I’ve been giving a lot of thought to cheesecake lately…
Stay with me.
I spend a lot of my daily commute listening to podcasts, and my favorite by far last year was the now defunct Spill.com, which was all about movie reviews (one of the members, Chris Cox, is at a new site, oneofus.net, which I highly recommend). One of the words you hear a lot when it comes to movie reviews is “formulaic”, and I can’t think of a single instance when it was used in a positive aspect. It’s something that gives me great pause whoever I’m putting plot elements together.
Here’s the thing, “Knight of the Flame” is formulaic. Yes, there are some interesting concepts I put in there, mostly because they interest me and make me happy, but a lot of the rest of it is very “by the numbers”. I remember that I was reading David Eddings’ new, at the time, book in the Belgariad/Mallorean series while I was plotting KotF. That book, however, wasn’t a continuation of the adventures of Garion and friends at all, but rather a treatise by Eddings on his writing process, the kinds of things he says when he’s invited to university lectures about how he goes about the business of putting together a fantasy novel. In the book, he most definitely prescribes a very specific formula for writing fantasy, and while I haven’t read the book in years, I’m guessing I probably hit every single bullet point in the list.
But, does that mean I’ve failed, somehow? Does that mean that my contribution to the literary world has, thus far, been a bit of a waste of time? Of the people who’ve read the first few drafts of KotF so far, about half have come back with a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement and “where’s the next one”-ness. And so, here I sit, wondering about the pros and cons of a formula.
The thing about formulas is that they exist for a reason. You don’t come up with a formula for something until you’ve made a whole lot of attempts at creating some thing or other, made a whole lot of ghastly mistakes on the way, and then finally settled on something that people seem to really like.
That’s when I started thinking about cheesecake. See, I like cheesecake. A lot. I like it so much that I don’t let myself have it too often just in case I get too accustomed to it and can’t really appreciate it anymore. And I’m perfectly aware that there’s a formula for cheesecake, too. Of course there is! Can you imagine a world where the world at large is still trying to figure out cheesecake? I’m pretty sure we’d still be working out electromagnetism too, in a world like that.
One of the things about cheesecake: there are bad ones out there. I mean there are truly awful cheesecakes that taste like plastic, candle-wax, and broken dreams. There are also good ones out there, the ones that literally transport you to another realm of existence the moment they make contact with your tongue. For the most part, though, there are your regular, run-of-the-mil cheesecakes, the kind you get offered in a restaurant which provides you with more than one fork, but less than three. They’re excellent. They’re not mind-bendingly incredible, but they’re well worth the cost in both money and calories. These are the formula cheesecakes. There is quite literally a recipe for making them.
It’s a fairly easy thing to realize that a major reason something might be called “art” is that it doesn’t go by the formula. It breaks the mold, goes against the grain, orders decaf when the rest of the table is having espressos. It does something nobody was expecting. And it’s brilliant. Art shapes our perceptions of the world, and the really good art is so widely adopted, that people spend years and years working out how to recreate it…how to figure out the formula.
I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to get across with this, but I’m beginning to wonder at the worth of formulaic stories, of the familiar and the predictable. True, it’s not art, but you know what you’re getting, it’s familiar, and it makes some of us very happy. And yet, at what point does the high availability of the stuff make it start to become white noise?
It’s a hell of a thing when writing a story, a constant back-and-forth, a tug-of-war between providing something that you know people will like, and something “new”. Some people have postulated that it’s a question of courage, of being willing to do something nobody has ever done before, but I’m beginning to wonder about that. What takes more guts? Doing something people haven’t seen before, but which they may not like, or following the recipe and knowing that while you’re going to satisfy a lot of people, others are going to label you as “formulaic” and “boring”?
Surprising nobody, the answer is: “I think I’ll go find some cheesecake.”