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!