f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 11/01/2003 - 12/01/2003

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Saints and Sinners in the Hands of a Confused Novelist

My final post of this turkey-shortened week will address the nature of the characters in Meloy’s novel.

Liars and Saints is a misnomer of a title, because honestly there are no saints in the book. Plenty of liars, but nobody even close to worthy of papal beatification. So, why is it there? And what does this say to us about fiction?

Perhaps my view of humanity is unnaturally pessimistic, but there are no saints in the book because there are simply a scarce few of saints in this world. CBA Fiction seems to take the optimistic view that God can transform all of our lives, should we just leaves ourselves open. Perhaps, it says too much about me and my faith that I’m more interested in how one goes about trying to live out their faith day-to-day in the face of the world’s crushing disappointments and my own failures to meet even the slimmest standards.

Christian Fiction seems to address this question with much more regularity. This willingness goes back to my earlier thoughts about writing with honesty and real-life in mind. I’m numb, at this point, to the immaculate lives of faith lived out by heroines and heroes in CBA Fiction. Sure there was junk in the past—we all have skeletons, after all—but they’ve been cured of all that. Sure they may struggle at times now, but there’s never danger of St. Hero becoming any less pristine in our eyes.

I know a spectacular number of absolutely wonderful people. I am tremendously blessed to know men and women who are enviable models of Christ-like living. And NONE of them are even remotely as sanitized and spotless as the CBA Fiction heroes. They all struggle. They all fail. We all fail. We are human.

And so in Liars and Saint, Meloy doesn’t paint us a black-and-white comparison between the good and the bad characters. Instead, she gives us a group of liars, who all find their moments to act as saints. Some fail. Some succeed. But it is in struggle to succeed that she finds her deepest hope. That’s what we’re called to, after all.

Thanks. Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Writing the Spirit: An Exercise in Bringing the Supernatural to Light

For the most part, we don’t know how to write, in fiction, about faith. What ends up coming out too often sounds like a Sunday sermon, or goes the other way and becomes muddled and meaningless, lost in obscurity. I think the reason for this is two-fold.

A. We don’t necessarily understand our own faiths and how we interact with God.
B. Writing about the supra-natural is simply difficult business.

In the books we discuss here, I’d like to present passages of the work, if it is in a place that won’t spoil the entire work, and see how other authors are managing it.

In Liars and Saints, family matriarch Yvette Santerre is convalescing at a convent, supposedly because she is pregnant. This, however, is a complicated lie (see the title) spun to protect a daughter. A Catholic, Yvette is laboring under the weight of her guilt for this lie and, after an afternoon of work, she returns to her room and tries to pray.

The prayer that follows is in narrative form. This is very important, I feel. Too often, writers feel compelled to put prayer into dialogue. It is spoken out loud or in the mind, but it comes out word for word. Personally, I feel this misses the point of prayer, which isn’t necessarily the words said, but what is truly meant. Narrative allows the meaning of the prayer, what God hears, to be shared with the reader. It’s a nice little trick and ends up sounding less stilted and more substantial than words that are spoken. See this portion from the book:

She began at the beginning. She prayed for forgiveness for defying her father in marrying Teddy. Her father loved her, that was all, and he hadn’t wanted her to move so far away. She had done it blithely, sure her father would come around, but he never had….

This is just a small example. Yvette continues praying, eventually getting to her guilt. Then, the supernatural:

She had just finished praying, still high from Maria-Jose’s Chesterfield, when she felt at once the heaviness of what she had undertaken to keep from Teddy, and a rushing upward in the top of her head. She caught her breath, and looked down, and saw her own kneeling figure at the window below. She could study the part in the dark hair on the top of her head: it was a little crooked. She no longer felt the aching in her knees—she no longer felt anything. She willed her body to look up, but it stayed in the attitude of prayer, while she floated above.

It’s a small moment, and precisely rendered. The detail of looking at the part in her hair, tells us all we need to know of her perspective. The whole thing lasts a few moments and then Yvette seeks out the Mother Superior to help her understand what happens. The nun’s response is to tell Yvette never to do that again, which confirms the mysticism of the moment, tingeing it with power and danger. Throughout her life Yvette returns to that moment as a true spiritual experience.

This also is important. We all have those inexplicable moments in our life where God seems near or we feel we have caught a glimpse of the divine. They may not change us as much as we hope, but they are important and we do not forget them.

In all, I think Liars and Saints succeeds in this spiritual moment, and it’s truly one of the few in the book. Catholicism is presented mostly as practical or mechanical and rarely touches the spirit. When it does, however, there is a bit of soaring.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Talking About Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy: All Things Catholic

There isn't much of a secret—you become a better writer through practice. You must write and write and write. But, unless you're one of the rare geniuses, you must also study. And study, in the discussion of writing, means reading. You must see how others have done it and learn from both their successes and their failures.

That's why any website claiming to be about the pursuit of better writing must include a discussion of books that have already been written. I'm hoping two spend a few days every other week looking at fiction that deals, at least in part, with spirituality or faith. Most will be contemporary. Some will be classics. I welcome your suggestions, particularly for books that reach outside Christianity. Examining how authors confront Hindu beliefs or the Muslim faith, among many, should be instructive as well.

In this short week, I'm going to look at Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy. This book is a marvel, a wonder of storytelling that somehow intertwines and illuminates the lives of 5 generations of a Catholic family into 260 pages without feeling thin. This alone could be studied for days. Instead, I'm going to put it on the backburner and turn my attention to a topic more germane for this website: the role faith plays in the book.

Other Than That Crushing Guilt Thing, Catholics Have It Easy
Rough estimates point to about 61 million baptized Catholics in the US. We can take a whole lot from this statistic.

First, unless you are spectacularly sheltered, you know somebody Catholic. There's even a 25% chance you are Catholic. What this means is a wide-spread, if often sometimes completely wrong, familiarity with Catholicism.

Second, we know that while 61 million may be baptized as Catholics, not that many are filling the pews. Catholicism is the like Judaism in our culture, in that it has become secularized. Much like being a "non-practicing Jew", one can be a "lapsed Catholic." This means the social and familial aspects of Catholicism are just as important as the faith aspects. It makes it possible to write an almost entirely secular novel from within the confines of a religion. This is a nifty option that, say, Pentecostals don't really have.

Finally, Catholicism brings with it a great number of trappings and outward expressions of faith. Confession, the Eucharist, daily attendance at Mass, atonement, etc. These are all outwardly visible expressions of faith. Compare this to many Protestant denominations which often stress avoiding the orthodox, which have stripped Communion of a great deal of meaning, and which make confession and atonement matters to stay between you and God.

Liars and Saints is not a Catholic novel. But it makes that same secular use of the religions trappings (and the religion's finally honed ability to manufacture guilt in those who've gone astray) that I mentioned above. It serves as an unreachable ideal, the measure against which each character holds his or her life and finds themselves lacking. It also serves as the great hope, the wonderful promise of love and acceptance. A reader's general knowledge of the religion turns it into a touchpoint off which the author can play her tropes of family. No other religion, I don't think, can serve as that without much more backstory. She uses it to perfect affect and the religion's fullness and dichotomous role (liar/saint) is part of what helps bring a slim story into grand fullness.

In case you are interested, here are many reviews of Liars and Saints, including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and more. They range from very positive to mildly mixed.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Got Religion? – Transcending Genre Through More! Christianity

We’ve talked about how understanding your genre can help you exceed it. We’ve talked about how improving your writing can do the same. Yesterday, I suggested that Christian Fiction based more in real-life might find a broader audience. Today, in the final entry on this topic, I’d like to suggest that that we tell more faith stories and less conversion stories.

Part 4 – Faith in Fiction
The problem general market readers have with religious fiction isn’t that it’s about religion. They (most, at least) aren’t biased against Christianity. What grates on them is the notion that the book they are reading is a specific piece of propaganda whose sole function is to convert them. Whether or not this is the case in the author’s writing, a book whose core plot is a conversion story is far more likely to be seen as an evangelical tool than a book that offers a glimpse into the heart of someone who already is a Christian.

This goes to the heart and soul of a debate that I will certainly not be able to settle on these pages—Are Christians always called to direct evangelism. Woe to us should we not preach the gospel, according to Paul and so we do. Lots. Even in our fiction. I know authors who feel compelled by God to include what amounts to an altar call in every book.

And I don’t think they should stop. I think we need to also admit that there are readers, and in growing numbers, who will be absolutely repelled by a book that hints at direct, preachy evangelism. So what do we do with these readers?

Much like the emergent church movement stresses relationship and community building, our fiction needs to parallel those themes. The readers who dislike being preached at nearly always consider themselves “open minded” and generally have a tremendous interest in other cultures, religions, experiences, etc. That's why our books don't need to put the metaphorical light under a bushel or wrap stories in allegory for no particular reason. In fact, it's my contention that the stories actually need MORE! Christianity.

Stories that follow the lives, struggles, triumphs, heartaches, joys, and wonder of Christians will be read—so long as they are honest, true-to-life, and well-written. The newest generation is the first to have a significant portion raised outside the church. Post-modern culture means the end of black-and-white absolutes. The lives of Christians—Catholic, Pentecostal, High-Church, etc.—becomes one more culture to examine and learn about. We need to examine Christian through new eyes, almost with a sociologic mindset. Those are stories that will reach beyond walls of the CBA bookstores and find readers hungry to learn about the world.

Our trust must be in the provocative power of God’s Word and the transcendent attraction of Jesus’ life and death. We must harness our desire to tell and take comfort that sometimes showing must be good enough. We must write books that dare to ask questions rather than answer. After all, the best lesson learned is the one you learn yourself.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Let’s Be Honest Here—Transcending the Genre Through Sincere Storytelling

After talking about understanding genre and becoming better writers in the last two posts, today’s topic examines the issue of our portrayal of life and circumstances in our books.

Part 3: The World as We Know It
I have started, I feel, in a bad way by including the word honesty in the title of this blog because the implication is that anything written different from what I propose will somehow be dishonest. Sometimes that’s the case, but that’s not my point nor my contention. What I’m talking about, instead, is a pointed break away from Romantic fiction.

To clarify, this isn’t romance as in, “filled with love and kissing” nor is it romance as in “medieval verse about chivalry.” Instead, this is romance, as in “an intentionally extravagant or exaggerated creation that ignores fact and reality.” And it doesn’t mean I want it gone altogether. Hardly. I enjoy the occasional book that dispenses with the hard things of the world and simply entertains me. Ron Hansen’s Isn’t It Romantic: An Entertainment is a wonderful bit of fluff that shows even solemn-browed literary types can enjoy writing humorous piffel on occasion.

My contention is, however, that too much of CBA Fiction isn’t taking this route. This is unscientific and will be one of the more controversial claims I make in this blog, but I feel too many novels coming out in the CBA market are ignoring the world outside for a glossy, sterilized reality where the promise of a happy ending sugarcoats everything. Many readers, friends, and writers with whom I talk gag on this world. One of fiction’s goals is to act as a mirror and a mirror only works when it is true and honest.

So, as the Broadway play says, “bring in da noise, bring in da funk.” Have at it with pain and sorrow and sin and addiction and stress and self-loathing. Have at it with Christians who drink and smoke. (Whether you want them to or not, they do.) Have at it with pregnant teens and broken families. Don’t back down from how very hard these things are, because when you don’t, the upside is even greater. Glory becomes more glorious. Grace, more triumphant. Hope in the face of all reasonable doubt, more heartbreaking.

If ever there is a time to break Paul’s warning not to sin so that grace can about, fiction is the place. Take the time so see the world for what it is—not for the way we want it to be.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Me Write Gooder—Transcending the Genre Through Better Writing

Yesterday, we began a series examining characteristics of books that transcend the genre of CBA Fiction. You can see the post below for the first suggestion. Today we’ll look at the actual words put to paper.

Part 2: Writing
This area is much more problematic to discuss because any conversation about writing is based for the most part on subjective opinion. You like Hemingway’s terse prose; I find it chauvinistic clap-trap. No amount of discussion can bridge that divide.

If we take an author like Michael Crichton, however, the conversation changes. Nobody talks about Michael Crichton’s writing. If fact, if he’s done his job, it should be ignored and you should only talk about the plot, the action, the dinosaur attacks, etc. (Personally, Crichton’s writing, in his most recent books, is so pedantic that it stops being invisible for me. I’m drawn out of the story by its awkwardness.) This is a great skill—perhaps the most necessary for genre writers.

When genre writers grab hold of the language, however, the effects can be deliriously wonderful. A shining example is Raymond Carver. A hard-boiled crime and pulp novelist, Chandler has gained late esteem due in large part to the unforgettable gaudiness of his language. The dames, the gunsels, the private-eyes—they’re not that different from any other hard-boiled book. Chandler just renders each—particularly the dialogue—in unexpected but completely appropriate verbiage.

I want to draw particular attention to the word “appropriate” in the last sentence. This call to better writing isn’t a plea for more “literary” books. Anyone, given enough time and a little talent, can pump out something that sounds wonderful but limps along. This is a call to using language with intent and purpose. This is a call to taking the time to say things well rather than just getting them said. This is a call to the study of the craft of writing and the pursuit of the art.

Easier said than done, I know. Many, if not most, of the upcoming posts on this blog will tackle this very topic. There is a degree of God-given talent in writing, to be sure, but much else is learned through practice, study, and hard-work. Hopefully we can talk through a lot of it together.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

How Do You Transcend a Genre?

This is going to be the start of a four-part discussion on books that rise above the genre of CBA novel and how, possibly, to go about writing one.

(But first, let me say something at the outset—I am not anti-CBA Fiction. I am not calling for an end to CBA Fiction. I am friends with many CBA authors; my publishing house is a leader in publishing CBA Fiction; millions of readers out there love it. We want to keep those readers happy…but that’s not my job. There are other acquisitions editors here with that charge. We all agree that CBA Fiction shouldn’t be our only endgame. That’s where I come in. I’ve been given the charge to show that there’s something else out there—Christian Fiction with lifespan.)

Back to the topic at hand—How do you transcend a genre?

Part 1: Understanding the Genre
1. Know nothing at all about the genre, that way you’re not beholden to its rules. What you may come up with might be simply outside the genre, rather than transcendent, but it’s a start.

2. Your other option is to fully understand the genre and to begin twisting and manipulating those rules rather than being owned by them. Because so many of the rules in CBA Fiction are content driven (i.e. no drugs, alcohol, sex, etc.) this opens the door for a serious examination of why those rules are established in the first place.

I am not talking about breaking taboos or rules just for the heck of it. I’m talking about turning the genre on its head so your book sets the rules rather than follows them.

Some off-the-cuff examples (and admittedly pretty poor ones):

A book could address happy endings and why there is almost a compulsion to include a happy ending in CBA Fiction. A book could tackle the issue of swearing with a character afflicted with Tourette’s. Not every challenge needs to be so blatant, but what must be established is that the author is in control of her story, the authorial voice is leading and making the decisions rather than simply writing to a rote script pre-approved by the mass of readers. That is lowest-common-denominator-fiction and is not of interest to me.

Tomorrow we’ll look at syntax, word choice, and the art and craft of writing.