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.
Posted by noisms at 05:07