Densely Plotted

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Perhaps it was the most unwanted paintings and music that made writing to a formula interesting (or at least showed that satisfying a list of what people hated in music could be more striking than chasing what they liked). Or maybe it was OuLiPo. Then again, every adherence to a genre or emulation of a classical model is in some sense formulaic: remember Milton’s epic similes and rivers of the underworld. Yet ‘formulaic’ writing so seldom has the formula conveniently attached for fascinated perusal.

Looking through the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (this being a suitable time to talk myself out of writing a novel), I came upon this anecdote from a literary agent:1

I received a mediocre thriller one day and read about 50 pages and sent it back with a note saying I didn’t feel it was going to be a good fit for my list. The next morning a very indignant man called me and told me in no uncertain terms that I was mistaken. “Oh yes,” said I, “why is that?” He then proceeded to tell me that he had read the top ten thrillers of the previous year and had decoded each of them onto a graph. When there was a cliffhanger he coloured in the appropriate square on the chart with green crayon, when there was an explosion he whipped out the red crayon, and when there was a sex scene he used blue and so on. He then wrote his own novel based on this equation of what constituted the statistically average ‘best-selling novel’ and was amazed that I didn’t immediately snap it up.

I would possibly read this thriller—provided it were published with the chart, and suitable commentary, and preferably the ten thrillers that went into it. That could be a whole new approach to critical editions, or even an advanced means of speed-reading and rapid research. After all, according to Jerome Stolnitz,2 attempts to extract truths from literature already arrive at either the ‘hopelessly unwieldy’...

The criminal [some criminals?] [all criminals?] [criminals in St Petersburg?] [criminals who kill old moneylenders?] [criminals who kill old moneylenders and come under the influence of saintly prostitutes?] desires to be caught and punished.

...or the trivially bland:

Stubborn pride and ignorant prejudice keep attractive people apart.

Perhaps we might discover a whole class of artworks which fascinate us not with their characters or their compositional loveliness or the emotions they evoke within us, but purely for their collective statistical properties. Let a thousand Plato Codes bloom.

  1. Trewin, Simon, ‘Letter To an Unsolicited Author’, in Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2012, pp. 450–3.
  2. Stolnitz, Jerome, ‘On the Cognitive Triviality of Art’ (1992), British Journal of Aesthetics 32:3, pp. 191–200.

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