By Charis Odoki
It can be difficult for writers to find the balance between entertaining and responsible writing, especially in a saturated market with extensive pressure on stories for financial success. So, what is it that makes a writer responsible or entertaining, and is it possible to be both?
The ‘Entertaining Writer’ can easily fall into the trap of creating a marketable product rather than work that provides a deeper and more informative perspective of our world. A good example of this can be seen with the publishing of Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. Her first novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is one of literature’s finest examples of a book that is both consciously responsible and entertaining. As a result of its success, Lee had felt pressured to release another novel, albeit decades later. However, when Go Set A Watchman came out, many readers found it jarring – even altering how some of the characters in To Kill A Mockingbird were understood.
By allowing an author to gauge the audience needs, while staying true to their own, self-publishing offers a middle way. It mitigates the pressure to produce work within a specifically commercial framework, and so offers an opportunity to experiment and create something the author holds particularly dear, no matter how specific. For example, Josh Gillingham’s anthology Althingi, featured by Write On! Extra in May last year, explored the historical connection between Muslims and Vikings through fiction and was crowdfunded on Kickstarter. This anthology is unique to the market and shows how self-publishing can allow writers to remain authentic and true to their own ‘niche’.
However, this is not a comment on the standards of writing. In fact, some of our best-loved novels are vehicles of escape: a true gift to readers, especially given the current climate and in the wake of the invasion of the Ukraine. When our realities have been devastated by fears around war, climate change and the many other problems we face, stories that entertain can provide us with a safe place to exist in. Novels that offer entertainment without the compulsion to fit political, societal, or philosophical agendas, can still make us think. However, if being entertaining is the ultimate objective, the scope is limited. It can only be true to the self to a certain degree.
In his podcast Well Read Christian, Mark Stanley says that: “If philosophers were scientists, literature would be their laboratories.” There is, for me, a definite distinction between the ‘Responsible Writer’, keenly aware of the potential impact their medium can have on a culture and its identity, and the ‘Entertaining Writer’, who, like a flower, blooms, fades, and is ultimately forgotten. The Write On! Audio podcast, for example, has guests sharing inspirational moments. Some of these are based on writing that has inspired them to create and write in turn. Yes, it needs to be entertaining enough to draw you in, but at the same time, to move us more deeply, there needs to be a quality of thought which is able to penetrate our own interests and pasts. This is the ‘Responsible Writer’.
The truth is, if a writer wants to write responsibly, they first need to acknowledge just how powerful literature is as a vehicle for change. It begins with the thought, ‘Will this really matter?’ then changes into a story which, as it is shared, creates ripple effects reaching into hearts and minds.
As we all know, though, a unique set of writers does exist; writers able to balance the responsible and the entertaining. Drawn from the literary cannon, one of the best examples is Charles Dickens. By pairing wonderfully vivid storytelling and characterisation with the tragic backdrop of poverty and grim reality, Dickens created an enduring legacy, and was credited as a major driving force in the implementation of social reforms in Victorian England. In terms of a modern-day example, I would point toward Sally Rooney’s Normal People. This, her second novel, regarded as a modern classic and dramatised by the BBC, weaves together the story of a relationship with that of a country (Ireland), while incorporating Marxist undertones around class and capitalism. These are serious topics, expertly unpacked within a powerful love story portraying the agony of first love, and keeping us hooked throughout.
At the end of the day, a reader wants to read a story. Both William Faulkner’s: “A writer’s only responsibility is to his art,” and Margaret Atwood’s belief that acknowledging social and political issues is an author’s greatest responsibility, can allow that to happen. However, when the reader closes the final page of your novel, would you prefer for them to do so with a fleeting sense of enjoyment, but no further thought, or would you rather have them finish your story with a moment of silent reflection, suddenly challenged to find a way to marry their own understanding to what you’ve written. Maybe being inspired to write or create something themselves?
As a writer, you choose to shoulder the responsibility for your craft. If it’s merely a means to an end (financial reward, for example), then that’s what it will be for the reader, too. But if your wish is to craft something deeper, using literary means to share what matters to you, you will inspire others to do the same.
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It can be difficult for writers to find the balance between entertaining and responsible writing, especially in a saturated market with extensive pressure on stories for financial success.