f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 5: Chatting with Ann Tatlock

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

Friday, February 06, 2004

Day 5: Chatting with Ann Tatlock

Ann Tatlock is the author of four novels: A Room of My Own, A Place Called Morning, All the Way Home, and I’ll Watch the Moon. All the Way Home won the 2003 Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction and 2002 Midwest Book Award for Fiction. A former editor for Decision magazine, she lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband and daughter.

(Ann’s interview will run in two parts, Part I today and Part II on Monday.)

FiF: If I say "Christian fiction," what is your gut response?
AT: My gut response is to cringe slightly and to ask another question: “Why is there any such thing?” By that I don’t mean, “Why are writers who are Christians producing fiction?;” rather, “Why is our fiction categorized as such?” Why is it not simply Fiction, a part of that vast literary conversation that includes the voices of atheists, agnostics, deists, Buddhists, Muslims, Toaists, New Agers, ad infinitum? Why is the Christian voice, at least in the last three decades, so much excluded—not entirely but to a vast degree--from the general exchange of ideas in the conversation known as literature?

Well, that wasn’t simply one question, but you get the idea. The thing is, there was a time when “Christian” novels were published in the mainstream. Think about writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Dorothy Sayers--decidedly Christian, yet published by secular houses. There were no Christian houses when they were putting out their fiction, of course--yet the fact remains that the Christian voice was still an acceptable part of the debate. So what happened? Were we shut out? Did we leave by choice?

I suppose to find answers you’d have to consider the historical reasons behind all of this—the 18th century Enlightenment, the rise of Darwinism, secularism, existentialism and all those other isms that led to the death of God and the general turning away from religion in mass droves in the 1960s. Even if I were as well versed in all this history as I should be, I wouldn’t have time to go into all that here.

Suffice it to say that by the 1960s, Christian thought and biblical values, once generally accepted, became unfashionable. Both the Gospel and that now-rare commodity called moral restraint were cast off in a frenzy of cultural liberation. Not unexpectedly, the “Anything Goes!” philosophy started showing up in fiction in the form of sex, violence, obscenities, and perhaps worst of all, hopelessness, all of which was unappealing to those people who still believed in the Lordship of Christ.

So it seems we Christians did a little rebelling of our own, forming something of a sub-culture set apart from the damages and influences of the counter-culture movement. “Christian” publishing houses (specializing in Bibles, works of theology and other non-fiction books) started putting out “Christian” fiction. That way, Christian readers could pick up a novel and read it without fear of being offended. Editors at these publishing houses could be trusted to serve as moral gate-keepers, and rightly so.

But while the “Christian Fiction” ID has served as a guide for Christian readers (and that is a very good thing), my fear is that it has actually become a warning label for secular or otherwise non-Christian readers: “Contains outmoded and narrow-minded biblical ideas. All intellectuals, academicians, free-thinkers, serious bibliophiles, and left-wing liberals need not waste time reading.” And this is a very bad thing. Because these are the very people that need the message of hope put forth through this vehicle called fiction.

And so I cringe a bit whenever I hear our work referred to as Christian fiction. Because no matter how good a work it might be, if a novel is categorized as Christian, it’s guaranteed that that label alone is enough to scare away at least some of the people who might have appreciated it, and even gained something from it.

FiF: What is the one thing most lacking, in your opinion, in the CBA book/fiction industry? (This can be in the books, the publishers, the retailers, whatever).
AT: The idea of novel as art form. We’re getting beyond the idea of novel as fictional conversion story and/or sex-free and squeaky clean romance, and that’s good. But we’re still up in the air somewhere as we make the leap from creating stories to creating art.

You can pick up a novel by, say, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Thomas Wolfe, or Leo Tolstoy and read for the sheer loveliness of it. The prose is poetry. The trick (and it’s really no trick, but years and years of honing a craft) is to go beyond simply getting an idea down on paper. The goal is to do this, yes, but more than that, to do it beautifully. To make good use of the tools of our trade: simile, metaphor, analogy, imagery, detailed description. To go beyond the obvious, and to make connections that the reader might never have encountered before. To refuse to settle for the first word or phrase that comes to mind, but to rewrite, and think, and struggle, and rewrite again. To say something old in a completely new way. To be original.

FiF: What's the strongest thing about the CBA book industry?
AT: We’re growing. We’re changing and maturing. We’re open to new ideas. This website alone is proof of that.

FiF: Do you think a book published by a self-acknowledged Christian publishing company will ever be judged on its own merits by the general market? Should it be?
AT: Yes and yes. I think this is already happening. I’ll use an example from my own experience, only because I’m most familiar with my own experience. (There are probably numerous similar examples out there that I know nothing about.)

Last year my book All the Way Home won first place in the adult fiction category of the Midwest Book Awards (sponsored by the Midwest Independent Publisher’s Association). It seems to me that Bethany House was one of the few (maybe the only?) Christian publishing house represented there.

To all the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners out there, this may be small potatoes, but hey, it’s a start.

FiF: What do you foresee in the future for Christian fiction publishing?
AT: We will stop being the Rodney Dangerfield of the literary world: “I can’t get no respect.”

Since God died—or rather, was murdered—in the halls of academia (thanks a lot, Nietzsche), Christians began to be equated with anti-intellectualism. We became the narrow-minded, fable-believing crowd of innocents who couldn’t be bothered to think. At least not rationally. Because anyone who thinks rationally would conclude, of course, that God was a myth and Jesus—if he lived at all—was just a nice guy peddling a new kind of peace-promoting, feel-good, love-your-neighbor philosophy.

The modern secular humanist’s and postmodernist’s idea of conversion: “Christ comes into the heart; brain falls out of the head.”

Clever of Satan, don’t you think? And so here we are in this Postmodern age (though I understand we are slipping into post-postmodernism, whatever that is) in which Individual Man, being the highest level of authority, decides for himself what truth is, because there is no Absolute Truth. [By the way, did you know that “the ideas we call postmodernism were first formulated in the field of literary analysis”? (The Death of Truth, by Dennis McCallum, p. 86.)]

Picture Satan and his four-star generals sitting around their conference table in Hell HQ, trying to come up with new and intellectually respectable ways of destroying people. Suddenly one of them pipes up (probably the top guy himself), “I know! Let’s attack them in the comfort of their reading chairs! Let’s make them think that whatever they think is all there is to think, because after all there’s no real truth outside of their own minds. Let’s make the idea of Absolute Truth completely unbelievable. That ought to kill them off in droves!”

And so it does. In the spiritual battle going on for people’s minds and souls, literature in the hands of the enemy is a weapon of mass destruction.

Christian literature can respond with the Gospel message, the double-edged sword that convicts of sin and convinces of Truth. What we’re trying to get across in our work isn’t just ideas of one sort or another, it’s Truth itself. It’s a living thing that has the power to change lives. Consider C.S. Lewis. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis relates how, while reading Phantastes by George MacDonald, his “imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.” MacDonald’s novel served as a steppingstone in Lewis’s journey toward faith. Something similar happened to William Murray, son of Madelyn Murray O’Hair, and consequently our mid-twentieth century’s poster child for atheism. His imagination was sparked by Taylor Caldwell’s novel Dear and Glorious Physician, a story about Luke, author of Acts and of the gospel that bears his name. Today Murray is a Christian evangelist.

My hope for Christian fiction is that there will be a backlash to all this postmodern anti-speak and people will want to read novels again that aren’t a complete vacuum. They’ll be looking for stories with substance.

The challenge for us as Christian writers is to offer something worth reading.