Searching for a Good Book (Part II)

In my last post, I told about finding the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century – starting to read through the list – and being discouraged at the dark, hollow premise of so many of them.

I wondered if there was anything out there that’s not only good literature (well-written; “having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest,” according to Merriam Webster’s definition), but also good in content and message.

And, of course, it occurred to me that maybe I should write something like that.

Years ago, I read a provocative quote. I looked for it recently on the web and couldn’t find it, but I think it was attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, and the gist of it was, “If you want to read a good book, write one.”  Toni Morrison expressed a similar thought when she said, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”

I guess I took that advice to heart even before I’d heard it. Because, despite my woeful lack of qualifications, I set out to do just that.

This was in 2002. The kids were in school during the day, I was only working twelve hours a week at the time, and we’d recently acquired a computer. In other words, I had motive and opportunity.

I worked at my story like a mad thing. Knocked out the 200,000-word first draft of Mom’s Mirror in nine months. Never mind that it was terrible. Never mind that I didn’t realize how terrible it was. I’d gotten it off my chest and was ready for the next step in my quest.

As I mention in the Completed Works page of this blog, I never set out to write Christian stories. I’ve been a follower of Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, since He healed me from debilitating depression in 1972. But I never could get into Christian novels.

For one thing, they used to be almost always romances, and those never interested me, whether Christian or otherwise. Later, when I ran across stories that weren’t strictly romance, I found them generally poor quality. I recall one occasion – this was in the mid ’90s, before I began reading the list of the century’s best – I purchased a historical series for my oldest daughter. I started the first book with great anticipation, planning to read and enjoy the whole set, only to find I could barely get through the first one. The plot was forgettable and lacking in substance, I didn’t care about the characters, and there was no creativity in the writing, no beauty in the language. It was a terrible let-down, and I never did read the rest of them. (Amazingly, that author has published more than 45 novels. I wonder if her more recent ones are any better?)

Since then, my opinion of Christian fiction has improved only a little. And I’m not alone. I’ve spoken with several others – people who, like me write Christian fiction but don’t generally care to read it – who have said the same thing. In fact, at the American Christian Fiction Writers’ Conference earlier this fall, one of the workshop instructors commented, “People tell me, ‘I don’t read Christian fiction, I don’t like it.’ If that’s the case, I don’t know what they’re doing here.”

Well, I know what they were doing there. Like me, they want to learn how to improve the quality of Christian fiction.

It’s not just us sour-grapes wannabes who think there’s a problem. Here are a couple of the more public statements: in April of this year, Editor Donald L. Hughes of ChristianWritingToday.com wrote, “It is very difficult to find good Christian writing today , and Val Comer, writing for Vision: A Resource for Writers, stated that although improvements are being made, “the perceptions of poor quality still dog CBA fiction.”

Some of us would love to see more literature of substance, “writings having excellence of form or expression,” that express ideas intended point the reader to God’s truth, that reflect the scriptural viewpoint, and from that perspective, give us the sort of meaty concepts to contemplate that we find in secular literature.

I can’t believe Christians can’t write as well as the rest of the world. My question is, why don’t we?

At another conference a couple years ago, a writer asked me why I don’t like romance novels. I considered my answer well, and I wish I’d written it down, because I liked what I said. Let’s see if I can reproduce it here:  I don’t like romance novels because they’re generally superficial, end predictably, and leave me feeling like, “Yeah, so what?” The kind of books I like have depth to them; they can have romance in them, sure, but only on the side, not as the main course. I like a novel that teaches me something, makes me think, or makes me laugh; one that challenges my beliefs, raises questions, or doesn’t play out like I’d expect. I love a novel that exhibits beauty of language, unusual insights, multiple dimensions, and one that treats scriptural truths with accuracy and reverence.

That’s probably not what I told my fellow conference-goer, but it does do a fair job of describing the kind of good book I’m looking for.

And the kind of book I want to write.

I haven’t gotten there, but that’s the goal. And I hope it’s the goal of other Christian writers as well, because this dreary world needs some truly good literature.

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Searching For a Good Book (Part I)

Merriam Webster defines literature as “writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”

I like that definition. It’s a perfect description of what I want in a book. Excellence of form, and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!

But like a good man, a good book can be hard to find.

Sometime in 1998, my husband (speaking of good men) and I were traveling and, as is his habit when we’re on the road, he bought a newspaper. In this case, the USA Today. Or maybe it was a hotel freebie, I don’t remember. The point is, in that issue I ran across Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. (Actually, two lists: the Board’s List and the Reader’s List. Some of the titles appeared on both, but there were some differences.)

I was intrigued. As an adult, I haven’t had the time to read like I used to as a kid. With the responsibilities of family, work, home, etc., who can sit and read all day? But I sneak in as much as I can. And upon seeing the list, I wondered how many of those “best” novels I’d read.

Turned out, not many. And I thought I should remedy that. So I clipped the list and decided to read my way through it.

Living in a rural area as I do, the local library doesn’t have the widest selection. Some of the books I bought, some I borrowed locally, some I requested through interlibrary loan. I skipped the first book on the Board’s list, James Joyce’s Ulysses, because I’ve heard it’s long, difficult to follow, and not the sort of thing one reads for pleasure. So I figured I’d leave it for last. The others, I read in no particular order, just as I was able to conveniently obtain them.

Because I just did this for fun and didn’t take it seriously, I didn’t keep records. I can’t tell you how long I pursued this, but I’ve now read a total of 23 books from the first list and 31 from the second. And for the most part, I enjoyed the endeavor. Until The Ginger Man by J. P. Donleavy.

Right from the start of this literary quest, I’d been detecting a trend; but by the time I reached The Ginger Man, I’d grown so disgusted, I stopped referring to the list for reading suggestions.

What bothered me about those novels? Weren’t they any good?

Yes, they were well written. Without exception, they were skillfully crafted, created by true artists, and held my attention almost from the first word. But, with few exceptions, they were dismal, devoid of hope, and without a glimmer of godly truth.

That really shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, this is “great literature,” which means the people who judge it to be such are academics, existentialists, humanists – in general, they don’t believe in the truth I do.

I couldn’t deny that these authors were gifted writers. Many times I was able to enjoy their work, despite the religious and philosophical differences, thanks to the power of the story and the authors’ skill in beautiful expression. But it bothered me no end that what they were expressing rang with bleak emptiness, darkness and dank despair. I grieved that they had nothing better to say, nothing substantial to offer.

Nor could I argue with truths they conveyed; the ideas they expressed are, indeed, permanent and universal (as per the definition of literature) in this world. But that’s not all there is! There is true goodness in the world — marvelous, infinite goodness, and boundless hope. Why, I wondered, among all these good books, are none truly good?

In my next post, we’ll follow the path that question led me to follow.

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The Bible and Fantasy Fiction (Part II)

In my last post, I rambled on about the objections some Christians have to reading fiction in general, fantasy in particular.

A Bible-believer myself, I agree discernment is vital. Toward that end, I suggested we start with three general criteria for determining what we can safely allow into our minds and hearts: 1) If it deals with a subject not found in the Scriptures, we won’t discuss it; 2) if it employs a device God doesn’t use, we won’t participate; and 3) if it introduces a philosophy that counters biblical truth, we’ll avoid it.

As we saw earlier, there are few topics the Bible doesn’t broach, so #1 isn’t severely limiting. We also saw that, if the Scriptural record is any indication, God approves of storytelling. So #2 in no way restricts the reading or writing of fiction.

#3 is the rub.

But before we discount anything fantastic, let’s take another look at some of those Bible stories. Including, but in no way limited to: Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt. The various plagues upon Egypt. Moses parting the Red Sea. The fall of Jericho. A talking donkey. The witch of Endor. Elijah riding to heaven in a chariot. The virgin birth.

And by the way, if you don’t believe in dragons, check out Job chapter 41.

Not only does God write fiction, as we saw in the last post; but the true stories He tells deal with some pretty freaky things. Some might even say magic. We don’t usually use that term for biblical miracles; but Moses competed against Egyptians “magicians and astrologers,” and Daniel was called “master of the magicians.”

So yes, God does deal in magic.

It’s important to understand, however, the difference between the supernatural events in the Bible, and magic in fiction. In the Bible, God gives humans the temporary ability to use a smidgen of His powers for His purposes, according to His timing; people are not born with innate magical powers to use at will. When biblical characters manifest supernatural abilities apart from God’s endowment, those powers come from the devil. (The Scriptures relate numerous instances, but this isn’t a Bible study, so I won’t take the time to go into detail.)

What can we conclude from all this?

I’ll let you form your own conclusion – and I hope you will, by carefully and prayerfully considering what God has to say about these things. But personally, I don’t see any reason to shun fiction in general, nor consider fantasy inherently sinful.

There are a lot of excellent books out there, and plenty that a Christian will want to steer clear of. Like so many other things in this world, our reading choices should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

As for me, I enjoy good novels in a variety of genres without the least twinge of guilt. But I’m careful that whatever I write reflects the facts as God delineates them in His word. The unbelieving world smears God’s name every chance it gets. It’s my intention to illustrate His character, His truth and His ways as accurately as possible.

If you choose not to read it, that’s a valid option. You could do a lot worse than limiting your reading list to the Bible. But if that’s what you choose to do, consider one person’s thoughts on why Christians should not read fiction.

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The Bible and Fantasy Fiction (Part I)

I realize a lot of people – probably most – consider the whole Bible to be fantastic fiction. I disagree, but that’s not my subject today.

I’m a Bible-believer and am not ashamed to admit it. I also enjoy reading novels, and I write fiction. But I’m aware that a few of my fellow believers see all fiction as evil, fantasy especially.

And that puzzles me.

Yes, a Christian should be discerning about what he allows into his life. But there’s a difference between discernment and isolationism.

I believe we should read the Bible daily, study it seriously, and obey it implicitly. But should we read the Bible and nothing else? If you avoid reading novels because they’re not true, what’s left? It’s not like all the nonfiction offerings out there are pure, accurate, and edifying.

Let’s say that, like me, you want to use the Bible as a guide for what you will permit to enter your mind and soul. Perhaps your position is, if it deals with a subject not found in the Scriptures, we won’t discuss it; if it employs a device God wouldn’t use, we won’t participate; if it introduces a philosophy that counters biblical truth, we’ll avoid it.

Sound good? It does to me. Let’s look at those, one at a time.

If it deals with a subject not found in the Scriptures, we won’t discuss it.

Pick it apart, and you’ll find the story material within those parameters is nearly infinite. I’m talking about classic tales as well as modern — broad, sweeping themes like good vs. evil, forgiveness vs. vindication, righteous wrath vs. redeeming mercy — romantic love, wanton lust, personal sacrifice, political intrigue, greed – it’s all found in the Scriptures.

Besides the high-minded themes, we have all sorts of characters, situations, and settings – heroes and villains – good people who act badly, and bad people who do right – pastoral scenes and bustling cities – palaces and pig sties – battles scenes and bedroom scenes – rape and revenge – tenderness and violence. You get the picture.

As you can see, if we limit ourselves to subjects covered in the Bible, very little is taboo.

If it employs a device God wouldn’t use, we won’t participate.

But, you might argue, the Bible’s not fiction, it’s all true. Granted. But how about the time in 2 Samuel 12, when the prophet Nathan came to David and told him the story about the poor man with the lamb and the rich man who took it from him. Was that story true? Was there really a rich man whose only lamb was taken by the rich man to serve to his guests? Or did Nathan tell David a fictional story in order to illustrate a truth he wanted David to see?

How factual were the events of every parable Jesus told? Did a real-life wise man build his house upon a rock, and an actual foolish man choose a foundation of sand? Did a particular Samaritan really come upon an injured Jew in the road and take him to an inn at his expense? Did Jesus have a specific family in mind when He told the story of the prodigal son? Was he referring to an actual situation when He spoke of a camel going through the eye of a needle?

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that God writes fiction.

But, one might argue, we have to draw the line at fantasy. God’s people are not to have anything to do with magic.

Agreed. That’s an important point. And we’ll take a look at that in my next post.

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Why Write?

Ever wonder why you’re doing this? I do. Frequently.

Writing can be frustrating. It’s an emotional bungee dive that swallows gluttonous amount of time.

We sure don’t do it for the money.

A quick Google search revealed that the average annual income for fiction writers in the US is about $10,000 – all the more pathetic when you realize this average includes the incomes of John Grisham, James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, and the other big names.

Neither do we write for fame and glory. One of my writer friends sold her first novel a few years ago and has yet to land a contract on a second. Another friend’s debut novel flew up to the best-seller like a rocket. But if I mentioned either of these authors by name to the average person on the street, I’d receive a blank look.  “Who? Never heard of her.”

So why do we write? David Morrell discussed this question in The Successful Novelist. I find his answer sobering and heartening at the same time. Why do we write? Because we have to.

“Tough stuff,” he says. “The profession is not for the weak willed or the faint of heart. But there’s a pay off, and it has nothing to with money… [or] having your name in the newspaper. The satisfaction of being creative? Sure. But only partly and only as it relates to my next and final question. ‘You have to be a writer. Why?’ That question is one of the most important challenges any would-be writer will ever have to face in his or her creative life. How honest are you prepared to be with yourself?”

Morrell tells about a man he met when he was  setting out to learn the craft, the first professional writer he’d ever met, named Philip Klass. “Klass didn’t like the early stories I showed him because their subject matter was familiar. They weren’t any different from hundreds of other stories he’d read, he told me. The writers who go the distance, he insisted, have a distinct subject matter, a particular approach that sets them apart from everyone else.

“…How did they get to be so distinctive? By responding to who they were and the forces that made them that way…. The writers who discover what sets them apart are the writers with the best chance of succeeding.”  Morrell eventually came to call this method, that of honesty, introspection, and finding out who you are and what you’re most afraid of, as “fiction writing as self-psychoanalysis.”

It’s true. I write because I have to. I know this, because I’ve tried to quit but keep coming back like a dog to vomit. But one thing I’m not, is typical run-of-the-mill. I have a story to tell, and a distinct voice and approach.

So I’ve come to grips with it. I’m a writer; it’s an incurable affliction.  I write for same reason a cat meows.

But of course, we’d all like people to read our stuff. We spend half our lives at it, pouring our hearts and souls onto the page. We want to share it with others — and we’d also kind of like to be paid for some of that sweat and tears.

So how do we turn this miserable affliction into a paycheck?

I’m reading Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, a book I’d recommend to anyone interested in the subject. In his forward, Ben Bova, author and former editor of Analog and Omni magazines, says a successful author needs three attributes: 1) Innate talent, which you’re born with; 2) Craft, which must be learned; and, 3) perseverance, which he says is the most important of the three.

We have no choice as to our talents, abilities, and inner yearnings. But we can decide how much instruction we’ll receive from others as we learn the craft; and we can decide whether or not to press on through rejection, discouragement and frustration — the classic symptoms of the writer disease.

So, writers, let’s write. Sure, it hurts. But does a runner stop when his lungs are burning? Does a laboring mother stop when the contractions increase? Does a general surrender when he loses a battle?

Hey! Why are you wasting time reading blogs? Get back to work — write!

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The Agriculture of Fiction Writing

Last month I had the privilege of attending the American Christian Fiction Writers annual conference in Indianapolis, at which Tim Downs was the keynote speaker. And I gotta tell ya, his first address alone was worth the price of admission.

He spoke of the effectiveness of storytelling in a Christian’s (or anyone else’s) efforts to deliver a message. A person will refuse to listen if you get in his face with the facts. But if you illustrate it with an engaging story, the concept will sink in.

Rather than pounding the reader over the head with an overt salvation presentation, therefore, his stories plant the seed of it. It’s his goal to draw people’s thoughts along new pathways, perhaps introduce a possibility the reader might never before have considered.

I won’t dispute the validity of that. There can be no harvest without the sowing, and planting the seed is a vital step in the soul-winning process.

But sometimes, I wonder just what we are sowing.

A book I read a year or two ago is an example. It had a good plot and it held my interest from start to finish. But considering it was billed as a Christian novel, the theme disturbed me: Don’t be afraid, and do what’s right.

It sounds nice, yes. Even inspirational. But Christian? That phrase could fit with equal ease into any religion — or no religion.  An Islamic terrorist might reassure himself with those words while he straps on a bomb. An atheist could use it to encourage bravery before a Creation vs. Evolution debate.

As the author said when I asked her about it, we don’t need to give the “Romans Road to salvation” in every story we write. But shouldn’t the seeds we sow at least be of the right species?

If you want to harvest wheat, you don’t plant crabgrass, even though crabgrass is easier.

Jesus told his hearers that the truth will set us free. But that liberating truth is dependent on another, more pointed one: In order to find the truth, we must follow Him.

Therefore, if we’re going to plant seeds of truth, Christ must be the kernel.

There’s certainly good reason to write “sowing fiction,” as Mr. Downs called it. But must we be limited to that?

As writers, we shouldn’t be ashamed to pull a few weeds, dig an irrigation channel, or stake a sagging branch. And if our Lord calls us to reap, let’s be willing to pick up our sickle.

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Wrapping Up Banned Book Week

Yesterday, before I’d had a chance to find it myself, my husband pointed out a column on the editorial page of our local paper about banned books.

Banned Books Week was first celebrated (if “celebrated” is the right word) in 1982. The annual event responds to the efforts of some to remove certain books from classrooms, school libraries, etc.  The intent is to highlight Americans’ free and open access to information and draw attention to the dangers of censorship.

Ever read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? The novel was written in the early 1950s, but the issues it illustrates remain relevant today. Though things didn’t progress the way Bradbury envisioned, burning – or banning – books is still not to be taken lightly.

In the column referenced above, Kevin Frisch’s discussion on the subject is clear and practical. If a kid reads a book containing casual profanity, is he exposing himself to anything he doesn’t hear elsewhere? Is she likely to be introduced to something in a book that she doesn’t already see on TV? Is any visual in a book more graphic than a day at the local pool?

As a Christian, a mother, and a grandmother, I understand the desire to protect our children. But there’s a difference between protecting them from evil and throwing a blanket over their heads. It’s a wicked world out there, and they need to be taught how to deal with it.

Ignorance is no protection. Denying the presence of sin doesn’t eliminate it; it merely cloaks it. And the devil loves that.

Exposing our children to the world in age-appropriate doses teaches them discernment. It helps them make wise choices when they have to make their own decisions – and that point comes sooner than we’d like.

I’m not talking about giving porn to twelve-year-olds. I’m talking about letting our kids see things like the hopeless emptiness of a life without Christ, as is grippingly depicted in, for instance, The Catcher in the Rye. That novel is on the list of most-challenged books, though it was required reading in my high school Modern Novels class in 1971. And guess what? Despite the profanity scattered throughout, I didn’t notice anyone’s language habits change as a result of reading it.

The world of literature is a world of ideas – and not all ideas are created equal. But is it wise to restrict the ideas we expose ourselves to? How can we make a decision without knowing the options? How can we determine what’s true until we know what’s possible? How can we relate to others if we don’t know what they’re thinking?

Caution and good sense are always warranted. But let’s not be hysterical.

Look at it this way: Jesus never banned a book. He offered the truth, and gave His hearers the freedom to accept or reject it as each saw fit. Shouldn’t we do the same?

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