Yesterday I got into an argument with a friend over the whole reading-as-entertainment thing. Since I've had this same argument before with this same friend, you'd think I'd know better. Not so. We just keep going at it. His shtick runs like this: "The basic job of a writer is to entertain. Anything added to that is just gravy."
Leaving aside the whole question of the cliched and dubious metaphor, this has never made much sense to me, because "entertain" is such such a vague word. What I find entertaining, you may not. Readers of Michael Chabon are unlikely to be reading Fern Michaels, and vice-versa.
But then I decided to think this through a bit more. Are there any similarities -- not so much between Chabon and Michaels as among their readers, in any terms at all? I decided there are. Both sets of readers want to know what happens next to characters in situations in which the reader has become interested. That's the commonality.
Even with this extremely broad generality, however, there are going to be people who disagree. The late John Gardner, in one of his books on writing (and I can't remember which one), said that what happens in a "plot" (the quotes are his) is unimportant. What matters is how it happens, and in what words. Thus, Gardner argued for just getting all the facts on the table upfront, up to and including the ending, to get it all out of the way.
I can't agree with him. I think people read The Yiddish Policeman's Union to find out who killed Emmanuel Lasker and what will happen to the provisional Jewish state in Alaska. I think they read Childhood's End to find out what the Overlords do to, and for, Earth. I think they read "Cinderella" to see if Cindy gets to go to the ball. And when a book or story fails, three-quarters of the time it's because the writer has not raised compelling enough questions that readers want to find out the answers to. That's "entertainment," whether it takes place on the tundra or on Mars. Whether it has a lot of action or none, a happy ending or not, sympathetic characters or not. Whether (although I hate to say this) the writing is good or not.
For better or worse, it's all about the dramatic questions.