Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Writing to Entertain

Okay, this is a subject I've touched on before, and both Molly and Sinead always smack me in the head for coming back to it, but a few things I've heard and read lately got me thinking about it once again. I keep coming back to this, and my fellow drunk writers keep smacking me about it, because we all know that I once was someone who looked down on books written for entertainment. But that was before I started learning about the publishing industry and thinking about what kind of books I really wanted to write. Boy was I wrong-headed.

And here are some of my perpetually never answered questions...
  • Why is it considered a bad thing, or at best an embarrassing leisure pursuit, to read books purely for entertainment?
  • Why is writing books, with the primary goal of entertaining readers, considered "beneath" many writers?
  • Why does the publishing establishment belittle the popular books (that make the bulk of their money and therefore allow them to publish other more "worthy" books) by using words like "trash" or "fluff" or "bodice ripper", or by likening them to the adult film industry, or by diminishing their authors by calling them "chicks"? (Or damned scribbling women.)
I admit this kind of semi-snobbish dichotomy exists in other disciplines in the arts. Graphic art/vs fine art. Opera vs pop music. Ballet vs Hip Hop. David Mamet vs Andrew Lloyd Webber. Hollywood vs independent films.

But I would argue that no other group of creative people try so hard to belittle other creative people than literary authors and critics do to genre authors.

Romance bestseller, Jo Beverley, talked about this in her keynote luncheon speech at the Ottawa Romance Writers conference a couple of weeks ago, with lots of references to other periods in time, when it appears no such distinction was made, and she wondered when it all changed. Her great speech raised my indignation about this issue again... She called on all romance writers to stop using the words "just" and "only" when describing what we do. "It's only a romance novel." "I'm just a romance writer." And she's so right. Romance authors say things like that ALL THE TIME. It's unconscious. And often we're just beating others to the punch to avoid confrontation. I'm sure it's partly because we're mostly women, but why do we diminish our hard work like that??? Work that so many people love and admire and want to pay good money for? Work we sacrifice so much to create??? Crazy.

Then my indignation leapt up again after Donald Maass made his much read The Career Novelist, available for a free download. I'm not criticizing his book. I think it offers tons of great advice and have read it. But him posting it online prompted me to open it and skim parts of it quickly again. One of his chapters, titled "The Bottom Line: Story Telling" is subtitled: "Why Trash Sells". ACK! So if even Donald Maass, who earns his very good living from representing (and writing) books that emphasize good story telling, is calling such books trash.

Why? I suppose because he wanted to sell lots of copies of his non-fiction book (and the subtitle's provocative) and he probably also wanted to maintain some credibility with the literati who seem to think all books that entertain must defacto be trash. And to be fair to Mr. Maass... I agree with much of what he says in that chapter. He talks about how certain bestselling books are not well written, in that they may have clunky prose or too many cliches, repetitive words etc... And he admits that these flaws didn't matter to him as a reader. He couldn't put these books down, because of the story telling. (He mentions Sidney Sheldon whose books I remember devouring as a teen. My list right now would include Dan Brown. Anyone who's studied the craft of writing knows that little Da Vinci book of his was not technically well written... and yet, it was highly readable and entertaining.) But I maintain that applying the label of "trash" to such books, implies that story telling, in and of itself, has no value, and that's sad and just wrong headed. How can it possibly be trash, i.e. worthless, if so many people spent their good money to get their hands on a copy and read it? And why would writers, who spend their time crafting great stories, working on the turning points and reversals and pacing, so that readers won't want to put their books down, let their work be so easily diminished?

Short aside: I also wish the great hosts of the Smart Bitches blog didn't use the word trashy. I think it only exacerbates the problem. But it is provocative and perhaps the name draws people to the site who might not otherwise go to a romance novel review site... Who knows. I admit, if I were them, I might have done it, too...

But the final thing that prompted me to make this post, was a segment I heard on CBC radio yesterday morning, discussing a recent quote from one of the current Nobel prize jury members on why so few American writers have been considered for, or won, the Nobel prize for literature. Part of the jury member's answer? Because American writers try too hard to entertain. Oh, what a crime. Writing books that people want to read. For shame.

During the same segment I learned that the records of the Nobel prize jury discussions regarding Ernest Hemmingway have recently been made public, and turns out he was considered and rejected several times over the 10-15 years before they finally awarded him the prize. Some of the reasons for rejecting him in the earlier years were things like: he jumps right into the story; he just draws the reader in with little set up. Those are criticisms???? Those are requirements of any novel, literary or otherwise these days.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Stephen King, or JK Rowling, or Norah Roberts should necessarily be up for a Nobel Prize in literature. I don't think the big literary prizes should be popularity contests and/or mirror the bestseller charts. I think it's good that such prizes exist to support the writers of less commercially viable novels and champion the writers who pour tons of philosophy or psychology other such fields of study into their work to create thought provoking fiction that might even forward or change the way societies look at the world. That's all great. (Not that popular fiction isn't capable of doing that, too... It's just not typically the primary objective.)

But reserving some prizes and awards, for books that most readers might never discover without those prizes, doesn't make books written to entertain readers, or written with a more determined goal of appealing to a lot of readers, deserve labels like trash or fluff. Not in my opinion. (Says the unpublished writer of trashy fluff.)

Rant over.


Sinead M said...

Maureen, I love your rants. Love them. I find in most people's minds romance is so far down the totem pole, they won't admit to even reading them.
It's perfectly fine to read Dan Brown, but a well crafted, beautifully written romance novel is somehow not socially acceptable.
Some of the covers don't help, but even still.
I have friends who read novels with strong romantic elements, but won't pick up a romance because they're "awful"...
It's like they read one years ago, decided it wasn't any good and refused to ever pick up another romance.
I've never heard anyone write off mysteries, because they read a bad one.
I think the only other genre who gets as little respect, might be horror.
But I think horror comes out ahead of romance.

Amy Ruttan said...

Awesome rant Maureen. You're so right. We as writers of the so called "Fluff" and or "trash" need to own it.

I am a romance writer because I love them and I love entertaining.

Because of that old song my Dad used to sing to me "The entertainer, the star of the show."

Kimber Chin said...

Maureen, another great post!
I SO agree.
The first step
to gaining respect
is to respect ourselves
(gosh, that sounds deep, doesn't it?)

Gotta watch the language.
(And yeah, I'm guilty of
letting the p??? comments slide).

There's more
but being a simple gal,
I'm going to work on the first two first.


Kimber Chin said...

Oh, Maureen,
if you're looking for blog topics,
I'd really like to hear your thoughts on whether there will be some 'lightening' up in romance.

I know I'm ready for some light, fun romances.
I can't be the only one
(or maybe I am)

Molly O'Keefe said...

Great post Maureen -- and I thought about Jo's comments too. The way we use, Just and only ALL THE TIME.

I also think it's time for us to actually own our time. Because of the way we feel about our books, or our work, it's often FOR ME, the last thing that gets done at my house. It can be pushed aside for just about anything and it's time to set up some concrete walls around writing time.

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