Entertaining, Significant…or Both?

UPDATE: Congrats to CateS, who won the signed copy of Friday Mornings at Nine! Please email me (MarilynBrant AT Gmail DOT Com) with your address and I’ll send it out to you! :)

Perhaps it’s because my books often straddle more than one literary genre or because I have varied reading tastes or just because I’ve railed against being categorized my whole life…but I wrestle with the issue of writing novels that are considered “entertaining” vs. “significant” all the time.

First of all, before I even attempt to define those terms, let me say that, yes, I do think it’s possible for a book to be BOTH entertaining AND significant, and I think some of the world’s greatest novels manage to do just that. (You can probably name several, and I hope you’ll put them in the comments section below. I’ll start the list rolling with my personal fave, Pride and Prejudice;-) ) However, I also think most books fall more readily into one category or the other because that’s where the writer’s intention in creating it originated…and, to some extent, where the heart of the novel can be found.

By “entertaining” I mean an escapist, frequently faster-paced read. A story that values action, humor, thrills and romance for the delight these elements bring to readers. Genre-fiction stories — romances, mysteries, thrillers — are traditionally expected to be entertaining. By “significant” I mean a story with a larger societal/universal scope — one that deals with “issues” so that it’s not about one human’s behavior but, rather, about the behavior of humanity. Typically, this is expected of upmarket women’s fiction and literary works.

Sometimes I’ll read a book that’s been dubbed a “significant” novel, and I’ll recognize that it has entertaining PARTS — some scenes that are quickly paced, a sprinkling of humor, a memorable moment of sexual tension, an action sequence that leaves the reader breathless…but, mostly, I’m aware that we’re dealing with heavy issues and the language as imagery and the characters’ introspection. The latter of which, I’ve been told, kinda kills a book that’s supposed to be “entertaining.” (Introspection — I was informed — slows the pace, dilutes the intensity and urgency of the action, decimates the suspense. Can you hear me sighing? I happen to love introspection…) Or vice versa — I’ve read “entertaining” novels that slip in a few big social issues, but I’m aware that those issues were intended to be secondary to the main plot…they don’t dominate the story.

This has made me suspect that the job of an “entertaining” novel is to make the reader FORGET he/she is reading. We, as the readers, are compelled to continue turning pages because we’ve been drawn into this story world, led on a quest for something and, by identifying with the protagonist(s), we lose ourselves.

Whereas, I think with a “significant” novel, we’re constantly being brought back TO ourselves — FINDING ourselves, if you will — because the problems addressed by the characters are so relevant to our lives and the lives of those people we love that we can’t truly escape. We cry with the protagonist because…well, what if it were us with the malignant brain tumor? What if it were our husband who’d cheated? What if our parents were the ones who’d abandoned us? Or if we’d lost a child? Or if we were the poor or the betrayed? Significant books never let us forget that we, too, are on the precipe of potential disaster.

And this is a hard dichotomy for me to deal with when writing the kind of fiction I love.

It’s hard because many of the themes I’m passionately interested in exploring as an author — coming of age, self-actualization, a woman on a life-changing journey — can be written about very seriously through the use of secondary characters and the literary devices we rely upon to create the atmosphere of significance (often death plays an important role…as does loss, disenchantment, illness, grief, prejudice and/or injustice). Or, these stories can be given a lighter touch and exist in a world of comedy, satire, irony or even wild slapstick — but this will almost certainly lead to the story being trivialized and judged on the standard of how “entertaining” it is. And therein lies the problem…the line we have to walk…the balance we need to keep.

I envy the focus a writer can achieve when the intention of his/her novel is squarely in one camp or the other. I know of a popular author whose predominantly serious and very successful literary novel took her less than two months to write. I’m convinced she could do this (a) because she’s a very talented and experienced novelist and (b) because she wasn’t concerned with the expectations or demands of a fast-paced genre-style of book. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing entertaining in her story or that I think the pacing drags…just that she wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to that while writing it. Her full focus seemed to be on those heart-wrenching, deeply emotional story themes and the use of gorgeously descriptive prose.

I’m generally not a fast writer, but I wrote the first draft of On Any Given Sundae in six weeks one summer. I revised for months afterward, but still… It was a drafting speed I’ve never been able to replicate since then, and I know it was because I was so singular in my purpose. That book, from its inception, was purely about entertainment. It was intended to be a quick and funny read. It was supposed to have steamy scenes and lots of snappy dialogue. And the premise (about an ex-football star and a dessert cookbook writer who run an ice cream shop together for the summer) is frothy and not exactly addressing big issues. (Although I tucked in a few moments of introspection because I just couldn’t help myself, LOL.)

But I was attempting to do something different with A Summer in Europe. To try to tap into a more universal side with that book (finding one’s form of creative expression, facing one’s fear of death…and life), which touches on some very human themes and, yet, I also wanted my treatment of them to be lighter and more comedic. I knew from the beginning that I was going to mix thsee threads, which left me questioning every paragraph as I wrote it: “Hey, is this passage deep enough? Oh, wait, is this funny enough?” It took me a long time to write that book.

So, what about you?! Are you consistent in your literary focus? Do you have a certain style of story you prefer to read or write — be it more genre or more upmarket — or are you sometimes conflicted, like me? What’s the fastest or longest time it ever took you to write the first draft of a book?

In honor of Mother’s Day this weekend, I’m giving away a signed trade paperback copy of my 2010 women’s fiction book, Friday Mornings at Nine, to one commenter. The novel is the story of three 40-something suburban moms who have to reevaluate their lives and determine how well their know their spouses, their friends and themselves. The winner will be selected randomly on the night of May 15th.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

About Marilyn Brant

Marilyn Brant is a chocolate addict, a music junkie and the USA TODAY bestselling author of ACCORDING TO JANE (2009), FRIDAY MORNINGS AT NINE (2010) and A SUMMER IN EUROPE (2011), all from Kensington Books, as well as a number of light romantic comedies, including THE SWEET TEMPTATIONS COLLECTION (2013) and PRIDE, PREJUDICE AND THE PERFECT MATCH (2013). Her latest novel -- a coming-of-age romantic mystery called THE ROAD TO YOU -- was just released in October 2013!
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26 Responses to Entertaining, Significant…or Both?

  1. Misty Evans says:

    Marilyn, your take on entertaining versus significant is spot on. I read both, and a few authors (imo) are able to present significant stories in an entertaining read. Jodi Picoult is one of my favorites for that reason. Her stories evolve around incredibly difficult life situations for the characters – situations I can’t imagine facing myself – but she writes a great combination of dialogue, introspection and tension that keeps me turning the pages until I finish the book. And then I want to read the story again. Her books are on my keeper shelves.

    • Misty, I’ve only read one of Jodi Picoult’s novels so far (My Sister’s Keeper) and it was riveting. I think you’re right — she has a way of writing about really BIG issues while still be very compelling. I need to read more of hers! :)

  2. Edie Ramer says:

    Marilyn, I think we can do both, be entertaining and serious. Certainly it’s what Austen did. And you did it beautifully in A Summer in Europe. I’m reading a short romance by Rachel Gibson that’s probably about 80% introspection.And a lot of what the two main characters are going through could be in a bigger ‘significant’ book. Yet it would never be called significant because of the main romantic plot.

    These serious elements are in many books that are thought of as more purely entertainment. As a reader, I like it that it’s not all fluff. The ones that are fluff, I have a hard time reading to the end. I need some grit in my book.

    Most of my reading lately has been friends’ books. I’m lucky to have many talented friends, so I’ve been reading in many directions. I wrote the first draft of my last book in 4 weeks or less. It’s a shorter book, about 63,000 words. After that, I did about 5 revisions in about 2 weeks. (A process I would never recommend to anyone.) I think my books are a blend of the serious and the entertaining. My newest series is hard to categorize. For now I’m calling it contemporary with magical elements.

    • Edie, thank you, as always, for your kindness…
      Re: Rachel Gibson, I haven’t read any of her more recent stories, but I read and loved several of her romances. From what you described, it sounds like I’d enjoy the one you’re reading now.
      As for your writing and revising speed, all I can say is that I’m SO envious!!! The manuscript I’m working on is taking me AGES to get through. It’s been a year and a half and I’m only 60% done!! I always look forward to reading your new releases, so I’m glad there will soon be another one of yours awaiting me :).
      Marilyn Brant`s last blog was …Join Me (and the B&N Book Club) for a Grand European Adventure!

  3. Beth Watson says:

    Wow, a rough draft in 6 weeks is incredible Marilyn! I’m envious. My fastest rough draft was probably 3-4 months. That book I was writing more for entertainment purposes. My YA book which is more “significant” and deals with teenage suicide took me years to write. It was hard balancing a light voice with heavy content.

    I definitely read more for entertainment, like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series or Ally Carter’s YA series. I have A Summer In Europe I just need to catch up on reading! I could use an adult book. I’ve only read like 10 books this year and they were all YA!

    • Beth, I think we can BOTH be envious of Edie!! And, besides, it’s a miracle for me if I can finish a book in under a year these days, LOL. Your YA involving teen suicide is a very significant topic, and I can imagine how important it must be for kids to have access to literature that addresses issues like that. I’ve got my fingers crossed for you on that project, as well as on all of your others :).

  4. Marilyn, you say it so well!

    I love being so entertained I am lost in the story. But those stories are usually a combination of the larger issues and entertainment, and while it is rare for me to totally get sucked in, it does happen and I love love love it when it does.

    My fastest first draft was three months, and that was because a) I already knew the history of the period extremely well, and b) my plot followed the unfolding of a real event, so I had a definite structure I had to stick to to be historically accurate and c) I lived in the place the story was set, so I had so much visual imagery to draw on.

    It was great! :)

    • Michelle,
      Thank you!
      Isn’t it amazing when a story just flows out of you like that?! I have such a hard time with the beginnings. Writing the first 3 chapters takes me months — sometimes as long as it takes for me to write the rest of the book — so I never feel that great burst of writing at the start of a project. Sometimes, though, late into a novel, as I near the end of a scene that I can imagine clearly, there is that flow (all too briefly!) and I love that feeling of the words pouring out… ;)
      Marilyn Brant`s last blog was …Join Me (and the B&N Book Club) for a Grand European Adventure!

  5. CateS says:

    When I worked, I dealt with some ‘signifcant’ issues due to the job.. so I preferred to read entertaining rather than enlightening… now I’m more of a 50/50 .. just depends on my mood… but it always has to be an enjoyable experience…

    • CateS,
      I’ve heard that from others, too, particularly family members who’ve worked in professional positions (cops, nurses, etc.) where there were lots of life and death situations. One relative, who’s heavily involved in the oncology department at the hospital and is herself a breast-cancer survivor will read only romances, preferably lighter ones. (I buy her books every year for Christmas and those are always her faves!)

  6. Jakki L. says:

    Great post, Marilyn! You know my thoughts on ASIE, and I think you did a wonderful job of balancing the entertainment and significance in the book! They meld together nicely! :D Thanks for the giveaway as well! :)

    • Jakki,
      I know I told you this last night, but your enthusiasm for A Summer in Europe really made my week! Thank you so much for your messages and for thinking I got the balance right… I tried very hard ;).
      Wishing you a wonderful weekend!

  7. Amy Remus says:

    As a reader only, this was an interesting post. I like hearing how writers feel/approach things like this. Personally, reading for me is an escape. Right now in my life there is enough cancer in our families that I don’t want to read stories about it or other sad things. I want to read stories that are so outside my reality that I can escape (romantic suspense and paranormal romance do this for me). I tried reading The Help several times but found myself bored. I finally watched the movie and while I understand its “significance” I was still bored. I truly read and watch movies for entertainment. I am a Christian and my husband and I lead a bible study group at our church, so I do read non-fiction Christian-based books on parenting or relationships, and sometimes based on just books of the Bible. I know I should read Pride and Prejudice (as well as others) one of these days. Thanks for the post!

    • Amy,
      Thanks so much for your comments and insights, too! I know I waffle back and forth on my reading tastes, but I will say, when I’m in the mood for a purely fun and entertaining read, I don’t care how much Oprah or the New York Times Book Review loved the latest depressing novel, I’m not reading it. There have been a number of books that I thought were beautifully written despite their difficult subject matter (The Lovely Bones comes to mind), but I had to read those stories when I was good and ready. In almost every case, I appreciated the books and am glad I read them, but I’d never read them again. Whereas I can think of a half-dozen light romantic comedies that I’d pick up again and again in a heartbeat ;).

  8. Catherine says:

    I am almost half finished with A Summer in Europe (I’m using great restraint or I’d be finished by now), and I can say to you that you have achieved your goal. I see significant differences in this book from your others. I do think all of your books have that introspection you have commented on. That is why I am drawn to your work. I tend to read more “significant” books as you say than “entertaining,” although sometimes I need to escape into a story and not think too much. I look for honesty in a book and that can be defined in many ways, which I won’t go into here! But I just read one scene in A Summer in Europe that was so beautiful and honest that it brought tears to my eyes.

    Currently there is a book(s) being talked about everywhere you turn. I’m sure you can guess which one I am referring to. I’ve been tempted to read it, but decided against it because of the very reasons you discuss here. A book needs to be more than a page-turner for me. It is great to be entertained; however, I need something that stays with me. Your stories stay with me! I should confess that I was an English major in college and minored in Theology, so I tend to like deep things!

    Happy Mother’s Day to you.

    • Catherine,
      You’ve been such a wonderful addition to the B&N book club discussions — I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed and appreciated your contributions. And thank you so, so much for your lovely comments here, too!! I’m thrilled to know that there have been scenes in the book that have been touching for you as well as amusing. BTW, I love that your background is in both English and Theology!! Wish you could join me and one of my best friends (the church youth director) when we’re having coffee and talking about philosophical things for 2 straight hours every Tuesday — you’d fit right in :).

  9. Janet Kerr says:

    I like to read across genres but my favorite is Suspense & Thrillers. I am still learning how to get that first draft down quick. Sometimes I just do too much research!

    A Happy Mother’s Day to all!
    Jan

    • Jan,
      I can get derailed by research far too easily as well…it’s just so interesting! I start on one topic and, before I know it, I’m watching related YouTube videos and looking up tangential things ;). Writers are people who are curious, aren’t we?! And thanks for the Mother’s Day wishes, too. Sending you the same!

  10. Dale Mayer says:

    Hi Marilyn,

    Like Edie, I’ve been reading mostly friend’s manuscripts lately and that is often all over the board, but mostly on the entertaining side. Normally I write sheer entertainment. I also write fast. Although I have so much going on lately it feels like my ms are just middling along.

    Lovely blog.
    Dale Mayer`s last blog was …4 books for FREE today and tomorrow!

  11. bn100 says:

    Very nice post. I read books in almost every genre.

  12. Liz Kreger says:

    Great blog, Marilyn. And a thinker. I wish I could write faster, but that just isn’t in the cards right now. I’m totally impressed that you’re able to get a rough draft down in 6 weeks. I tend to edit as I go, so I probably take twice as long as I need to … but by the same token, the story is usually pretty tight.

    • Liz,
      I’m so glad you liked the post — thank you! As for my rough drafts, I only wrote ONE first draft in 6 weeks, for EVERY other book, it’s taken somewhere between several months to an eternity :razz: . I like that you edit as you go, too. That’s what’s nice about those longer drafting times — it does give us the chance to reread and revise as we go along. I always feel as though I’ve completed some kind of writing version of the Iron Man, though, when I finish…LOL.
      Marilyn Brant`s last blog was …Join Me (and the B&N Book Club) for a Grand European Adventure!

  13. Amy Atwell says:

    Marilyn, this post reminds me of a saying we used to have when I worked in theater: “Never confuse art with entertainment.” When putting on a show, we always focused on entertaining the audience first. Winning awards was purely secondary. You mentioned Pride and Prejudice—for me, the writer who succeeds at both is William Shakespeare.

    Like you, I struggle to fit my stories inside a neatly labeled box. I love reading and writing romance stories, but I think a woman’s life is filled by much more than falling in love. There are layers of relationships, so my books always have families of some sort involved—creating conflict, needing healing. I like to think it adds more significance to my story, but I also think it provides broader entertainment.

    • Amy,
      I’ve heard the saying “Never confuse art with entertainment” before, but it’s so applicable here, I’m understanding it in a new light — thank you so much for that!! It’s something definitely worth remembering as I work on this new project… And I agree with you about Shakespeare, too ;).

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