Art vs. entertainment

Jealousy is an emotion we unpublished novelists know too well.

Every success story of an out-of-nowhere-bestselling writer stirs up a storm of frustration, indignation, and, at times, incredulity.  Why not me?  What did that guy or gal do that I didn’t do?  Why does he or she get a lucky break when I’ve been working so hard for so long?

Never mind that in many cases, the wunderkind has worked equally hard, if not harder.

I had already considered myself a die-hard fantasy fan when J.K. Rowling came onto the scene.  I couldn’t believe how many people who had never picked up a book with a dragon on the cover were suddenly under the spell of this modern-day fairy tale packed with borrowed mythologies and tried-and-true tropes of the genre.

A self-purported purist, I refused to read a single page of that upstart’s story.

Eventually, I caved—in no small part because of my wife’s relentless insistence that it was worth my while to read the series—but I’m pretty sure my initial goal was to find evidence that the imposter and her Chosen One storyline could not stand up to the true fantasy authors I had enjoyed for years.

In hindsight, a couple of things have become clear: One, J.K. Rowling is a very talented storyteller, and it would have been a mistake if I had let my jealousy keep me from enjoying the epic tale of Harry Potter and pals.

But jealousy plays only a part in my wont to make snap judgments about “the next big thing in books.”  The other side of the coin is my presupposition that sudden popularity somehow invalidates the integrity of the literary work.

In other words, if the masses love it, it can’t be excellent.

Yes, even a genre geek like myself can be a literary snob sometimes.  I was wrong about Ms. Rowling, and I’m glad I gave Dan Brown and Suzanne Collins a shot.  However, I stand behind some of my other suspicions of overnight successes.

For instance, when 14-year-old Christopher Paolini’s Eragon hit big, I swallowed my skepticism and read the book cover to cover—and was bored out of my gourd.  The predictable story failed to draw me in, and I found the writing itself adequate at best.

How could this book have become a best-seller? I wondered, and then I attributed it to the hype of a his being a teenager author.  Perhaps his age was more of a novelty than his fiction.

To be fair to Mr. Paolini, I probably wasn’t the target audience for his books, and I know of some adult fans whose interest in the Inheritance Cycle has waned from volume to volume.  But if I had been a younger reader who hadn’t been introduced to certain fantasy themes in other series, I might have enjoyed his story more.

Then Twilight came out, and I found myself rolling my eyes all over again.  I could forgive angsty teen girls for falling under the garish and sparkly spell of a vampire-human-werewolf love triangle, but why were grown women so infatuated with this insipid story?  I even tried reading it to see if I were missing something obvious.  Nope.  The prose was amateurish; the plot, slow and simplistic.

Clearly I wasn’t the key demographic for that series either.

But it was some time during Twilight’s rise to fame that phrases like “guilty pleasure” and “mind candy” started popping up.  Fans of Stephenie Meyer’s fiction would claim that the books were just fun, and even if they were superficial in some ways, it was a fun escape.  And isn’t that what entertainment is all about?

In a word: absolutely.

But is that what art is all about?

Um…well…

And this is where I start sounding elitist all over again.  Entertainment tends to cater to the masses because most forms of entertainment strive to make a profit.  The more fans you get, the more dinners you get to eat at Red Lobster.  In the entertainment industry, the quantity of fans (i.e., customers) trumps quality of the work (i.e., product).

I have no problem with grouping television shows, films, and video games in this category (though many examples do much more than entertain), but somehow books seem like they should aspire to be something more than escapist fun.  Art shouldn’t just be about a rollicking good time on a page.  Art should be deep, its themes and cultural commentaries transcendent of the story itself.

Entertainment is bubble gum.  It tastes good for a while, but it loses its flavor quickly and has no lasting nourishment.  Art, on the other hand, is a savory feast that assails the senses with complicated flavors, an experience that sticks with you even after you leave the dinner table.  Sometimes that lingering feeling is the result of a satisfied stomach; sometimes it evokes a decidedly uncomfortable sensation.

Therein lies the problem: Art isn’t about making people happy.  It’s about making them think and feel a wide range of emotions, exposing them to different aspects of the human condition.  It’s not primarily escapist because that might preclude the possibility of empathy and internalization.

Alas, there is no “art industry.”  Companies that seek to make money pump promotional dollars into what a snob might call drivel but what the masses call a beach book or “a fun read.”  Companies publish what people pay for, and apparently, the people want steamy stories without a lot of substance.  Hence, Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’ve heard people say that writers shouldn’t get jealous when a book does well because there are plenty of readers for all.  Also, any book that gets people to read is a win for all writers.  I might agree if I didn’t suspect that superficial and salacious treats like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey (which, incidentally, started as Twilight fan fiction) were taking literature to the lowest common denominator.

I realize it’s bad form to criticize other authors, especially since my fiction has yet to be published.  We live in a democracy where people vote with their money, and thanks to e-books and social media, self-publishing and self-promotion have never been easier.  Anyone can be an author.  Allegedly, anyone can become a successful author as long as they give us customers exactly what we want.

But what about what we need?

Perhaps people need to escape.  Perhaps they need books (and movies and TV and video games) to shut out reality and lose themselves in makebelieve.  Perhaps books should encourage us to turn our brains off instead of turning them on.

No.  I just can’t buy that.

Then again, maybe even this cynicism comes right back to jealousy.  Maybe there are depths to today’s bubblegum fiction that simply elude me, and my fear for the fate of literature is unfounded.  Maybe it’s OK for books to aspire to be entertaining and profitable and nothing more.

Because if I ever become a bestselling author—if my novels prove appealing to the masses—no doubt there will be some aspiring author who pages through my book and questions the quality therein.  Maybe I’ll be accused of being shallow or a sellout.  That’s the thing about entertainment and art: brilliance is in the eye of the beholder.

I just hope the next literary triumph skews a little more toward artistic than entertaining.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Art vs. entertainment

  1. Really thoughtful post. I have a similar theory (in less technical terms) that all books are either like a friend or like a challenge. I think the challenge would be a parallel to your art category, and entertainment would fall under my friend group of books. At the time I was thinking more of children’s books or other books you love, but that just make you happy and don’t make you think about something in a new way. If that makes sense…anyways, I think both are important.

    • Nice analogy. I don’t want to give the impression that all I read and enjoy is Faulkner and other very challenging texts. There’s nothing wrong with a little light-hearted fluff now and then. Just like there’s nothing wrong with having dessert once in a while. It’s when we repeatedly replace the main course with sweets that problems begin.

    • Another nice analogy (desserts vs meal). Could not agree more.

  2. There was a recent episode of Newsroom(on HBO) that deals with this same theme. Only its about tv, obviously. Personally, i think there is plenty of room for both-i enjoy light reads sometimes and i enjoy meatier things sometimes. But even light reads have to be coherent and well writted(read-not Twlight).

    • I agree with you, Kim. Variety is the spice of life, after all. I just wish something with a little substance would blow the world’s collective mind. I felt Hunger Games was a thoughtful novel; it had depth and was more than just shocking an audience with minors dishing out violence on other minors. There was a social commentary and nuance. And Harry Potter didn’t cater to lazy readers, especially in the final tomes of that series.

      I wonder what it says about our society when streamlined stories targeted at a young audience takes the arena of adulting reading by storm. Why is it such a crime to challenge the reader? Why don’t today’s readers want to be bothered with thinking?

      Of course, I’m speaking in broad generalizations. It just seems like the only way to get an “average person” to pick up a book is to pump a plot full of violence and sex. Spectacle sells—in books, TV, films, video games, and so on.

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