Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Let Me Entertain You

with 4 comments

Well, I said I was going to get into trouble, and I did.   And I know from long experience that the people who love Georgette Heyer are fierce on her behalf.

Let me start, however, with this:

>>>The FIRST purpose of fiction—any fiction—is to entertain—at least in the sense of attracting and keeping the reader’s attention. <<<

That’s Robert, and part of the problem is that he and  I are using the word ‘entertain’ differently.

The first purpose of any communication, written or otherwise, literature or otherwas, is to attract and keep the reader’s attention–but it can do so in a lot of different ways, and not only by “entertaining.’  To entertain is not simply to keep and hold a reader’s attention, but to do so by providing an escape from reality, a sort of light emotional drug.  Truth, historical or philosophical or otherwise, is to be abandoned if it is unpleasant or uncomfortable, or if it requires too much work on the part of even the least qualified reader.  The point of entertainment is to help us relax.

And no, I’m not sneering at that.  I’m just saying that a novel (or a poem or a play or a movie) whose primary effect is that is not only not ‘literature,” but is objectively poorer as a novel (or whatever) than one that does more than that. 

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t like entertainment, every once in a while.   I mean, come on, guys.  I own a copy of  Dude, Where’s My Car?

A writer can attract and hold a reader’s attention without producing ‘entertainment”–by offering knowledge, or insight, or textual virtuosity, for instance.   And if we’re going to consult readers, then we should consult the best, not the poorest.  Swann’s Way will not appeal to most readers, but it does appeal to most of the best of them, and that’s about as far as we can take a reference to what readers do and do not ‘like.”

What’s more, the issue is not what is taught in  English departments, but what the best of readers read on their own time because they want to.  We keep getting hampered in this discussion by the assumption that we can equate ‘literature” with “what is taught in schools and universities.”

But the very idea that intellectual work of any kind properly belongs in a university is brand new.  It only arose around WWII and it only really took hold in the Seventies.   As late as the Kennedy administration, most ‘intellectuals’ didn’t teach in universities and most of them didn’t want to.  For literary intellectuals especially, the idea was that work in a university was destructive of talent and integrity. 

As for this

>>>Right after that is selling enough copies to keep the author from starving so there can be other work>>>

That’s like saying that the purpose of a chair is to make sure the furniture maker can feed his family.   But that’s not true, of course.  No matter what may be uppermost in the furniture maker’s mind, the purpose of the chair is for people to sit in, and if the furniture maker makes a chair that falls apart the first time anybody heavier than a mosquito attempts to use it, it’s a bad chair, and inferior to the ones people can sit in, even if it manages to catch a wave of fashion and sell several million copies, thereby making the furniture maker rich. 

The purpose of a novel is to give us a picture of the way we live now, and the truer the picture the better the novel.

i completely agree that most of that avalanche of “literary fiction”–no plot at all, virtually unreadable, boring as hell–is NOT literature, but neither is  Agatha  Raisin, and they both fail for the same reason, even if they go about it in different ways.  

As for the writer’s intentions, in the long run, they are, literally, beside the point.  The problem with deconstruction is not that it abandons any concern for what a writer intended to do, but that it abandons any concern for what the work actually does. 

Milton did not intend to glamorize Satan, and rebellion, in Paradise Lost, but he did it just the same, and any reading of that work that does not take that into account is a bad reading.  In the end, what Jane Austen does is not just ‘critique’ the “place of women in society,” but eviscerate a social system that both relied on parents to  protect their children and raised those parents in such a way that they were often completely incapable of doing so.  It doesn’t matter what Austen intended.  It only matters what she did. 

There’s actually a name for that tendency we have to think that the work must “mean’ what the writer says he “intended” it to mean:  the Intentional Fallacy.  

Not only does the writer often doing something other than he intended to do, he often lies about his intentions.   Writers make a living by lying.  People keep pointing that out, but then not paying attention to it.

I really do think that the biggest hurdle we have here, however, is to assume that when we’re talking about “literature,” we’re talking about what schools teach, and what professors say is good and bad. 

The university does not set the standard here, and it never has.  It has its own agenda, and at the moment it has several of them.   Studying literature is different than engaging it as a reader, and a lot different than writing it.  I know very few successfully publishing writers who teach with any regularity in literature departments.  Even  I don’t teach in a literature department.

The purpose of the novel is to give us a picture of the way we live now, and to do that truthfully and with insight.  To the extent that it does that, it is a good novel.  To the extent that it doesn’t, it isn’t.  It doesn’t matter a damn if it has one reader or one million. 

But “entertainment”–lightweight escapism that falsifies the world so that we can stop worrying about it–is in no way part of the p urpose of any good novel. 

A NOTE:  This is on the order of if I have to say this one more time.

I have said, over and over again, that I do NOT consider most contemporary “literary fiction’ to be literature.

I do NOT think that the mere fact of not having readers is an inidication that a work is “good,” I do NOT think that not having a plot is an indication that the work is “good,” I do NOT think that precious little stories about suburban anomie are anything but silly wastes of time.

I’m NOT talking about “literary fiction’ here.

I’m talking about literature.

Written by janeh

November 18th, 2008 at 6:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Let Me Entertain You'

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  1. Got it; it isn’t the author’s intentions, it’s what the author actually creates that determines the effect and quality of the work.

    I’m a bit surprised to read that “But the very idea that intellectual work of any kind properly belongs in a university is brand new.” I thought the exact opposite – that most intellectuals did work at a university, especially before the professional-training stuff increased in importance. There were exceptions, of course – the starving artists and writers, some of whom eventually managed to support themselves with their efforts. And there’s the interdependently wealthy gentleman from the older English novels who has a marvelous library in his country house and can use it instead of having to labour for most of the time to keep a roof over his head. I tend to think these people are mostly fictional, but I suppose some of the old explorers who translated literary works and studied everything from fossils to folklore would be examples of the type.

    I do quite see that getting an imprimatur from a modern university English department is probably not a guarantee of literary merit, but nevertheless, there has to be some procedure for determining which books are the best selections to expect the young to read, assuming (as I guess we all do) that learning to read (and not just decode letters) is an essential skill for the high school students. If I had to guess, I’d suspect that the present criteria are applied by a committee that eventually agrees on books that are (1) Classics (eg Shakespeare) (2) modern might-become Classics, especially with a local focus (Catcher in the Rye, Stone Angel (can’t think of an Australian example) and (3) Things Kids Will Read (modern and possibly somewhat controversial works promoted by teachers who despair of getting their students to read Shakespeare). Teaching poetry using lyrics from popular music, for example.

    There’s so many claimants for a spot in the curriculum. How do we narrow things down a bit?


    18 Nov 08 at 4:07 pm

  2. No comment on Cheryl’s question of how do we narrow things down a bit? I have no high school children of my own and don’t know any so I have no basis for commenting.

    But a comment on intention and entertainment.

    Set out to show the horrors of being a nerd in high school and it will probably be unreadable.

    Set out to write a murder story in a small town and have one character be a nerd and it may be readable.


    18 Nov 08 at 5:42 pm

  3. I read that “But the very idea that intellectual work of any kind properly belongs in a university is brand new.” as meaning that it’s a modern idea that these intellectual activities belong _to_ universities and those who sail in them more or less exclusively. In other words that they have proprietary rights to determine what is, or is not, “intellectual”.


    18 Nov 08 at 5:52 pm

  4. “The purpose of a novel is to give us a picture of the way we live now, and the truer the picture the better the novel.”

    Well, maybe, but we seem to be defining “purpose” by effect rather than author’s intent, and then saying the “best” novel is one which does something which may not have been the author’s intention at all. But I can work with it for the purposes of this forum. Three things:

    One of the ways fiction can show “the way we live now” is by contrast–to show the other ways of living, and in so doing highlight certain aspects of our present mode. Fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction are very well equipped to do this. Sometimes they don’t try, and sometimes they don’t succeed, but that’s true of all art. And it isn’t easy. Heyer–to go back to her just ofr a moment–did extensive research and maintained a formidable private library to create her illusions of the 18th and 19th Centuries. She had to inform her readers of things Austen’s readers–in 1810–could be counted on to know, and Heyer had to do this without interupting her narrative. To create a consistent and credible imaginary world or perfectly recreate a dead one is a feat worthy of consideable respect.

    Second, correct me if I’m wrong, but surely the novelist, in addition to showing “the way we live now” may also say, “this is not how we ought to live” or “this is how we should live?” Otherwise the novelist’s duties would seem to be those of a sociologist.

    Thirdly, “escape” is not always “lightweight escapism” and I believe it was Tolkien–might have been Auden–who contrasted the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter. “Truth, historical or philosophical or otherwise, is to be abandoned if it is unpleasant or uncomfortable, or if it requires too much work on the part of even the least qualified reader.” is the deserter’s creed. But Jane’s earlier “true–even if it didn’t happen” can be applied to a number of works denounced in some circles as escapism.

    It is also true that those most concerned with preventing escape are jailers.


    18 Nov 08 at 7:49 pm

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