When I’m speaking with students, I always try to point out how much more than entertainment is at stake in a work of literature. Literature, I suggest, can deal with the whole range of human complexity, all possible ideas and emotions, and therefore can do a lot more than briefly entertain us. It can help us better understand and engage with many elements of our experience in the world, and I suppose beyond it. And while it can certainly give us pleasure, there’s a lot more going on in that pleasure than simply a momentary distraction.
Yet sometimes, when reading the work of poets or listening to them read, I wish they had considered the value of entertainment more. There’s a dullness to the lines, or to the way they’re being read, that suggests the writer or performer hasn’t made enough effort to be entertaining: that is, hasn’t attempted enough to make the work engage not just the writer, but the reader or the audience too.
I’m not talking here about a self-consciously flat reading style, a la John Ashbery, nor do I think it’s fair to suggest that poets (writers) must necessarily be good live performers of their work, although I wish some of them had thought about performance more. Nor am I suggesting that most poetry readings are boring. I find poetry readings fascinating, and I love going to them.
Besides, these days the world of avant literatures at least is full of performance elements, from lively reading styles to acting and sound and visual effects, etc. Sometimes I’m even wary of these performance elements. If it seems, for instance, like a writer has tacked on these elements just to keep us from being bored with the actual written words, I can be skeptical. It can seem like the added performance elements serve as a cover for a lack of liveliness in the writing itself, or are pandering to the audience in the general belief that everybody finds poetry dull. In cases of this kind (I’m naming no names on purpose here, obviously), I find myself distrustful of the way that the entertainment seems to be a kind of apology. Poets already apologize too much for poetry. So I think it’s also true that a poem or a performance can try too hard to entertain, and in so doing neglect other important elements.
What do you think about the significance of entertainment in literature or performance? Is the whole concept of entertainment too degraded by its association with the idea of mindless entertainment, which suggests that entertainment is no more than a frivolous distraction from the world’s serious business, and one that usually reinforces harmful social norms in the balance? Or can the concept of entertainment be seen more constructively, for instance in its potentially complex relation to pleasure? Do you as a writer or performer wish to entertain your readers or audience? Do you as a reader or audience member wish to be entertained? Is the concept of entertainment degrading to the importance of literature, or one of the key elements of that importance?
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