Monday, 16 November 2020

In Praise of Formula

'Formulaic' is a four-letter word in criticism of books, films, music. We all know how dispiriting it is to encounter a work of art which holds no surprises because we've seen it done a thousand times before.

But there is nothing wrong with a winning formula. I was struck by this yesterday after finishing The Book of Dreams, the last in Vance's Demon Princes series. Each of these books is, in essence, the same. Once you've read the first two, you know roughly how things will turn out. The joy comes not from being surprised by the basic structure of the plot - rather, the opposite. It comes from knowing how things will turn out and being gratified in watching it unfold. As our hero triumphs - the outcome never in doubt - we, the readers, bask in reflected glory. We feel as though we are in on things. When Gersen gets the girl and kills the bad guy, we feel pleasure because we're on his team and we're watching the universe unfold as it should.

This is the secret of Columbo's success. Alone among big name police procedurals, Columbo is a about inversion. You know who did it. You're just waiting to discover how Columbo works it out. The pleasure comes from already knowing the truth and then having your knowledge confirmed. It seems to take advantage of some flaw in our psyche, allowing our lizard brains to take satisfaction from having correctly predicted the course of events even though our conscious minds know that we cheated and had the facts in advance. 

Formula here is reassuring, comforting, gratifying. There are only five volumes in the Demon Princes, but I could happily have read 50.  

The question rightly will be raised: how does one draw a distinction between good formula as I have identified it here, and bad 'formulaic' things which the critics justifiably pooh-pooh? I think it is straightforward. An established format deriving from the repetition of a certain plot structure in a particular series of books, TV shows, films, etc., can be good. The repetition of themes in unrelated works of art is usually bad. It's the difference between Columbo, which set up a formula in its first episode and followed it for the 68 that followed, and Diagnosis: Murder, which added nothing to the hundred thousand detective series that went before it.  

9 comments:

  1. You just sold some Vance books. I didn't even know these existed.

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    1. They're good. It starts slow but gets better.

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  2. There's a theory that I like that divides fiction into two meta-thematic categories, Comedy and Tragedy. Each has a bunch of tiers inside of it but those are the meta-categories. Comedy is where a hero is becoming one with society, becoming integrated with it and strengthening his bond with it, or where society itself is integrating and getting along. Tragedy is where the hero’s going away from it and he's being separated.

    So on the meta level it’s integration or disintegration, either with society or within yourself. In the former category you have hero stories where somebody goes out and struggles and triumphs, and then of course they say the most important part of that is that the hero brings back their prize and they're rewarded. They bring it back to their society, they gain something from it and so does society. And then there's romance, oftentimes in romance you have kind of a barbarian or somebody cold and wounded, and what happens is a woman takes all of his potential in hand and sort of awakens love in his heart, usually it wasn't there or was waiting to be ignited, and so she kind of unites him with society because he can't really benefit society if he doesn't have love in his heart, or if he doesn't have a situation to be stable in and of course what comes logically after that is having children and that's perpetuating society. And then there's comedy-comedy, which lightens the burden of people when they hear it, you know, usually, even if it’s based on shadowy or taboo things.

    Then the other kind of story is tragedy. Maybe if comedy is indicative of the high path in some way or life affirming, tragedy’s looking out into the void or into the depths. Maybe it’s instructive in some way too, even if there’s no conscious message. I suppose it can’t help but be. So with tragedy you have blood operas, you have stories of suicide, betrayal, the destruction of dreams, failure, the disintegration of either an individual's path or his mind, and finally his severance from society. Think of something like Elric where he starts integrated but he doesn't stay that way. It's not a story of him reforming his people or himself. It's a story of him becoming divorced from everything that he was ever enmeshed in, destroying everything and seeing it destroyed.

    So tragedy is all about falling away from the light. If the positive summer story is something to aspire after or is something that touches you deep at your core, the tragedy is sort of the antithesis of that. And if, indeed, these categories do have a reason for being what they are, if we can say that there's the experience of something positive and the experience of something that's either negative or “eye opening” in a cold way, and if tragedy is the antithesis of comedy or integration, maybe there's something that our brain likes to learn or to reinforce in experiencing tragic stories, maybe tragedy is seen as the necessary counterweight to victory tale, or the thing that affirms a reality that we see about the world. It’s what affirms that there is a space outside of heroic victory and that heroic victory isn’t always possible, however much we may love it. Hell, in the end that may support actual victory by cautioning the listener, or at least gives him a deeply human feeling of shared understanding. Safely evokes something he’s capable of feeling but doesn’t normally, and therein is the power; the depth of feeling and all the shades along such a grand tower.

    This comedy-tragedy dichotomy is Northrop Frye’s idea from Anatomy of Criticism. I like to entertain it though it’s not my dogma.

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    1. I like that but I think it is, like all attempts to classify ficiton, a bit too simple: I think tragedy can equally be about unwanted integration (think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers!) and comedy about transcending or rejecting it.

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    2. Haha, I personally wouldn’t associate the body snatchers with societal or internal integration per se because it’s about everyone you know being replaced by doppelgangers, and you can’t become integrated with them on a psychological level without changing until you’re no longer human, or being mentally or physically controlled; I think we find integration with the borg etc to be creepy because that integration involves a personal disintegration (even if you’re conscious of being utilized you are either terrified and alienated with no future, or you are no longer who you were). In a comedy-comedy if you reject society and there’s a happy ending it means you’ve become more integrated inside (or you’ve found love, a society of two), but of course there’s tragicomedy too; farces and black comedy where somebody who lacks virtue is crushed, or where we lament the travails of the Baudelaire orphans. But this is all mental strolling about, I agree that models like this are too simple to approach a whole synthesis, I don’t align my own creative output with it, but I wanted to bandy it about in is a post about modes or themes in fiction

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    3. I majored in English literature at university and did a whole course on Elizabethan tragedy. I find the subject fascinating. *Why* we like tragedy has obsessed people interested in literature probably for all of time. Everybody agrees that Shakespeare's best plays are his tragedies. But why? There are a thousand answers, maybe all correct.

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  3. Not so sure the pleasure comes from knowing everything will turn out exactly as expected. For me personally the fun is more in the familiar structure & clichés pushing attention to the variation in details and little twists and all the particulars that make this episode different from the others.

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  4. Interesting take. I guess I've never thought of the formulaic aspect of the Demon Princes (or any other Vance books) as being any significant part of the reason they are great. The formula "works" in the sense that it gives Vance a structure to hang all his cool stuff on, but I think the formula is a pretty insignificant part of the whole. Maybe it's deceptively important though..

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