Showing posts with label potboiler. Show all posts
Showing posts with label potboiler. Show all posts

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,


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 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.