The complete title of this section is Slick Fiction, as against Quality Fiction.. In it Hills presents a historical timeline, describing how slick, serialized fiction moved from magazines to television in order to follow the migrating mainstream market. And he’s not shy about characterizing that market:
What the magazine readers wanted from it was entertainment and escape, and television can do that now more mindlessly than magazine fiction ever could. As is well known, you can’t beat a skunk in a contest that involves smelling bad.
Hills’ dismissive critique seems all the more snobbish given the passage of time. But Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular was originally written in 1977, and at that time many of the complaints Hills levels against television were broadly valid. Formulaic plots and cliche characters abounded, even as some writers tried to buck the creative and cultural constraints imposed by the networks.
I’ll have more to say about TV and storytelling in response to another section of Hills’ book, but for now I want to focus on the crux of his observations and complaints:
The writers of slick fiction went along, with the audience, to television. For unlike serious fiction, which has always been written whether there was any demand for it or not, the whole point and purpose of slick fiction was that it was written to order for a market, and once the market was gone the writing ceased.
If you think about storytelling in terms of gross tonnage, there’s no question more writing is done in the service of established commercial markets than is done in the service of art. That’s neither a surprise nor a pejorative observation. I don’t know what the ratio is of visits to amusement parks and museums, but I’m fairly confident that in most locales amusement parks beat the stuffing out of museums.
It doesn’t take a fiction editor to note that much of commercial storytelling is derivative, redundant, formulaic and, too often, just plain bad. Like anything that’s mass produced — and here you should be thinking of the corporate hot dog — the emphasis in commercial works is generally on satisfying demand as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Great writing is as necessary to the average commercial story in any medium as great cuts of meat are to commercial hot dogs. The difference might be noticeable, but neither the manufacturer nor the customer is willing to pay for that difference. [ Read more ]