AskDefine | Define potboiler

Dictionary Definition

potboiler n : a literary composition of poor quality that was written quickly to make money (to boil the pot)

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. alternative spelling of pot boiler

Extensive Definition

For a type of boiler, see pot boiler.
Potboiler is a term used to describe a poor quality novel, play, opera, or film, or other creative work that was created quickly to make money to pay for the creator's daily expenses (thus the imagery of "boil the pot", which means "to provide one's livelihood"). Authors who create potboiler novels or screenplays are sometimes called hack writers. Novels deemed to be potboilers may also be called pulp fiction or "page-turners", and potboiler films may be called "popcorn movies" or, in film industry slang, "tentpoles" (large-budget films typically based on well-known characters or prior works, which, due to their immense popularity, support the studio economically, like tent poles hold up a tent). The term was first used by Frank Mancuso, head of Paramount Pictures (and former distribution chief).

Etymology and usage

High culture

"In the more elevated arenas of artistry such a motive...was considered deeply demeaning.". If a serious playwright or novelist's creation is called a potboiler, this has a negative connotation that suggests that it is a mediocre or inferior-quality work. An early usage of the term that has this sense is in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of New York, dated 1854: “He has not carelessly dashed off his picture, with the remark that ‘it will do for a pot-boiler’”. Similarly, Jane Scovell's Living in the Shadows states that "...the play was a mixed blessing. Through it O'Neill latched on to a perennial source of income, but the promise of his youth was essentially squandered on a potboiler."
In an early-1980s Time review of a book by Andrew Greeley, the author called his novel Thy Brother's Wife a "...putrid, puerile, prurient, pulpy potboiler." In the late 1990s, American author and newspaper reporter Stephen Kinzer referred to potboilers in this derogatory sense: "If reading and travel are two of life's most rewarding experiences, to combine them is heavenly. I don't mean sitting on a beach reading the latest potboiler, a fine form of relaxation but not exactly mind-expanding.
A definition of potboiler fiction from the 2000s captures the sense that it is an inferior grade of writing; in a Publishers Weekly article, author David Schow called potboilers fiction that "... stacks bricks of plot into a nice, neat line"

Popular culture

However, for more popular genres, such as action thriller films or detective novels, the term "potboiler" does not have such negative connotations. Indeed, a review praising a thriller film or detective novel may effusively call the work an excellent "potboiler". In a 2007 review of the 1972 Sam Peckinpah film The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen, the review calls it "... a '70s outlaws-on-the-run potboiler; a poor man's Bonnie and Clyde. That doesn't make it a bad film; it's actually a good potboiler. But it does stand out in both the McQueen and Peckinpah canons as a primarily commercial, and not artistic, venture. It's neither artist's finest moment, but there's certainly no reason for them to be embarrassed by the film."
A well-known potboiler is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, showing that works written primarily for money are not always of subpar quality. Television host Mike Wallace used the term while interviewing writer Rod Serling about his upcoming show, The Twilight Zone. At that time, science fiction writing was widely considered amateurish and juvenile, and Wallace questioned whether or not Serling was moving away from "serious" writing. However, Serling's series became an influential television classic.


potboiler in German: Potboiler
potboiler in Norwegian: Potboiler
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