characters are plug and play (there’s that character, there’s that character, oh now this is going to happen). I don’t stick with those authors very long after that happens.

    I find the “non-formula” writing of some literary types is taken for free rein to wander all over the place in terms of plot or create characters that spend almost their entire life navel-gazing or being indecisive. That doesn’t work for me, either.

    Last year, The Hubby got rather snotty with me because I wasn’t reading enough “serious” books like history or biography. Now, I enjoy a good biography, but after a hard day sometimes I want to fall into a great story with great place and welcoming characters. And very often a good genre fiction work fits the bill!

    1. Liz, I had to comment because I think my husband believes the same thing. He’s always whining that he’s a slow reader (and his sister, who is ten years younger, apologizes for that too), but rather than reading for pleasure or entertainment he picks up serious books and wades through them. It’s as though he feels that there’s somebody judging him for his “seriousness.”

      1. Interesting, Sheila. I live with someone who has read one fiction book (and not mine, either) in fourteen years. But he’s always into some political analysis or historical tome.

      2. I sometimes get texts from my dad saying he started – and then gave up – on some heavy “classic.” My question is always, “Why are you reading that? Do you really want to?” “No,” he says, “but I feel like I ought to.”

        Argh.

        At least The Hubby enjoys his historical/biographical stuff. I just spend so many hours doing “heavy” stuff that I want the exact opposite for my down time.

      1. Me too with the evening brain being toast … the best mysteries “untoast” it quite often…Edith’s Quaker Midwife mysteries have done this.

  17. We just had this discussion (argument?) at our Writers Guild this week. Several of us write genre fiction and one writes “literary fiction”. The literary writer was quite snobbish about genre fiction and the formulaic approach she believes is used in genre fiction. There was a lengthy discussion on story structure and the expectations of each genre. At one point, I said “if it was a formula, then we would all have figured out the formula and we’d be best selling authors” – that made us all laugh and we were able to move forward. (none of us are published!)
    And I agree with Edith’s comment – there is NOTHING wrong with genre fiction!

  18. I’m hoping that your friend was referring to that particular author and not the entire crime fiction community. I love what I write and if I didn’t, I’d write something else. To quote Barbara Ross: All writing is hard.

  19. Years ago, I found a guide for writing a first in cozy series mystery. It was hilarious because it was so true. Take the recently single young woman who is moving home after losing a job and having her heart broken to open the store related to the particular hook of the series. Add her old nemesis who turns up dead so she can become the prime suspect. It went on from there, but I don’t remember what else it said. (I wish I could remember where I saw it because it was laugh out loud funny because of how true it is.)

    Why am I bringing this up? As much as I love cozies (and you know I do), to those not familiar with the genre, it can certainly appear there is a formula to them. Think about all the various series out there that start book one with the scenario I just described.

    However, it is what the author does with them that makes them stand out or just be formulaic. And yes, I have read some cozies, even first in series, that were very clear formula. The best writers don’t do that, but some do. (And the ones who do write formula I don’t read any more.)

    We should also discuss outline vs. formula. Many mysteries have similar outlines. And that’s a good thing because we expect a crime to be committed early on and for it to be solved by the end with some secrets uncovered and twists along the way. If that doesn’t happen, readers would be very upset. To those who aren’t familiar with the genre, that can appear like a formula. To those of us who read the genre, we certainly know better.

    I do stick with mysteries because I find literary fiction boring. I can often guess the ending early in literary fiction, too. Everyone has different tastes, but we shouldn’t belittle someone who doesn’t have our tastes or write in our preferred genre.

    For example, I have read a couple of romance novella collections. (There’s something you probably didn’t expect to hear from me, right? Joanne Fluke and Laura Levine had stories in the collections, which is the only reason I picked them up.) The romance genre is notorious for it’s “formula,” right? I wouldn’t call the stories in these collections formulaic any more than I would call most mysteries formulaic. In fact, most of these novellas were delightful. Not that I’m going to start reading romance any time soon, but they were fun and I can understand why people enjoy the genre.

    (Is my post now longer than your blog entry?)

    1. I remember seeing that recipe for a cozy, Mark, and found it funny, too.

      If your comment is longer than my post, that’s fine. You have really excellent comments. Thank you. And I must say, the author-friend who made the offhand comment writes beautiful books about women and their relationships – which have plots and sometimes verge on being myteries! So her writing is probably formulaic by her own definition.

      I completely agree that we shouldn’t belittle anyone else’s taste in anything.

  20. Genre fiction means that someone can describe a category to put the book in. . Literary usually means it doesn’t fit so the book goes on other shelves. Either way, books are about characters achieving something in their lives. Snobs just plain don’t enjoy much of anything!

  21. In one sense, ALL writing is formulaic. There is a protagonist with a problem that MUST be solved. By her and only her. Something, someone, or both stand in her way. Stuff gets worse. At the darkest moment, she realizes something she should have/could have/would have known all along, and manages to pull off her goal by the skin of her teeth.

    If that’s a formula, than all writing is formulaic, going back to the oral tradition, the Bible, and the classics.

    If it doesn’t fit that formula, it generally falls flat on it’s face. And the more brilliantly and originally it’s adheres rigidly to the formula, the more successful it is likely to be.

    Literary snobs call this formula “structure” to avoid using the dreaded word “formula”. I say, “same thing.”

  22. A friend once told me, in hushed tones, that cozy mysteries were her guilty pleasure. I replied that I don’t have any guilty pleasures. If something genuinely bothers my conscience, then I don’t do it. If something gives me pleasure, then bring it on – I’m not gonna hide it.
    I’ve heard similar comments about “chick lit” and remember defending my dad’s love of Louis L’amour. I read all SORTS of books and my Goodreads list isn’t there to impress anyone (it’s to keep track so I don’t buy the same book again!!). I’m only sorry that you didn’t have a chance to call her on the slight. Sideways thoughts like that need to be examined under a bright light.

  23. Edith, isn’t it possible that the formulaic comment wasn’t meant to imply lack of industry or elegance, but rather to point out that books in a series require the skill of weaving in repeating characters and their quirks? They become familiar touchstones and are the very things that draw readers in and keep them coming back for more. For example, readers love the ever-present contrast between the posh Inspector Lynley and his rough-edged subordinate Barbara Havers in Elizabeth George’s novels. For each case, it’s expected that Jonathan Kellerman’s psychologist, Alex Delaware will partner with his rumpled gay detective friend and then go home and relax with a Grohls. In your own Local Foods Mysteries, readers enjoy Cam touching base with her uncle in the nursing home and doting on her cat Preston.

  24. Preach, sister. Take a look at the authors who get invited to do workshops and panels at some of our larger book festivals here in New England (I won’t call out any one in particular, because I shouldn’t, and because they’re all guilty). More often than not, there are NO genre fiction authors featured. I guarantee we’ve all sold way more books than 98% of any of those literary authors have–and therefore reached more readers–and yet our books and our talents are not considered worthy of respect. Yeah, this tees me off too.

  25. I am so glad to see the flood of comments here! Edith, a really good book is NEVER formulaic … and you are writing really good books. The “book snob” at that event either wasn’t thinking as she spoke (it happens to all of us) or needs to reexamine her writing life ASAP. What I think is important about “genre” fiction is the set of expectations that come with it — but each author’s choices create a tapestry of expectations met and expectations turned upside down (surprise!), as well as the sequence these add up to. A parallel from poetry is the sonnet form (as described years ago in the non-formulaic novel “A Wrinkle in Time”), a strict form that can be filled in abundantly varied ways — but that can also be undermined deliberately for impact (see the startling poem-novella “Kyrie” by Ellen Bryant Voigt). One last note: If a book is intended to fit a genre, authors need to take care in how they up-end the conventions … some of Chris Bohjalian’s books set examples of better and less great versions of this. [Written today from my reviewing hat; come visit at kingdombks at gmail dot com for mystery reviews. On which I am running behind a bit, but still running!]

    1. I am pretty sure she just wasn’t thinking, and I want to give her credit for that. I love what you say about genre fiction: “a set of expectations that come with it — but each author’s choices create a tapestry of expectations met and expectations turned upside down.”

      I love your reviews and support of the NE crime fiction community.

  26. I read similar articles about romance novels. Seems to me the idea is to write something good that also gets read. Is it the Great Novel if no one reads it? Certainly they read mysteries and romances. Mysteries go from historical to science fiction, set in most parts of the world, realistic or supernatural. Same with romances. Some are funny and light reading but others touch on serious subjects. I think the sense of justice and closure is especially valuable in today’s world.

  27. Lester Dent, the pulp writer who created Doc Savage, gifted other writers a ‘formula’ for writing a short story, which he said would work for any genre. Dent may have used the formula, or a variation of it, in writing some 150 novels. And others may have emulated it. But I’ll guarantee you, everyone of those stories also had other individualistic elements which made them much more than a simple cookie-cutter anyone might use.

  28. A while back as I was finishing my latest book, I put out a question to writers that asked if the heroine, or hero, in a thriller/suspense had to be in some kind of personal danger at the end. The answer was a resounding, YES! I felt that since my heroine had been in danger in every book, I was falling into a pattern, or formula, that would broadcast the ending before my readers got there. There are built-in formulas to certain genres. Romances are required to have a “happy ever-after” according to RWA. Some romantic suspense novels seem to require that the male/female dislike each other at the beginning. Thrillers have the main characters in danger. These aren’t exact rules, and it’s up to the writer to write the expected in a way that’s fresh.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Polly. My cozy protagonists are always in a suspenseful and dangerous predicament toward the end, too. But how we create those, how we pull off a new and alluring twist? That’s up to us.

  29. Edith, authors make comments like “genre novels are formulaic” to make themselves feel superior. Inherently insecure, they need to show everyone who’s listening that they are sooooo much better than those “other” authors, who write about crime. Sort of ironic, given that almost every newscast in America leads with a story about crime … because that’s what people are worried about.

  30. Well, judging by the number of replies, you don’t need my input, but here it is anyway. I write mysteries, consisting of mainly two humorous mystery series, and they are definitely NOT formulaic. I try to challenge myself in every one. I feel by doing that, I keep the stories and characters fresh. Maybe it would take me a much shorter time to write them by formula, but I’ll never know because I can’t seem to bring myself to do it. Further, I am a member of Sisters in Crime NorCal and the majority of our members don’t write formulaic, either. I am surrounded by prolific authors, well-respected, who in turn, respect their craft. To play the devil’s advocate for a moment though, there several gifted writers out there who do write in a formulaic style and often turn out pretty good work, because good is good. It’s not necessarily a kiss of death.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by. Yes, we’ve had a great response! Your NorCal chapter holds a lot of talent – I know many of the members. All the authors I know personally try to challenge themselves to write the best fresh stories they can.

  31. As a lit major, I had to read more “real literary” books than I care to remember. I find literary fiction depressing and boring. I prefer stories with plots. I know, in genre fiction, the ending will be satisfactory and there will be a plot. The lure of reading genre fiction is the journey the main character takes to get to the ending where good will triumph over evil or they will be happy. This is not a formula.
    I’ll stop now, this is one of my hot buttons. People think because I’ve been an English teacher, I should prefer literary fiction. They don’t realize most classics have plots and would now be considered genre fiction.One of my cups reads, “Shakespeare wrote Romance.”

  32. So many good points. And don’t forget the fun of “formula busting”. While I was writing papers on “Circle Symbolism in Moby Dick”, I was also reading historical Gothic romances for fun. I became so annoyed with wimpy heroines taking stupid risks and being rescued by heroes, I started my own Gothic novel, with a rescuer heroine. That became my first published novel, and strong, rescuer women became my “formula” going forward in historical and contemporary adventures in the mystery/thriller, fantasy/SF, romance/women’s mainstream genres. It’s a;ways enlightening to write “against” a cliche, and so the genres keep evolving and remain relevant.

  33. This conversation reminds me of some teaching colleagues who reprimanded students for reading “trash” like science fiction. I praised students for READING and included sci-fi in my classes.
    The theater prof. at U of MN told us there were only five basic plots, and the art was in the execution. I like twisty plots and surprises and characters I care about. 😉
    I do get weary of the rare author who repeats a winning formula book after book (still not as bad as cliffhanger endings), and I admire those who end a series when they feel they’ve said all they want to, even though good-byes make me sad.

    1. The theater prof Mary mentions was the legendary Arthur Ballet. I heard his famous “Introduction to Theater” lecture when still in high school and twenty years later wrote a newspaper profile on him. I remember the five plots comment. He had a passion for theater and teaching and a wicked wit, which makes it suitable for him to be remembered on this blog. 🙂

  34. I saw a documentary on Agatha Christie a few years ago which tried to prove the premise that she had a formula for her mysteries. Either way, it was very successful. I actually read many of her books when I was in high school and college. I remember that I loved them. But I stopped reading them after about a couple of dozen or so. As I recall, it was because I had trouble distinguishing one book from another. I see a book on the shelf at the library or bookstore and couldn’t remember if I had read it yet or not. When Christie broke a long standing rule of mysteries in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, she blew her readers minds.

    Sometimes that familiar pattern might be just what you need to relax. Sometimes you want something a little different. I have noticed that the age of Amazon and the internet has changed how I read books. In the 80’s and 90’s, I was just grateful to find more books in the series. It was nearly impossible to read them in order and you couldn’t read very many at a time as it took publishers sometimes months and years to decide to re-release a book. Now, I can find the order of the books, get a e-reader version of the book and read them in order. If the book is follows a formula inexpertly, readers are going to notice.

  35. Wow! It’s time I outed myself here. Clearly you hit a nerve, Edith! I applaud your post! For those who might be wondering, I am the one who spoke off-the-cuff at the event and somehow managed to put my foot in it where Edith is concerned. (I certainly wouldn’t want the other author to take the blame for THIS lame comment.)

    As I recall (probably badly, given my age), we were discussing self publishing versus traditional publishing with the audience, and what I was trying to convey was how difficult it is to make any money in self publishing unless 1) you write a series and 2) you write genre fiction, like mysteries or fantasy, which I probably called “formlaic” in my effort to distinguish them from stand-alone novels. A bad word, for sure. I was also trying to make the case that the sorts of so-called “literary” novels, those stand-alone books that are dense but often beautiful and challenging reads, are liable to fail financially speaking when they are self-published. That’s pretty much all I meant by the comment, so I’m sorry if you took it the wrong way, Edith.

    I agree with what many of your readers have said here, that there is NO easy formula for writing ANY book, no matter what genre (or lack of genre) you choose. Every book brings its own devils for us to battle. (I should know, since I’m on revision #14 or something with the current Monster of Darkness that is my WIP.) In many ways, people would call what I write (women’s fiction) “formulaic,” because every book is about a woman struggling with a crisis, with the focus on how that woman is going to be resilient in the end, whether she’s facing divorce, a missing sibling, problems with her children, or whatever. And every one of those books is a struggle to write, revise, and publish, just like anyone’s books. (I have yet to find a book that publishes itself 🙂

    And, as some of your readers also pointed out, the very BEST reads, in my mind, are the so-called “formulaic” mystery novels, like the Elizabeth George novels mentioned here. Louise Penney also comes to mind, when thinking of mystery novels, because her books are reliably about good versus evil, featuring the same noble inspector whose relationship with his wife is everything, all set in the same tiny Canadian town with the same characters we come to know and love throughout the series.

    I champion and cheer on any and all writers for the hard work we do every day–work that often isn’t paid, or if it is, will seldom be paid enough. Our struggle, and the joy we take in beating back the challenges of putting words on the page, is a worthy one for more reasons than I could name here.

    Thanks again for provoking such an interesting discussion, Edith!

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