In case you’re not familiar with the definition of a potboiler novel, let me help you out: the name originates from a literal “boiling of the pot,” or from writers who needed to pay the bills and stay alive, and literally make their dinner with what they made from their work. This has evolved in modern day to authors catering to specific styles of genre fiction because they are already well-established in that specific area.
For example, take James Patterson or any of the other Walmart paperback section authors. His work more or less always boils down to good guys vs. bad guys, gunfights, murders and always includes details about specific items, down to the brand of sunglasses his characters wear.
Generally, this is not considered good writing and certainly not literature. People frown upon these types of books because they’re considered very mass market, consumerist, plebian, etc. However, like many other guilty pleasures, potboiler novels have their redeeming qualities.
As someone who is trying to earn a degree that will let me write for a living and someone who is very much a fan of literature in all forms, sometimes, I just want something simple. The most recent book I read was Donna Tart’s “The Goldfinch”, an almost 1000-page monstrosity of a hardback that spans multiple decades of the protagonist’s life and contains flowery descriptions of every store and cafe on 12th Avenue.
After finishing such a tome, I want to read something smaller and something simpler, something to unravel the tightly wound literary coil in my head. This is where writers like Mr. Patterson come in handy.
I found a book in the discount bestsellers at Barnes and Noble recently that I had previously considered purchasing but did not, due to the $28 price tag.The book, “Night Film: A Novel,” by Marisha Pessl, is 600 pages in its hardback form. This is nothing, however, when you examine the writing style and chapter lengths in the book. Chapters very rarely reach more than 10 pages, and the writing is in the vernacular of a post-baby boomer but not quite millennial divorced investigative journalist. So, in other words, it’s very easy reading.
The plot revolves around the journalist’s failed attempt to expose a cult-horror movie icon as a dangerous psychopath and, on the recent death of his daughter, as a potentially career-saving revelation. The writing is very straight-forward and filled with all the slang of a 40-something divorcee that just happens to be the protagonist in many of these potboiler types of novels.
Novels like these exist to occupy your time. They exist in the same realm and for the same reason that many movies exist. “The Avengers” and other Marvel comics movies aren’t going to answer a deep, philosophical question about life or convert you to another belief system or become the basis for scholarly papers. But they do provide giant robot battles, explosions, romance, and super heroes to mass merchandise for little kids to look up to as exemplary and good citizens. Simply put, they exist to entertain.
The point is, there’s a New York Times bestseller list for a reason. Potboiler novels exist not to broaden the literary landscape of your mind’s eye, but maybe to make your car ride, lunch break or day at the beach a little bit more exciting.