But Did You Like the Book?

A smiling dogWhile cooking dinner, I thought of starting this blog entry with a recipe, because I can. That whim has passed, but my, it was a delicious meal, with a soy sauce/lime/garlic reduction on salmon, served on sauteed kale. A meal so good should be celebrated, so I ended it with two squares of dark chocolate. It’s an ambiguous celebration, however, since every evening meal ends with dark chocolate.

A wonderful meal is a goal of most human beings, as we take so much pleasure from food. It is a pleasure we see on the face of a sated baby falling back from the mother’s nipple, and on the face of a ninety-year-old woman turning her wrinkled lips up into a smile with a mouthful of cake. Food is one of the most obvious sources of pleasure, available when other pleasures may be missing (which can also have its dark side).

As a species we’re not alone in seeking pleasure. We see that chimpanzees seek food, sex, a warm spot in the sun. So do dogs and cats. How far down the chain does it go? Pleasure seeking is inherent in our physical, biological existence. It’s very human. There are also grim religions that claim—yea, that proclaim—their horrible, twisted theology telling us that pleasure does not belong in a moral life. That too is human. Dogs are not so stupid.

Because humans are also capable of thought and analysis and the meticulous parsing of words, representing some subtlety of ideas, we can talk about the nature of pleasure. With the help of language we can climb into towers of abstraction, to look far down below at people eating peaches and dancing to Lady Gaga, petting horses and planting lilies, whatever gives them pleasure. There must not always be enough oxygen up in those towers, because once we get up there, we also sometimes talk about things like pleasure with such obtuse language, in such a dry manner, that it becomes boring.

Then down from the towers come the intellectuals, some of them home to write books. Some will write books of philosophy. We know those books will be serious and heavy and perhaps influential and just barely readable, if at all. Other writers will write essays, intended to teach us wisdom, like Francis Bacon, the first official English essayist, or to provoke us into the irony of modern wisdom, while denying doing any such goddamn thing, like Hunter Thompson. Well, he’s not exactly an essay writer.

Here in our modern literary world, in the last few years the personal memoir has become very common. (Not that humans follow fads like sheep orienting themselves to the rump in front of them. We’re intellectuals. We don’t do that.) The purpose of a memoir is…I don’t know. I don’t know what the purpose is. I suppose it’s a combination of something like Francis Bacon’s essays, saying “I have lived and pondered and learned things, and here is some of my wisdom”, but presented in a literary format that is intended to be entertaining.

One step beyond the memoir, which is writing in a literary fashion about a real life, is fiction. The “memoirs” that are actually lies are obviously trying to jump on a fad for the sake of publication, because fiction admits that it is lying. That’s why I love it. I am a professional liar—or I mean I would be if I got paid.

I think it was Aristotle (let’s just pretend I’m getting this right) who said that fiction is lies that tell the truth. In fact, in Plato’s day fictional stories were often presented in the form of poetry, and in the purity of his totalitarian perfect government, embodied in The Republic, Plato wished to ban poets because they are liars.

Here’s the point I’ve been aiming at all along. I took a long path and got caught in some briars and I followed a sheep for a while, but anyway, we’re here. Is giving pleasure an essential function of fiction? Even a fictional work can provide various forms of mental stimulation, and for me it even becomes boring if a variety of books does not give me such variety. From fiction we may learn new things, we may vicariously experience lives and places we wouldn’t otherwise know, we may be exposed to ideas that expand us. But these things can all be done without also providing pleasure for its own sake.

There will be different philosophies of literature. Here is mine. A work of fiction must entertain to be a well written book. All the other possible benefits of a book can be achieved while also entertaining. To do otherwise in a work of fiction is a sign of a weak or lazy writer. I would even go so far as to argue, from a rhetorical point of view (a point I have made to students) that entertainment has a rhetorical function. If people are bored and quit listening, you aren’t saying anything to them.

When I say that fiction must entertain, I don’t mean that every book should be Mary Poppins, or the modern version, Harry Potter. There is more than one kind of pleasure: the interest of a story, the clever layers of allusion to things outside the book, playing with language. However it is done, though, the best fiction must give pleasure. If not, why was it written as fiction in the first place?


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