10 August 2012

Who Framed Pot Boiler??

A while back, here on SS, there was a bit of a question concerning the meaning of the term potboiler.  Was it a term you wanted applied to your story, or not.

I found this interesting, because I've long been of two minds about the word potboiler.  On the one hand, I knew it could be pejorative. But, on the other, I seem to recall seeing it used in descriptive praise for some suspense works.

So, I began to wonder: Does potboiler have two meanings?  Or only one?  And, what is -- or are -- the word's defining terms?

To begin my search, I pulled my old friend, Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, from atop the pile of books littering my desk.  This wonderfully humongous tome, which my daughter uses to press flowers (and I sometimes use as a doorstop, since I bought it at a garage sale for five bucks!), was published in 1996, and defines potboiler as "a mediocre work of literature or art produced merely for financial gain."

Calling something mediocre is not terribly complementary, but that was in 1996.  English is far from a dead language.  It continues to morph and grow into new forms, sometimes adding definitions or nuances to previously familiar words and phrases, as usage changes over time.  So, I checked out some contemporary definitions in online dictionaries.

Mirriam-Webster online dictionary defines potboiler in much the same way, except that it replaces the word 'mediocre' with the phrase 'usually inferior', which would seem to make this definition even more derogatory than my Webster's.

The definition under Dictionary.com precisely matched that of my old Webster's, while The Oxford Dictionaries Online defined potboiler as "a book, painting, or recording produced merely to make the writer or artist a living by catering to popular taste."

The idea here is that potboiler refers to some type of food that can be tossed in a pot and left to boil – such as a stew that might feed a person for several days if properly maintained.  Thus, a potboiler piece is something an author writes so s/he can buy food, thus avoiding starvation when later writing something higher brow.  Lewis Carroll may have used the term, in just this manner, when writing a letter to A.B. Frost in 1880.

But, I was still left wondering about my recollection of seeing potboiler used as praise on some book jackets. Googling the term potboiler, however, eventually led me to an Amazon webpage entitled: Books: Mystery, Thriller & Suspense – Potboiler  

Surely, I thought, Amazon wouldn't categorize any of its stock as being mediocre.  And, indeed, the books listed didn't look all that mediocre.  They included several rather well-known or popular mysteries. Among them: Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary Wolf, the cult sensation that was loosely translated into the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Now, this list matched up with my previous impression: that potboiler could also refer to a suspense novel wit a plot bubbling under constant tension -- like a stew pot with the lid securely fastened, though left on HIGH.  A sort of pressure-cooker plotline, in which tension keeps building until the id blows off near the end.

One online retailer, however, can hardly be counted as a trend when it comes to altering the lexicon. So, as I often do when faced with a problem ...

I headed for the cigar store.

What happened there?  

I'll tell you in two weeks!

P.S. Two weeks ago, I told you about the dust storms around here.  Here are pics my wife took.  These are pretty small storms, this year.  But, it gives the uninitiated an idea.


  1. Neil Schofield11 May, 2012 06:02

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  9. Well, that's a first. We seem to have inherited some comments from a previous Dix column. Don't know how that happened.

    And I apologize to anyone who tuned in a few minutes after midnight and found a column by me instead. I was trying to far-schedule a piece and it kept wanting to load NOW. It seems to be safely in the future.

    Dix, interesting piece about Bartitsu. As for why Holmes said it wrong, probably Watson misheard him He was responsible for all the mistakes, didn't you know?

  10. Oh, yes, how often all this works in fiction, but not in the real world. I have a friend who chased a purse-snatcher and, after about half a mile, was getting pretty winded. The thief must have heard him gasping, because the thief stopped, turned around, and decked him and went on. That NEVER happens in movies.

    Another favorite of mine is in the much lamented "Cheech Wizard" comic strip from the old National Lampoon magazine, where an Asian martial arts expert is coming through the woods, felling trees, etc., getting ready to take out old Cheech. Penultimate panel: a tremendous explosion. Last panel: Cheech Wizard with a shot-gun. "Welcome to the West, [Asian insult]".

  11. You're right about the use of fighting techniques, Dix. As a police officer I've had it work out great, and not work out very well at all. When it comes to fighting and subduing people, I'm afraid that size does matter. With really big guys, I always found that a liberal application of pepper spray prior to employing any technique was extremely helpful. I like to call that a 'distraction' technique,i.e. all the screaming and clawing at his face would distract him from stomping me into the asphalt. I felt this was a good result.

  12. Looking at the illustration I think Mr. Bartson could have probably knocked someone out with his moustache.

    My favorite comment on size vs marshall arts skills comes in one of Harlan Coben's novels in which Myron Bolitar's sociopathic sidekick Win faces a bigger man with equal skills. Unfortunately saying more would be a spoiler...

  13. Odd Cane Fighting Fact: Surprisingly, cane fighting is still being taught as a method of self-defense. One school in the U.S. suggests to students that: "Many livestock feed stores sell canes at about one third the cost of a martial arts supply house."

    Now, you know where to purchase your self-defense equipment at a discount.

  14. Well, I don't know how we got comments on this post from May 11th, either. lol I think I managed to delete them all, but they left a certain "framework" behind that sort of negates the purpose of deleting. On the other hand, it makes me feel a sort of vindication -- because I figure those extranious comments certainly aren't my fault, and that makes me feel better about not being able to upload my post over most of the past week.

    And I have to agree about the mustache -- certainly looks like a lethal weapon to me. lol

    As my friends and I used to say when practice-firing on my A-Team, Liz: "Karate THIS!"

    David, your distraction technique sounds appealing. And, R.T., I'll see YOU at the feed store!


  15. If you'd like to know more about Bartitsu, and some very close ideas of how it became to mis-named as Baritsu then please do pop over to Bartitsu.org.

  16. James, I was unable to make your "Bartitsu.org" link work. It took me to a webpage that appeared to be under construction. However, clicking on your name took me to your excellent website!

    Thanks for the great input! I missed your site when I was doing my research, and am anxious to explore it more thoroughly.


  17. Dixon, once again your comments from previous columns trail behind you. How do you DO that?Not on purpose i know.

    The comments about writing for money remind me that when Rex Stout published his first Znero Wolfe novel one writer sneered thar he used to write literature but now, for money, was a mere mystery monger.

    Stout replied: "Oh, mystery, of thee I mong."

  18. Dix, looking at those photos, is that where the term "dust-up" comes from?

  19. Rob: I love that quote! As a rabid capitalist, myself, I tend to admire rather than despise the idea of writing for profit. I’m not sure why I seem haunted by phantom comments of “Christmas Past,” but suspect the ghost is hiding somewhere within the Chrome Ceiling.

    R.T.: When I grew up here there was nearly no grass on the school playground, and there were dirt vacant lots all over the place – not to mention the open desert about 1.5 miles away. Back then, if I got into a fight on the playground, it would raise a cloud of dust that would bring teachers running. They knew what it meant, when they saw the dust come up like that within a ring of yelling kids.

    A very special thanks to Rob and Leigh, who helped make sure my post made it onto blogger, which decided to fight me every step of the way while I was working on it. You guys rock — even if Leigh is such a cruel taskmaster. (For those who don’t know: that 18-foot bullwhip on the wall of his office isn’t just for looks! Miss a deadline on this blog, and you’ll find out what I mean. Lol)

  20. But did you ask the SS Executive Secretary? No, you did not. She would have looked up 'potboiler' in her little OED which says

    potboiler |ˈpɑtˌbɔɪlər|
    noun informal
    a book, painting, or recording produced merely to make the writer or artist a living by catering to popular taste.

    She'd also say she hopes you're not editing again at 3 in the morning with a Sam Spade beerglass of bourbon after once again cohorting with that gang at the cigar store! So there!

  21. I think that's a beer MUG of bourbon, Velma. At least in my case. Shotglasses require too many revisits, when ymatching bourbon to the length of time it takes to smoke a cigar while editing.

    And, thanks for the OED input. I tried OED online, but was daunted when I realized I had to pay money. LOL (And having to make that admission, just after claiming to be a rabid capitalist! D&%# you, Velma. I have half a mind to take you over my knee.)


  22. Really? (batting eyelashes)


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