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.

Throwback Thursday #7 – “Beyond Boundaries”

Now that I’ve burned through most of my abandoned childhood projects, I can talk about some that still lurk in my idea box. Beyond Boundaries – which is a title that’s ultimately meaningless, but hey, I was 11 – was my first hard science fiction idea. I’m not sure what spawned it, but it was written in a similar tradition to Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert Heinlein. As far as “humans leave Earth and populate Titan or Mars with unrealistic comfort” stories go. Also, I really loved Deep Impact and Independence Day. Oh, and the television series Earth 2.

In Beyond Boundaries, the world literally slows to a stop. An asteroid hits our moon, breaking it into three large pieces that mess up Earth’s rotation on its axis (again. I WAS 11. The science wasn’t exactly sound!) After the asteroid catastrophe, NASA realizes it has about 4 years to build arks for humanity, and to find us a new home, before the Earth stops turning. There’s a fair amount of literature about why this would be a very bad thing, although impossible.

Luckily, my tween protagonist Andromeda had a NASA scientist for a dad. And Andromeda’s dad would do anything to get her safely off the planet. The story opens with a tsunami during Andromeda’s trip to the beach, which she and her friends barely manage to escape. The tsunami is one of the first signs that Earth’s time as a habitable planet is waning. Elsewhere in the world, earthquakes and radio communication suffer. I only wrote the first three chapters before abandoning it (as I usually did back then), but I intended for the first book to be a natural disaster/coming of age YA tale. Then, the second book would explain how Andromeda gets settled into her intrasteller home, including an encounter with an alien race, etc.

This is all stuff you’ve probably seen before. But despite the clichés, this story was unusually well-written for my young age. Perhaps overwritten, but the opening lines still impress me to this day. It doesn’t hold a candle to what I can do now, but I appreciate the “level up” this story symbolizes in my writing career. It was one of my first stories that 1) wasn’t a self-insert like The Flying Chameleon Clan or The Shanin Adventures, and 2) wasn’t completely derivative like The Chronicler or Agent Adrenaline. It was cliché when you look at the broader world of science fiction, but I can’t say “this is basically just X-Men or Star Wars with me in it.”

And I still keep the idea in my back pocket. It will be a very long time before I take it into serious consideration, but who knows? Maybe the idea isn’t so preposterous. There have certainly been more preposterous dystopias, utopias, and apocalyptic scenarios presented in YA.

Follow Friday! – Flash Fiction from Raven Apotheosis

In this week’s edition of Follow Friday, I encourage everyone to visit the beautifully designed blog of Edgar Hernandez – Raven Apotheosis. Edgar is a professor who posts daily short/flash fiction on his blog, primarily in *my* favorite genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy. All of these flash fiction pieces emerge from some thought-provoking prompts or caveats. He’s also a heck of a nice dude, so go check him out!

In other news, my round one betas have one week left to read and review Paradisa. Eeek! Next week will surely be a bountiful harvest of feedback :P

Additionally, I’ve spent my evenings fixing up the study, doing my back exercises, and reading through my mythology books for sequel fodder. I’m about four chapters into the outline for Paradisa’s sequel, Ascendent, despite telling myself that the next novel I work on will not be Ascendent. Alas. Perhaps getting the outline done while I’ve still got the mojo isn’t a bad thing, though. I have until November to get cracking on an outline for Still Unnamed Trippy Othello Filmmaker Metafiction Novel .