24 August 2012

Pot, Boiler . . . where'd the "Space" come from??

I mentioned that there sometimes seems to be disagreement concerning the term potboiler -- at least, to me.

Does potboiler have only one meaning, or two meanings?  And, is it a term you want applied to something you write, or not?

Examining several dictionaries, I found similar definitions for the word, each indicating a potboiler is a mediocre or inferior work produced solely for financial gain.  Googling the term, however, took me to an Amazon webpage that described several well-respected mystery/suspense novels as potboilers.

Faced with this conundrum, I did what I often do, when faced with a difficult problem …

I headed for the cigar store.

There, over a period of several shifts, I took a non-scientific straw poll (I hesitate to call it an actual survey), asking customers if they had heard of a potboiler story or novel. And, if they had, what they thought the term  meant.

 Below, are the Polling Questions as respondents saw them on sheets of 8.5 x 11 inch paper:

 Gender: M F (circle one)
 Age: ______
 ( )Smoker  ( )Non-smoker

 I am a:
 ( ) Regular Ford & Haig Tobacconist customer
 ( ) Visitor (out of town)
 ( ) Visitor (live locally)

 On average, I read approximately:
 ( ) One or more books per week
 ( ) One book every two weeks
 ( ) One to two books per month
 ( ) One book every month or two
 ( ) I read books, but not that often.
 ( ) I read magazines and/or newspapers, but don’t usually read books.

 Please check the appropriate response:
( ) I am certain I know the meaning of the term potboiler as it pertains to literature.
( ) I am uncertain of the meaning of the term potboiler as it pertains to literature.

 Please check the appropriate response:
( ) I believe the term potboiler has a negative connotation, in literature.
( ) I believe the term potboiler has a positive connotation in literature.

 Please check the appropriate response:
( ) I would not read a book described as a potboiler on the back cover.
( ) I might read a book described as a potboiler on the back cover.
( ) I would definitely read a book described as a potboiler on the back cover.

 A Potboiler is best described as:
 ( ) A book about cooking.
 ( ) A book written by an author just to make money. It’s not usually very good.
 ( ) A suspense or thriller with great tension, in which the main character is under a lot of pressure.

Is that a TURKEY in the pot???
The Results

I asked dozens of customers, but only 52 were willing to fill out a Polling Sheet. The rest were in too much of a hurry, disliked reading all together, or simply thought I was a loon. (Go figure!)

Of the 52 respondents: 43 were male, 9 female. They ranged in age from 19 to 74 years. 41 of them smoked tobacco, the other 11 being friends of somebody who smoked (hence their presence in a tobacco shop).

Among the respondents, 30 were regular customers of the store, who knew me, while 6 were visiting The Valley of the Sun in July/August -- meaning that one must question their sanity! -- and the remaining 16 were residents but not regular customers of the cigar store.

Two respondents claimed to read at least two books a week. 14 said that they read one to two books a month, 29 said they read about a book every month or two, 5 said they read fewer than one book every two months, and the remaining 2 said they read newspapers or magazines, but not books.

Thus, as can be plainly seen: this survey is in no way random — the respondents all being smokers or friends of smokers, who happened to find their way through the door of the shop where I work. As such, the survey probably bears little real relation to cultural norms across the United States. On the other hand, my friends on the newspaper staff sometimes construct entire articles around similarly flawed surveys. So, let’s follow suit.

Of the 52 respondents, only 11 stated that they were sure of potboiler’s meaning, while 40 confessed to some amount of confusion, and one person initially thought I was asking his opinion about Chinese dumplings. (This person was provided with clarification between the terms Potboiler and Pot Sticker, at which point he confessed to some confusion concerning the term Potboiler.)

Of the 11 who were certain of potboiler’s meaning, 8 felt the connotation was negative, while 3 said potboiler had a positive connotation.

Of the 41 who expressed some doubt concerning potboiler’s meaning, 14 thought the term had a negative connotation, while 31 said they felt potboiler was a positive description of writing. (14 + 31 = 45 This is greater than the total number of respondents who expressed doubt about the meaning, because some respondents marked both answers.)

Of the 11 who were certain of potboiler’s meaning, 8 defined it in terms of a work created solely for profit (dictionary definition), while 3 marked that a potboiler was a suspense or thriller novel with great tension (how Amazon appears to define the term).

All 34 respondents who saw potboiler as positive (3 sure of the meaning + 31 unsure of the meaning), thought the term referred to a work with great tension.

Of the 22 respondents who thought it had a negative connotation (8 sure of the meaning + 14 in doubt), 13 indicated it was a work created solely for profit, while 13 saw it as a work of great tension (5 marked both responses), and one person marked “A book about cooking.”

12 respondents said they would not read a book described as a potboiler, but 31 said they might read such a book, and 9 respondents (over 17 percent!) said they definitely would read one.

Out of 52 respondents, the majority saw potboiler as having a positive connotation  referring to a mystery/suspense or thriller with great tension and an explosive climax. 

 And, 17 percent of respondents indicated they would be highly motivated to buy such a book. (And, like many a contemporary reporter, I’ll ignore the fact that 12 people, or roughly 23 percent of respondents, indicated they would NOT read the book.)

Thus, these numbers -- which in reality are quite meaningless, though I'm pretending they aren’t — would seem to indicate a trending change in perception concerning the phrase potboiler. Today, people’s perception is transforming the word Potboiler into something that hasn’t yet been officially recognized (by the dictionary folks, at least): the idea that a Potboiler isn’t just a negative idea for a work that puts food on the table; it can also be a sought-after high-tension suspense thriller.

One word: two almost diametrically opposed meanings (in the minds of many literati, at least).

 In the words of one respondent (a lawyer), “Maybe we should clarify things by writing it as one word Potboiler when you use it one way, and putting a space between Pot and Boiler when you use it the other.”

Hence the title of my last post:  Pot, Boiler . . . add a Space??

What do you think?  Should we start adding a space (i.e.: pot boiler) when using the term to describe a high-tension thriller or mystery?  And, if we do, can we get this practice to spread??

If that should happen, remember:  You saw it HERE first!  On Sleuth Sayers.

See you in two weeks,



  1. (laughing) Dixon at the end refers to a Board decision whether to spell SleuthSayers with or without a space or hyphen and weather to capitalize the second S.

    We were taught that paired noun forms start out initially as 2 words, but if the meaning is unique, they may evolve to hyphenated and then Germanically joined with neither space nor hyphen. I've noticed that 'web site' seems to have jumped from 2 words to 1 word without the intervening hyphen.

  2. I go with the suspense/thriller definition. I'm definitely on for that.

  3. If you define the word literally, it would mean "boil a pot" which is impossible. Of course, a "Cash cow" is rather lame as well, although people immediately recognize it.

    In any event, my definition of pot boiler is a book that is written for money. It may be good or it may be not so good. I'm not sure I would recognize one when I saw it unless it tells me so in the blurb.

  4. That would be a great blub (lol): "This book may or may not be any good, but the author needs money so we hope you buy it."

  5. Thanks for the comments, everybody.

  6. For me it has always had the negative connotation, although I have heard the other one recently.

    I asked my wife who does not read thrillers, and she thought it was a positive term for a thriller. Interesting.

  7. I've always thought of potboiler, prefer one word, as a novel, any novel, written for money. I also think it may be good or bad, but is there any writer who doesn't write for money?

  8. "Only a blockhead writes, except for money." - Saml Johnson.

    Now if you will excuse me I need to go write my blog, for which I don't get paid.

  9. I agree with Louis. I suppose there are labors of love, but most of them are probably not commercial enough to be of interest to publishers. So that means that almost everything out there is a potboiler.

  10. An amazing # of bestsellers have been potboilers - in Victorian times, they were called "Sensation Novels" - think Wilkie Collin's "The Woman in White" or Mrs. Braddon's "Lady Audley's Secret", Mrs. Henry Wood's "East Lynne". I love all of these, but I'm a sucker for Victorian lit.

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