Entertainment Vs. Meaning: On Blaster Rifles and Divorce

I write juvenile books.

No, not “young adult” or any such respectable label – I mean that I write books with a a kind of immature, callow sensibility.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

Sticking to the genre of my only published fiction novel, cyberpunk, you can see that even the canonical works are pretty juvenile books. I don’t think it’s endemic to the genre or anything – plenty of cyberpunk books have very restrained, adult sensibilities – but even Gibson thinks Neuromancer was a “young man’s” book. Not exactly surprising, since he also calls himself “immature” when he wrote it. He didn’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing, but that’s the way you hear the quote repeated when it’s bandied about by ‘sophisticated’ cyberpunk fans.

That attitude is not particular to cybernetic punks, incidentally.

There’s this strange idea among many readers that only sober and carefully constructed novels can teach us things, or be meaningful to our lives. If a book (or movie, game, album — pretty much anything) is entertaining, then it’s not important. If it’s important, then it’s not entertaining. I’m not sure where this concept of mutual exclusivity came from, but it’s out there. Iain Banks had to write under two different names (even if they were just a single letter apart) to neatly delineate his sci-fi books from his “real” books, lest his somber literary fans accidentally read about space shape-shifting alien spies and have their monocles popped painfully out of their eye sockets.

Comedy, tragedy, life lessons and action scenes aren’t compartmentalized in our daily lives, so why should they be in fiction? Why isn’t every book hilarious, heartbreaking, terrifying and entertaining at the same time? (Well, apart from that it’s really, really hard for one person to do all those things well.) Why do we sort all of our equally viable mental states into separate literary sections? That’s genre segregation. That’s emotional racism.

For example: I know I have a novel in me about a man undergoing a painful, if somewhat amicable divorce. He becomes increasingly convinced that the way to save his relationship is hidden somewhere in his subconscious, so he retreats into dreams, leaving his real relationship to atrophy.

God, isn’t that a fucking bummer?

Nicholas Sparks could write that shit. And this is coming from the guy whose first book had a character named King Big Dick?

Yes, well, hopefully I have a way to pull it off that’s interesting and worthwhile, but I’m not emotionally mature or technically skilled enough as a writer to tackle it yet. And that’s okay, because the book I’m writing right now about punk rockers fighting math monsters is just as important… to the right person. They could read every word of Subconscious Divorce up there and get nothing, but tackle one chapter of Punks Vs. Math and have a line resonate so completely that it changes their life.

Genre fiction isn’t good for just entertainment. I know that sounds obvious, spelled out like that – but so many of even the staunchest genre fans seem unwilling to make that argument. “I just like books that are entertaining,” they’ll say defensively, when the literary fiction bullies corner them in the library with their metaphorical brass knuckles and post-modernist billy clubs. The implication being that entertainment and meaning are oil and water. I don’t believe that. The ends do justify the means, and a horror book could teach somebody all the same valuable lessons that a serious literary drama teaches one of those so-called adults.

In short: You can learn about loss just as effectively from a laser gun as you can from an unsuccessful affair in Paris.

Don’t let anybody tell you different.

9 thoughts on “Entertainment Vs. Meaning: On Blaster Rifles and Divorce

  1. Redager

    I think the opposite is true as well. Just because something is enlightening doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining. Anything by Vonnegut and As I Lay Dying by Faulkner come to my mind right off the bat. I laugh my ass off at the dark humor of all those novels. They’re important. They mean something. (I feel the need to sculpt some mashed potatoes now for some reason).
    Most of the best authors are able to combine both entertainment and meaning. If I can ever find an author who makes me laugh and think, I’ll read everything he/she ever wrote.
    This also holds true in every other form of entertainment. Oddly, the “worst” genre in entertainment, horror, and the “worst” sub-genre, zombies, has created two of the most entertaining and meaningful games I’ve played: the recent Walking Dead Series and The Last Of Us. A lot of people will discount them as mindless drivel because of their labels, but I’ve never questioned my morality and decisions more than in The Walking Dead and I still can’t figure out if Joel’s decisions in The Last of Us are justifiable. To quote the eminent scholar Ben Stine, “That shit is art.” or something like that.

  2. SteveySteve

    Well said Brockway. I have several friends who just flat out don’t read fiction, they just don’t see the value in it. Ask them about genre fiction and they’ll be “Wizards and space guns, you mean? Like, for kids?”

    It’s irritating to say the least, especially when something as simple and fantastical as Star Wars has changed the lives of thousands, and yet “Mr. Credible Celebrity’s Book of Soul Searching Anecdotes” rarely changes anything but the author’s bank balance.

    Glad you mentioned Banks as well. I always found his sic-fi stuff to be far more challenging- and sometimes more meaningful- than his non-genre (and I love his non-genre). Though, as a middle ground, Walking on Glass contained the best of both worlds.

  3. rr

    I agree with you totally, but I’m a little biased. In my opinion science fiction and fantasy is, often, far more accurate and involved in its character development than ‘contemporary fiction’ , even when those characters aren’t fully human. I also think the unreality of sci-fi/fantasy gives it more room to explore ideas without getting preachy. My dad was never one for serious conversation, especially since I didn’t see him much. But we were able to explore and debate all kinds of moral and philosophical ideas through the medium of Star Trek TNG and DS9. Watching together and talking about the plots and characters helped us discuss religion, sex, politics, etc. with just enough safe distance from ‘reality’ to pull back if we found a deep disagreement and maintain friendly debate.

    Also, on the excellent point of each book being meaningful for someone, I still own a book that was life-affirming and transformational for me at 13, because the heroine resembled me in many ways but was much braver and in control, and she was living through her forced dependency and unruly emotions with self-respect and humor in a way I tried hard to emulate. I don’t typically share it with others, though, because it was a cheap historical romance, and not really all that well-written, except for the awesome antique banter and insults.

  4. Giles Towers

    I get a similar thing from David Gemmell’s books, on the surface there’s just a lot of stabbing and such but just beneath that there are deep underlying themes about things like the situational nature of morality, the self perpetuating nature of warfare and the importance of trying to view world events objectively.

    Have you noticed how people also collate ‘old’ with important? The Aneid is basically a rip-roaring propaganda piece about why Rome is the best at Carthage can go fuck it’s self but it’s accumulated gravitas through constant academic review.

  5. Kyle

    Well stated. To me I meet more people who don’t read at all. All media is drilled straight from tv or internet into their brains. If someone wrote a book it’s not important till it’s adapted into a script. It might be stated that they don’t know any other way to know enlightening or entertaining. It’s just flashing lights. Another debate, to be sure.

  6. Pingback: Genre | Whoa, Molly!

  7. Cedric

    And if Rx didn’t enrich your life in a deep and meaningful way, it at least taught you many new swears and insults!

  8. violafury

    Giles said it well, regarding the Aeneid, and having spent years playing Opera, which is considered THE form of high art, I can tell you that they’re mostly D & D, or soap operas with violins and hollering and when they were produced contemporaneously in the late 1800’s they were regarded as such; entertainment. No one analyzed them, until the scholars mucked about in them. Now, they’re Fraught With Meaning. Okay. So is Harry Potter. When it comes to genre fiction, music or just about any art form, unless it’s the Symphony with Vacuum Cleaner, i. e. Emperor’s New Clothes, or Allegorical fiction, which is just stupid, I am open to anything. Rammstein’s music derives from the 2nd Viennese School of Composition, which had it’s beginnings in Gustav Mahler’s latter works. So, is it art? Meaningful? Entertainment? How about all of the above. We’re discerning enough to figure it out.


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