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Why Do People Read? Or, Entertainment vs Art

Apologies for the incoherency of this, but it’s coming over as strands of thoughts…

Following up certain debates doing the rounds, I can’t help but think of one essential question at the moment. It might seem a bit of a tangent, but I suspect it’s central to most debates.

Should people read fiction for entertainment or for art? (By the way, Art doesn’t mean impenetrable stuff, merely something with a little more to it.)

There is a huge proportion of audiences that are demanding entertainment. Action, jokes, raunchiness, familiarity etc. On the other hand you could have deep investment in emotions, investigations into the human condition, being forced out of a comfort zone, innovation, a more striking arrangement of words in a sentence. Or (very generally) Art. Likewise, the amount of people I’ve heard slagging off literary novels for being too dull is something that frustrates me. They’re using a wrench to tackle a screw in their analysis, so to speak. “Nothing happened.” Or, “I couldn’t understand the way they wrote.” They want characters they can empathise with (likeable characters—see Adam Roberts’s blog for a fun mention of this through his reviews), rather than try to understand someone who might well be unpleasant on the surface, and complex to follow at first.

And readers speak with their wallets, which means publishers will skew their lists towards demand, which might have a long term effect on readers’ tastes. As I’ve said many a time, this is a business after all. The rise and strength of chick-lit, for example. Is this a good thing? Sure, they’re not the most intelligent things in the world (yes, I’ve read a few actually…). Take this to the extremes, and we have ‘glamour’ model Jordan, outselling the Booker Prize shortlist. Now we have the most shameful low yet. I doubt Coleen, girlfriend of footballer Wayne Rooney, had always aspired to be a writer, or indeed understands the joys of Don DeLillo, but surely this is taking reading for entertainment to the limits. This has been signed not for Art but for sales, plain and simple. She maybe won’t even write them herself. This, at the expense of other more innovative novelists. (And there’s a separate discussion to be had on celebrity status and books). What does this mean for the industry? And I want to state again that the industry reacts to consumer demand. I’m not saying one is better or worse, but those last two links are the natural conclusion for that area of fiction. I predict more trends like this. It will mean more money spent on these deals, and for a while it will limit variety. (On an optimistic note, it was fun to see so many monster publishers fail with celebrity biographies after the bubble sort of burst. Maybe the same will happen here.)

So ask yourself again, should we read for entertainment alone if this is what happens ultimately? Does people wanting entertaining books forecast lower quality in the long run, given how the market adjusts?

Personally, I’d like a happy medium in the industry, and in realistic terms, that’s where we are, although things are definitely skewing in recent times. Having read so much Fantasy and Literary Fiction, when I read in my spare time I need there to be a solid plot, and I also need to be wowed by prose and what’s going on underneath the surface of it. I can understand that not everyone will get good prose. The thing which I can’t understand is why some people don’t want to be challenged at all? Why don’t they want to think? Reading has generally been an active pastime. You are required as a reader to do some of the work. But things have become progressively passive these days, like sitting back to watch a blockbuster, having everything constructed visually for you. Maybe the industry leaning in these directions is one reason why we’ve seen such discussions across many blogs in the last couple of weeks.

Now don’t go lynching me, I’m just asking questions from a macro perspective. I’m not saying dry literary self-indulgence should take centre stage, because people spend hard cash on books so there’s a kind of contract between author and reader.

All of this: it’s just something readers should be aware of.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.