Breaking The Stigma of Commercial Fiction: Why Writing “to Entertain” is Not A Lesser Aim

Recently, I picked up a copy of The Creative Writer’s Handbook from the used bookstore a sort of college textbook on creative writing. It is dense, detailed, and contains several short story and poetry samples from well-respected authors.

But in the opening chapter, that was a line that made me put the book down a second and just…stare at the wall, shaking my head. It went something like “when a writer’s goal is to encapsulate the whole of human experience, or more modestly, to entertain…”

This isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed a gentle, condescending pat-on-the-head towards those who write primarily to entertain. John Gardner didn’t even bother with formalities when it came to genre fiction, calling most types of sci-fi or fantasy “junk” in his guide, The Art of Fiction.

Over and over again, usually in writing books or writing classes or journal submission pages or perhaps even writing circles, I see the stigma attached to entertainment: If you write to entertain, you are lesser. You are less talented, you are less motivated, you are less creative. You’ll probably end up richer, because you’re a “sell out.” But you’re not an artist so much as you are a clown, serving as nothing more than a distraction to the sheep masses while the starving literary types plow through humanity’s preconceived notions and actually change the world.

I would even hazard to say that the word entertainment is portrayed shallowly in general, from television to video games, in the eyes of those who have ~better things to do~ than be entertained.

What bull.

Entertainment inspires. Entertainment saves lives. Entertainment makes us love. Entertainment connects us with lifelong friends. Entertainment makes dreams come true. Entertainment erases our prejudices. Entertainment causes social change.

How many people have changed their minds about gay marriage because of Will and Grace, or Ellen DeGeneres, or Glee? How many people have made new friends at a bar because they both liked Game of Thrones? How many actors, directors, writers, and video game designers are now living their dreams because we pay them to? How many Millenials are grateful to have grown up during the Golden Age of Disney? How would we have Lost or Battlestar Galactica or Guardians of the Galaxy if there was no Star Wars? How would we have Star Wars if there was no Seven Samurai? How many writing careers started with a teenage girl writing fanfiction? How many suicides have been averted, how many bouts of depression vanquished, how many lives enriched and given purpose because someone wanted to be alive to read the next Harry Potter book?

How many people have felt less alone because of characters they related to and loved?

To call entertainment a “modest” pursuit is dismissive and pretentious. There is a false perception that escapism is as toxic for people as high fructose corn syrup or smoking (you know the old one about TV and video games “rotting your mind,” right?). I would argue the opposite –  that escapism is as essential for the human mind as a good night’s sleep. Particularly in America, the modern human being leads an incredibly stressful life. Almost 7% of Americans, about 15 million adults, suffer from major depressive disorder. I’m assuming that’s just the people who are diagnosed. 52.3% of Americans are unhappy at work. Of course there is a place for dark, down to earth literary works – the sort of books that shed light on illness, human trafficking, social injustice, or mental disorders. Some people find it cathartic to read about their own problems, and we do need serious authors to sound the alarm on the world’s problems in order to draw visibility towards them.

Equally, I am not usually a fan of vapid entertainment, but everyone has different tastes. If someone feels their life is enriched in some way by 50 Shades of Grey, or an Adam Sandler movie, or the latest formulaic crime novel, who am I to judge?

But I think hybrid works – those that impact us on a deep level while primarily written to entertain, are probably my favorite stories. Harry Potter was certainly written to entertain, but it has deeper themes of anti-racism, anti-bigotry, self-acceptance, and feminism. You could acknowledge these themes and let them impact you, or you could ignore them and simply enjoy a story about wizards. Both make for a good read, and I appreciate the accessibility that JKR left with the reader in this regard. Stories that can appeal to those who want fun escapism, but also contain something beneath the surface for any literary types out there, are the most masterful of works in my opinion.

Literary genre fiction is also pretty great, as it aims to tell an exciting story in a beautifully written way. Although I will fight tooth and nail for entertaining stories, escapism stories, and commercial stories, I do not advocate for clunky, lazy writing. Quality writing is still a priority. Those who can adequately blend both are some of my favorite authors, including Jeff Vandermeer and Neil Gaiman.

So phooey I say to those who would degrade entertainment as a lesser form of creation. We can squabble all day about what defines art, but I can promise it doesn’t need to contain the universal bredth of human experience to qualify. Usually, people say that art should evoke some response, or emotion. And I don’t find joy or laughter or fun or suspense or social engagement to be modest responses at all.