Are books just entertainment? Really?
I’ve been thinking lately about what constitutes good taste, why we read, and about reader preferences. Last night I watched another of Brandon Sanderson’s short videos from a few years ago, and I encountered this opinion he gives in the first few minutes about entertainment versus meaning in books, especially fantasy.
The gist of his point is this: “We are doing entertainment, that’s what it is…describing a statue as a rock is true…people are going to pick up your book for entertainment purposes, that’s why they go get it… . They are picking up that book to be entertained. Don’t forget to be fun.”
A few days ago, Sam Sykes tweeted a question getting at the same point. My reply was similar to Brian Staveley:
So Sanderson’s argument is at the most basic level, people read for the same reason they watch TV. The enjoyment readers get out of reading a book is just that: enjoyment, fun, comparable to riding a roller coaster, hearing a good pop song, or watching a thrilling car chase. If there’s no element of fun, then readers, or most readers, won’t be interested enough to catch other meaningful statements the author or screenwriter tries to “sneak in.” There will be meaningful statements about the nature of life, about different sorts of people finding commonality, about the experiences of others, and so on. Your readership will be smaller if you bash your reader or viewer over the head with a “message.” When Tolkien said his stories were about hobbits, he had a point, because he didn’t mean hobbits to represent any particular people in this world, left-of-middle-Earth.
I disagree with both Sanderson and Tolkien. Although they’re both right on some level, storytelling has to be deeper than that or else it’s unsatisfying. Furthermore, a “message” or “meaning” is entertaining, albeit in a different way, and in a more satisfying way than “pure fun” can be. I would go so far as to say it’s impossible to tell a story without a deeper meaning, as bad as Firefly happens to be.
My first problem is many readers, writers, and commentators think “meaning” is synonymous with bludgeoning the reader with a political statement. Political statements are too current to be enduring, they are divisive, and they risk conflating desire with morality. In other words, I might want lower taxes, or free health care, or for the state to sponsor performance art with marshmallows, but those are not moral concerns. Stories need to be about deeper concerns, if I decide to write a story about performance artists being persecuted by a harsh government, or oh say farmers being kicked off their land by banks and moving to California during the great depression, I risk reducing my readership. Not only reducing my readership, but making it unreadable and incomprehensible to people who disagree. They won’t get any message I want to get across because of their disagreement.
More likely, however, they won’t understand or read my story because it will be bad. Grapes of Wrath is a terrible book by a good writer. It’s preachy. This is a point where I agree with Sanderson: if you have a reader who disagrees, or sees himself as an example of what you’re railing against, you’re not just turning him off, you’re actually insulting him. That’s not cool, man.
But the problem with using that argument against having any meaning, and reducing your story to “entertainment” is political or social messages are only one, and the most limited kind, of meaning. They are inexorably linked to the time in which they are written. They are not archetypal, they are not moral dilemmas. They might make a good background for a story, but writing a story with only a political meaning is extremely limiting. But there is archetypal meaning that gets readers in the vagus nerve, and it will very rarely be political. Stories are always about life and death, birth and marriage, falling in love, falling out of love, self-redemption, maturation, and menopause.
When I read a book, and it is merely entertaining, I consider it a waste of time. Sanderson argues that readers are picking up the book to have a good time, and he’s right most of the time. As I’ve really tried to pay attention to why people read, I’ve found that many readers read for the same reason that someone might watch TV: it’s engaging, fun, and a way of seeing how clever other people can be when you’re exhausted after a day of work or school. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it does appear to be the way things are for many people. I remember turning to The Wheel of Time or other novels after days of being really exhausted and knowing I wasn’t going to get any sleep that night.
Most writers I know don’t read “just for fun.” If I spend weeks reading a book, I expect a lot more than I expect from a two-hour movie or a one-hour TV show. I expect hardly anything from most TV shows. At the very least when I read a book, I expect to learn something about someone (a fake person, but a person nonetheless). I hope to see a lot more; I hope to learn something psychologically that I can’t learn just from talking to regular humans. It’s not socially acceptable to sit down and interview people and learn the things you can learn from a book. Movies and TV shows just don’t go that far most of the time. That’s fine for them, but for a book I expect it at least to be sincere about what it means to be a human being.
Sanderson’s line of reasoning also neglects that deep meaningful message are entertaining in their own way. It’s not just “boobs and explosions” (or clever people) that are entertaining. Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays, for instance, are so dripping with meaning that people forget that they were entertainment, sometimes for common people. I feel entertained when I learn about a deep truth and see it put into action, even in a pop song; it’s much more satisfying than the boobs and explosions and car chases. Those things are rather expendable. I would much rather really learn something deep than see another chase, or another trek, or just another guy solving a problem. The film version of The Martian, for instance, was not that moving because it was just a guy solving problems we knew he was going to solve. The parts about isolation and human relationships were sandwiched between very simplistic “what’s he going to do next” scenes.
Compare that to Hamlet, or even one of Shakespeare’s more simplistic plays like Romeo and Juliet. With Hamlet, “what’s he going to do next” is the basic unit of suspense, but while we’re wondering about that Hamlet grapples with life and death and all the important stuff. He goes to the core of the archetypal struggle that we all experience: “Why don’t I just give up? Why do I go on like this? I could kill my uncle, but would the end result be so different from just killing myself?” Interstellar, as opposed to The Martian, was always about human relationships at all moments of the film. The science and technical dialogue were incidental. I find that more moving. If you don’t then…I don’t know. Maybe we’re just different, and that’s fine.
(Incidentally, this is my big problem with editors or agents saying “I have to be hooked,” because what constitutes a hook is so hugely subjective. I know that what hooks me is different from what hooks people who love Firefly, so exactly what are you telling me when you say you need to be hooked?)
My last point is hardest to defend. It’s very hard to write something without a deeper meaning. Fairytales, which seem to just be funny stories, are incredibly meaningful expressions of deep archetypal truths, just like dreams. And that’s the hard part: when a story has that dreamlike quality, it is so much a better story than something that’s all about the surface of life. It may be possible to write a story without that much meaningful, but I don’t think it’s at all easy to write a good story without really digging into what’s meaningful for the characters, and thereby what’s meaningful for the reader.
I’ll close with a passage from Robert McKee (I happened to land on this passage just after watching Sanderson’s video):
Never allow yourself the luxury of thinking, “It’s just entertainment.” What, after all, is “entertainment”? Entertainment is the ritual of sitting in the dark, staring at a screen, investing tremendous concentration and energy into what one hopes will be a satisfying, meaningful emotional experience. Any film that hooks, holds, and pays off the story ritual is entertainment…., no story is innocent. All coherent tales express an idea veiled inside an emotional spell. (Story, pg 129)