Entertainment and the novel

“Entertaining” is often thrown around and almost never defined, and its implicit definitions have assumed such a plethora of meanings that I’m not sure it still has any meaning, like a symbol so overloaded—the white whale, roses—that it collapses under its epistemological baggage. The issue arises because some correspondents and one commenter in Science Fiction, literature, and the haters wrote about it; the commenter says of science fiction readers:

They are looking for entertainment–space opera–and not a metaphysical journey. Just my 2 cents worth, adjusted for the cost of living since the expression first appeared.

Maybe: but what does “entertainment” mean in this context? Or in the context of any novel or work of art? Does it mean novelty? Continuity? Plot? Structure? Or some combination thereof? As one interrogates what entertaining means, one gets closer and closer to being a critic. Most of the usage about it seems to imply that challenging or unusual novels aren’t entertaining, or at least aren’t as entertaining as those novels that seem to dominate bestseller lists like locusts dominating a field of grass. Umberto Eco gives his thoughts Reflections on The Name of the Rose (which is only apparently available, and used at that, in the UK):

The reader should learn something either about the world or about language: this difference distinguishes various narrative poetics, but the point remains the same. The ideal reader of Finnegans Wake must, finally, enjoy himself as much as the reader of Erle Stanley Gardner. Exactly as much, but in a different way.

Now, the concept of amusement is historical. There are different means of amusing and of being amused for every season in the history of the novel. Unquestionably, the modern novel has sought to diminish amusement resulting from the plot in order to enhance other kinds of amusement. As a greater admirer of Aristotle’s Poetics, I have always thought that, no matter what, a novel must also—especially—amuse through its plot.

There is no question that if a novel is amusing, it wins the approval of the public. Now, for a certain period, it was thought that this approval was a bad sign: if a novel was popular, this was because it said nothing new and gave the public only what the public was already expecting.

I believe, however, that to say, “If a novel gives the reader what he was expected, it becomes popular,” is different from saying, “If a novel is popular, this is because it gives the reader what he was expected of it.”

The second statement is not always true.

Perhaps, but what of a novel with a strong plot expressed in unusual ways, like Ulysses? And even then, what is the difference between a “strong” and “weak” plot? The more I try to imagine how I would define them, the more they slip through my hands.

Elsewhere, Nigel Beale says a good book needs:

1) to find and revel in funny, beautiful, thought-provoking phrases, 2) dwell on profound paragraphs that contain useful truths about life and human nature, 3) lose myself in the lives of exceptional characters.

I’m not sure if that counts as entertaining or not, and, if so, why it does and others don’t. It also gels with Eco’s comment about modern literature decoupling entertainment from plot. Some novels I love don’t have much of Beale’s second criteria, or at least not explicitly—like Elmore Leonard, for example. And is a character exceptional for what the person does (explorer, astronaut, spy?) or for how the person is described (like Marilyn Robinson or Tom Perrotta’s novels).

Entertainment also seems to drift with experience: what I found entertaining at 12—like Robert Heinlein—I can’t or can barely read now, and what I like now—such as To The Lighthouse—I wouldn’t have accepted then. For me, entertainment involves novelty in language and content, and the more I read, the harder that becomes to achieve, and so for prolific readers (or, I suspect, watchers of movies), one has to search harder and harder for the genuinely novel. Demands grow higher, perhaps helping to open the supposed rift between high and low, or elite and mass, culture. When entertainment is cited as a factor of pleasure or not, I think many of those who use it are talking past one another, and without turning this into a philosophical discussion—too many of those turn into word battles, as Paul Graham says at that link: “Wittgenstein is popularly credited with the idea that most philosophical controversies are due to confusions over language.” Richard Rorty deals with the same issue less pejoratively in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Those who would talk about entertainment should also be ready to talk about what they mean, but it appears too few are.

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