To enlighten or entertain?

July 22, 2009

A friend and I had an interesting discussion last night about what sort of story is easier to sell – those written to enlighten, or those written to entertain. By ‘enlighten’ I mean those stories that intend to bear witness to some fundamental truth of the human condition; by ‘entertain’ I mean those that were written to captivate or titillate without real consideration given to what commentary they might provide.

Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ might be considered enlightening – inspiring meditation on a fundamental truth of human behavior, while Stephen King’s ‘A Very Tight Place’ – about a man trapped in an overturned portable toilet – might be considered merely entertaining. (Note that we weren’t discussing if one type of story was somehow superior to the other, only which was an easier sale).

I thought about this all night.

I reached an odd conclusion… our initial premise was flawed. The question of which story is easier to sell is moot.

The more I think about it, the less I believe you can separate entertainment and enlightenment. Both the writing and the reading experience are incredibly subjective. Enlightenment is in where and how you look for it, and what one man finds mindless and entertaining, another might see as a profound revelation. To some folks, King’s ‘A Very Tight Place’ may be the deepest exploration of mankind’s will to survive ever written.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the function of story is somewhat beyond the author, whether we like it or not. All we can do is send our creations out into the countryside and hope they don’t hurt too many of the peasants.

So, to enlighten or to entertain? You can set out with the intention of doing one or the other, but if your story reaches a large enough audience, I think it will inevitably achieve both, or neither as the case may be…



One Response to “To enlighten or entertain?”

  1. JB Dryden said

    I believe, too, that there can be a distinction between stories that are ‘entertaining’ and those that are ‘enjoyable.’ One can have a pleasant story that is enlightening and not entertaining (by your definitions) but still be enjoyable in a slightly less-than-titillating way.

    I also agree that a discussion of which is more saleable or – perhaps a better distinction – which is more marketable is rather moot. Stories of the strangest variety are rocketed to the top of the NYT Best-Seller list. As you know from me, though, the story should never be able the sale :-)

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