Thursday, September 4, 2008

Reading and Writing

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.


Steven Francis Murphy said...

I define what I consider to be the primary mission of a writer as entertainment. But when I say primary mission, I do not mean that it should be the only mission.

What I see in so much fiction that often violates the primary mission is as follows:

1. Polemical message of story.

There is nothing I hate more as a Reader than to find I am reading a poorly disguised op-ed. I expect, if the Writer is going to inflict a message on me, that they be subtle enough, sneaky enough, smart enough to weave it so seemlessly into the narrative that my BS detector doesn't immediately go off.

The message story should be so subtle that it can seduce folks who are not members of the choir as it were. One writer who is successful with this is Charles Stross. He is the rare one though, most other contemporary American SF writers are not.

2. Rehashed political talking points.

Chances are if there is a pet political theory out there, I have been beaten over the head with it in the last twenty years. Usually by people with PhDs in History, Political Science, Gender Studies, Literature and the like. If I want another dose of that, I am not going to go to some clown with a BA in English and a Minor in Poli-Sci for a badly executed repeat of a lecture I've already heard.

3. Prose should be accessible, to the point of transparency.

That doesn't mean throw style out the window, but if I need to contact the local English Department for a decryption book and it takes me forever to read the narrative I will toss the story aside and not bother.


Well, ah, I read for recreation. At least when it comes to fiction.

If I want to work, per the three points I've listed, I'll go pick up some good non-fiction. E.P. Thompson for some good old Marxist History done right rather than Mieville's watered down version for example.

My point is that the story doesn't have to be simple, spoon fed or devoid of any given message, but at least be slick enough to slip it in under my radar.

Because if I pick it up before page seventy, I'm dropping it like a hot rock. Time is short and I have plenty of non-fiction that I need to read for my job.

S. F. Murphy

g d townshende said...

Can't it be for both the dramatic questions AND for entertainment? Or, rather, that 'entertainment' is the result of compelling dramatic questions? I think that's what you're driving at, yes?

I think I'd agree, to some degree, that the dramatic questions are primary, that readers are in search of a good, compelling read, something that will so grab them that they can't put it down. If it's not compelling, but at least competent, they'll tolerate it, even if the writing is bad.

I've currently got a William Sloane quote at the beginning of my blog that reads: "Editors (...) know that (...) people who are really readers want to read. They hunger to read. They will forgive a vast number of clumsinesses and scamped work of every sort if the author will delight them just enough to keep them able to continue." I think that is an excellent explanation as to why, sometimes, even bad writing is forgiven by the reader.

Nancy Kress said...

gdtownshende wrote "'entertainment' is the result of compelling dramatic questions? I think that's what you're driving at, yes?" YES. And that question is really just a variant of one question: "What will this character do about this mess?" Sometimes, Stephen, the mess DOES involve Marxism or gender issues or whatever. The point is that the writer has brought us to the point of being interested in what the characters will DO about whatever the story situation is. We want to know the answer to: "What will happen to these people?"

TheOFloinn said...

1475, "to keep up, maintain," from M.Fr. entretenir, from O.Fr. entretenir "hold together, support," from entre- "among" (from L. inter) + tenir "to hold" (from L. tenere; see tenet). Sense of "have a guest" is 1490; that of "amuse" is 1626. Entertainer "public performer" is from c.1535.

We mustn't think of "entertainment" as a sort of passive thing, like being entertained by the TV set or by a swinging mobile hanging over your crib making meaningless motions. I'm thinking it's an active participation, as in "entertaining guests" in your home, which appears to have been the original usage. Especially in reading, one must put out some effort to be entertained; and there is often joy in discovering on a third reading certain gems that were overlooked before.

The same for thoughts finely expressed. (I did not say "elegant", "elaborate", or "opaque.") An old medieval philosophical aphorism regarding hylomorphism, the inextricable union of matter and form, ran "Every thing is some thing." You cannot have a story that is all subject matter, nor one that is all form. The latter will take the reader nowhere - one may as well read a thesaurus. The former will throw verbal obstacles before the reader's entertainment.

Steven Francis Murphy said...

Sure, Nancy, I see that sometimes the mess is created by politics or gender issues, or racism, etc. I do not have a problem with that. But the closer the story moves towards the polemical, the more likely I am to:

A. Predict the outcome accurately (a deal breaker, I put the book down every time)

B. Stop caring what happens to the characters (another deal breaker)

Case in point, Cory's latest Orwell ripoff. I picked it up at the bookstore, read the first chapter, predicted that there would be an overthrow of the powers that be that imprisoned the protag and sure enough when I zip to the back, that is exactly what happens.

Of course, I found the method by which the protag was extracted from jail failed to suspend my disbelief. If police from a state agency entered a federal facility through force, the federal agency would respond with force in turn. Cory should have studied his Civil Rights history a little more closely.

In any case, I put the novel back on the shelf and I haven't looked at it since.

Cory's is a message book that preaches to the choir. Conversely, we could pick any of your novels and probably the one that comes closest to having a political message is Nothing Human.

And while it is a cautionary tale, I never heard the thumping of an ideological bible in the background. The reason is that I was interested to see how the characters dealt with their situation.

For your novel, it met the primary mission of entertainment. Cory's failed in my mind. It really ought to be placed in the Current Events section at Barnes and Noble.

But that is just my two cents. I'm a notoriously impatient reader.

S. F. Murphy

Mark said...

I can only say that I myself read for both entertainment and education/thought provocation/"betterment", but there has to be a balance. I've read novels that really don't make one think but are entertaining, and promptly sold them when done. I've slogged through some that are fictionalized editorials, and promptly sold them when done, or not even bothered getting done.

I've also read/watched/listened to some works whose message I disagreed with, but were well enough presented to maintain my interest and appreciate their craft.

Having been in sales for a few years I've learned that foremost, one must entertain (to hold an audience's attention), for if that's lacking they won't listen to the message long enough to agree or disagree. The most one should expect in the case of such ennui is "I'll think about it."

BTW Heinlein has a great quote in re this topic in Grumbles From The Grave.

So, while an Enduring Classic has the neo-cortical stimulation going for it, it must also have Entertainment value. Art that's merely amusing may last for only a bit, not long, but certainly more than a strictly didactic piece.

Give the people what they want-with the pill they need hidden in the middle.