Entertainment Value

Friday, February 01, 2008
"The novel may stimulate you to think. It may satisfy your esthetic sense. It may arouse your moral emotions. But if it does not entertain you it is a bad novel."

W. Somerset Maugham
When I am stuck for something to ramble on about here, I crack open The Quotable Writer to a random page and use whichever of the quotations on the two facing pages strikes a chord. Today is such an event. The quotation above resonated strongly with me, as it echoes a thought that I have often found myself struggling with.

Over the years, I have attended in several Creative Writing classes, attended workshops, and been part of writing groups. The first seem to generally focus on technique, structure, and style. These are all good and useful things to know. However, when taught in an academic environment, they tend to get overly concerned with literary elements and less on getting a story told.

When I sit down to write, first and foremost, I strive to present an entertaining story. I want my readers to feel that their time and money are both well-spent. I think it's only a small percentage of readers who will remember the literary style or attention to the properly extended metaphor. My goals is to have the maj0rity of readers finish the story feeling that they've been on an enjoyable voyage getting from the first page to the last (and hopefully wanting more).

This is not to say that I don't hope to present intriguing ideas or pose questions of ethics, morality, or spirituality. It is the characters' journeys as they explore these issues—whether internally or externally—that I find make a story particularly compelling and memorable. This isn't to say, of course, that a good dollop of action isn't nice too.

There are too, I know, who scoff at any media produced solely with the intent to "entertain". I can recall very few of these that did not also try to accomplish at least one of the other three goals that Maugham mentions. The issue really is which of these was a priority for the author. For most readers, it's really about entertainment value. Value, as measured in dollars and hours. Writing and publishing are, in the end, businesses. The ideal situation is to reach as wide an audience as possible with one's work.

Solid entertainment will nearly always sell better than superb craftsmanship—although sloppy work will always get you notice (and probably not the kind you want). Unlike other merchandise, people don't tend to return books to the seller as "defective" because the quality writing was below their expectations. (There might be people who do this, but I don't know anyone who has ever done it.) The long-term result, though, is that those readers will most likely not look for that author's name again the next time they're looking for something to read. They will, however, remember those who showed them a good time—gave them value for their time and money.

Isn't that what we all want?
  1. JD

    Oh yes, that comment encapsulates it all. No matter how well you technically write, if people aren't entertained, they won't read.