2.21.2012

in defense of entertaining writing

I was in a writing workshop not long ago.  The woman leading it was a longtime teacher and newly-published author.  She passed out bookmarks on the first day of class with her book's cover splashed on one side, rave reviews on the other.  From the description, her book seemed to be straddling the line between commercial women's fiction and literary fiction.  I don't know for sure; I haven't read it.

Here is what I do know: this teacher had never deigned to read YA.  And she - as well as most of the people in the class, all of whom were writing acutely literary novels - had no idea what to do with me.  I just wasn't cultivated enough.  My story's timeline was linear.  My protagonist was a teenage girl who actually talked like a teenage girl.  The story's symbolism didn't require half an hour to explain.  I was writing with publication (as opposed to... immortality?) in mind.

I dropped out after a few weeks, red-faced and ashamed.

Here's the thing: I get it.  Writing takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort, and it's (ostensibly) our chance to leave an imprint on the world, to connect with other human beings on a limitless scale.  It's art; it ought to be meaningful.  It ought to matter.

But here's the thing, part II: I write YA.  I dabble in fairy tales, in darkness and light, in friendships and secrets and struggle and love.  I think it's highly unlikely that any of my characters will ever tut over a glass of wine as they mull over an existential dilemma.  They're probably not going to contemplate their metaphysical worth for any extended period of time.  They will not engage in profound, sixty-five-page-long bouts of nostalgia and wistful self-reflection, I guarantee.

My characters do.  They don't sit, they do.  They think while they're doing, of course; they ponder, they remember, they mull.  But mostly - they do.  And in the doing, I hope they are entertaining.

And pardon me if I sound defensive, though this is, after all, a defense: but I think that matters.  I think entertaining stories matter.  I think they have the power, just as much as literary fiction does, to change the way we view the world.  Because the truth is, just because something is fun doesn't make it vapid.  Just because it appeals to a wide audience doesn't make it mindless plastic consumerist crap.

When did we decide that art isn't allowed to be entertaining?

I believe that art is a way of communicating emotion, a way of linking people together in a shared experience.  It is a mechanism for expressing truths in ways that invite others to participate.  When I look at a painting, for instance, I am aware that I am seeing the world as the artist wanted me to see it.  I am also aware of myself, standing there, looking at that world.  I am there; the artist is there.  We are speaking without speaking.  And if the world I am looking at makes sense to me, if it is powerful, illuminating, captivating, true, then that silent conversation becomes a part of my history.  I am changed, for seeing that painting.  I know something I did not know before; I walk around with that truth inside me.



Art works when it's convincing.  When I believe the emotion, when the truth that is being presented resonates, when an experience that is not my own becomes mine - then it becomes important to me.  It matters.  It has changed me.

There is no reason that books geared toward a commercial audience can't do this.  Of course, not all of them do; but then, not all literary fiction succeeds in presenting a particularly compelling silent conversation, either.  Books that are written to entertain do the work of presenting truths in an accessible way - these stories draw readers in, take them on pilgrimages.  Just because they dash and bolt and dart and gallop doesn't mean they're incapable of conveying truths.  Plodding is not the only speed at which we can unearth what's real.

And people - actual people, a.k.a. your audience as it exists, as opposed to some vague notion of posterity to which you may wish to imagine you're writing - want to be convinced by what you write.  They want to participate.  They want to read things that resonate.  I'm not saying that books which present big, profound ideas in ways that leave little room for connection or participation are bad.  On the contrary, the ideas they present may be - probably are - brilliant, which is no small thing.

But that's not the kind of art I make.  I write to connect.  I write like a painter paints the world, speaking without speaking.  I write to convey meaning in ways that encourage others to engage, to participate, to pick up and read and put down and think and feel and know and pick up again and change.

I write my own true things.  I root them in stories that are, I hope, entertaining.

And for that, I can finally say: I don't apologize.