Friday, September 28, 2007

Same old, same old

Richard Wheeler is talking about westerns here. But to some degree I think same old old same old applies to all genres. Occasionally I pick up a new book is that is so much by the numbers it startles me. I suppose the saving grace for me is voice. I've read many books that offer little fresh but the voice. Voice, for me, is the great redeemer. Even the most tired entry in long running series is a worthy read if the voice is there. When everything else went to hell, for instance, Archie Goodwin's sarcasm carried the tale.

Here's Richard Wheeler:


I had occasion recently to read a classic gunfighter novel by a very successful western novelist. It carefully strung together every cliche of that sort of story ever invented. There was a large range war, with big and little players, a new-minted sheriff who was a gunslick, and the war attracts gunmen, all with reputations. The usual smartass kid, eager to test himself against the sheriff, ends up surprised by the two bullets in his chest. The usual heavyweight gunman is approaching from afar, the one the sheriff dreads, his progress toward the town somehow mysteriously telegraphed, and of course that confrontation comes at the end of the book. There were backshooters, trick shooters, two-gun shooters, fast-draw shooters, slow-draw aim-and-kill types, and confrontations every few pages.

A lot of people buy these stories, and that is the mystery I hope you will answer for me. When it comes to this sort of thing I'm dumb as a stump. Why do people buy a pocketbook that exactly reiterates hundreds of previous stories of the same sort? The word, novel, derives from the French, nouvelle, meaning new, and yet the purchasors of this sort of fiction don't want anything new. They want the same characters and same situations and same mythology. They want all westerns to be as close to this model as can be written.

It is as if the gunfighter story is not really entertainment for them, but some sort of ritualized affirmation of manhood. Of course these stories have little or nothing to do with the actual West.

Is this true of other realms of genre fiction? Are noir novels essentially the same? Why do people purchase the same story over and over and over?




Anonymous said...

I can understand your puzzlement, Richard. And if a writer as distinguished as yourself is puzzled, what hope can there be for the rest of us?

The prolific writers of genre fiction (all genres) tread a fine line between satisfying reader/publisher expectations and introducing novelty.

Once upon a time (sorry for the cliché), the marketplace might have sorted this one out, but now the decisions on what we're offered as readers are made by the people who select the stock that the big stores will carry.

On another level -- library fiction -- I was told today that public libraries in the UK are supplied by just three companies and the libraries themselves have been formed into consortiums. This means that, in general, decisions to buy or not are made by a very small number of people. "Consequently it behoves both author and publisher to tread very carefully indeed."

Just another reason,I guess, why we'll keep on being offered the same old stuff. After all, isn't that the tried, tested and SAFE?

It's very discouraging, I agree.

Anonymous said...

Reading a formula story can be like re-telling a legend.
It's comforting, maybe even revitalizing.
There's a lot of lame formula fiction, but I see nothing wrong with a formula if it's played with vigor.
Coca-Cola is made with a formula.
And I still want to drink one every now and then.

John Hocking

Unknown said...

I agree with Ed. Every story has been told already. The only thing that changes is the way we tell it.
Think of any great story/book you like, I bet someone can tell you 3-4 othes that came before it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for the valuable insights. I try not to write or read cookiecutter stories, so they mystify me, along with those who read them.