f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 01/01/2004 - 02/01/2004

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

Thursday, January 29, 2004

The Other 1400-Lb Elephant in the Room

Besides gender, there’s one more “issue” that’s out there when you look at the CBA bookshelves and it’s one I feel completely unqualified to write about because I understand the dynamics behind it a lot less. That issue is our society’s ever-present stumbling block of race.

CBA fiction bookshelves are, for the most part, Caucasian. I know of one Christian publisher who specializes in books (and Christian fiction) for African American women: Walk Worthy Press. They are currently engaged in a joint publishing venture with Warner Books but as of now I’m unaware of how the partnership is working out for either parties. (I’d love to find out though. It’s an intriguing idea.)

The question then becomes the same as we’ve asked over the last few days. What’s the difference between publishing fiction for white women, fiction for white men, fiction for African American women, or fiction for Nepalese eunuchs? In the end, outside of understanding your audience and finding books that meet their needs, there really is none. It’s a niche; it’s a genre. What’s more concerning is that we think just because a book has a young black woman as a protagonist that the book will only reach other young black women. Far from it. One of the most interesting books I’ve read recently was The Intuitionist written by Colson Whitehead. If you’d sold that book to its target audience you’d have had five readers: single, middle-aged black female elevator inspectors.

If there’s one area that seems ripe for dramatization it’s the notion of race within the Christian community. If there’s no man or woman, no Jew or Greek, no slave or master within Jesus as Paul says, how come our churches often don’t reveal that to the outer world? And we’re not just talking about black and white skin in this discussion. Set a recent Swedish immigrant on the prairie and that’s as much ethnicity as you often see in Christian fiction. Somebody out there with their eyes open and their fingers ready to type needs to bring vital life to their community, their “tribe” in the post modern sense, their heritage. Our God is not just the God of middle American white people like me. (No matter how often I act like it.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Day 3 of Gender Studies: XX Fiction, XY Fiction, or Some Weird Hermaphroditic In-Between

Day 1 we said that most Christian fiction was for women.
Day 2 we said that some men want Christian fiction written for them.
It's now Day 3 and I'd like to propose there's a third audience you might want to consider reaching: readers.

Readers are men and women. They read men and women. They judge a book first on its story, second on its writing, and often could care less if a book is written by a man or woman.

Readers aren't surprised that Ron Hansen wrote Mariette in Ecstasy or Mark Salzman wrote Lying Awake (both books about nuns written by men). They aren't taken aback by Jan Karon's Father Tim. They demand only that characters be authentic and true-to-their-fictional-nature and could care less if the author is man or woman. They're all about the story.

The problem, as I see it, of writing a fictional book for "women" is that you're basing decisions about content on a generalization and stereotype. The story is controlled by outside forces and therefore is rarely surprising or truly original because we all know and understand those outside forces. I think you can see this most clearly in the cinema. Hollywood has created a formula for "romantic comedies" (often which are neither romantic nor comedic) so that the story progresses, step-by-step and plotted-point-by-plotted-point until its painfully obvious climax. These are watched for comfort and predictability.

Readers often demand more from their books. (Actually, they're usually quite aware of the dichotomy between these two types of fiction and tend to be devoted fans of some form of genre often seeking it out to balance the rest of their reading. We all like comforts of one form or another.) Their demands, whether they say so or not, are to be taken by surprise. Pages are turned for the exact OPPOSITE reason of genre fiction--we turn the pages BECAUSE don't know what will happen next.

At this point, I think I'm talking around the issue a bit. I'll try to boil it down.

I chafe when I hear the question: "Who is this written for, men or women?" To me, that's an immediate signal that the questioner sees the world in generalizations and stereotypes. I prefer books written by men and women who are startled by individuality and yet who can transform a character's uniqueness into something relevant to ALL of us.

I guess this is the part of the entry where I try to give examples.

Jane Austen--the original chick-lit author--is as insightful on the behavior of an individual within society as any writer ever.

Richard Russo--his three best novels deal explicitly with the relationship between a son and ne'er-do-well father as a way of talking about love and family

Chaim Potok--man or woman, if you write you must read My Name Is Asher Lev

There are countless others. Let me know yours.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Dude, Where’s My Fiction?

Yesterday we talked about the fact that if you walk into the fiction section of a Christian bookstore, the majority of the books you see are going to be written by women, for women. Not all certainly, but a good portion. If you exhaust what’s left—often sub-genre works of mystery or spiritual warfare—you’re left with only a smattering of books.

This is very much a chicken-or-egg argument in many people’s minds. Christian men don’t read fiction. But there’s nothing out there for them to read. But there’s nothing out there for them to read because they don’t read fiction. It’s a tedious argument and one that can be proven on both sides. Fiction written for men has tanked. Men read lots of Left Behind, a good deal of Dekker, Oliver North, etc. Who's right?

Well, I don't know. But one solution many people come up with is that there simply needs to be more and better Christian fiction for men. And saying it, doesn’t that seem like a good idea? I guess it can be, but in my experience the execution is almost always lacking.

Many CBA novels are blamed for tacking a spiritual message into a story rather than allowing it to develop as an organic part of the plot. I find this to be doubly the case in “men’s books”—like espionage tales, military books, and murder mysteries. Maybe I’m just seeing the most-frustrating of proposals, but rarely are faith issues intrinsic to the story. They’re rarely an afterthought, but quite often they’re a separate story for which the exciting parts must come to a complete halt.

The one place men’s issues, faith, and fiction all seem to join most neatly is a place I happen to have no interest in visiting—the wonderful world of “issue fiction.” Often these are legal/political thrillers about the godless heathens battling with the righteous remnant for control of our political and moral landscape. My feeling, and this is just personal, is that I’ll get quite enough of that in my presidential election coverage thank-you-very-much and I don’t need it clogging up my novels. You’re welcome to write such books, I’m just not the guy you want to send them to. (dangling preposition alert!)

I guess you can tell I’m not so excited about the whole men’s fiction movement. Part of that is because I haven’t seen a track record of it being done well. Another part is that I see so many bad manuscripts in this arena that I’m hesitant to look at many more. The final part is that it simply doesn’t reflect my reading, interests, or the intentions of this journal.

At it’s heart, men’s CBA Fiction is simply more CBA genre fiction—just on the other side of gender fence, pulling the girls’ pig-tails, telling gross jokes, and snapping towels at each others’ butts. Or something like that.

Don't fret at my lack of interest. Other publishers are making a go of it and doing some work that may interest those with a sweet spot for such books. For those interested: Some well-regarded “men’s” CBA Fiction that I’m aware of includes Sigmund Brouwer’s Sam Keaton westerns, Jefferson Scott’s military books, Robert Whitlow’s legal thrillers, Davis Bunn’s Great Divide, and Athol Dickson’s They Shall See God. You may want to take a look.

Tomorrow we'll talk more about books that seem to take gender out of the equation.

Monday, January 26, 2004

"This Is a Man’s Man’s Man’s World…"

Yeah right, James Brown, go tell that to a male CBA fiction reader. What you can’t find one? Ah, now you’re beginning to see the quandary.

In what can only be the most perplexing of paradoxes for feminists, CBA Fiction is absolutely dominated by commercially successful female authors writing books supporting and reinforcing what can only be considered conservative biblical views of gender roles. While men certainly have had their successes on the end times/spiritual warfare end of the spectrum (Peretti, LaHaye/Jenkins, and now Dekker) your bread-and-butter CBA novel is a “gentle read” in which earthly love, more often than not, is sought and found by the main heroine.

If you’ve been with me from the beginning, you’ll see that this tightens the genre even further. Now, not only are we writing content geared toward reaching, primarily, a conservative evangelical audience, but we want to reach only 50% of that audience. Parts of me want to set up a study (like they do on Wild America) in which we tranquilize, radio collar, release with a pound of French Roast for their pain, and then track any woman who buys a historical romance novel at a Christian bookstore. I think with enough darts and collars we could account for 70% of the books out there.

That our target audience is so narrow leads to some worrying propositions (and many of which are often studied in Wild America). What’s our gene pool? Are we too homogenous? Is the population growing? Evolving? It seems just good sense to try and widen our market not only to include men but to include women and men who don’t shop at Christian bookstores. To get them, we need the right bait.

Some suggest that bait should be Christian books written especially for men. This might take the form of a Tom Clancy-ish novel with a spiritual edge or a techno-thriller that goes heavy on the tech and thrills and light on the kissy-face. That’s certainly an answer, but I have some issues with that solution. We’ll look at my reservations tomorrow.

My suggestion: books that ignore gender as a prerequisite for reading. Those titles, we’ll look at on Wednesday.

Finally, I want to give thanks to Alan Oathout for suggesting this topic. It’s an important and relevant point and I’m glad he pointed it out. Also, my apologies to any women—and men, I guess—who may be a bit weirded out by all the “treating as wildlife” references I’ve made in this entry. I spent a lot of time this weekend reading about cougar management in Colorado and my head apparently is still there. Plus, you’d be surprised how many similarities there are between marketing demographics and wildlife population surveys. (Ever hear of RFID?)

Friday, January 23, 2004

Day 5 of Mariette in Ecstasy—Religious Writing or Writing Religiously?

A nun’s life is supposed to be about daily, hourly, and even moment-by-moment lived in dedication to Jesus. They’re a bit like the Marines in a way, putting God, church, convent, and sisters ahead of themselves. In that way, it’s necessary for Ron Hansen to write about prayer, fasting, worship, communion and as well as have his characters contemplate on issues of faith. Turn to almost any page in the book, and there is some sort of “church talk” going on.

Still, it’s one thing to write about such things and another to do it convincingly. I think Hansen succeeds for the most part. Nothing struck me as deeply out of tune or absurd. The one escape he allows himself, is that Mariette’s experiences are related post-ecstasy. Usually, she is describing what she felt and experienced to another sister or the local priest. It’s a necessary cheat (and therefore not a cheat at all) because Hansen’s point is to keep us in doubt as to whether Mariette is telling the truth or lying. If we were in her mind through these experiences, we would know for sure.

Mariette has maybe three or four major discussions/examinations throughout the last 1/3 of the book. Here she tries to talk about her experience:

“In prayer, I float out of myself. I seek God with a great yearning, like an orphan child pursuing her true mother. I have lost my body; I don’t know where I am or even if I am now human or spirit. A sweet power is drawing me, a great and beautiful force that is effortless but insistent. I flush with excitement and a balm of tenderness seems to flow over me. And when I have gotten to a fullness of joy and peace and tranquility, then I know I have been possessed by Jesus and have completely lost myself in him. Oh, what a blissful abandonment it is!”
If you’ve read stories of possession or bad romance novels that the section above may ring some bells. In fact, the priest questions Mariette if the words are truly hers or whether she borrowed them from other accounts. This is an acknowledgement that we struggle for words to describe such an event. It’s also another little twist on whether we believe Mariette or not.

Later, she is confronted by Mother Saint-Rapheal (who gets many of the best lines in the book) who says:

“I have been troubled by God’s motive for this,” the prioress says. “I see no possible reasons for it. Is it so Mariette Baptiste will be praised and esteemed by the pious? Or is it so she shall be humiliated and jeered at by skeptics? Is it to honor religion or to humble science? And what are these horrible wounds, really? A trick of anatomy, a bleeding challenge to medical diagnosis, a brief and baffling injury that hasn’t yet, in six hundred years, changed our theology or our religious practices. Have you any idea how disruptive you’ve been?
In that one outburst Mother Saint-Rapheal sums up the unanswerable questions that come up in the face of a miracle. And she closes her accosting of Mariette with a perfect and revealing statement of the conflict she feels in her own heart:

“And so I pray, Mariette, that if it is in your power to stop this—and I presume it is—that you do indeed stop it.” She pauses and then stands. “And if it is in your power to heal me of the hate and envy I have for you now, do that as well.”
There are more interesting sections throughout the book including others that deal more explicitly with the lines between sexual and religious ecstasy. I can’t really say too much more about the writing other than to point out how Mariette’s talk is mystical and untethered and Mother Saint-Raphael’s, in accusation, is rooted in religion but straight-forward and concise. You want the language to match the occasion and Hansen does that.

He also pipes in with one nice little aphorism that I’ll end with. This comes out of Mother Saint-Raphael’s mouth as she is addressing all the nuns and trying to convince them to be patient as Mariette’s experiences are examined and tested. She closes by saying:

“And let us remember that sainthood has little to do with the preternatural but a great deal to do with the simple day-to-day practice of the Christian virtues.”
Amen to that. And have a wonderful weekend.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Day 4 of Mariette in Ecstasy—Seeing Both Sides of an Argument

Christian doctrine and modern philosophy teaches that there is an Ultimate and Universal Truth. There is right and there is wrong and those are the only two sides of an argument. Postmodernism has raised the spectre of “relativism” a notion as hated among conservative evangelicals as that of “President Hillary Clinton.” Relativism basically says that there is no right or wrong—whatever you think (so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else) is fine. I’m not going to get into this debate today, but I want to at least make one point on the relativists’ side: in some things we must admit that there is no definitive answer.

Pepsi or Coke? Global warming or environmentalist extremism? DiMaggio or Mantle? Lakers or Celtics? Republican or Democrat? Briefs or boxers? The list, truly, is endless.

The saying is goes: “There are two kinds of people in this world…” and while it’s reductionist, it’s also a powerful tool to remember in constructing tension in a story.

At one point in my life I had an entire list in my head of stories that pitted two extremes against each other and forced the read to make a choice between them. Usually, the story hedged its bets—thus the justice of Inspector Javert is shown to be invasive, obsessive and wrong-headed because Jean Valjean (emblematic of mercy) is so virtuous even though I think everyone would agree that justice in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Anyway, all this to say that the list in my head has been almost entirely purged or deleted and thus I’m left with one main example: the play Art by Yasmina Reza. I’m sure tomorrow ten other examples will magically reappear.

Anyway, Art is the story of three friends (the only characters in the play), Marc, Serge, and Ivan, who’ve known each other for years. One day, Serge buys a piece of modern art. It’s a white painting on white canvas. Depending on the light you may or may not be able to see a stripe. Marc—who hates pretension—is apoplectic. Caught in the middle is mild Ivan, who eventually is set off like a ticking time bomb after listening to these two argue. The arguments start over whether modern art is meaningful or utter crap (two popular views) and end up encapsulating a number of polarities that occur in different world-views. Two friends discover they may not really know the other. And the audience, depending on your POV, can’t help but side with one of the friends or sit staunchly in the middle saying, “You know, I can see both sides of the argument.”

It’s a wonderful play to see performed. Judd Hirsch played the part of Marc in the version I saw with a righteous (sometimes self-righteous) smugness. And what’s most amazing is that the reader (viewer) isn’t led to any conclusion. The play is nearly a perfect balance of the arguments in this long war between the avant-garde and the skeptics.

Mariette in Ecstasy does nearly as good a job in examining the question of whether Mariette’s stigmata are duplicitous or miraculous. The convent is split nearly down the middle on the issue and the bits of information about Mariette that Hansen reveals tips you back and forth from one side to the other. I’m not going share my opinion (you can email me seeking it after you’ve read the book yourself) but I will say that it makes for: 1.) an engaging piece of literature and 2.) a startling little bit of suspense. Hansen milks the tension between the two sides like the some courtroom dramas can keep you in suspense. Now that I think about in many ways this is a courtroom drama—just one set in a convent as the nuns have to decide whether the stigmata is real or not, thus offering up judgment.

Anyway, just a little trick to think about. How can you create tension by playing two competing ideals or points of view off of each other? And do you need to offer your own answer or can you present both arguments evenly and feel confident that the reader will choose wisely?

Tomorrow, we close with a closer look at how Hansen addresses the miraculous and the spiritual in Mariette in Ecstasy

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Day 3 of Mariette in Ecstasy—Talking Themes and S-E-X

Of the things likely to get me fired, at the top of the list are the search words I just entered into Google: nuns, sexual ecstasy. The results are a mixed, and predictably disturbing bag, but #1 on the list is a link to readinggroupguides.com, a really impressive and wonderful site operated by HarperCollins on behalf of their authors and readers. The link is for Mariette in Ecstasy; there are two of ten questions offered that deal with the notions of sexuality in this book. I think, therefore, my job is safe—so long as we’re clear I didn’t visit any of the other links that Google recommended.

High at the top of this book’s priorities is to examine the notion of ecstasy. Since the “happy” drug of the same name wasn’t really around when it was written, Hansen chooses to juxtapose and intertwine the other two most common expressions—religious and sexual. The surprising part really (given the cover of the book, which—unless my mind is just really guttered—can pretty much be interpreted one way) is the delicateness, subtlety, and understatement with which he plays it.

I like this because the opportunity to be lurid or excessive is so readily available. Instead, he offers three or four scenes that tackle issues of celibacy, love, lust, and sex for a group of women who’ve figuratively (any maybe literally, too) become “brides of Christ.” It’s not like living in a convent is going to make all the needs that define us as humans go away. Hunger, thirst, companionship, and even sex are on the women’s minds. How they go about taming, meeting, subduing, or channeling those urges is interesting, even enlightening.

My point today isn't really to talk about nun-sex which is a pun I’ve been waiting to use since I started this entry. Instead, it’s to give a some pats on the bak toward Hansen for a few things he did that we can learn from.

A. He didn’t avoid a “sensitive” topic. Why sex is treated with kid gloves by Americans in general and Christians in whole, is a topic for another day. Sufficed to say, it’s not something that makes too many of our books.

B. He broadened the understanding and scope of his themes. Maybe he started out just wanting to talk about religious ecstasy—the notion of losing yourself in a moment to something supernatural. That alone is interesting, but what can we compare it to? Thinking about the theme in broader terms deepens our understanding of it. Can you do the same in your writing?

C. He relied on understatement. Thematic writing (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone) is such a place where writers are inclined to really highlight the importance of what they’re writing about. Usually the best thing seems to be to get it all out into a draft and then start scaling back. Maybe there were more explicit scenes in other drafts—if so, they were rightly removed. The provocativeness of what we read right now seems just about pitch perfect.

D. Let your characters define your themes, rather than the other way round. Hansen could have, in theory, made a link from religious ecstasy to that induced by psychotropic drugs. Or some performing arts. Instead, he created a seventeen-year-old beauty with father issues who is in touch with her sexuality and sees it as part of her gift offering to Christ. The connection comes naturally in such a case.

That’s all for today. Stop back tomorrow. I’ll get off this slightly creepy topic. And if you stopped in because of some keywords you entered into Google and are disappointed by my lack of pictures—well, I’m praying for you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Day 2 of Mariette in Ecstasy—Reader/Writer Dynamic...Plus Giraffes!

You there. You’re a reader. Your eyes are on this sentence and you’re reading it. Meanwhile, I’m a guy in an office wearing a sweater vest and wishing he hadn’t eaten all of his Hershey’s minis before lunch. I’m also writing this. Each word is a collection of key strokes; each sentence something that spent at least minimal time in my brain before emerging first into a Word document before being Ctrl-C and V’d into Blogger. If you’re with me this far you may have even created a interior voice for these words, made me a bit of a narrator. We’ve established a bit of a relationship, you and I, whoever and wherever you are. You expect the next sentence to have something to do with this one right now and I expect you understand what comes before and I’m guessing you’re now waiting for me to stop with the direct address nonsense to make my point. Hopefully in this very next sentence. Or at least in the one after that. Right after this hard space. Right now.

My daughter really, really likes giraffes.

Yeah, see, now we’re in a bit of a weird spot. I’ve pulled the rug out from you a bit. I’ve decided to take a leap and see if you’ll follow. You were expecting my point and I threw in something about my daughter. Clever, though, I did manage to introduce a new character into our little dialogue. And now, unless you’ve logged off, you probably have two questions: Is he ever going to make his first point? And what’s up with the giraffe stuff?

It started when she wanted us to pay attention to her at the dinner table.

Ah, see, I went back to the giraffe stuff. Now you know that’s not just going to disappear. It’s not just a random one time thing. You assume it’s going to relate to this little entry as a whole, but you’re not quite sure yet. Hopefully it’s quirky or engaging enough to hold your interest and even get you wondering why my daughter likes giraffes. The reason I’m doing this exercise is that Ron Hansen pulls off a bit of this as well in Mariette in Ecstasy. He introduces bits of dialogue, maybe four or five short lines, that are unattributed—he doesn’t tell you who’s saying them. It takes about four of five of these bits for you to begin to piece together what’s going on.

She’s want us to talk to her—and so we’d ask what she wanted to talk about. Her answer was always the same.

You know what the answer is, right? Come on, you know. You’re smart people. Your reading comprehension scores were good when you took standardized tests in high school. That’s not true across the board though. Not every reader is willing to make leaps. Not every reader is able to connect things through implication, hints, and suggestion. (And to be fair, not every writer who tries such things is able to pull them off.) As a writer, you essentially are setting a bar, like in high jumping. How much effort are you asking your readers to make when the pick up your work? We may be all about self-esteem, but in this country people operate on different cognitive levels. (And even very smart people may be untrained, immature readers.) How do you decide where to set that bar and what does it mean to choose a more challenging level?

Giraffes! Giraffes! Giraffes! she’d say.

(See you were right)

And so we’d talk about giraffes.

I think, in the end, (and I’m about to get metaphysical) that the story determines where to set the bar. Hansen is telling a quiet little story of the fine line between the miraculous and the mundane. It’s a topic that really is all about faith. For him, it does little good to explain it to anyone. You have to make up your own mind. Do you believe or don’t you? He acknowledges that what we believe can be influenced. Like in life, little bits of gossip and rumor fly at as through Hansen’s fragments of dialogue. We have a slow unveiling of facts and sway from one choice to another. It’s a delicate process. Quiet, too. And it requires that we work through things on our own as readers without Hansen telling us.

I don’t know that much about giraffes. They’re tall. They live in Africa. What more can you say?

It’s my opinion that the bar, often, is set too low in CBA fiction. We are not challenged. We are led by the nose like steer from plot point A, to spiritual point B, to character trait C. Depending on your viewpoint, it’s either condescending to readers or controlling by authors. Either way, it demands very little interaction by the reader. These are passive reads.

They eat acacia leaves—I found that out. But my daughter didn’t really want to talk about giraffes.

Format and structure of story is just one way we can challenge. We can break up a narrative in provocative ways to underscore a theme or a character’s mindset or any pattern we want to trace. We can retell scenes from different points-of-view. We can tell stories backwards. We can ask our readers to take some high leaps.

She wanted to join in. Be part of the conversation. But she’s only three and doesn’t quite know how to make that happen yet.

In the same way, I think there’s readers out there who want to be part of this conversation. They don’t want a casual read. They want a work-out, something stimulating to keep them on their toes. They don’t know how to ask either.

And thus two threads are tied together. Sort of. I know it wasn’t perfect, far from it, but you can at least see a very, very, very rough example of the little games and tricks and twists and turns we can work into our fiction. Narrative drive MUST make enough sense to keep readers turning the page. It doesn’t need to always make sense, and that which is complicated must also be intriguing.

So set the bar high. Leap, twist, turn, dance, whirl, spin, and let your readers follow you. We editors are the boring, stolid ones who help sure nobody’s lost along the way. Take some risks and readers will thank you. Or if not them, I certainly will. From the bottom of my giraffe-loving heart.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Get Thee to a Nunnery!—A Week of Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

Two weeks ago we had a vengeful albino monk trashing the Louvre. This week we flip the coin on the Catholic orders and go contemplative with Mariette in Ecstasy, a whisper of tale about a young woman who joins a convent, The Sisters of the Crucifixion, in upstate New York, 1906.

This book, like David Guterson’s Our Lady of the Forest and Mark Salzman’s lovely Lying Awake look not only at faith, but a faith augmented by miracles, and asks the question: Does this stuff really happen? Interestingly, all three books choose different signs. Guterson uses visions of Mary. Salzman takes up inspired poetry. Hansen, meanwhile, inflicts us with perhaps the most challenging of the three: stigmata.

Stigmata, for those not up on their supernatural occurences of bleeding, is not just a bad movie starring Patricia Arquette. Throughout history, it is defined as the mystical appearance of wounds on the hands, feet, side, back and head that correspond with the wounds suffered by Jesus in his passion. These are spontaneous (obviously they can’t be self-inflicted to be real) and are blessings to the bearer because it means Jesus is allowing her—most often it is a woman—to share in his sufferings. Most famous stigmatic you’ve heard of: St. Francis of Assisi—also the first to document it.

That definition out of the way, I want to spend a moment of time today talking about preparation, research, and how a writer can get these across without clanging facts about like Dan Brown and the tech-y writers.

Ron Hansen, from all reports, is a Catholic. He may have gone to Catholic school at some point and come across some nuns. That said, he isn’t a nun himself and therefore this isn’t a first-person account. Hansen needed to do much research—not only for time-period (1906)—but for the veracity of his convent. The work he does is substantial and the landscape and setting he creates are made solid by fact embroidered with details and polished with his honed writing skills. Like many excellent books, you learn history by seeing it happen rather than having it spoken at you as a lecture (once more, see Dan Brown.)

One simple trick is that he offers readers a prefixed schedule of life at the convent, including all holy rites and practices, and then uses those terms to give a sense of time and place. Instead of 5:00pm, he says Vespers. This forces you into the ritual and cycles of the nuns. The same is true for naming days after the Holy Days—e.g., 14th Sunday after Pentecost or Mass of the Beheading of Saint John the Martyr in lieu of July 15th. Again, this reveals his research but to the effect of forcing us into the nuns world and the year of the church.

Hansen gives time period to us in bursts and details. Life in the convent is never going to seem modern by when alkali water and sodium carbonate are used as floor cleansers or when the local doctor smells of peppermint and iodine you know you’re not in 1987. These are just little tricks we can think on and remember. It compacts and tightens the narrative. Words and sentences are used to maximum impact. Something—be it plot or characterization or setting is conveyed in every possible moment. Too often our books are flabby, bulked up with weak sentences. We can look to Hansen to learn a quick lesson in treating the novel more like a short story or poem.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about laying one’s cards on the table and the give and take between reader and author. Who’s supposed to do the heavy lifting so that the story is understood? And what happens when reader’s expectations aren’t met by what’s on the page.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Self-Conscious Reflexivity! Get Your Self-Conscious Reflexivity Here!—Closing the Week on Postmodernism

Why, oh why, would I ever wish that Christian novelists dabble in the tool box of postmoderns? Do we really need any more precious or cloying metafiction? Or disastrously ponderous deconstruction? Do we need the author to stick himself in his stories (i.e. Paul Auster) or turn them into fun-house glass mazes (i.e. John Barth) or write them without the letter "e" (i.e. George Perec—and still the most impressive yet inexplicably pointless literary achievement ever in my mind. His novel, A Void, was written in French without that vowel and then TRANSLATED into English without them, too. Are you kidding me?)?

Anyway, creating more odd postmodern writers isn't my goal. Certainly not simply for the sake of doing so in any case.

But, we need some acknowledgement by authors of the breadth of tools at their disposal. And it would an awareness of the limitations, strengths, problems, and inconsistencies that offer themselves in fiction.

So this is what I want to see sometime in Christian fiction.

I want a story told, at least in part, by a liar. The written word is not the gospel unless it's owned by the International Bible Society or King James. Readers are becoming slack and dull. They start mindlessly absorbing anything in a Christian novel as though it were recently excavated and Pauline in content. They could use a bit of chain-yanking. Plus, liars thrive in the Christian community. We'd be the most gullible subculture in America if they hadn't removed that word from the dictionary.

I'd also love to see more satire. This shows an awareness of the tropes and rules of genre, and tweaks them for effect. It doesn't have to be mean, but it does have to be smart. Historical fiction, end-days fiction—these all seem fairly ripe for exploitation should some writer find the gall.

Mostly what I'm advocating is something I spoke about the first week I started this journal and it's a point likely to come up again: Writers need to be intentional in all their choices. The worst thing you can do is simply write a certain way because that's the way others do it. That's how we end up with bookshelves filled with very, very, very, very, very similar fiction. That's how genres are started in the first place. Here, we're all about understanding the genre and then moving outside of it the most effective way we can.

It's Friday, I'm weary, and I think I'll call it a post at that. This weekend I'm supposed to finish reading Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy which features what can only be described as an orgasmic nun on its cover. You may or may not want to check back on Monday depending on how that last phrase rubbed you.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

A Veritable Triad of Stuff Left Over to Discuss

So What Kind of Novels Do I Want You to Write?
Extrapolating what has been discussed over the past few days, the definition of emergent fiction is this: Realistic, urban, apolitical, fiction featuring flawed Christians who are deeply engaged in their faith written by a person of non-specific age who deeply believes in their art and craft.

Actually, that’s not a bloody bad definition. If I had to add or subtract anything I’d say that the story certainly doesn’t need to be take place in an urban setting and that it needs to be really well written. Truly, that’s all I’m looking for. Help a brother out.

Community and the Enormous Task of Living With One Another
The one enormous aspect of the emergent church movement that didn’t come up in my vision for a new Christian fiction is the focus on community. Since I was speaking of the fiction itself, community becomes mostly non-applicable. However, I am interested in community in the context of writers, readers, editors, and (maybe) agents. The literary community pretty much exists already and there is certainly an active CBA writing community.

I’ve become part of the discussion on emergent fiction or postmodern Christian fiction and, by doing so, have found a small but growing community of people interested in this topic. I know through the universities and things like Festival of Faith and Writing that Christian literature and poetry gets its groove on. So be it. I think there needs to be a bit of bridge-building between these separate communities. We need to tear the walls down, people! Share the love. I’ve enjoyed corresponding with all those who’ve written to me through this little venture—even the anonymous fellow who simply called me, “blazingly wrong headed.” We all have our opinions, I suppose.

Anyway, I just wanted to acknowledge the almost first-order importance of community in the emergent church movement and cast my lot in saying it could work for us, too.

Post-Modern Christian Fiction—Possible? Or an Oxymoron on the Scale of Compassionate Conserv—Ummm, Never Mind
I’ve yet to fully understand the notion of a postmodern Christian. Postmodernism, pretty much by definition,(I thought) is embedded in the notion that there are no external absolutes and that personal experience is the reliable only “truth.” Christianity on the other hand has that whole omniscient, never-changing Holy God-thing going on. It seems that once someone makes the leap to Christianity, they pretty much become post-postmodern. If someone wants to write in with an explanation, that’d be groovy.

On the other side of the fence is postmodern fiction, for which I’ve yet to see a useful definition, grouping, or attractive reason for reading any of it. The English department of the University of Western Cape (in South Africa, of all places) says this:

Postmodernism does not believe language can reveal truths about the world, but rather holds the opposite view as everything is seen in linguistic terms: all explanatory systems like history, religion, etc. can be reduced to linguistic formulas: they have persuasive powers rather than truth. This leads inter alia to postmodern trends such as reduction, randomness, multiplicity, self-conscious reflexivity, intertextuality and absence of depth.
They then make their students read, wait for it, Don DeLillo, the chap accused of pretension and uselessness by B. R. Myers last week.

I think I want to spend a little time with the notion of the postmodern Christian novel—particularly, inter alia (my new favorite Latin phrase, thank you University of West Cape), the need for a little more self-conscious reflexivity—so we’ll leave it for today and pick it up as a fine end to the week. What says Friday more than academic jargon, books about children who whisper advertising slogans in their sleep, and me trying to remember back to my undergrad days at Penn State when I wrote papers for a class called “Noise” in which I linked Paul Auster’s writings, A Tribe Called Quest’s lyrics, and DSM-IV definitions of major psychological disorders all in the name of postmodern literature.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Don't We Just Have So Much in Common? More Connections to the Emergent Church

Today we’re continuing yesterday’s look at the ideologies of the emergent church that resonated for me as I began to formulate a plan to discuss a new kind of Christian fiction.

5. Diversity – A buzzword for the PC-crowd of the late 90s, the notion of diversity is look at with a good deal of skepticism by the modern Christian church. Diversity, too often, smacks of weak-hearted tolerance of lifestyles and ideologies that conflict with the cross. In some ways, I don’t disagree, however, in place of diversity, the modern evangelical church has become homogenized, particularly in its steadfast link to political ideologies. The emergent church has not, to this point, made such a link and in fact often stands firmly opposed to many of the policies of our current administration.

This isn’t a political rant, however. And I’m certainly not calling for more political fiction on either side of fence. What I’m saying is that the emergent church celebrates, more than most evangelical communities of which I’ve been a part, a diversity of opinion on non-creedal issues that stands at the heart of intelligent debate and discourse. Fiction needs to champion that same freedom of expression. In the simplest of terms, and not to shock people, but I don’t think the world will end if a Christian book has a character with (gasp) Democratic leanings.

6. Urban – So far it seems that many of the larger, thriving emergent churches are coming out of urban areas. Whether the congregations reflect the city as a whole is yet to be seen, but urban areas bring issues their own wide-ranging issues of race, ethnicity, class, and lifestyle that aren’t quite so dramatic, especially in suburban areas popular with larger mega-churches.

CBA fiction, without a doubt, glorifies the small town, rural life more than any other art form currently being practiced in America. Cities are seen as bastions of evil and sin and are shown mostly in characters’ rear-view mirrors as they flee. The vitality of the city has yet truly to be explored in Christian fiction, nor the unique problems and concerns faced in urban areas. This is a rich, rich field that is so far untilled.

7. Post-Seeker-Sensitive – This comes directly from Kimball’s book and so I may be remiss in claiming he speaks for the entire emergent movement, but it is a valuable point. Kimball essentially says that today’s modern church, witnessing mostly to baby boomers, created “seeker sensitive” services, both in worship and study. The services were designed to reach a generation of men and women who, born in the 1950s-1970s, had grown up in the church and had chosen to leave for a variety of reasons, usually boredom or out of some wound from the church. Now as adults in the 1980s and 1990s, churches tried to reach them by creating services that would not remind them of what they attended as children. Music become contemporary, orthodoxy was stripped out, denominational links were covered over, and there was a great effort to make church be anything other than “church.” This is being seeker sensitive. Post-seeker-sensitive throws all of that out the window and says that the next generation (1970s-90s) dislikes “contemporary” church and connects mainly with churches that not only revert back to how things were in the 1950s, but often how things were in far earlier periods of Christian worship.

The link to this in fiction is a point I’ve made earlier in this journal about how, to reach a broader market, our books don’t need to be less overly Christian, but MORE Christian. We need to understand that for many, Christianity has become just another interesting sociologic phenomenon or lifestyle choice (on par with say, Buddhism or homosexuality or veganism) that appeals because a reader hasn’t experienced it or understood before. This reader is simply part of our post-modern, post-Christian culture.

8. Ideologic, Not Generational – At heart, the emergent church movement is not a generational movement. There are links, of course, as you simply can’t escape the fact that most proponents tend to be younger. What’s more important, however, is a particularly ideology. One simply has to see or feel the need to be reached by the changing power of Jesus’ life in a way different from that offered by the modern American church.

Same with fiction. I don’t care if you’re 85 or 15. If you’ve grown weary of the genre of CBA Fiction and want to be a part of subverting, transcending, or ignoring that genre I want to hear from you.

Two Pitfalls I Share With the Emergent Church Movement

1. Arrogance – There takes a certain amount of chutzpah to look at something like the modern American church or CBA Fiction, shrug, and say, “You know what: This doesn’t work for me.” Saying just that isn’t arrogant, however. It’s when we say, “You know what: I can do better.” I may fall into that trap some times. I hope you’ll call me on it. I think the emergent church faces that criticism (and validly) quite often and I know they catch flack. So just for the record, what I’m saying in this journal is just this: “You know what: I want to do it differently.”

2. Oppositional – How do we define ourselves? We can fall into a bad habit of describing ourselves by saying how we’re different from the other guy. New Christian fiction won’t be so fluffy. This emergent church won’t read The Purpose-Driven Life as though it were the fifth gospel. New Christian fiction won’t feature cardboard heroines and square-jawed heroes with names like Cale. Our new emergent congregation won’t do any of those praise choruses with eight words that you repeat seven-hundred times. As a human, I’m want to complain about that which I’m trying to change. It’s much more powerful and useful, instead, to talk about the positive values and principles that form the foundations used to look forward. I can only promise I’ll do my best.

Tomorrow, a look at the role of community in a new vision for Christian fiction and some discussion about what a postmodern Christian book might look like.

Also, a quick note of apology to my foreign readers. As you may have noticed, I kept saying the modern American church. Mostly that's because that's all I know and all I felt comfortable talking about.
Go to Day 3 of our discussion of the emerging church.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Stealing Everything But the Candles—Four Parallels to the Emergent Church for a New Philosophy for Fiction

I’m am not an emergent church insider. I have attended services, read books, visited web sites, spoken with insiders, followed the debate, checked daily blogs, and the rest, but this makes me only conversant in the issues, not fluent. These are my impressions of how a vision for new Christian fiction shares many of the same guiding principles and values as the emergent church. These are the things that have resonated with me in the poking around I’ve done. If I’m wrong in any of them, please contact me or leave a comment and let me know.

1. Reactionary – To me the emergent church movement is a two-pronged reaction. There is a reaction to societal changes and a reaction against how the modern American Christian church, particularly the “Evangelical” church, operates. The premise of the first is that society has essentially become post-modern and old notions of how to engage culture no longer work. The underpinnings of the second is that many people—postmodern or otherwise—feel quite disconnected from the modern evangelical American church both in style and content of worship and study.

I think the reaction of this journal and those calling for a change in CBA fiction are fundamentally closer to the second-prong discussed above. Twenty-five years of establishing the genre has institutionalized habit and predictability that we are now trying either to undermine or overcome. Socially, I think we need to be aware that even well-written, genre-busting Christian fiction may still be looked at askance by a postmodern culture. And so rather than ignore this facet of change, we need to remain cognizant that our greatest chance of staying relevant to culture is to lay the foundation for postmodern Christian fiction. We’ll look at what that might mean either tomorrow or Thursday.

2. Authenticity – Not to be reductionist, but there are a number of key concepts within the emergent church that sum up the core of their beliefs. Authentic expression of faith, authentic worship, and other similar phrasings are one of these. What this means in actual practice becomes a lot hazier, but it is a phrase you will see a lot.

In Christian fiction, the call you hear is for “realistic fiction.” There’s a desire for an honest portrayal not only of society but of faith. I will note right here that discussions like this become worrisome because the implication is that modern evangelical churches AREN’T concerned with authentic worship and that CBA fiction is wholly unrealistic. These are broad charges and tend raise the ire of those being criticized. In the end, this is the kind of thing at the heart of the philosophical split that takes place in #1 above. Right or wrong, I feel CBA fiction is too unrealistic and hope to help change that.

3. Missional – This is a bit harder to describe, but as far as I understand it, this concept is one of taking or expressing the Gospel to the people in relevant ways to them rather than expecting them to convert to your established pre-ordained and acceptable understanding and expression of faith. In practice, it often becomes manifest through relational witness, through consistent involvement in the community, through the strict decision not to fall into exclusionary patterns of speech, behavior, etc.

In fiction, this fiction is linked intrinsically with “realistic” fiction. It shows a vital, joyous, raucous, flawed world—warts and all as they say—in which the themes of faith and Jesus’ teachings are expressed through the lives of the characters rather than explicitly preached. This is the book that many will claim isn’t really Christian because it doesn’t specially spell out the Gospel message.

4. Humility – I think humility in faith is a core concept of the emergent church. There are answers we don’t know, failings we can’t seem to overcome, and nobody is pretending otherwise. We learn from each other and are absolutely reliant on the perspectives of others to keep us humble. Discussion and a free exchange of ideas are implicit in the church’s focus on community—be they virtual or physical.

To me, fiction is all about questions and doubting and the struggle and search to make sense of this complex, amazing thing called faith. If I wanted an apologetics instruction I’d find one of those instead. To paraphrase Homer Simpson: “I want my beer cold…my TV loud…my homosexuals flaming…and my Christians flawed.”

Go to Day 2 of our look at the emerging church.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Emergent Fiction—What If You Coined a Phrase and Nobody Used It?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few months it’s that we lack the proper vocabulary to carry on a meaningful conversation about Christian fiction that isn’t CBA fiction. Most phrases end up becoming implicitly pejorative (“thoughtful fiction”, thus everything is “thoughtless”), overly academic (“postmodern Christian fiction”, bleah), not-quite-accurate, (“edgier” fiction—only some), etc. One publishing house had the misfortune of bragging that their new acquisitions editor was a true “book snob,” as though that were a good thing and not just trite and condescending.

In my discussions in-house, I began to pitch a useful but neutral term hoping it’d catch on. People would ask, “So what kind of books are you looking for?” And I’d reply, usually with disarming gusto, “Emergent fiction.”

{cricketschirping}blank stare{/cricketschirping}

Asked to explain further I’d say, “Oh, it’s edgy, thoughtful, postmodern Christian fiction written for book snobs.” And then I’d weep. So you can see how things weren’t quite working out. In the end, I decided to abandon the term and concentrate my efforts on clarifying the differences between the genre of CBA fiction and the broader scope that could be offered by Christian fiction. Drier, less sexy, but perhaps even more important in the end.

Still, some stubborn part of me just won’t let it go. I can’t stop liking Ace of Base or Beefaroni or my black canvas Converse Chuck Taylor’s I wore in a racially-sensitive portrait of a Puerto Rican gang member in my high school’s West Side Story and I can’t stop thinking that emergent fiction says everything I want to say on this subject in just two words if people could just understand all the idiosyncratic connections, meanings, connotations, and allusions the two words conjure in my head. So this week I’m going to spell it all out. I’m going to go through what I hope isn’t just an exercise in futility by defining a phrase nobody uses. My goal is to further clarify the types of books for which I’m seeking, contextualize this search in the broader scope of what’s happening within Christian culture as well as society as a whole, and give my poor little phrase—which is 50% stolen—it’s day in the sun. Onward then!

The term came together for me in the wake of reading Dan Kimball’s The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations. You’ll notice immediately which 50% I ripped off, partly from Dan but also from the entire emerging church movement as a whole.

The next day or two will involve us looking a little more at the emergent church movement and discussing the multiplicity of parallels I saw between my own acquisitions strategy and the philosophies and actions of the vintage church movement. We’ll talk a little about postmodernism, a little about the reactions against the emerging church, and more about fiction’s possible role in the emerging church. I’ll point you to many of the voices and resources in the emerging voice and discuss why even starting this journal grows out of a philosophy of community, conversation, and discussion.

See you tomorrow.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Day 5 of The DaVinci Code—Or Staring at a Blank Screen

In the end, the most damning thing about the DaVinci Code as a substantial piece of fiction, at least in my mind, is its inability to give me five days worth of material. With Reverend Nash and Liars and Saints I didn’t even struggle. With this book I had three days of material that I stretched into four. Today is day five and I’m simply going to clarify a few things.

1. Despite my rant yesterday, I am no Harold Bloom. I think popular fiction has an important and substantial place in our culture. I read 10-15 popular fiction titles a year and my only qualification is that they must be at least serviceably written. To me, they are the equivalent of an action movie or Alias on television. Entertainment and escapism. Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code is a grade-A example such a title. I liked it for what it was.

2. Would I acquire a “popular” Christian title? Only if it had something substantial and unique to recommend itself as well as a definitive voice. I am looking for stories that transcend or are outside the current CBA genre and while it’ll be more difficult, there’s no saying a piece of “entertainment” can’t be one of those stories.

Next week, assuming I haven’t buried myself under an inescapable mountain of tissue and empty throat lozenge wrappers, I’m going to talk about one of the most frustrating aspects of this search—the complete lack of vocabulary to facilitate our discussion—and how at one point I wanted to coin a term to end all the jibber-jabber. That term was going to be “emergent fiction,” drawn/co-opted/stolen from the postmodern/emergent church movement currently moving across the nation.

In the end I decided to go a different direction, but many of parallels I saw then still remain and I want to talk about how this search relates to postmodern culture and the new ways of thinking about and doing church in this country—and around the globe.

Until then, start buying stock in whomever owns Kleenex.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Day 4 of The DaVinci Code--Something About Being Popular Written From Inside a Sudafed Haze

As mentioned yesterday, B. R. Myers is not fan of pretentious literary-for-literary sake fiction. You won't find him championing mindless genre books either. Instead, Myers seems to be asking a very simple question: "Why can't there be intelligent books with fantastic plots, well-developed characters, fine writing--the whole ball of wax?"

A very legitimate question.

Myers answers it by looking to the past. In his excerpt he lists a number of books I'd never heard of before, excepting only the works of John O'Hara. I answer it with newer books like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay by Michael Chabon, Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold which are only two recent examples of emerging writers who appear to have what it takes to merge form with plot.

Dan Brown, unquestionably a talented writer, fails however to meet these expectations in DaVinci. His book falls into the old paradigm that says popular fiction need only focus on an engaging plot, an intriguing premise, and not worry about the rest. Popular fiction need act mostly as the treatment for the inevitable film (which, it appears, will be directed by Ron Howard in DaVinci Code's case).

Does this lessen the merit of such a book? In a way, it must. It doesn't relegate it to irrelevance, but life is short and those books I truly cherish are the ones that make the gargantuan effort of mastering all that novels can offer. I think Brown's novel failed mostly in two areas. First, I felt that, for all his research, his less than upfront presentation of the facts pushes the novel out of the realm of credible to pop-speculation. I suppose this is a weird complaint for a book that, among other things, purports that Jesus was married, but in failing to be square with the known history he turns the book's important themes into nothing much more than the front page a tabloid newspaper.

The second frustration I mentioned on Tuesday and that is two-dimensional characters. I won't go into any further detail about that.

Dan Brown knew he had a page-turning yarn when he uncovered all the speculation and conspiracy surrounding DaVinci's art, the Priory of Scion, and other bits of his story. His choice is to present them superficially, by presenting them as pure fact without any of the characters hardly delving at all into the gigantic implications such revelations would mean.

But let's be fair, in doing so is Dan Brown much different from much of the CBA fiction that finds its way to the shelves? Nope. Too much of our fiction is "popular" in the pejorative literary sense of that word. It chooses paper-thin treatment of deeply complex issues, creates either hollow men or straw men for characters, and simply serves to reaffirms what its readers all ready believe.

I'll blame the medicine for my mood (this is as negative as I want to get on this site) but we simply can't let ourselves be satisfied with the popular. I wish Dan Brown hadn't. I hope you won't be either. Dare to be unpopular--we might all be the better for it.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Day 3 of DaVinci Code in Which I Don't Mention the Book at All!

Waaaay back in 2001, a LA book critic named B. R. Myers got himself noticed by publishing an excerpt of A Reader's Manifesto, his diatribe against the state of contemporary literature, in the Atlantic.

Basically, Myers' briefs were in a bunch because all the awards and notoriety in literature were going to what he thought of mindlessly pretentious "artistes" who crafted sentences rather than books. Among his targets: Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, and Annie Proulx. As Myers writes:

"They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead—and then they subject us to the least-expressive form, the least-expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel."
He then chooses some sentences from their works that he finds particularly offensive and tears them apart.

I didn't buy everything that Myers was selling in his rant, but I don't think you can ignore the import of his point—namely that literary fiction had established itself as a strong enough force that writers were able to write incredibly dense, sometimes obscure, and otherwise theme and form driven books and sell them to a broad market. To paint in broad strokes, the publishing world was divided in half with Team Mindless Popular Fiction, captained by John Grisham and Jackie Collins, on one side and Team Snooty Literary Fiction, captained by DeLillo and his ilk, on the other.

What emerged was a calculated move by publishers to exploit the ramifications of this split. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, with Penguin and Vintage leading the way, the trade paperback binding came into its glory. Bigger than a mass market and featuring gorgeous covers, these books became a status symbol—not of wealth, but of intelligence. (Although the books cost more than mass markets, too, so there's some class elitism thrown in as well.) We have a tendency to wear our pretensions on our sleeves, and this simple format change was an easy way of saying, "Look at me. I'm smart. I'm reading this book that the unwashed masses wouldn't understand. I also drink port and have been to Aruba. Hah!"

The problem is, as Myers sort of points out, such generalizations as mass market format or trade paperback format are meaningless for talking about whether or not a book is actually a good that you and I will enjoy. Complicating matters further, academics, perhaps inspired by the cases of genre writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and James Cain who were only now getting their due as true geniuses of the craft, decided not to make the same mistake with current writers. Hence, authors like Elmore Leonard, Scott Turow, and Stephen King began to gain notice from some pretty impressive literary forces. Add in Oprah and her monthly selections of hard-hitting emotional novels which sparked the skyrocketing renaissance of book clubs and all of a sudden you have a world in which reading novels is as culturally relevant as its been, perhaps since the advent of television fifty-five years ago.

Then came a watershed mark in the discussion of the merits of popular lit vs. literary literature last November. Here the National Book Foundation, which hands out its National Book Award, honored Stephen King with its annual medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. Reaction was swift.

Harold Bloom, a Yale professor and author of The Western Canon (which is basically his list of books worth reading) said of the awarding group, "That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy."

Tell us how you really feel, Harold.

Still, the ceremony went forward and with not even a drop of pig's blood falling on his head, Stephen King joined many famous authors as the recipient of his major award. Consider all lines and demarcations dividing popular (i.e. "trash") fiction from literary (i.e. "boring but worthwhile") fiction to be completely erased. Sort of.

You know what? That's enough for today. I'll stretch this out into a two day discussion. Tomorrow we'll come back to the book at hand and try to sort out its place in all this mess and talk about why it stuck to old paradigms.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Day 2 of The DaVinci Code, in Which I Complain About Albinos

No book is without its flaws. On a day in which I’m feeling particularly punchy I might even suggest that 1 and 2 Chronicles get a wee bit tedious, but I don’t think I’d get very far with that argument, so I’ll let it drop before lightning bolts begin flying. The DaVinci Code certainly has no divine authorship, so I think we can take a look at a few of the things that kept me from enjoying it as fully.

Four Not-So-Admirable Things in The DaVinci Code

1. Exposition — Almost exactly half way through this book all the running around, albino gunplay, code-breaking, and art-threatening come to a halt for three people (two of whom have Ph.D’s in insane fields) to chat so that the third person (our stand-in) can get caught up. Page count? A good portion of 44 pages—or 10% of the book! Most well-researched thrillers (techno or otherwise) have a tendency to fall into this trap because the plot ends up hinging on some arcane bit of the research but some writers tackle the problem better than others. Michael Crichton is notorious for this techno-babble but in Jurassic Park he made the conciliatory gesture of relegating his meanderings on chaos theory to their own chapters so that, if you were like me, you could simply skip them without missing a beat. Dan Brown, who had been doing a fairly nice job of filling us in on the fly, simply wore down, I suppose, and bit his exposition off in one chunk. His choice. Personally, the book waned for me after those chapters.

2. Sketchy Motivation — Like actors preparing for a role, writers need to understand their character’s motivations in making nearly any decision. Readers will then judge these motivations and believe (or disbelieve) the subsequent actions based on those motivations. Offer a solid enough explanation that fits a character profile and readers will believe even the most difficult decisions. One of the primary backstory plots involves a decision made by Sophie Neveu to not see her grandfather (her only living relative) for 10+ years, nor to even read any of his correspondence because of some supposed atrocity she witnessed. Her secret reason is held in the book for over 300 pages. When we finally hear it, I didn’t buy a word of it. Writers need to be sure that we don’t mistrust the validity of the character choices on which our plots’ hinge.

3. Albinos They don’t make the best assassins. They tend to stand out, particularly when garbed as monks with barbed straps gouging chunks of flesh out of their thighs. Anyway, I didn’t particularly mind Silas the Killer Albino Monk but I don’t recommend you try and work such a thing into your writing. (Also, it's apparently becoming a cliche to use an albino villain. Who knew?)

4. Character Arcs — In the end, The DaVinci Code isn’t going to stay with me other than a few scattered facts about the history of Leonardo himself. Why? Because Brown’s focus (as I said yesterday) was constructing, almost mechanically with building blocks made up of his research, a plot that allows him to talk about his theories on church history. His characters, Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, are pawns or mouth-pieces only. They don’t grow or change. One has beliefs he finds out are true; the other learns things she believes. Emotional conflict is negligible. I had a fun time reading the book, but the story ended when I turned the last page.

A lot of popular fiction does that. It sacrifices fulfilling characters and emotional resonance for expediency in spinning out its plot. Literary fiction, meanwhile, oftentimes decides that plot is something only for comic books and that characterization is all we need. Obviously something’s got to give.

We’ll get into this more tomorrow in our discussion of “popular fiction”. I will say, though, that there are writers out there who span the fields. Writers who write rip-roaring tales that satisfy the most persnickety of readers. These are some of my favorite books and one’s I’d recommend to anyone. Come back tomorrow to find out more.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Pardon the Elbows as I Jump on this Bandwagon — 5 Days of the DaVinci Code

Forty-one weeks. 287 days. This week, that’s how long Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code will have been on the NYTimes Bestseller List. It has spent many of those weeks at #1. It’s there currently. I’m guessing that after Harry Potter 5, it’s the top selling fiction book of the year. It’s eminently readable, features a murderous albino monk given to self-flagellation, and sets a new world record for using the term the “sacred feminine” every fifth paragraph. Given that it sets Rome up as a prime adversary, it serves as a final nail in what must have been the Catholic Church’s worst year since 1517, what with all the lawsuits and such that went on in 2003.

It’s a hodgepodge, mishmash, and stewed gumbo of conspiracy theory, speculative religion, impressive art history, paranoiac art interpretation, Church-baiting, solid research, Parisian geography, and goofy code-breaking. From page 10, I could see why it’s one of the year’s most popular titles.

For those unaware, the book is about a Harvard-trained symbologist who gets involved in a murder-case that uses clues held in DaVinci’s art to uncover a centuries-old mystery held by a secret society that if revealed could destroy the Christian and, particularly Catholic, church as we know it. It’s written as a Crichton-esque pop-thriller complete with Jurassic-sized chunks of expositional dialogue. That said, it’s not to be casually dismissed. Here’s a partial list of some of the book’s admirable qualities.

Four Useful Things About The DaVinci Code
1. Rabble-Rousing — It throws many stones at many glass houses. It’s hard to get into specifics without ruining the book for those who haven’t read it, but sufficed to say it forces readers to actually think about how very little we tend to know about church history, the formation of the Bible, church politics, the divine nature of God, etc. It’s never a bad thing to stir the beehive, in my mind.

2. Research — Brown, no matter what you think of the book, has done his research. (Occasionally to the point of tedium.) In fact, the entire structure of the book (for this is a book with a plot at its mechanical heart) is based on his research. Without it, this thing could never have gone past 15 pages. Kudos.

3. Muse — It won’t surprise you to learn that DaVinci’s art permeates this novel. There is real power and economy, however, in using art, music, plays, films, and even other classic works as references in a book. If done right it goes beyond high-brow name-dropping and instead uses the allusions as thematic shorthand that can draw on a centuries of meaning with a single reference.

4. Engaging Riddle me this: Why are codes, puzzles, brainteasers, etc. constantly coming up as pieces of fiction as far back as Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx? Easy, because it becomes a simple lure to allow readers to play along. If you’re good, and Brown is for the most part even if all the code-breaking becomes a bit ridiculous, readers will keep turning pages to find out the next answer without ever guessing correctly.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some things I didn’t care for in the book. Wednesday we’ll get into the notion of popular fiction and that whole ball of wax. Thursday I’m going to look at Brown’s discussion of faith in the book and Friday’s topic will hopefully reveal itself to me some time in the next four days.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Also Coming in 2004: A Sense of Humor

Based mostly on intuition and a finely honed ignorance about most important things (science, economics, and women to name a few), I'm going out on a limb to say that, in general, 2004 is not going to be our shining moment as a species. We're starting our year with terror alerts, plus we have the summer Olympics in Athens (a disaster waiting to happen) and the Presidential election in November, which will mostly be a re-examination of the 2000 debacle.

So, my goal in 2004 is to try and make a few people laugh. My goal is also to find some writers who are able to see the nonsense, absurdity, and obscene number of sacred cows we've set up in American Christianity that could use a good ribbing. I dislike generalizations about Christians as much as generalizations about any other people-group, but the one with which I truly agree is that we are far too self-serious.

I'm not going to tell jokes or pen amusing limericks. However, I won't be above trying to throw in a funny line here and there in this journal or making fun of Canada when it's called for. And I'm definitely going to be on the lookout for the humorous and the comedic. Plus, I think a lighthearted novel or three might be just the icebreaker that Christian fiction needs. We can prove to the world that we have a voice other than the one who shouts at them from picket lines or preaches to them from pulpits. We can show how we're able to laugh at ourselves. It certainly can't hurt what with laughter being the best medicine and all.

Paul says joy is a fruit of the spirit. Let's hope the harvest in 2004 is gigantic. 'Kay? Great! Rock on!