Thursday, February 21, 2008

the potboiler. . . continued

Thank you for your comments and for taking the poll on my new, favorite, misunderstood adjectivish noun. Based on the folks who voted in the poll, the gut-feeling on the word is split.

The story behind the potboiler question:

One of my writing projects is a dark comedy (big surprise), and I was fussing with the idea of labeling it "a potboiler" on the title-page, as a little wink, because the story is about a restaurateur. My own notions about a potboiler were positive. I thought it described a kind of story I enjoyed: a plot-heavy, twisty, simmering, exciting, wild sort of ride. That thought was based on how I'd seen the word used before, and apparently I enjoy things that are labeled "potboilers."

I looked up what the term meant in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

Main Entry:
pot·boil·er
Pronunciation:
\-ˌbi-lər\
Function:
noun
Date:
1862
: a usually inferior work (as of art or literature) produced chiefly for profit
Jiggawhat??? Really? The Wikipedia entry goes further to describe writers of "potboilers" as hack writers, and that "potboiler" describes the author's motive (money) for writing thing rather than describing the content of the writing.

Even if something is described as "a potboiler" or as "pulp," we're so far removed from the original definitions to know what the crap it actually means. Words have a way of being appropriated, misappropriated, spindled, mushed and stomped. Over time, it diminishes their meaning. We can understand the word from context, but if the context is flawed based on the original misunderstanding of the word, then we're all adrift and turning to Wikipedia, and we all know how accurate THAT is.


Now my question is, can I take a word like "potboiler", which has negative connotations in its original definition, use it as a way to define a story, and negate its effect to belittle, diminish, or dismiss? The immediate example is Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" -- the movie can't be dismissed for being pulp fiction because it is pulp fiction. I know: we're so far beyond criticising that movie that it's a bad example. So can an author yank a card from a deck, tear it up, and say "you can't play that card to define this thing because I've already played it on the title page"?