Fun vs. challenging

I was recently talking to some friends and fellow writers about reading, and I mentioned that I read mostly for enjoyment, for fun, for escape. One of my friends turned to me and said, “Don’t you ever want to read something that’s challenging?”

I’ve been thinking about that for several days now, and I think what it boils down to is how “challenging” is defined. I don’t like a book where it’s a challenge just to get figure out what’s going on. I don’t care for books where I feel like I’m having to grit my teeth and force myself to keep reading it, because People have said that it’s an Important book. I dislike books or stories that seem to try too hard to have Deep Meaning (and, I hate to say it, but this is one of the reasons I’ve lost interest in most of the print short fiction magazines.)

However, I can appreciate well-crafted stories and intricate plots, beautiful prose and multi-dimensional characters. And, I can appreciate that my friend most likely meant “challenging” as in a piece of work that challenges preconceived notions, or standard conventions or styles. So, why does it seem that there are darn few books that can do this and still be fun and enjoyable?

So, here’s my challenge for all of you: Give me examples of fun, enjoyable, escapist reads that are also challenging!


4 Responses to “Fun vs. challenging”

  1. April 12, 2009 at 2:37 am

    Actually, I challenge the idea that a writer needs challenging reading. All my challenge lies in trying to write challenging fiction. When I read, I want to relax those mental muscles. A lot of what I immediately buy from the bookstore, Do Not Wait On Amazon, Do Not Collect $200, is popcorn fiction/beach reading/comfort food. Whereas the kind of stuff I’m willing to wait on is challenging (case in point, my last Amazon order was The Rhetorics of Fantasy by Mendelsohn). Not that there’s anything wrong with the challenging stuff — but the challenging stuff is work. It’s what I study or compare myself against in order to become a better writer. It can still be fun, but not as much fun as stuff I have no interest whatsoever in imitating.

    Hope this makes sense on some level…

  2. 2 Terri
    April 12, 2009 at 3:33 am

    I have two for you. One: Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’. Two: Christopher Moore’s ‘Lamb’. Both great in different ways. Both funny in strange ways. And while Rushdie’s is more of a ‘challenge’ Moore’s is so beautifully written in places that you might weep–and it challenges all notions of Christianity, which is always a good thing. 😀 (Warning! Both books are religiously ‘challenging.’ Not for the ultra religious!)

  3. 3 Deb Franklin
    April 12, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    What is meant by ‘challenging’? When I first heard of the DaVinci Code, I thought it was a non-fiction piece. Everyone raved on how it challenged them and their perceptions. Friends talked about it as if it were a non-fiction piece. I guess you could say that is ‘challenging’ but escapist.

    I do consider a good convoluted plot a challenge. I love it when an author can throw enough groundwork that something is going to happen, and yet it take me completely by surprise. Or a story is chugging along and suddenly something comes out of left field. Or a really twisty turning paradox time travel, like “To Say Nothing of the Dog” by Connie Willis, which keeps the mind rolling to keep the time lines straight.

    I’ve also found that reading books and movies from different cultures can produce the ‘challenge’ of ideas and beliefs without any of the pomposity of an author with a sermon to preach. But usually I prefer reading non-fiction for ‘challenge’.

  4. 4 Emily
    April 13, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I’m fond of Stephen R. Donaldson’s short stories, especially those in “Reave the Just” which pose tough ethical situations and leave me thinking “…but was that *right*???” for days afterward. That’s the ideal challenging fiction for me.

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