The Millions

Graham Greene’s ‘Entertainments’ and The Problem of Writing from Life

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Writing fiction is an act of formulating the right questions, not providing direct answers.  This from Chekhov.  But being a writer also presents many questions, two of which are perhaps universal to all generations and time periods and yet seem, as so much these days, more pertinent now than ever.

The first question I’ve mulled over since childhood, when I vacillated between Stephen King and John Steinbeck: what distinguishes a piece of fiction as either commercial or literary?  The second question feels most urgent given the present state of our country: how might an artist’s work address times of political and social crisis?

Graham Greene seems a good writer to study in both regards.  Before I read him, my perception was that he was a popular writer of thrillers and mysteries.  However, the first Greene book I read was The Power and the Glory, a moral tale about a boozed-up and deeply penitent Catholic priest trying to escape persecution and find some semblance of dignity.  At the time, I didn’t know about the dichotomy of Greene’s work, the two separate lineages of his fiction—the literary novels and, as he called them, the “Entertainments.”

Since then, I’ve discovered that while Greene encouraged the distinction, he didn’t offer much insight into it.  In The Paris Review he attempted to clarify, saying “The [E]ntertainments…are distinct from the novels because as the name implies they do not carry a message”.  The quote also implies Greene’s distaste for commercial novel, a phrase oxymoronic in the context of a serious writer discussing craft; the commercial fiction, the Entertainments, are not novels at all.

If we take his definition at face value, this presents an obvious problem.  Because the Entertainments often do, like the literary novels, have a message.  The actual difference may rest in how that message is delivered and to what effect.  In an interview with Larry McCaffery, David Foster Wallace distinguishes literary fiction by pointing to the relationship between reader and writer, each with separate agendas, engaged in a paradoxical push-and-pull of expectations satisfied and subverted.  He says:

This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical…The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated—‘re-mediated’…by the

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