I’ve gone on about this before, and I just can’t stop. There is a PhD thesis topic available to anyone who wants to comb through bad reviews of genre novels on Amazon. If you really want to know what the required tropes of a romance novel are, read those bad reviews – they’ll tell you why a reader gets angry when a novel doesn’t deliver the exact same thing they expect from, well, every single novel they read. I call them Pringles readers – they want the same chip out of the can every time, forever, with no surprises.
I got a bad review on “Faith” that dinged the book hard because there’s only one sex scene between the two MCs (there’s other sexin’ in there, but not between Rocky and Dex), and it comes near the end of the book. So…what’s the quota? How many sex scenes are required between MCs, and by what point in the book do they need to be Doin’ It So Hard? Again, diligent research by some scholar could parse this for us, which would be very helpful!
Pringles readers are big on percentages. They’re always looking at the bottom of their Kindle screen, watching that number, and getting angry when what they expect to happen hasn’t happened by X%. They will complain that Y% of the book is backstory, or that the MCs don’t fuck until Z% of the way through the story. If the MCs aren’t on the page together for at least W% of the story, they have to be on the page with their best friend, but only talking about/angsting over the other MC. (TBH I did this in “A Little Too Broken.”)
Ever hear of the Bechdel Test? I just did. Alison Bechdel once said she wouldn’t see a movie where two women were only onscreen together to talk about a man. Most commercially successful romance novels fail this test in spades.
Backstory is a no no because it’s time focused on a single character and not on the couple. But, for me, who gives a shit if a couple is happy if you don’t know anything about them as people? How do you know they’re gonna stay happy if you don’t know about their pasts, their personality development? It’s just a Jared commercial otherwise, they must be happy because they’re together, right? Right?
Whereas the Kettle Chip reader isn’t looking for the same chip every time. In fact, as soon as the Kettle Chip reader discovers they’re in a Pringles book, they drop it like a dead rat and move on. Kettle Chip readers want to be surprised, diverted, teased, drawn down the rabbit hole.
Which brings me to “Hannibal.” SPOILERS! If you haven’t seen the last two seasons, anyway. And probably if you haven’t seen the season premiere, too. Run away! Run away!
OK they’re gone. I love this show. It’s a brilliant reimagining of the whole Lecter canon, the movies and the books. It’s retelling the story in a parallel universe where many of the same characters still interact, but in wildly different ways. The murder scenes are pure Grand Guignol, but the writing is superb, as is the acting. The dynamic between Mads Mikkelson as Hannibal and Hugh Dancy as Will Graham is so tense, so rich, so demanding of your attention. Gillian Anderson as Hannibal’s own former psychiatrist is riveting. I can’t wait to see when Clarice Starling shows up, and how they work her in! The show is on NBC but, the highest compliment, right, it’s HBO quality.
So last season ended with pretty much everyone potentially dead at Hannibal’s hands – Will Graham, Jack Crawford, and Alana Bloom, a non-canon character. Now, in a Pringles world, how does season three start? At 0% of the season premiere of a Pringles show, it picks up right where it left off, with all the potential corpses from the last season finale. And we see who gets up and groans and grabs their wound and dials 911, we see who lived and who didn’t.
As Dr. Lecter said to Clarice in “Silence,” NO. Instead we see Hannibal, who’s fled to Florence (canonical) with Gillian Anderson’s character, the gothically named Dr. Bedelia du Maurier. (Semi-canonical; Hannibal fled at the end of that eponymous novel to South America with Clarice in semi-romantic tow – this is how the show fucks with the canon in the most creative ways.) The whole episode takes place in Florence, with no mention of whether or not Will and the others are dead. Bedelia asks Hannibal point blank if Will is dead, and he gives an obtuse answer.
Yeah. That’s right. Only, ONLY in the previews for the rest of the season do we see who’s still alive. And if there were any Pringles viewers, and I highly doubt any of them made it to season three, they were all screaming at the TV, WHO’S DEAD!
I was delighted. Absolutely, Kettlechippedly thrilled to be fucked with like that. My attention to the proceedings was absolute, for fear that I’d miss a single clue as to who’d lived and who’d died. It was brilliant.
The show is not a hit. It’s not…a Pringle. Hapless Dad and Sexy Mom and Wise Children Shitcoms (sic) are Pringles. Detective shows that wrap up a killing with a bow in 44 minutes are Pringles. “The Blacklist” is a Pringle because it’s patently absurd – yeah, the FBI stakes out a restaurant, puts cameras in the restaurant, to closely monitor its informant/captive while he meets with someone…and they leave the back door unguarded so he can make his easy escape. It’s stupid. I put up with it for a while because James Spader was riveting, but at a certain point, the stupidity overwhelms that quality. Same with “Scandal,” it started out so “good soapy,” then retreaded the same stories over and over – Olivia and the President fuck, they fight, they part, they talk on the phone, a crisis brings them together, they fuck, they fight…etc.
Pringles viewers, do they even notice? I don’t think so. The essence of being a Kettle Chipper is your interrogation (to get all Frenchy-theoretical on it) of the text – does this feel real? Do I believe this? Do I then, on the basis of feel-realness, care what happens to these people?
I recently saw a documentary, “That Guy…Who Was In That Thing,” about character actors in LA. You know their faces but not their names. They’re working actors, and they’re happy, because they work at what they want. They’ll never be leads, or stars. But a lot of them have nice houses, and live well.
I’ve come to the realization that I’m going to be a “character writer.” Midlist, probably never toplist, probably never the guy whose books will be on a supermarket shelf, or even the M/M version of that shelf. But if I can make a living, if I can find enough Kettle Chip readers to keep me solvent and cubicle-job-free, I’m going to be happy. I’m going to react with Aurelian equanimity to the slings and arrows (and percentages) of bad reviews. I’m going to be like the writers of “Hannibal.” I’m going to say “fuck you” to expectations, and confound them. I’m going to pay the price for it in ratings, but that’s the course I’m on, and I’m not changing now.