I just finished reading Diablo Cody’s Candy Girl, a memoir of the year she worked in the sex industry. When I first put the book down one of my main critiques is that it felt formulaic: Cody writes a breezy, easy-to-read prose peppered with hipster-sounding one-liners. And after awhile it gets tedious. But as I thought about it I realized that it’s possible that all writing is formulaic.
Take Chesterton, for instance. Begin with an amusing but also illustrative anecdote, followed by an intriguing argument and buttressed by memorable, paradoxical one-liners that may or may not follow, logically speaking. Of course, I love Chesterton, but isn’t his writing just as formulaic as Cody’s?
My intuitive guess here is that I’m missing an important but subtle distinction (not unlike Christopher’s distinction between “complex” art and “complicated” art). The problem amounts to this: All writing is formulaic, but some seems to work while others fail miserably. However, the problem can’t be simply that bad writing follows a formula. Rather, the problem isn’t that a formula exists but that the one being used is poor. This begs a further question: In writing, what is a good formula? What makes a bad formula bad?