The Fallacy of Formulae

Not far into the rhythm of my week, I was startled to see the news that no Pulitzer prize is being awarded for fiction this year. Apparently, for the first time since 1977, the jury concluded that none of the finalists were worthy of the award.


I think “wow” because I also read this very thought-provoking post hypothesizing how the Great Gatsby, a novel that few would dispute as an American classic, would have an enormously difficult time being accepted for publication today by any mainstream publishing house because it was not formulaic. That is, it didn’t contain the elements needed to ensure sales.

It’s that last part that concerns me: the literature that passes successfully through the gatekeepers of mainstream publishing and into the hands of a nation of readers (although that part of our population is tragically shrinking) is passed, in (large) part, on the ability of the novel to sell. That’s because publishers seem to be far more interested in making money than in circulating quality literature, just as are record labels or movie production studios guilty of this in their own realms. This is, I’m convinced, the phenomenon that drives Hollywood to produce such vast amounts of garbage, while depth thrives at indie film festivals.

Now, I don’t intend this post to be a debate between the merits of traditional publishing and the merits of self-publishing. I’m just expressing concern that a jury of reviewers, in looking over our nation’s literature for a year, cannot find anything worthy of the honor of this prize. Nothing. As a nation, from a literary standpoint, we didn’t cut it. Yet, sales of books thrive, partly because sex sells, as do other formulaic components, and partly because genre fiction far eclipses literary fiction on the shelves of most bookstores (I think of the three consecutive shelves of YA at my local Barnes & Noble, for example). And that’s the problem, isn’t it, with genre fiction? Formulaic components.

Please don’t hear this as being a slam on genre fiction, either. I write genre fiction. I grew up on genre fiction, and I love it (science-fiction, specifically). I just recognize that, while certain formulaic elements make up certain genres (the predictability of James Bond-style espionage books, for example, or murder mysteries), the risk of using these formulae for the profit of publishers is a “dumbing down” effect of the literary landscape at large.

Good writers should be paid well for their craft, as should any good artist. However, when profit is the driving motive for writing (or recording, or painting, fill in other mediums of expression here), the culture is in trouble. So many authors whose works we consider “classics” today didn’t write for the money, and often didn’t receive much, either. Their stories, though, helped shape a national psyche, and continue to contribute to our journey through the human experience.  Were this the driving motive in Hollywood, I imagine we would see significantly fewer big-action, huge-explosion movies with cheesy lines.  Were it the driving motive in literature, I’m confident that we would see a great deal less vampire fiction.

Not everything can be reduced to a formula. I think that formulaic elements can be used successfully in storytelling, but, like the spices you use when cooking dinner, using them sparingly is best. Otherwise, the taste becomes overwhelming.

Photo Attribution: balise42


  1. Hah, I wrote about this yesterday. I really liked what you’re saying here, and I agree. I’m saddened by what becomes popular these days, and even more saddened that no award was chosen this year. I’m not sure if I’m more sad that nothing was chosen or that they really thought nothing was worth choosing. A huge part of me really doubts there was nothing worthy.

  2. I read your post this morning, Michelle, and thought to myself, “hey, this topic sounds familiar!” 🙂 I’m not certain if anything was worthy, honestly. In order for the Pulitzer to retain its meaning, there has to be a really high expectation of quality. Call me cynical, but I can totally believe that there wasn’t anything rising to that level published this year. I’m more likely to doubt that nothing of that level was written, but it wasn’t published, in any case.

  3. I saw that link in your original post. The writer seems to be arguing that the Pulitzer jury should always make an award on the best that is offered that year. I’d have to disagree. That might be the correct methodology for a state-wide competition, absolutely. Something of the stature of the Pulitzer, though…I think there is a minimum expectation there. Although, I completely agree with him that the jury couldn’t have possibly read every contender…and that is part of the problem that I was trying to point out in my post, that traditional publishing isn’t always the best gatekeeper.

    Of course, what I missed in making that point is what you point out in your post, and that is the small, indie presses. I’d guess that would compare to my thoughts on indie film festivals. Perhaps there’s something inversely proportional about size and quality 🙂

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