At least that’s the argument of this 1981 Writer’s Digest article on writing genre fiction: write to market and do it by slavishly followingly the formula of those who’ve gone before. If you want to write a classic whodunnit, the article recommends, study Agatha Christie: write yours using her moral view, her voice, her pacing, her chapter structure. The same for a Regency. I remember reading the article when it came out and feeling somewhat dubious; ditto other articles in the same vein. One from a few years later asserted that unless you’re a total genius, you’re an idiot to think you can get published any other way.
Rereading it, my opinions haven’t changed; if anything, I’m more dubious. Not that I think writing to market is a bad strategy (though it’s not one I have any knack for). John Scalzi does it and he does great. Lots of other writers do too. And even if we’re not writing to market, some degree of genre knowledge is important; writing a cozy where the murder goes unsolved would probably not find a home on the mystery shelves. But there’s a big difference between reading and knowing genre and slavishly following a formula.
Let’s take mysteries. Studying Christie, a master of the genre (I’m not that fond of her myself, but that’s a matter of taste), makes sense; slavishly following her not so much. Genres change over time and her glory days were decades before that article came out; sure, they still sell, but would they do as well if they didn’t have a famous name on them? I love Sherlock Holmes and Peter Wimsey and they’re still popular but I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to clone them for success today.
And of course following the proven successes eliminates the possibility of creating something new and successful. If nobody’s currently publishing X, studying the market won’t tell you there’s a huge market eager to read X, because they don’t have the chance to buy it. Urban fantasy is a massively popular subgenre, but before Anita Blake and Harry Dresden it didn’t exist. If Laurell K. Hamilton and Jim Butcher hadn’t taken contemporary fantasy in a new direction, it might not exist yet. Christie herself actually broke a lot of what was considered the formula back in her day, writing stories where the narrator or the police detective turns out to be the killer.
Or consider Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. RWA’s magazine (I used to read my best friend’s copies, back when she was a member) pointed out once that it was a romance novel that broke all the rules: heroine older than the hero, more sexually experienced than the hero, heroine is married to someone else. And while there had been earlier time-travel romances, such as Jude Devereaux’s A Knight in Shining Armor, there was no reason to think there was a huge market for a time-travel romance by a new writer (Devereaux was an established name). But Gabaldon proved otherwise and now there’s a whole subgenre of time-travel romance.
And of course, following a formula slavishly can preserve bad elements: sexism, racism or simply a total lack of diversity because the successful books you’re studying are all white and male-dominated so obviously trying for a more diverse cast would be a mistake.
That said there’s nothing wrong with writing to market; lots of formula books are popular (would I be reading Doc Savage so much if they weren’t?) and lots of writers have found success tweaking the formula just a little. If someone can making a living sticking to formula I’m not going to judge them for it. But it’s definitely not the only option. If your heart leads you off the beaten path, it might be worth following it.