Sunday, November 26, 2006

Potboilers and Gary Jennings

What's a "potboiler" and why's it called that? Think about it for a second and I'll give you the answers at the end of the post.

Ten years ago my roomate at the time (Scott Irving) encouraged me to read "Aztec" by Gary Jennings, a pseudo-historical adventure about one of the last remaining Aztecs who travels around Central America, currying political favour, having wild sexual exploits, witnessing horrible barbarism, and inventing new devices with only the knowledge and materials at hand.

The book was worthwhile for two reasons: it described how people lived at that time, and why they lived that way. But it also appealed to my desire to be horrified and disgusted; I remember a scene that graphically depicted people being burned at the stake, and another that described the ritual mutilation of aristocrats in order to turn them into immobile and helpless freaks.

Since I've been reading too many "heavy" books lately -- and to carry on learning a bit about medieval life -- I picked up Gary Jennings' "Raptor." So far it seems to be a pseudo-historical adventure about a hermaphroditic child in the 5th century who travels around Europe, currying political favour, having wild sexual exploits, witnessing horrible barbarism, and inventing new devices with only the knowledge and materials at hand.

I guess Jennings new better than to mess with a winning formula.

Regarding the "horrible and disgusting" element, the poor author must have spent much of his time trying to find new things to gross us out, and he succeeded. A Roman soldier, captured by huns, is raped repeatedly through a small incision made in his stomach while watching the headless body of his pregnant wife give birth to a stillborn child. Ummm, thanks Mr. Jennings.

Anyway, when I bought the book at "Old Goat Books," the proprietor said derisively "You're buying a potboiler!" I realized I hadn't heard that word in a long time and I was very curious about WHY such a book was called a "potboiler."

So I asked a few people. Most of them had never heard the word. I myself was incorrect about the definition; I thought a potboiler was a romantic adventure, largely lacking in substance, sort of like a beefed-up Harlequin Romance.

Based on this definition I figured they were called "potboilers" because stereotypical housewives would read them just to pass the time between doing houswork (like while waiting for the pot to boil). Vanilla, on the other hand, thought that reading them was like being inside a boiling pot: lots of pressure, lots of heat.

It turns out that a potboiler is really just any book written quickly in order to make money. The word goes back to the 1800s when people used wood to heat their stoves, and therefore to boil their pots of food. A potboiler was a book written just so the author could afford wood for the stove.

So now we can all rest easy.

6 comments:

VanillaJ said...

So, Potboiler = McJob

THAT I understand.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Potboiler = V. C. Andrews, Dean R. Koontz, Tom Clancy, and Danielle Steele too.

Anonymous said...

L. Ron Hubbard

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I guess HE needed a potboiler or two to fund the construction of his gigantic spaceship.

Anonymous said...

is that where he wnet? i thought he just up and died.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Yeah, I think he's in the spaceship, waiting for the end-times. But I've never been much of a Scientologist, I'll have to ask Kirstie Alley what's up.