Two Masters

Entertaining versus informing– which is the primary purpose of writing? Certainly there should be room for both in any quality writing, but sometimes it feels as though these two impulses are contrary, pulling in different directions and demanding that one choose between them. I don’t want to have to make that choice, in my own writing or the writing of others that I read. I want the factual and analytical pieces that I consume to have some narrative sense to them, some style and color. I want my entertainment to have some goddamn fiber to it– informing me not in the same way that nonfiction would be, but in the way of the heart, and understanding this world we live in. And dare I say moral thrust, or will that relegate it automatically to the dreary Inspirational or Religious categories at the bookstore (while such a creature still exists)?

This may sound like a reframing of the style vs substance debate in writing, or literary vs genre, but it’s not quite that. It’s lacing our chocolate with vitamins, and adding sugar to the bran. Plenty of great, successful examples of each type exist. Entertaining information can be found aplenty in the pages of New York, or The Atlantic, or New Yorker, or Wired, not to mention nonfiction books that have the pacing of fiction. Informative entertainment comes to us via Battlestar Galactica, with its meditations on war and fear, or the works of Michael Chabon (treatises on our impulses, suppressed or not) or Neal Stephenson (always eager to show us how things work, or worked at some point in history). This stuff is out there. It exists. I guess it just disappoints me how much of the entertainment out there fails to even make an effort at informing, and how we gobble that shit up en masse. Or at the other end of the spectrum, how useful information and insightful analysis gets imprisoned behind dry and needlessly abstruse academic language, or impenetrable coded scientific texts. How did we get all tied up in our specialty niches, unable to communicate with each other? How much could we share if we could speak a common language?

I’m not blind to market forces and popular demand. A lot of people would rather not think about anything deeper while being entertained. Perhaps the majority of the American public, if we’re going to face harsh truths here. Maybe I’m just a snobbish elite who should leave the tastes of real folk alone already. But Christ Almighty, we are ignorant in aggregate. Last year, only 58% of Americans reported believing that Obama was born in the U.S., despite ample supporting evidence. In 2006, 36% of Americans stated that they thought 9/11 was an inside job. In 2010, only 57% of Americans thought that global warming is occurring, dropping 14% since 2008 (what, does Al Gore need to release a movie every year to keep people interested?). In December, Gallup reported that 40% of Americans believe in strict creationism– that God created humans 10000 years ago. Those are the fact gaps. And as far as maturity of human emotion and understanding of our fellow folk… well, you don’t need stats from me to know how piss-poor those are right now.

So how about a little more vitamins in the sweets? How about more sugar in the muesli?

Author: Jeff Deck

Author and administrator of this site.