Entertainment versus Serious Fiction

In my “Art of Fiction” class, we begin with a student presentation on an element of fiction and then proceed to workshops. Yesterday, the presentation was on plot. In the handout, the presenters made a distinction between an “entertainment story” and a “serious story”, saying that the former was genre stories and mass-trade paperbacks and the latter was more “cerebral” and focuses on internal character development, and that interaction between characters will be the agent of change in the character.

This distinction made my blood boil.

First, there is the nomenclature of “entertainment” versus “serious.” Those titles imply that a genre story can’t possibly have any seriousness or any insightful moments as it is purely for entertainment and that, on the reverse side, a literary story cannot have any entertainment value. As my professor pointed out in the discussion that ensued, entertainment is the main point of fiction. In fact, I would argue that even when readers search for deeper meanings and compose theses on what the fiction is trying to say, they are deriving entertainment out of that. Entertainment is the essence of fiction.

It was not just the titles that irked me, however. The idea that only in “serious” fiction can character interactions determine the plot is completely erroneous. Sure, in some genres, there is more of an emphasis on things that happen, such as in the Da Vinci Code when the plot is forwarded by things being stolen, discovered, killed, etc. However, many genre books use characters to propel the plot, and all good fiction has the same opportunity for change in a character that the handout ascribes to “serious” fiction.

But perhaps what was the most horrifying for me was in the discussion we had about the nomenclature, everyone kept describing literary fiction as “good” and conveniently left off adjectives for “other” fiction. Yet I must ask, where is the measure for “good” coming from? Certainly if it were coming from sales, genre fiction would be the best. If it were coming from what the average person reads, again, genre fiction would be the best. I myself, an English major, don’t particularly enjoy literary fiction over genre fiction: I’ll read it and discuss it, but the books that keep me awake until three in the morning tend to be that “entertainment” stuff.

My personal theory is that literary writers began calling their own work “good” and genre fiction “bad” because they were spurned by bad book sales. Forced to become professors in order to pay the bills and have time to write, they then influenced (and perhaps belittled) students who wanted to be genre fiction into similarly having such disdain, and a chain reaction was started that resulted in an academia separate from the real world.

I refuse to be a part of that chain reaction. I will read what I want to read – genre and literary fiction alike – without shame and judge all writing based solely on that: the writing.

6 thoughts on “Entertainment versus Serious Fiction

  1. I agree %100 here.

    Did your class discuss women’s fiction? Even in bodice rippers, a lot of times character interactions forward the plot. So under your professor’s definition, it would be “serious” fiction. Uh huh, sure.

    Or The Hunger Games, no one can argue that Katniss didn’t act because of her feelings for other characters or that that the “interaction between characters wasn’t the agent of change in the character”.

    I’m assuming you didn’t start a heated debate in class, to which I’m very impressed. I would have had a fit right there. Great topic

  2. I came as close as I ever have to starting a debate, but I wasn’t sure I could keep my emotions in check and not say something rude. But I think the whole class could feel the steam coming out of my ears.

  3. Very insightful and I applaud your strength of character and courage of your literary convictions. School can definately warp your mind in the sense that instead of encouraging you to think, we can be told how to think, and this is especially easy to do when you’re young and first starting out. I am sop proud of you.

    A couple of things I would throw out there:

    I love your ideas about how literary fiction came to be called “good” and the other stuff “bad”.

    Francine Prose made an excellent argument about what happens in colleges and to our studies of books in general in her book, “Reading Like a Writer.” Next to my Priscilla Long book, this is now my favorite writing book though it is like chocolate for the reader’s soul as well.

    Jonathan Franzen wrote about this in his essay, “Mr. Difficult.”

    Finally, I am still on my Junot Diaz kick, listening to his readings and presentations on my ipod as I drive the kiddos around. He has brought this up several times in different talks. He is a literary writer and professor at a creative program, as well as a graduate of one. I found somewhere that he teaches a class on genres, and his novel references everything from Dune to The Stand.

    Keep up the great work!

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