Genre-fication aka Reverse-engineering the magic sauce

Popular fiction is becoming like the restaurant business. If it’s new, it’s a good idea to try it now. In three months, you’ll get the same gravy / sauce (if the cuisine’s Italian) that is mass manufactured in Guangdong or Gurgaon and air-lifted to every restaurant in the world.

Take Austen. The lady writes a delightful comedy of manners and society. And since they didn’t have the internet back then, it took several hundred years for the mass production to start. First came Georgette Heyer, then Helen Fielding. Now, you have whole sections devoted to Chick-lit, all of which read exactly alike.

The Name of the Rose was great. Foucault’s Pendulum. Even better. We then move to 25+ million copies of a somewhat re-hashed Foucault’s and before you know it, you have a whole genre of wannabe historical mysteries. The latest addition to this genre is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. The premise looked interesting enough. Problem: a good two generations worth of mystery surrounding Vlad, the Impaler (aka Dracula), plus at least one kidnapped Professor of History. The heroine: another Professor of History who looks into old documents collected by her father, and his mentor and travels all over Europe to unravel the mystery and to rescue the missing person(s).

It’s such a pity that what made Eco’s old sauce work has now been reverse-engineered into its individual components. The ingredients for Writing a Historical Mystery:
1. One pinch of history (vital that this pinch be from some area that even science majors will know about)
2. 5 heaped scoops of nerdiness (why would anyone who is truly cool be remotely interested in Sir Francis Bacon or a 400 year old Romanian landlord?)
3. 2 tea-spoon full of Great-Looks (for your oeuvre to really have legs, the casting director must be able to use leggy actresses) [1]
4. One attractive reward that awaits the intrepid scholar / librarian / diligent student at the end of his or her adventure (helpful hint: world domination, buried treasure, heirs to sons / daughters of God, even cataloging a rare and extensive collection of books and manuscripts – all taken – please think of something else)
5. The following are essential ingredients that you cannot replace, no matter how adventurous you’re feeling: Istanbul / Constantinople, Rome, obscure village in some-country-formerly-behind-iron-curtain, at least 2 piazzas, 3 water fountains (at least one of which should be functioning – remember leggy heroine must get wet), 4 chapels, 17 libraries and 1 railway station (to remind your US audience that Europeans are so archaic they still use trains!)
6. Very important: Pique the readers’ curiosity at the end of every word / sentence / para / chapter. If you are confused about how you can do this, begin by replacing full stops with exclamation points!

Kostova sticks to all of these rules. I might have found the book merely tedious, but the “prize” (refer rule 4 above) offered by Kostova transports the book into the realm of the ridiculous. It’s not “propah” to disclose more. I will merely say that the secret had two of my friends in splits. I was in too much pain to laugh.[2]

When I consider this genre-fication phenomenon, I realize that the fault lies with me (as it almost always does). When I see a good thing, why can’t I just let it go? So, I loved Eco. I shouldn’t try to seek that same thrill over and over again. I should move on. The hang-ups that served me well in childhood (if you enjoyed one book in the Tin Tin series, reading allof them is a good thing) no longer apply. A good friend’s always asking me to expand my horizons. I’ll try to heed his advice in at least one area of life. No more wannabe Tolkiens, Ecos, or Austens[3].

[1] In my more paranoid moments, I wonder if this whole history + mystery movement hasn’t been started by academics who would appear to have finally hired Rick Renard or someone of his caliber. In my less paranoid moments, I wonder which celebrity is a Rosie Crucian / Free Mason / what-have-you (as you can see, Foucault’s Pendulum has left a lasting impression.)
[2] For a fee of twenty-five cents, full plot will be disclosed via personal email.
[3] You should be so lucky to get wanna be Tolkiens, Ecos or Austens. You’re more likely to end up with wannabe-wannabe-Tolkiens (a wannabe-Rowling or wannabe-Paolini for instance), wannabe-wannabe-Austens (the wannabe-Fieldings and the wannabe-Bushnells figure here)


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