“New and Unfamiliar Realms”: Art and Entertainment in Literary Fiction

The contention between art and what is commonly known as entertainment is, for me, a foundational one, but the distinction may not be so obvious to someone who has not spent a significant amount of time reflecting on it.

This piece is focused on the art and entertainment found in literature — specifically fiction.

Creative Intent

It goes without saying that when an author sets out to write a piece of fiction, there is some kind of intent behind what it is he or she is about to write. Though an author may not know what they want to write the moment they sit down, there is still the intention of writing something.

After a certain amount of time — depending on the writer — a more refined intention begins to bubble up into his or her consciousness. While there are a significant number of reasons why someone ultimately sits down to write something, those reasons usually boil down to either aesthetic purpose or exposure and sales.

Bill Lasarow wrote in 2010 that “when aesthetic purpose precedes exposure and sales, art plays the upper hand. When reversed, it’s about entertainment.” He continued by saying that “all the high priced creative talent in the world invested in a product formulated to perform in the marketplace does not add up to a lone artist maintaining the integrity of a single well conceived idea.”

My contention is that the vast majority of those who sit down to write a piece of fiction are at least partially committing to the prospect of making money off their work. That is not to say there is anything inherently “wrong” or “bad” about this desire (after all, writers need to eat!), but there is certainly a (substantial) sacrifice made when fame and money climb over the top of someone’s desire to — in the words of Neil Gaiman — “make good art.”

It may very well be the case that a writer believes themselves to have one of the best creative ideas to come around in centuries (I, too, have experienced this temporary euphoria), but the realization that an “aesthetically superior” piece of writing is bound to make zero dollars tends to scare people away.

Again, I understand this.

No one wants to labor over a piece of work that includes perhaps hundreds of hours of research and studying and imagination to have nothing to show for it. Of course, what I mean by “nothing to show for it” is financial compensation for the work put in, and this is my point: the potential for creating something artful and masterful is simply not enough of a reward for most writers — to make money and have fans who know them by name must be included in the equation if they are to be satisfied.

Audience and the Marketplace

No matter how masterful the writer’s work may be, the work’s success (however you define success) is almost completely contingent upon the demand for it.

Let me give an example.

The Washington Post published a piece in 2016 that described how Stephen King, who has written more than 50 books, has sold an estimated 350 million copies.

Very impressive!

There is clearly a high demand for King’s books, but there is a reason why there is such a high demand. King is widely considered the greatest horror fiction writer since HP Lovecraft and has made a whole career out of drumming up scary situations to freak his readers out. King did what every reasonable writer would do: find a niche and roll with it.

The catch is that King has basically sold himself out to the market (and by extension, his audience). This act of selling out has come with a substantial amount of backlash for King, including the accusation that his books have only a limited number of character archetypes and that he reuses them over and over. These same archetypes are recycled because they have stood the test of time — they are proven to rake in a lot of revenue. The same logic is used when considering the cinematic world: remakes are being made all the time because studios know that they are bound to make more money than original ideas. This just makes good economical sense.

Harold Bloom had words to say in response to King receiving the National Book Foundation’s annual award in 2003 for “distinguished contribution,” writing that it was “extraordinary [and] another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allen Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.”

No matter what the overall opinion of Bloom is, he has a point only insofar as people genuinely care about artful literature. There is really no sufficient argument to be made that King is a literary master of the most unalloyed, aesthetic quality. Then again, King never purported to be a literary mastermind, and neither did his fans. That is not to say that people who read King’s books do not care about artful literature — it may just mean that engaging with so-called high art is not what they value when they get off work and want to take an adventure with minimal resistance.

King’s place in the world of fiction is not to stretch the bounds of his audience’s intellect or push them to reflect on their ideological dispositions — his primary purpose is to give the audience a good time. Simple. That is not to say there are no glimmering flashes of literary excellence in his work — perhaps there are — but that is not how he is marketed. He is marketed as someone capable of giving an audience a good time with loads of suspense and well-timed scares. This is also why 34 of his novels have been adapted for the big screen — they entertain, and do it well.

Writers who primarily pride themselves on the aesthetic quality of their writing are less likely to have their work displayed in Barnes and Noble or any other large book store (or really any non-used book store at all). Therefore, these writers are not going to be as well-known and their work will inevitably be more difficult to find.

The two avant-garde publishers that come to mind are Dalkey Archive and A New Directions. The writings published by these two are almost guaranteed to value artistic quality over entertainment. Again, that does not necessarily mean that these books will not be entertaining, but that is far from the focus.

This may sound pretentious, but it is just a fact.

William Gaddis published a book in 1955 entitled The Recognitions, which happened to be his debut novel. It is a towering work comprised of just under 1,000 pages and made it on Time’s list of the “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.” I am willing to bet the majority of those reading this have never heard of Gaddis, much less sat down to read this book, including myself. (There are many good reasons for this, but I will refrain from pursuing that digression here.)

Author Jonathan Franzen, in his 2002 essay for the New Yorker, compared The Recognitions to a “huge landscape painting of modern New York, peopled with hundreds of doomed but energetic little figures, executed on wood panels by Brueghel or Bosch.”

Cynthia Ozick wrote in 1985 that “The Recognitions is always spoken of as the most overlooked important work of the last several literary generations … Through the famous obscurity of The Recognitions, Mr. Gaddis has become famous for not being famous enough.”

These are not small, throwaway comments. These are huge compliments for someone whose book has slipped into near obscurity.

The difference between Gaddis and King, for example, (an unfair comparison on basically every level, but nevertheless…) is that Gaddis’ work is considered to be more difficult in that it requires a certain amount of patience and intellectual rigor not essential for reading King’s The Shining on a hot summer day. However, I imagine that if someone can trek through King’s book called It, then there is no doubt that they would be able to tackle something perceived to be “too difficult,” such as Gaddis’ work.

Gaddis was also not someone who churned out a book every calendar year like King seems to have done. The Recognitions was published in 1955 and it was not for another 20 years that Gaddis had his second book, JR, published in 1975 — a book nearly 100% told in dialogue about the American stock market. It would be another 10 years, in 1985, when Carpenters’s Gothic was published, and then A Frolic of His Own in 1994, with his last work, Agapē Agape, being released in 2002.

Needless to say that Gaddis was not bent on bringing home millions of dollars with his work. It was about the process and quality and the message of the work. Sadly, his books are apparently not considered critical enough to penetrate most upper-level English courses in colleges and universities across the country.

To further complicate matters, Gaddis was not always considered to have been properly avant-garde in the eyes of David Foster Wallace, even though he was published by an avant-garde publisher. Wallace was somewhat of an admirer of Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon (author of Gravity’s Rainbow — another rarely-read book that made Time’s “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels”) earlier in his career, but sometimes dismissed them as “commercial avant-garde.” This is a unique euphemism for authors whose works have been picked up by a major publisher but maintain a high-level of artistic quality.

I am inclined to agree with Wallace here. Other works that could be lumped into this “commercial avant-garde” category would, ironically, include Wallace’s very own Broom of the System and Infinite Jest, all of John Barth’s fiction, Jorge Luis Borges’ fiction, John Hawkes’ fiction, Albert Camus’ The Stranger and The Fall, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake,and Lucy Ellman’s 2019 mammoth of a book: Ducks Newburyport. (This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but rather the people and their works that first come to mind.)

Some of you may be wondering how I could possibly include Joyce — who is sometimes considered to be the pinnacle of the modernist literary movement — in the list above, as he is undoubtedly considered to be avant-garde proper. I agree with this objection, but the fact that he has been reprinted by major publishers only shows that he is at least palatable to some everyday readers, but primarily to academics and snooty readers.

The bottom line is: A book is only ever reprinted (like Joyce’s works, for example) for the purpose of making a sale, not necessarily with the hope that people will actually read it once they take it home. This may seem to be a simple point — even a truism — but it is a point I think important to cement into the consciousness of those who believe buying a book is tantamount to how many people read it. It is not.

This is where the overlap comes in. There are plenty of books capable of maintaining artistic quality while succumbing to the whims of the marketplace, but widespread evidence for this happening today is just not there. Ellman’s Ducks Newburyport, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, is one exception to this. Ducks Newburyport was rejected by Ellman’s primary publisher Bloomsbury and was later picked up by Galley Beggar Press. The vast majority of the 1,020-page book is told in one long run-on sentence. It is no wonder why Bloomsbury decided to pass on it.

The Ducks Newburyport situation only proves that readers of commercial fiction are capable of tackling books widely feared due to their pretentiousness and/or complexity. Not only can these readers tackle them, there is even the possibility that they will enjoy them, perhaps opening up new literary avenues.

It is also important to note that books that turn into national bestsellers are not indicative of how many people are actually reading the book. A perfect example of this is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which also made Time’s 100 best English-language books published between 1923 and 2005. Some university should poll a few thousand people who own Infinite Jest — I am willing to bet that less than 10% of those who own the book have read the book all the way through, even though these readers may purport to have more elevated sensibilities compared to the average reader.

Wallace’s tragic suicide in 2008 certainly contributed to the phantasmagoria surrounding the man who George Saunders referred to as “a wake-up artist. That was his work, as I see it, both on the page and off it: he went around waking people up. He was, if this is even a word, a celebrationist, who gave us new respect for the world through his reverence for it, a reverence that manifested as attention, an attention that produced that electrifying, all-chips-in, aware-in-all-directions prose of his.”

Zadie Smith admitted that Wallace was one of the reasons she wanted to come to America. This is high praise for a man whose greatest work has been little read by those who own the text — which raises the question as to why people are not finishing the book. Is it because it takes a certain amount of intellectual rigor? Is it because the book is perceived as being deliberately difficult and impenetrable? Is the book thought to be too long? Or something else?

The Rest of It

Anyone who writes in any capacity has heard the phrase: “Kill your darlings.” It is here that I submit this kind of language — usually deployed by experienced writers and editors — is the lifeblood of a culture of writing that values the dollar more than artistic expression. Though some may disagree, I am someone who would like to see which of Joyce’s darlings were killed in the process of writing his books. The same goes for Dostoevsky and Woolf and Chekhov and Wallace and Kafka and Camus and DeLillo et al.

It will never be known how beautiful or truly hideous those darlings were, and it is for this reason that I think self-publishing is a good route for those who wish to retain the integrity of their work instead of having it torn to shreds by the market.

There are, of course, editors of major works that are on the same aesthetic plane as the writer for whom they are editing, but I think it is more rare than most are willing to acknowledge. Though I do not have the experience of having a major piece of fiction published, I do work as a journalist, and many of the opinion pieces I publish are trimmed down and changed (granted, most of the time for the better — my editors are amazing!) in order to make my point of view a bit more clear and less wandering, but there are times when parts are removed or changed that I wish would have stayed in. That is part of the reason I am writing this piece as a personal blog instead of shopping it around — I get to say whatever I feel in this space and there is a guarantee that no one will change the words, meanings, or points I attempt to make.

I also happen to be an MFA graduate student in Minnesota, and there is no telling how many times I have heard from people that the line between literary fiction (ie art) and commercial fiction (ie entertainment) is virtually blurred. I do concede that there can be overlaps (as I have mentioned above), but there is undoubtedly a reason why Ducks Newburyport will never, ever sell 50 million copies like some of the commercial fiction pieces, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (which has sold 80 million copies). That is not to say that one type of literature is inherently better than the other, but that more people who open up a book are doing so to escape as opposed to being challenged in some way (whether intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually).

Even if a reader is accustomed to purchasing books for the purpose of escaping the real world for a while, taking the literary plunge into the complex and wild worlds of Gaddis, Wallace, or Ellman may very well engage and broaden one’s literary IQ and imagination while simultaneously exploring these new, unfamiliar realms.

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