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.


  1. So proud of you for walking out of that class.

    I went to a literary college for Creative Writing, where everything was Cheever and James and all those other folks who didn't interest me at all 'cause they didn't speak of my world.

    I tried to dutifully follow along, but in the end it was like going to school to learn to play in a band and ending up with a cello, an ugly tux, and cramped shoes.

    It took me years to get past that, to where I'm writing straight across to the reader instead of meticulously performing for professors.

    So congratulations on seeing that long before I did. Follow your own voice and your own interests. There's nothing else you can write as well, and nothing else I'd rather read.

    1. Thanks, MC! I think it was easier for me to walk away because I hadn't invested quite so much - I can't imagine how hard it would be to "un-learn" a degree's worth of that sort of teaching. Cello indeed. But I'm glad you found your way out of that headspace and that you're embracing your inner rock star. Cramped shoes and an ugly tux - who needs 'em?

  2. Amen sister. There are only two kinds of books - good ones, and bad ones. Everything else is bullshit.

  3. I don't think the two necessarily cancel each other out. Acutely literary fiction *should* be entertaining -- if it isn't, who's going to read it? And YA obviously isn't just always mindless entertainment -- some of the greatest novels ever written just happen to be YA. I think -- perhaps?-- you feel defensive because in your own head, you are thinking that perhaps YA isn't as "good" as other fiction? If so, banish that thought forever! Books that have influenced and shaped my life were often ones that I read as a teen. They helped mold my feelings, ethics and worldview. Nothing "less than" in that!! My other closing thought is -- maybe the teacher and the other "auteurs" in class were just monumental jerks.

    1. Agreed - literary fiction ought to be entertaining, and YA can be brilliant. Unfortunately, I think your/our opinion is the exception rather than the rule. (For instance YA, even when it's amazing, frequently gets reviews like, "This was great, for a children's book!" ...Um, thanks?) I wouldn't say that I personally think YA isn't as "good" as other fiction (otherwise I'd have given up writing it a long time ago, ha!) I'm just awfully tired of the prevailing sentiment that anything that is remotely commercial or entertaining, as most YA must be in order to reach its intended audience, is somehow less-than, or devoid of all artistic merit. Writing this was actually quite theraputic. :)

      And here here to the unique and fantastic place of YA in shaping us as we grow!