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What is a Potboiler?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2016
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A potboiler is a creative work which is produced primarily with commercial intent, rather than with a greater artistic vision in mind. Potboilers can take a number of forms, from feature films to novels, and they are characterized by rapid, cheap production which often results in an inferior product. Despite the negative associations with the potboiler, these works tend to be quite well on the market, satisfying the need for an infusion of cash and sometimes becoming quite popular.

This term dates to the 1800s, when it was first used quite disparagingly to dismiss art of extremely low quality. “Potboiler” references the idea that sale of such work literally keeps the home fires burning, establishing a secure livelihood for the creator. In addition to “potboiler,” terms like “pulp fiction,” “page-turner,” “popcorn novel,” “airport novel,” or “popcorn movie” may be used to describe such creative works, and their authors may be described, sometimes a bit unfairly, as “hacks.”

As a general rule, a potboiler is quite predictable, with a very basic plot and stock characters. The work is designed to appeal to the greatest possible audience, and as a result subtle nuance, unexpected plot twists, and controversial material are generally avoided. In the thriller and detective genres in particular, potboilers are actually viewed as somewhat respectable, with very high sales numbers, and a number of prominent artists in these genres produce what one would generally consider potboilers.

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Many authors known for their potboilers are capable of producing a steady stream of them, churning out multiple books in a year, especially when those authors have established series. A series often attracts loyal readers, ensuring that the author has a firm base of customers who will eagerly read every new book that emerges from the author's pen. It is also not uncommon for authors to write under different pen names for different audiences, thereby expanding their market share even further.

While it is tempting for some people to dismiss the entire potboiler genre, this is perhaps somewhat unfair. Potboilers certainly do have their place, as anyone who has endured a long plane flight can testify, and in some cases a potboiler has captivated public attention, resulting in increased interest in reading and in the topics covered by the book. The 2003 book The Da Vinci Code, for example, generated a great deal of interest in Leonard Da Vinci, his life, and his art.

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