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.