The word “entertainment” isn’t used by storytellers all that much, even though entertainment is essential to our work. That’s because the word is tainted by the disparagement of countless people. And it’s far from alone. Consider terms like “escapist,” which are considered derogatory even though there is objectively nothing wrong with escaping. Mythcreants currently uses the newer buzzword “engagement,” but it’s already starting to tarnish.
Why do we stigmatize bringing people enjoyment? This strange behavior affects the way we view, discuss, and ultimately design our stories. We’ll have trouble making our stories enjoyable if we aren’t willing to admit that this is our goal and work for it.
We Rely Too Much on Association
Unfortunately, humans seem to be in a perpetual state of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Or, alternately, keeping the rotten apple that spoils the bunch because we love the bunch so much.
Perhaps this is because we’re not very good at attributing our emotions. When we love or hate something, we often aren’t sure why. We just experience a specific emotion at a specific time, so who knows exactly what triggered it? On top of that, how we judge everything is affected by our mood. If we’re cranky, everything is more irritating. If we’re in a good mood, everything looks better.
In storytelling, this means that any story elements that are well received have a glow effect – lighting up everything around them. Anything that annoys or frustrates the audience taints the rest of the story by association. This is why, for example, if you give your manuscript a more professional presentation, your beta reading results will probably be a little more positive. If a beta reader becomes your fan, you should not use them as a beta reader anymore – not if you want accurate results.
Altogether, this means that many – if not most – of the things we stigmatize are not actually the things we dislike; they are the things associated with what we dislike. For instance, since our society is misogynist, things associated with women are stigmatized. Our actual issue is with women, not pumpkin spice lattes.
Remarkably, we’ve twisted this into stigmatizing fun and enjoyment. You’d think that would be impossible, since those things inherently make us feel good. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Enjoyment Is Blamed for a Story’s Flaws
From Transformers to the latest Jurassic World movies, it’s not hard for us to name movies that are known for being very bad yet keep making money. Books, too, have works known for this. Unfortunately, many of them aren’t so terrible as they are just written by and for women. However, I will nonetheless volunteer Fifty Shades of Grey and Eragon for the terrible-yet-profitable category. Of course, there are many more works that are terrible and not profitable, but we don’t pay any attention to them.
Often, these profitable works show a general thoughtlessness when it comes to story aspects like believability. The characters act like aliens pretending to be human, and the plots look like Swiss cheese. Bad-but-profitable stories may also feel devoid of meaning, either because emotional content is lacking or simply because the story doesn’t have coherent arcs that come to a satisfying conclusion. Finally, the story may be ethically questionable, containing problematic material or exploiting actresses behind the scenes.
But if the storyteller didn’t care about telling a thoughtful, meaningful, or ethical tale, what did they care about? And what are audiences drawn to? What’s left is the story’s ability to entertain people in ways that, to many, don’t seem to require much thought or have much emotional pull. That includes sexy actors, gorgeous visuals, exciting fights, and perhaps some crass jokes.
Ironically, on the storytellers’ end, these aspects still require effort and skill. Sexy actors work hard to look good, and then they get custom-designed costumes to show off their bodies. The special effects team pulls off amazing feats by working overtime, and stunt doubles risk themselves to capture those action scenes. And authors like E.L. James expend effort building sexual chemistry between characters even if they haven’t thought through their plots.
When we’re consuming stories we don’t like but others do, we have the option of carefully breaking down all the things that were executed poorly into a long essay that details what should have been done differently. Or we can just mockingly rename the story “Boobs and Bullets” and call it a day.
In the end, it’s easier to point out the obvious features of the story than it is to explain what went wrong. And what’s obviously in these stories are things that offer entertainment to other people.
For instance, I’ve accused a number of books of containing “gratuitous male wish fulfillment.” I added the adjective “gratuitous” to distinguish this from the mere presence of male wish fulfillment, but it still puts the blame on something that isn’t inherently bad. The issue isn’t that men are getting wish fulfillment. The issue is that:
- The wish fulfillment is being provided in ways that are harmful to women by stereotyping, objectifying, and excluding them. Similarly, some of these patterns are harmful to men as well.
- Stories that cater exclusively to male tastes receive universal acclaim, while women’s stories are universally derided. Ultimately, this means men’s wish fulfillment is discussed as though it serves a broad audience, pushing women to read it even though they weren’t considered when it was written.
Whether I intended it or not, my habit of using “wish fulfillment” in my criticism could end up tarnishing things like wish fulfillment in the public mind. Even with the modifier, if I repeated “gratuitous wish fulfillment” enough, after a while just “wish fulfillment” would be considered a shorthand for the same.
Similarly, the reason we don’t use “entertainment” much anymore is that a silent “empty” or “mere” seems to ride in along with it. That’s what happens when stories are referred to as “mere entertainment” enough times. But this is like banning trees because the local park doesn’t have a bathroom. The answer isn’t to ban trees; it’s to install a bathroom. The trees just happened to be there when we were frustrated with our bursting innards.
I could accuse these books of “pandering” instead, but that wouldn’t be much better. In an objective sense, that term only means trying to please other people, which is what storytellers are supposed to be doing. If it’s inappropriately pleasing other people, how is it exactly? Simply using “pander” leaves this unspecified, which is why the word can be co-opted for any use. People say that including Black characters is “pandering” to hide that they’re being racist.
Like Normal, Elitism Makes It Worse
Crossfire between storytellers only accelerates this trend. If you’re creating stories that people don’t find as entertaining as other stories, what do you do? Well, you could admit that your works are for a niche audience, but that’s quitter’s talk. The real answer is to double down and assert your superiority.
Just as I was writing this article, one of our patrons on Discord happened to share the perfect example. Below is a brief quote from an answer on Quora defining the supposed difference between “great literature” and “popular fiction” – arbitrary categories which should make anyone suspicious. I’ve left the writer’s name off because I don’t want to throw a shaming party for a random dude on the internet. He’s hardly alone.
Great literature is difficult, frustrating, painful, but it stays with you, and when reread, it always reveals itself to you as something new and strange. It exists to help us think about what it means to be mortal human clay. It makes us look harder at the world, take less for granted, recognize the essential strangeness of what we are.
Popular fiction is easy, entertaining, exciting, gripping; you can turn those pages quickly. But its biggest thrills and surprises appear on the first reading; rereading often reveals the seams and clockwork machinery out of which the entertainment was confected. It doesn’t make us think about what our lives mean against the omnipresent reality of death; it makes us forget we are being hunted and always running out of time.
The thing that’s remarkable is the way a lack of entertainment is recast as a defining feature of “great literature.” Under definitions like these, we can assume that being boring and frustrating somehow makes a work more profound. On the other hand, it suggests that if a work becomes more entertaining, meaning is extracted as a side effect. This particular person is also a Romantic who’s preoccupied with death, but that’s not important right now.
Most people who use terms like “great literature” are, at least in part, referring to the classics that we’re all made to read during our school years. But many of these works are just the popular fiction of yesteryear. How do you think they came to be thought of as “great”? Not by having no one read them, that’s for sure. Shakespeare, who may be the most revered Western storyteller of all time, was immensely popular in his day, and his plays are still entertaining us.
Yet many people try to fill in the chip on their shoulder by insisting entertainment and popularity somehow indicate a lower grade of story. It’s a bit funny, but it would be funnier if these people didn’t have so much influence on university writing programs. Going into debt for an education only to get these people as teachers is not funny at all.
Another form of elitism that tarnishes entertainment is the way we emphasize the coolness of not caring what others think. Manifestations of this idea that never involve the cool person doing things are truly looked down upon – not by the people they are popular with. Instead, they don’t care what others think but somehow manage to find the perfect outfit and witty comebacks to fit social expectations.
In writing, this translates to a form of elitism where authors claim to only write for themselves. Look, there’s nothing wrong with writing for your own pleasure. However, once you make an effort to get your stories published, you are clearly not just writing for yourself. All the authors putting their name out there want to please someone, so let’s not indulge the idea that authors who supposedly make no effort at entertainment are better.
We Can’t Defeat Enjoyment, and It’s Destructive to Try
The saddest thing about this whole pattern is how it puts us at odds with ourselves. Our emotional desires are strong motivators and part of what makes our lives happy. Demanding that we make art meaningful by depriving it of pleasure mostly makes meaning look unattractive.
Believing that meaning comes at the expense of enjoyment makes us feel ashamed of embracing what is ultimately a basic need, like food or water. Our mental well-being is not something to be taken for granted. For many people, it has to be carefully managed. Those who put effort into reading “difficult, frustrating, painful” works have the privilege of energy and positivity to spare on such endeavors.
But most of all, a story with innovative ideas and profound meaning is more entertaining for it! As a general rule, people like thought and meaning. This means any story with a gripping plot can enhance its popularity by having a meaningful, gripping plot. A story that is meaningful can still be meaningful with a gripping plot to boost enjoyment. These properties are not mutually exclusive, so referring to them as a binary will always be destructive.
This doesn’t mean a story can’t engage in valid tradeoffs, such as asking the reader to get through unpleasant material in return for a bigger payoff. However, we should always seek to minimize the effort required to get that payoff. When we start worshiping the downside of this tradeoff as indicating a “great” work, we are only encouraging sloppy storytelling. Our audience isn’t responsible for surmounting an obstacle course just to get a glimpse at our brilliant ideas. We’re responsible for delivering our ideas to them as best we can.
How We Can Turn This Trend Around
As I mentioned, getting more precise about what’s wrong with a story is an important factor. Unfortunately, this often takes more effort, which is not something we can expect an internet full of people to put in. On the bright side, language spreads. If you and I come up with phrases to more precisely explain what’s bothering us, other people can use them.
For instance, I used the term “entitlement porn” to refer to some of the problems in They Mostly Come Out at Night. This avoids blaming the constructive side of what author Benedict Patrick is doing – giving his protagonist sympathetic problems – to highlight how those problems foster entitlement. If you see something similar, you can use “entitlement porn” yourself.
Let’s just try to make our terms sound less stuffy than “objectification.” It’s an important concept and I’m glad someone coined the term, but it’s not exactly optimized for casual communication.
Thankfully, getting more precise is not the only tool we have. We can also validate terms like wish fulfillment, escapism, and entertainment. That means using them in positive contexts, particularly when we are praising stories. Similarly, we can push back on people who use those words as pejoratives.
Finally, we can break the false entertainment and meaning binary by discussing the meaning behind popular stories. At Mythcreants, it’s not uncommon for commenters to dismiss our analysis by saying “It’s just a silly story.” But silly stories can have depth, meaning, and impact. Stories matter, and they’re all worthy of examination.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?