23 November 2013 by Published in: Uncategorized 6 comments

I had a long discussion with a buddy yesterday about whether what we as authors do is art, or entertainment. It was timely, because later in the evening, I made a post to the KB boards in response to a top 10 list of “writer’s rules,” which forced me to think through what my most important rules are.

And I realized that number one was that whatever I write has to be entertaining.

Not whether or not words should be simple or complex, or sentences 7 word or six lines, or some arbitrary guideline about how much plot to back story or dialogue to description or active voice versus passive. Not whether one should use the shortest word possible or aspire to crafting literary castles in the air. Not debating adverbs or adjectives or any of the rest of it.

The first and only real rule of writing is that it must entertain, because entertaining is synonymous with engaging. If it’s not entertaining, it won’t get read. Perhaps that’s not true in non-fiction, but even there, I think one of the reasons authors like Malcolm Gladwell do respectably and others don’t is that they haven’t mastered the…for lack of a better word…art of entertaining, while teaching or preaching. So, for the purposes of this discussion, entertain = engage.

Then I had my discussion with my buddy. To whit, when we write, when we sit down to create, are we artists, or are we entertainers?

A fair question. I’m under no illusions that I’m an artist. I try to be artistic in my renderings of descriptions, of word choice and cadence and pacing – the lyricism and musicality of the language. But I’m not David Foster Wallace. He, in my opinion, was an artist. A guy like James Lee Burke is an artist.

But the reason I know their names is because they are also entertaining.

Artists tend to starve. I believe they generally starve because they’re so focused on their art, they forget the entertaining part. They rationalize that their art would be sacrificed in some manner if they made it entertaining – it would cheapen it, make it less…artistic.


Back to the question at hand. Put simply, entertainment can be art, and art can be entertainment. But all successful art is entertaining at some essential level, or we wouldn’t register it/be engaged by it. And by successful, for the purposes of this rant, I mean commercially successful, as in, art that people are willing to pay money for (preferably while the aahteest is still breathing).

I think that many authors forget the entertainment aspect of what they’re doing. God knows it’s easy to do. You spend so much time on craft, honing your chops, it can become myopic and suddenly you’re in a swamp of possible word choices, sentence structures, whether to eliminate most or all detail that’s not essential to the story, etc. etc.

So I’ve come up with this one piece of advice: Keep it entertaining. Whatever you do, make it entertaining, because if you want to get read, you need to entertain. If you want to make people think, best to do it in a way that carries them along on a ride they want to be on, or can’t bear to get off (sometimes you sort of don’t want to read on, but feel compelled to, even if your views are being challenged or you’re being pushed out of your comfort zone. That won’t happen if you aren’t being entertained while it happens).

Back to the question, though. Is what we do art, or entertainment?

I think the answer is, in its best form, it’s both. Effective art moves you, evokes emotion, transports you, can jar your senses and sensibilities. But it doesn’t get to do that if you aren’t entertained enough to bother with much of it.

Much entertainment isn’t art. Pulp fiction. Genre fiction. Bruckheimer films are not Fellini. Reality TV ain’t Masterpiece Theater.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that the stuff that tends to really sell well isn’t art at all. But it sure as hell is entertaining. So perhaps, from an author’s perspective, the question should really be, do I want to write stuff that will sell well? If so, my advice is to make it entertaining. Be as artistic as you like, but better keep the audience riveted, or you’re going to be sitting around in coffee houses in your black turtleneck, scowling at passers-by while stabbing to emphasize points with your pipe, wondering why you haven’t sold any of your masterpiece while all that complete crap gets consumed by the masses.

Nobody is forced to buy books. In fact, readership has never been lower during my lifetime. Part of the reason is that, in my opinion, much of what reading means to many is associated with tedium. Boring academic brain fry. It’s hard. And people are lazy. I know. I’m a person. And I’m definitely lazy.

Part of the reason that reading is associated with boredom is because it seems like the trad pub cognoscenti have long looked down their noses at fiction that’s really entertaining as being “too facile” and “fluff.” It’s an intellectual snobbery I understand well. I’m guilty of it. I think the more immersed you are in craft, the easier it is to lose sight of the importance of the entertainment aspect of the work.

When we publish (we, the self-pubbed author), no matter how noble our intent, like it or not, we are creating a product. It has a cover, it has a blurb, and most importantly, it has a price tag. In theory, we want to sell as much of that product as we can, unless we have no interest in the business of book selling, and we’re publishing to make a statement or whatever. Fine. But even then, even if you’re writing to a very narrow genre that’s got little commercial appeal, it’s a product.

Products in the entertainment business like music, film, TV, and books, do best if they’re entertaining. Not necessarily the best crafted. Not necessarily the most intellectually stimulating. The most entertaining.

Ergo, even if you fancy yourself to be an artist, if your art is boring, you’ve failed at your essential purpose, if you’ve put it up for sale (because now it’s a product) – which is to sell it.

Some might argue that if we modify our art to make it more entertaining, we’re selling out. No, we’re not. We’re making it better from a product standpoint, in my opinion.

I’m not sure what to add to this. I could make a long list of “rules” to write by, but for every one, I could find plentiful examples of where, if a particular author had followed that list, he would have failed. But I can’t think of one author who has been commercially successful who wasn’t entertaining his/her audience. There may be no rules, only guidelines with which to craft your story, but I think mine is pretty clear:

Keep it entertaining, or you suck.



  1. Sat 23rd Nov 2013 at 7:51 pm

    You’re lazy. That’s a funny one.

    I agree with what you’ve said about balancing art and entertainment. Most movies are too heavy on the entertainment portion in my opinion. That’s why I prefer books. Which reminds me of a sad revelation I came to the other day. I realized every novel on my list of favorite books was written by a man. I’ve liked a lot of books written by women, but they haven’t made my all time favorite list. As a female author this makes me really sad. I can’t figure out why this is true, as I would think women are more in tune with their emotions and that would give them an advantage. But somehow it’s not true for me with the books I’ve read so far. Even my favorite women’s fiction book, Memoirs of a Geisha was written by a man. All I’m left with is I guess I want to write like a man, whatever the hell that means.

    You are an artist, and a multi-tasker too, as you can create while smoking, drinking, and watching porn while walking on your treadmill. How many others can claim that?

  2. Sat 23rd Nov 2013 at 9:21 pm

    Writing is Entertainment in the beginning and only Art much later. Entertainment value is in the control of the writer, but the work can only be called Art by consensus of readers years later. Popularity and best seller lists cannot force a work into becoming Art on their own.

    Reading the description of Charles Dicken’s “A Tale Of Two Cities”:
    “…The 45-chapter novel was published in 31 weekly instalments in Dickens’ new literary periodical titled All the Year Round. From April 1859 to November 1859, Dickens also republished the chapters as eight monthly sections in green covers…” **(Wikipedia)
    gives the impression that Dickens wrote for entertainment to support himself, rather than some attempt at Art – Art would have waited until the completed story was done. A “Tale Of Two Cities” was created for the commercial “Thriller” genre of its day to entertain and engage book buyers and readers. Only readers looking back, and as a collective, bestowed “Art” upon his words.

    **(How much does this Wikipedia passage read as if pulled straight from a current indie publisher forum? Serialization of a novel sent to his mailing list, creating monthly boxed sets, and then marketing the completed novel?)

  3. Sun 24th Nov 2013 at 10:59 am

    I would then assume people who suck will write books that suck?
    Therefore people who suck should not become writers. I like that.
    In the same thought readers who suck shouldn’t be allowed to give reviews?
    Russell I hope you are are enjoying a good bottle of wine every night. I am. The tequila is great. Book 13 with the editor.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 24th Nov 2013 at 11:32 am

      Congrats. 13 books! That’s a lot.

      Hard to say tequila or wine and not say enjoy in the same breath.

  4. Sun 24th Nov 2013 at 2:37 pm

    This was a great read 🙂

    I think all entertainment is art. But whether we appreciate it as art is an individual decision/reaction. Case in point: pornography. Highly entertaining to many and, to many, not art. And yet it is highly off-putting to many, and to at least a few, art.

    Next up: which religion is right, and whether or not the Mac beats Windows in “awesome.”

  5. Old Git
    Sun 24th Nov 2013 at 4:24 pm

    I got all the books on style, form, and technique — all of which are artifices that imitate art (I read all these books over and over, so I know).

    I know all the hackneyed tenets of what, how, and where, to splurge it all on the respective areas of the canvas.

    To maximize your entertainment factor, I venture that you should learn all of the above “rules” then promptly discard them once you begin to write with confidence, take me into your confidence, drop your guard, so to speak.

    Well, all except one rule: “if it works, it works”

    (I didn’t mean you, RB — you already got your own voice)


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