The Art of Entertainment

By Matthew Cheney

I have read too much. Once, many years and a thousand books ago, I didn't find it difficult to be entertained by most novels that sought to be, more than anything else, entertainment. Often, I think this time of blissful ignorance was the most exciting of my reading life.

Consuming vast quantities of a type of art does not necessarily dull the ability to be entertained. I've listened to a tremendous amount of music throughout my life, and I remain a quite happily naive listener, despite seven years or so of music lessons as a child. I deliberately do not think about music analytically. I have varied tastes, but I can't explain them. If I were to expound on why I like a certain piece of music, I would probably say something like, "Well, that part where it does the whooba-whooba thingy, I like that. And the kling-kling-kling in the background, that's nice, too." Such a response is willfully ignorant, yes, but it is also what lets me enjoy all sorts of different types of music without guilt or strain.

Contrast this to the pain I feel when attending most plays. I've worked as a writer, director, and actor in plays for most of my life, and so three things can make me suffer while watching a show: the writing, directing, and acting. I usually try to go to plays with friends who don't have much theatre experience other than having been an audience member, because sometimes I can hijack their pleasure to fuel a bit of my own. When all of the possible elements of a play come together and work well in production, it's a transcendant experience for me, but also an extraordinarily rare one.

The same is true for books, particularly novels. I've been reading and writing voraciously for as long as I can remember, and the effect of this is to create a vast body of experience by which to measure every new experience. My efforts at writing have, naturally, made me a critical reader, and while overall I think this is a good thing, it is not an entirely beneficial one, because it has made pure entertainment into a rare treasure.

All of which is simply prelude to saying that two novels published in 2005 reached that height of pure entertainment for me, and I would like to celebrate them and think about how they are different from so much else that aspires to be, first and foremost, entertaining.

The novels I have in mind are Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman and Rocket Science by Jay Lake. The first was published by a major publisher and made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list; the second was published by a small press and, though it deserves to, will probably not appear on any bestseller list. Anansi Boys is a madcap romp about magic and families, tricks and tales; Rocket Science is a deliberately nostalgic paean to pulp adventures, lost innocence, and plucky engineers—the story of an alien aircraft, Nazi agents, bootleggers, gangsters, government spies, and friends.

I spent quite a bit of effort trying to write a thoughtful review of Anansi Boys, and never got anywhere. This usually only happens for me with mediocre books, books that seem to me neither particularly good in any interesting way nor particularly bad in any interesting way. Anansi Boys is very good in very many ways, some of them subtle. But everything I wrote about how the book worked and why it deserved to be taken seriously as a tremendously accomplished feat of storytelling sounded quite stupid. So did most of the reviews of the book that I read, both good and bad. (The exception would be Elizabeth Hand's review in The Washington Post, which at least recognized that Gaiman's accomplishment was not a facile one.)

It wasn't until I read Rocket Science that I realized why I'd had so much trouble writing about Anansi Boys: like jokes, pure entertainment is killed by any but the most deft and careful analysis. If something doesn't entertain you for one reason or another, nothing somebody else says is likely to make you find the work entertaining. You might better understand why someone else does, just as you might better understand a joke once it is explained, but the joy and pleasure will not be there. This isn't such a problem for books that seek to add other elements to the entertainment—for instance, there aren't many 19th century British novels I find particularly entertaining, but I can appreciate the accomplishments of the best of such books, and have even found a certain vague intellectual pleasure from some of them.

After reading Rocket Science, I tried to explain to a friend why I'd enjoyed it so much, but there simply wasn't much to say. It worked for me. It held my attention, because the situation of the characters intrigued me and the scenes were written in such a way that I didn't find them either too short to be effective or too long to overstay their welcome. Such balance is essential to any book where entertainment is the central goal. It is not an easy balance to achieve, and it depends as much on instinct as skill.

I respect these two novels so much because I know how few books truly achieve that balance, where every element of plot and character is woven into a narrative that continues to move forward. It is a balance of information, really: the reader is given enough information to be simultaneously satisfied and desiring more. I expect the balance is somewhat different for each reader, but when a reader as jaded as I can feel it, that's a real accomplishment. I find most books that are written to be entertaining tedious: they are disposable books written to be read only once. If a book can't repay rereading, frankly, I don't want to read it at all, because such a book is likely to be nothing more than an attempt at manipulation, a cheap drug with the crude goal of molesting the pleasure centers of the brain.

Books like Anansi Boys and Rocket Science, though, may seem like the sorts of things that a discerning reader would not want to return to. Once you know how everything turns out, once you've been taken for the ride, why repeat it? This is how artful entertainment is different from the rest: it is durable. I fully expect to reread both Anansi Boys and Rocket Science, because the joys they offer may be different on a second reading, but I don't expect them to be diminished. Where rereading a book that seeks to be more than entertaining, that aims for remarkable depths of structure and style and theme, rewards the reader with the immensity of its riches, the rereading of a book such as Anansi Boys or Rocket Science rewards the reader by doing well what it was designed to do: create suspense, joy, and wonder. I don't think one sort of book is necessarily "better" than another, because I wouldn't want to live without either. In fact, what keeps me reading and reading and reading, despite the many disappointments and the ever-growing list of peeves, is that I want more of both types of books.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Read more of his columns in our archives.