I have heard people say that ‘good stories are educational as well as entertaining’. But how much does it actually matter in the eyes of editors and publishers? For example, if one is writing a story that happens to involve farms to some extent, is the author expected to enrich the story and provide readers with significant details about the realities of farms and crops, even if they are not crucial to the plot? (I notice that Stephen King does this quite extensively in his story ‘Children of the Corn’, to the point that it almost seems too excessive to me – like info dumping).
I think you mistake the meaning of "educational" in this case. "Educational" needn't be only about dry information that's related to what you're writing about. At the heart of a story, there is a moral choice, an ethical discussion. It's very rarely made explicit (and indeed, making it too explicit would often be considered "preaching"), but it's there. So a good story makes you think, consider how you view the world, maybe re-evaluate some ideas. In this way, it is educational.
Consider All Quiet on the Western Front: it isn't about all the specific information about trench war. It's about how we see war in general. The Lord of the Rings isn't about the info-dump on hobbits and Middle-earth (there's nothing educational there, since it's all fantasy) - it's about common people stepping up to the challenge.
How much value do publishers and editors place on informative/educational content in fiction stories?
No value at all.
Consider a Romance; When Harry Met Sally. What did you learn there, that you did not know before? New, factual, interesting things, mind you.
Consider a SciFi movie, Star Wars. What new facts did you learn about our world in the entire series? New, factual, interesting things? Nothing I can recall.
Fiction is for entertainment; period. If you insist on describing something real, then for the sake of entertainment you must do some research so you don't drop-kick a knowledgeable reader out of their suspension of disbelief.
If you put the jugular vein in the leg, I'm going to have to put the book down for a minute to get over laughing. Not with you. At you.
The same if your expert swordsman calls the hilt of his sword a "handle." (The hilt consists of pommel, grip, and guard.)
If you MUST have your farmer doing some farmer-only-thingy, do enough research to not make a fool of yourself. If she is harvesting apples, she's likely in a cool climate and apples are harvested in September and October. Not early July. If your story time line demands the scene be in early July, or someplace apples don't fare well, find something else for her to farm or do instead. Feed chickens or gather eggs. And spend thirty minutes reading something about those too.
That's all the "educational" you need, enough to not make a fool of yourself, shocking the reader back to reality and out of immersion in your story.
This is about as important as not using a word incorrectly, and not having a wild misspelling of a word. For the same reason, reasonably knowledgeable readers will catch it.
I'm not saying you need to write for experts in every field, but presume you are writing for typical college graduate with good grades; they know a little about a lot. Even an American math student like me had to take American and World history, sociology, psychology, art and art history, years of English, Mythology, Physics, Astronomy, computer courses -- and then all the basic math and algebra and geometry and statistics that everybody takes, then the advanced math courses.
I am also not saying "write what you know." That can make it easier, you don't have to do as much research. In some cases it leads to fiction nobody else could write, like getting into the nitty-gritty of lawyering or medicine. But it can also turn writing from fun into work, an extension of your working day, that slows you down. So "writing what you know" is a personal choice.
I am saying that all that matters is a good story. It doesn't even have to be an original plot; Star Wars isn't. But the elements of the plot are original and compelling, George Lucas did that with stellar imagination, enough to capture a generation of movie goers. The same goes for Harry Potter: Rowling's imagination filled a fantasy-mystery plot with something new and compelling. It doesn't really educate us in any way about things in the real world.
Think about sexual content in a novel: It is one form of entertainment, but it is not demanded and, as Harry Potter proves, sexual content is not a necessary component at all; you can write a bestseller without even an obscure allusion to it.
Likewise, being casually educational can be one form of entertainment, but publishers and editors and agents only care about overall entertainment value that translates into sales and profits. That's it. Like sexual content, educational content is not a necessary component at all. You can write without it.
Just do enough research to not make a fool of yourself.
It depends on the genre. The purpose of a story is to give pleasure to the reader. Learning things is certainly one of life's pleasures. In historical fiction, for instance, readers often take the story as a kind of history text and expect to learn things about the period. In age of sail novels, a large part of the attraction is learning about the methods and the customs of the sea.
In thrillers, details of weapon systems and military procedure are often highly valued. Tom Clancy is a good example of this. John Grisham's readers in part take pleasure from learning something about the law and the operations of courts and lawyers. Forensic shows rely very heavily on the learning element, even though much of what they say about forensic procedure is bogus -- to the extent that it has become a problem for courts and police.
There are genres of cosy mystery in which the detailing of meals and their preparation is considered an integral part of the pleasure of the book.
Children, who are, for the most part, avid learners, often value the learning aspects of their novels.
In fact, the interest in learning things is so great that some readers will invest huge amounts of time and effort in learning made up things. Thus some successful fantasy novels get companion encyclopedias and bestiaries for people who just can't get enough of the world. Thus some readers obsess over the blueprints to the Millenium Falcon.
This has to be distinguished, however, from the novel of didactic intent. The didactic novel exists to teach, and the teaching is wrapped in novel form precisely because the reader does not believe that the reader will be interesting in learning this subject any other way. Such didactic novels are usually abysmal as stories.
But that does not mean that publishers are not interested in them. Book publishers are in the business of selling books. It is no skin of their nose if the books go unread. Thus they may well buy pedantic books to sell to grandparents or teachers who want to try to use them to force unpalatable learning down a child's throat. The aims of the grandparents and teachers are seldom satisfied by this approach, the the aims of the publisher are.
In short, publishers will publish what they think they can sell, and this includes both books that included teaching as part of the pleasures offered, and didactic books that are bought by intermediaries with the intent to covertly educate the intended reader.
Verisimilitude Not Education
To add to Galastel’s great answer, and using your farm example, the details about farms and crops aren’t there to educate the reader (at least, that’s not their primary function), they’re there to provide verisimilitude. To immerse the reader in a real farm and make the story seem realistic enough to be plausible.
Agents and Editors
Agents and editors will want to feel like you understand the world you have created and can write it knowledgeably with telling details. They don’t want to read stories where the characters float around in thin air or in a setting that’s so inaccurate it detracts from the novel.
Frustrating Readers With Lack of Research
Also, as a writer, you don’t want your readers coming back to you and saying, that would never happen on a farm, you clearly haven’t done your research. But you’re right about info-dumping, you don’t want to do that either. The secret is to strike a balance between enough information to create your world and avoiding info-dumps.
I believe the primary function of a novel is to entertain. If I want to be educated, I turn to non-fiction. But in order to entertain, the world I’m immersing myself in must feel real. And it’s for that reason you need significant details about the realities of your world.
Best of luck with your book!
All experienced events change the experiencer. Reading a book is an experience. All books change their readers. Good books have a greater impact on readers.
Here's a definition of education from Wikipedia:
Education is the process of facilitating learning, or the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and habits. Educational methods include storytelling, discussion, teaching, training, and directed research.
There isn't a book in existence that does not change its reader in some way, because every experience experienced incrementally alters some aspect of the experiencer.
Editors and publishers are, in the main, smart people. They know the power of books to change (educate) people and so will seek out those that they judge will have a greater impact on their readers. Those are the kinds of books that will be memorable and will cause the reader to recommend them to others.
I'm not necessarily talking about the minutia of the running of a farm here. The education is probably more likely to involve something about the human condition of people on farms or the deeper aspects of the role of farms in the world. But still - that's education.
Good luck with your writing.
I agree that good stories are often educational, but not in the way that you're interpreting the phrase. Typically, in a story, you see a character placed in a dilemma or a challenging situation and you learn either how they resolve it successfully, or what not to do (in the case that they fail). Often this takes the form of a moral lesson, although it's never an explicitly didactic one in good fiction. I'm not always a fan of the dictum "show, don't tell," but here's one case where it definitely applies.
You can also learn a wealth of other things from many good stories --science, history, culture, psychology, law, agriculture, philosophy --but that's probably best conceptualized as a "bonus" that enriches a story, but only in the case that it serves the needs of the story. When the teaching overpowers the story it's neither a good story nor good teaching.
On the other hand, I don't think I'm alone, from my perspective as a reader, in demanding some level of depth from my reading. I'm all in favor of entertainment, but something that is "only" entertaining isn't very satisfying to me for very long.