f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 03/01/2004 - 04/01/2004

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

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Frothing at the Mouth Like Cujo

As I mentioned yesterday, I was interviewed by CBA Marketplace for a roundtable discussion on the place of “edgy” fiction in the Christian market. “Edgy” wasn’t really defined in the piece other than to say it would be fiction that would appeal to twentysomethings who would otherwise ignore Christian fiction.

On some levels that’s true. If you look at websites and magazines that appeal to younger Christians they tend to use imagery, design, and tones that convey a more aggressive attitude. They also tend to tackle issues that, in general, older generations are little more uncomfortable with—or last least review movies, music, and television shows that older generations certainly aren’t watching. And that’s considered “edgy” by a lot of mainstream Christians.

If that’s the first step, so be it. But it can’t be the last step. And it can’t be a step in-and-of-itself. Reiterated many times in the article and by many people is the fact that it isn’t the content of these books that’s the problem—it’s the craft and construction of the books themselves. Content is just one aspect we have to address. And it’s the easiest to be frank. Getting writers to train themselves to do the hard work of writing is a whole other ball of wax.

I also want to take a moment to rant if I might.

Rant begins.
We were asked the question: “Can you make a case for “gritty” fiction that deals frankly with thorny subjects and portrays characters honestly—warts and all?”

Reread that question. Reread that question again. I’m sure you have an answer formulated—most of which should include, “It’s sad this question even needs to be asked.” Now look at what we’re up against.

[From a retailer] “The edgier fiction gets, the less retailers trust the publisher. All is takes is one customer to return a book with an objection, and we’re more wary about purchasing from [the publisher] in the future.”
This, more than anything in our industry (even Testamints), infuriates me. I see red when I read or hear stuff like this.

One complaint. Do you know anything else in the world (outside breaking the law) where wholesale change occurs if one person walks into a store and is upset because a glass of wine is mentioned? Or the word “damn” is used? Or sex is had by people who don’t believe in Jesus? And just one person. Do we understand how much power we’re giving that person?

What this amounts to is spiritual blackmail. “Do what I like or I’ll raise a ruckus.” It’s training people to deride the freedom we’re allowed by Christ in non-creedal issues. And turns the cross into a bludgeon to make art conform to an extraordinarily narrow interpretation of life and faith.

Stores have it tough because, to be honest, it’s a tenuous livelihood. You rarely go into Christian retailing thinking you’re coming out a millionaire. And if there’s a personal boycott it affects them in their bottom-line. Publishers are affected less—so far as I know there’s never been a HUGE uproar or protest against a publisher because of non-theological content of a single title—but we don’t test those lines too often. Nobody wants to be first. So we pass it on to writers, telling them what to write and what to avoid. There’s a lot of smart and creative people who say that art needs to be practiced in an environment outside of censorship. That environment, sad to say, isn’t the CBA.

And so one little old lady has just tipped a domino that has handcuffed our industry for years.

Well, you know what, I think it’s a bluff. I don’t think one person walking into a store has that much power. We’ve simply given it to her. I think if a book is a certain quality then the anger it raises in a minority will be minimal to the joy it brings the majority. Stores need to learn simply not to let little old ladies buy such books and publishers need to market and promote such titles so little old ladies (and how derogatory am I being with that label? Sorry.) don’t want to buy the titles. The answer isn’t (as is suggested in the article) warning labels on the outside. We don’t need ratings for our books. We need awareness and openness and the fortitude to say, “Thanks for your opinion, little old lady, but I think there’s a generation out there different from yours that will be powerfully challenged by this book.”
Rant ends.

Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Upcoming and Coming Up

Lots of random thoughts for a surprisingly complicated Tuesday:

1. Baseball season opened today. And there was much rejoicing.

2. Left Behind #12 arrived in stores today. And at Tyndale there was much rejoicing. The rest of us in the industry are pretty much just glad it’s over with. ({Homer}Mmmmm, bitter grapes.{/homer})

3. My Freaks and Geeks DVD set arrived unexpectedly at my house yesterday. This prompted such a primal scream of pleasure that I made my 11 month old daughter cry. The (quiet) rejoicing began after she went to bed. (And if I have to say it again, Freaks and Geeks=Best Thing Ever on TV.)

4. I’m in the midst of setting up a board for posting. The comments thing is okay, but we’ve discovered limitations. Plus I want you all to begin interacting with each other as we’re all in this together. I’m hoping to get this done fairly soonish. It’ll give us more space for opinions, a chance for gathering critiques on our work, and room to goof off.

5. Next week I’m going to start a tour of the Christian publishing industry. We’ll look at other publishers, magazines, retail outlets, and some key resources that might be helpful. I will follow the adage that if you don’t have something nice to say, it’s better just to shut up.

6. The best put down of someone’s writing: “You know that saying, ‘A million monkeys with a million typewriters in a million years…?’ Person nods. You hand them their writing and say, “Two stupid monkeys sharing a crayon for ten minutes.” Now, can someone please tell me where I’ve heard this (or some approximation)? I didn’t make it up and I can’t place it right now. Also, yes, these are the things we write in our rejection letters and then delete.

7. Best way not to get published: “God told me you’d publish this!”

8. Second best way not to get published: “The Holy Spirit told me you’d publish this!”

9. Third best…oh, you get the picture.

10. I’m going to be at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College from April 22-24. Come visit me at the Bethany House/Baker booth. I’ll have postcards promoting this site and the chance to win a faith*in*fiction library of 15 books including Dubus, Buechner, Tatlock, Potok, Cramer, Salzman, and others.

11. I’ll also be at the Colorado Christian Writer’s Conference in Estes Park from May 13-15. I’ll be talking about “The Expanding Vision for Christian Fiction” and “Reading Better for Better Writing.”

12. The Pixies are reuniting and their first show is in Minneapolis in two weeks. It’s sold out and tickets are on eBay for $220+. There was no rejoicing at all. Just frustration that I didn’t hear about this earlier.

That’s it. Joe at Word Foundry’s been writing some good posts lately. You can check there for more substantive content. He has a good take on how one writes character description. (Though I think genre, pseudo-noir in the case of American Gods had a fair amount to do with Gaiman's decision.)

Monday, March 29, 2004

A (True) Story

In lieu of me talking about a book I haven’t read (burnout on Christian fiction hit 40 pages into Diary of a Country Priest,) I will instead tell you a very random story of my life as a writer. And announce another Foundational Truth. See here for #'s 1 and 4.

My first book was published in January 2001. In March of that year I received a voicemail from a woman representing the Kenai Peninsula Writer’s Conference. (I guess it changed its name.) She wanted to talk to me about coming to Alaska to present at the conference in early June. I sprained my finger dialing her back.

She started her pitch by apologizing for Alaska being so far away and saying that she understood that might prove problematic. I tried to assure her that you could volunteer to fly me to Alaska in the middle of January and I’d still go, let alone the beginning of summer. She sounded pleased and said that another woman involved with the conference really liked my writing and they would be so grateful for me to come up.

I asked a little more about the conference and learned that the keynote speaker would be Russell Banks. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, you can click here. I knew the name and found out what writers mean when they describe someone as nearly swallowing their tongue. I’d written one little book that I assumed would be mostly ignored. How in the world was I going to deign to show my face in the same building as this guy?

We chatted about Russell Banks. Chatted a little more about the conference itself. Things seemed to be coming to a wrap. I was dazed and, to be honest, terrified. Something still didn’t seem to be right so when the woman asked if I had any final questions I asked, “I’m just wondering, how did you even hear of me?”

“Oh, well, Judy [not real name] just loved your short stories.”

First thought that went through my head—“They tracked down my senior thesis?” Second thought—“They’ve got the wrong author.”

David Long is the author of Blue Spruce, a collection of short stories. He’s also written a novel or two. I am not he. I haven’t yet brought myself to read his books because it’ll depress me greatly to be only the second best writer of my name. (Or third or fifth, who knows. It’s a common name.) I looked through the book once, however, and was terrified to see he quotes from Bruce Springsteen, my favorite music artist, and chose an epigraph from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire a relatively obscure movie I’ve long considered a favorite. Maybe I am this guy after all?

Part of me wanted to keep the charade going and to get my chance to fly up to the Kenai peninsula, but I’m neither a con artist not much of a short story writer and the gig wouldn’t have lasted much past me stepping off the airplane. So I pointed out the conference’s mistake and received a very sincere apology. I was also offered free tuition to the conference, but alas, no free travel.

Which leads us to Foundational Truth #3: The act of writing is arrogant and masochistic. (“This deserves to be heard. Why won’t you listen?”) The nature of writing is to humble you. In a million small and large ways. Be prepared.

Friday, March 26, 2004

A Few Closing Thoughts and Some Brief Words on The Passion of the Christ

The nice thing about this website, other than chatting with you, has been discovering new books. I went into this thing knowing there was an enormous breadth of literature dealing with issues of faith from a Judeo-Christian perspective of which I’d only been able to scrape the surface. I don’t claim to have scraped any deeper but my understanding of the actual scope of this topic has definitely grown. And let me tell you, there’s way more books our there than you might even think possible.

It shouldn’t be surprising, I guess. The life of the spirit and the importance of religion and faith is pretty fundamental to us as humans. There will always be a percentage of the population that obfuscates this, but their arguments are as vital to the conversation as any. As well, the life of the spirit is intrinsically mysterious and deeply individual, making it core material for any budding artist. Attempting to express the inexpressible, attempting to communicate the distinctive are two of the primary reasons art, in all its forms, exists.

I think part of our goal in this conversation is to familiarize ourselves with as many of the books out there on this topic—and, in fact, familiarize ourselves with great fiction no matter what the genre or topic. That’s part of the reason I try to reference as many books as I can. It’s also why I am pleased when I discover new works that look interesting.

This happened with Jesus Saves and Lamb. That was two hours spent at a bookstore looking over titles seeing what on the shelf dealt with issues of faith that I’d never heard of before.

In trying to track down books that dealt with Jesus’ life (and thus his death) I came across many I’d heard of (Mailer’s Gospel, Gore Vidal’s Live From Golgotha, Price’s Three Gospels) and many others I hadn’t. (Dorothy Sayers apparently wrote a passion play cycle called The Man Born to Be King. I hope to track down a copy soon. I also came across two titles (similar in nature, it seems) that I’ll be adding to my reading list.

The first is Nino Ricci’s Testament. This is the life of Jesus told in four chronological sections by four different narrators, Judas, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Simon. The second book is Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Just opening this book is astounding enough. Page through it and you’ll notice that there’s not a lick of dialogue in the entire thing. As well, the story is told in a first-person, direct address pov. Third, the first two chapters are single, unbroken paragraphs and the first paragraph break of any kind comes 15 pages in. Sure these are simply surface observations but they’re uncommon enough to warrant interest. Apparently these are the things you need to pull off to win a Nobel.

So we’ll look at these books over the upcoming weeks/months. Despite my grand excitement about the breadth of faith-filled fiction, it’s a topic I worry about burning out on. So I need to read some other things as well. After Diary of a Country Priest I’m planning a little break to check out some non-fiction (The Two-Percent Solution) and maybe even a mystery novel. Hope that’s okay.

The last thing I want to do today is weigh in with just a thought or two about Mel Gibson’s Passion I don’t claim that these thoughts will redefine the conversation or stand as hugely original. But this seems to be one of those issues where hearing a multitude of voices is actually preferable.

In the end, I was left unmoved. In this film, Jesus wasn’t a man or a messiah; he was a whipping post. To me, the power of Jesus is—a bit like the godhead itself—threefold. There is his life, his death, and his resurrection. You can study each individually, but that always needs to be in the context of the other two parts. Gibson, I felt, focused on his passion to the exclusion of anything else. All we saw was suffering and pain. And those two things do not define my Savior.

My other primary feeling was a deep and abiding frustration with both the film’s publicity/marketing and the Christian community’s reaction to said marketing. In some ways, having experience in marketing you have to admire The Passion. Whoever led this charge played it perfectly. The controversy, going on at least six months now, has fueled $300 million in ticket sales. It is a controversy though that I think was provoked and elongated artificially for said benefits. I think the Christian community became willing dupes for savvy marketing. I didn’t expect more from us, but it’s frustration nonetheless. In the end of this brouhaha, we’ll have defined ourselves more as a marketing demographic with the impact of our dollars than by the impact our lives in our community.

I welcome all other opinions and feelings on the matter.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Were You There When They Took the Nails Out?

I won’t even pretend to have read even close to the entirety of today’s book of mention, A Love Divine by Alexandra Ripley. It’s a historical account based on the life of Joseph of Arimathea. He’s the guy in the Bible whose tomb is used for Jesus’ burial so they can bury him before Passover. Apparently there’s an entire legend based on Joseph that includes him being the disciple to first bring the Gospel to England. There his staff grew into a tree called the Glastonbury Thorn that blooms not only in spring but around Christmas as well. This page details some more specifics of the legend.

Anyway, it’s a legend of the same cloth as the Holy Grail, interesting so far as it goes, but not nearly as illuminating perhaps as one might think. Ripley’s book is pure historical fiction. What I read seemed well-researched if a tad too modern in thought/syntax/etc. There’s a ton of dialogue which drive me insane and in the various sections I read there seemed to be a fine balance of romance, tragedy, to keep the pages turning. I think it might be the ABA equivalent of a Thoene book, perhaps.

We don’t actually see the crucifixion as J of A wasn’t in Jerusalem to witness it. Instead we see the aftermath as he barters with Pilate for custody of the body and helps the various Marys of the story get the body prepared for burial.

Ripley’s actually chosen a part of the story that’s usually skipped over and it’s an interesting glimpse. The one detail that sticks out at me is one of Pilate’s men, after being ordered by J of A to take down the body, saying, “Ladder…and pry-bar.”

How does one take a body off the cross? Do you actually pry the nails out? Mel’s film showed the Roman’s hammering them flat against the wood, which means you’d have to pull so even the head of the nail passed through the wound. I’m not sure about this. What a weird and disturbing detail.

I don’t have too much else today, sorry. The writing isn’t worth quoting. The book probably isn’t worth reading. It just happened to be handy.

If any of you have seen The Passion and have a thought about my question below it’d be great to hear. Even if you don’t think Pilate said such a thing, I’d like to know. I think he said something, but I can’t remember what that might be and I’m not all that excited about the notion of seeing the film again for simply that reason.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

(Insert Something Witty Here): Two More Crucifixion Scenes

High on the list of things I would never try as an author would be a first-person account of the life of Jesus. Think of how far we’ve come. You had early Jews who wouldn’t even speak the name of their God aloud and now you’ve got Norman Mailer who feels confident enough to try his hand at writing “an autobiography” from Jesus’ POV.

The Gospel According to the Son isn’t very good. I’ve read 66% of it (the first third, and the last third oddly enough) and it’s a woeful effort. Jesus, writing somehow from the throne of glory, comes off thin, pompous, and a bit whiny. His Father, who forsook him on the cross, still hasn’t come all the way around, and Jesus is less than thrilled with the churches and religions that have thrived to give him honor.

Mailer does get one thing right, however, in having his Jesus speak so much about the war in human hearts between God and Mammon. Jesus is essentially a social worker with a message of charity toward the poor and unkind words for those who would revel in their riches.

(Speaking of reveling in one’s riches. I’m going to take this moment to make a public declaration that I wouldn’t mind one bit if Mel Gibson decided mention where some of the money from The Passion might be going at the end of the day. I know we’re supposed to give without the other hand knowing, but in this case, a powerful statement could be made if he followed his screed with a generous heart.)

In the end, he suffers through the same Passion. Mailer actually skips the scourging and whipping somehow for a straight bolt to the cross and Golgotha. Here’s a sample of what happens:

“They drove a spike into each of my wrists and another spike through each of my feet. I did not cry out. But I saw the heavens divide. Within my skull, light glared at me until I knew the colors of the rainbow; my soul was luminous with pain.

They raised the cross from the ground, and it was as if I climbed higher and into greater pain. This pain traveled across a space as vast as the seas. I swooned.”
I don’t have much comment about this other than it doesn’t cut it. First-person was always going to be a difficult task and this scene was one of the ones Mailer would have had to nail. (No pun intended.) It’s like playing Hamlet. You need to do the “To be or not be…” speech credibly or the rest of your performance crumbles. Mailer, in my estimation, doesn’t even try real hard here. It’s coasting on the audacity of the premise rather than any quality of writing.

Christopher Moore’s Lamb meanwhile uses the crucifixion to build up suspense. His ending comes down to Biff and his faith in whether his friend is actually the Messiah or not. I’d actually rather not discuss the scene too much less I ruin it for those who may read the book, which I recommend, but I’ll choose one small passage. Biff has seen Jesus being prepared for his execution and knows he can’t be present for the actual driving of the nails. It’d drive him over the edge. That fateful scene plays like this: “I watched from the walls of the city as they led Joshua to the road that ran by the hill called Golgotha, a thousand yards outside the Gennath Gate. I turned away, but even from a thousand yards I could hear him screaming as they drove the nails.”

It hit me in reading the book. This Joshua is a man you come to care for in the course of 375 pages. There is a real passion in the anguish of his cries and the wrenching of his friends heart in hearing them. It also shows that one doesn’t have to actually bear witness to the piercing of skin and bone and tendon and tissue to be affected. It’s a lesson Mel may have at least wanted to contemplate.

The more important lesson, however, is that if allow your readers to invest themselves in a character even the slightest wounds hurt.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

You Got Your Fiction Into My Bible. You Got Your Bible Into My Fiction...

A “Gospel”—literally “good news”—is pretty much any recording of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Usually we add on a modifier to place ownership of the message. Thus we have the four canonical gospels, Matt, Mark, Luke, John, as well as a ton of other ones that are either historical, fictional, or some odd combination of the two.

The historical versions of these are “apocryphal” or untrustworthy and didn’t make the cut for the Bible. The fictional ones, like Lamb, are often written with some sort of reinterprative intentionality. Some are feminist tracts supposedly written from the perspective of Jesus’ female disciples. Others show Jesus as a Socialist. Or a Republican. Or a vegetarian. Or whatever.

The last category are gospels written to enhance or fill-in the historical record according to the Bible. These tend to be written by Christians or Catholics or Bible scholars who, while they may still have their theologic or sociologic axes to grind, subvert them for the sake of general accuracy. The Passion of the Christ, for all its reliance on 18th-century visions and Catholic legend, falls into this category. So does our book of today, Three Gospels by Reynolds Price. Price is an English professor at Duke University with an interest in the Bible. His book offers three sections. The first two are his translations of Mark and John—the oldest Gospel (Mark) and what he calls the most startling Gospel (John). It also includes “An Honest Account of a Remarkable Life.” This is his own apocryphal gospel, one he builds off of Mark but girds with stories from the other three texts, other lesser-known accounts of Jesus’ life (including The Gospel of Thomas, biblical history, Middle Eastern anthropology, and his own impressions of land and climate from his visits to Israel.

What ends up coming out of Price’s gospel (as well as Lamb for that matter) is this unexamined notion that Jesus may not have been born with his ministry fully formed. The implication is that the 30 years prior to his teaching includes his winnowing of what to say and how to say it. It’s a compelling thought and one I don’t claim to have an answer for.

Price’s gospel hews fairly close to the biblical accounts. What’s interesting is his take on things. In his gospel Jesus is determined to build on John the Baptist’s message of God’s coming cleansing. “The Kingdom of God is coming,” Jesus tries to warn people, but his words are often ignored in favor of his miracles. The needy and ailing become a constant looming presence for him, often limiting the impact of what he can preach. Over the course of his preaching however he understands that his purpose is not to ride in a conquering king with God’s wrath but serve as the sacrifice. “He’d reconciled an outraged God to [the disciples], their kind, all human creatures till the end of time.”, writes Price.

Like in the biblical gospels, Jesus’ Passion plays very quickly. Here’s his scourging according to Price: “So Pilate had the soldiers take Jesus and whip him. Then they dressed him in a royal purple robe, plaited a crown of thorns for his head, saluted him as King of the Jews, mocked and spat on him, and returned him to Pilate.”

The brevity, the clinical dissertation of events, certainly doesn’t capture the horror of the day. Nor even the crucifixion. I guess the question is why. Why do the gospels not play up the suffering of Jesus, if it’s by his suffering that we are saved? Gibson’s film certainly does.

One very uneducated thought is simple context. These were essentially oral teachings that were finally written down so that Jesus’ life would be preserved. These were written by eye-witnesses, essentially, or at least men and women who lived in times very similar to Jesus. Such an era was desperately violent. Crucifixions, one of the most horrible of capital punishments, were a state-mandated method of execution. There was nothing clinical and sanitized about their lives, so perhaps they felt like they didn’t need to dwell on the facts. Some may have felt the sting of a whip themselves. Who knows?

What’s pertinent is that Price’s writing of the Passion, except in Gethsemane, is almost all deliberate and narrative action. There is, one must confess (at least in our time and language) a distinct lack of passion or emotion. We’ll look at some other efforts the rest of this week and see how people dare to enter the staggering weight of those hours. And if their portrayal holds up.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Everybody Else Is Talking About It So Why Can't I?

The Catholic Church has had quite a year. First they make the news with charges of abuse and pedophilia among their priests. Then Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code becomes a word-of-mouth blockbuster, implicating the church in a (fictional) conspiracy most readers believe blindly rather than sussing out the truth. Finally, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ opens amid a roar of voices—both for and against the film. Top that off with Pope John Paul II, who has looked like he’s minutes from death for the past seven years, becoming the 5th longest serving pope and it’s been quite the roller coaster.

I keep hearing charges of this country becoming post-Christian or that our culture is anti-Christian and yet year after year stuff comes up (be it Left Behind or Jabez or The Passion) that shows issues of faith, spirituality, and religion are closer to the front burner than we may realize.

I’d hoped to get a lot more research done this weekend on the presentation of crucifixion in literature than I did. But just to show you how much of an impact this story has had on our culture, I can tell that I walked out of our library with three novels and forgot to pick up Reynolds Price’s Three Gospels which is a fiction author’s non-fiction attempts at offering his own version of the gospels. Within our library system as a whole there were over 70 titles. I’m hoping a few of them get to me before this week is out.

The four books I currently have on hand, however, are Lamb, which we’ve been discussing, The Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer, Alexandra Ripley’s A Love Divine, and Nino Ricci’s The Testament.

Mailer is a literary heavyweight with two Pulitzers and was co-founder of the Village Voice. Alexandra Ripley is best known for writing one of the most hated books ever, Scarlett, the sequel to Gone with the Wind. Ricci I’d never heard of, but is a Canadian novelist with some impressive literary credentials. There’s no way I can get through all of the books, but we should be able to get a feel for what the authors are doing and look specifically at their presentation of the via dolorosa. Tying into all of this will be Gibson’s Passion and perhaps even other classic artistic representations of the events surrounding Jesus’ death.

I don’t necessarily know what we’ll accomplish with all of this, but it seems that those twelve hours have compelled artists for centuries and it might be worthwhile to look at what each found so compelling and how they went about portraying that.

Hope you join us over the next couple of days.

Friday, March 19, 2004

You're So Funny I Almost Forgot to Laugh

Humor and pain are two sides of the same coin. Always have been. For whatever reason, we often laugh at something that is causing another person physical or emotional “pain.” I think that’s another reason why a lot of Christians tend not to find things funny. Mocking is arrogant and ignoring pain is unsympathetic. We’re obviously not called to either of these virtues.

This takes away a lot of opportunity for laughs, though. There’s only so many puns and clean jokes one can put in a book. How do we write the humor without being accused of either arrogance of lack of sympathy? A very quick and easy answer is to write from the inside.

I’ve mentioned this before—Freaks and Geeks is the best television show that was ever produced. It lasted a year, but is now coming out on DVD and is worth your money. Three of the main characters are bona-fide, thick-glasses, uncoordinated geeks. Sam, Bill, and Neil go through constant degradation, harassment, and worse. Most of it is riotous. And yet these are wonderfully sympathetic characters, vividly drawn, and deeply three-dimensional. How did the writers do it? Short answer—most of them were geeks growing up and therefore the show is written with heartfelt love.

If you’re going to write a Christian humor story (one that will be published in the CBA at least) one quick way to make it successful is to actually like Christians. They can go through awful things and all sorts of absurdities, but they need to be liked.

(An aside. Have you seen the Christopher Guest “mockumentaries” Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind? These, I think, mark the invisible borderline between love and mocking. You’re essentially focusing in on “defenseless” groups—small-town theater, dog lovers, and folk singers—and poking fun at their passions. The question is whether Guest and his actors fully appreciate these passions or look down on them. I think you could argue both sides. It’s important to be aware of that line, though.)

A second way to approach humor in Christian novels is to pull out the pedestal from under someone. This treatment goes back to About a Boy by Nick Hornby. I think there’s the possibility for setting up a fictional Christian who is worth mocking. Create a “monstrous Christian” who is so over-the-top that we actually cheer as they come to learn the “true” meaning of the faith. Hornby does this with his character Will Freeman who is a womanizer, a cad, vain, and more. He’s also not very self-aware and doesn’t admit or see the gaping need in his life for love. This is a tricky bit of characterization, however, because taking things too far over-the-top will create an unlikable character. Will gets by because he’s charming and funny. I could see CBA accepting such a novel, though.

The third approach to a humorous Christian novel is the clash-of-cultures/fish-out-of-water. Look at Christianity from an outsiders perspective. Or throw Christian characters and their diametric opposites into humorous rather than dramatic confrontations. I think Rene Gutteridge’s Boo! takes this tact.

A fourth approach is to simply write a Christian novel that has humor completely unrelated to faith and or religion. Make the humor about parenthood or something else. It’s not impossible.

The final approach is to go guns-a-blazing into full-scale satire. Trust me when I say that I think there are a million-and-one things worth satirizing in Christian culture. There’s probably a million-and-one things worth mocking. This begins to be a very tricky ground, however. I can guarantee you’re going to piss somebody off. And that’s fine. That’s probably what you’re going for. You just can’t annoy 85% of CBA readership because that means your book probably won’t get published. I think what’s more probable is that you include one or two satirical threads in an otherwise normal novel and see what comes of it. If you want to (and can) write the Catch-22 of 21st-century Christian culture, please go ahead. Somebody will publish it. I’ll certainly read it. But don’t expect it to win fans among Christians. We’re just not ready to laugh at ourselves yet. And that’s not funny, it’s just sad.

So that's it for Lamb and humor. I really, really, really would love to see some funny manuscripts. Give it some thought. Or if you've got an idea and a few chapters, send them in and I'll let you know what I think.

Next week I think we're going to go 180 degrees and talk about Jesus' death and resurrection, especially as they are seen in fiction/literature. Seems timely, what with all the furor over The Passion of the Christ.

The week after that we're going to discuss Diary of a Country Priest by George Bernanos. You can find cheap copies lots of places or get it from your library. Join me for this one. It's of less controversial ilk than Jesus Saves and Lamb.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

History, Biblical Exegesis, Eastern Philosophy, and Dumb Jokes

I’ve talked about why Lamb is a funny book. I’ve talked about it’s handling of Jesus and how it hews pretty close to a sacred interpretation. What I haven’t mentioned is that the book works pretty well as a historical novel too.

When you talk historical fiction you immediately talk about research. I read an interview with Christopher Moore and while the guy is a bit of a goof-ball, you can never accuse him of slacking off on the work. The lives of Josh and Biff are set fully in 1st-century, Roman-occupied Judea. The culture comes out in all the small details. There aren’t long blocks of “history.” Instead, it’s developed as a setting that I found impressive. If you’re interested in writing historical fiction this is a very effective and very different example that may shake up your feelings for the genre a little.

At the same time, Moore in his presentation of “Biff’s” version of the gospel offers what amounts to an exegesis of the gospels as presented by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Stories aren’t wholly changed, but examined from a new perspective. Sometimes this is just for the sake of the plot, but there are a few moments that offer some real power through their re-invigoration of the Scripture.

One of these is the scene of Jesus stopping the stoning of the adulteress woman. In the Bible it mentions that Jesus knelt and started drawing in the dirt, but doesn’t go any further to explain why this is important. In Lamb, we find Joshua writing the names of the woman’s accusers and short lists of their worst sins. I don’t know that this happened, but it’s as fine an explanation as any for why the men flee so quickly and why Jesus’ admonition that only the one without sin can throw the first stone.

Another example is Mary Magdelene’s (called “Maggie” in the book) anointing of Jesus’ feet. Maggie is a strong and vibrant character and her love for Joshua is deep and moving. Her action, coming under the shadow of his approaching death, just shines with poignancy.

Christopher Moore is not a Bible scholar, nor does he call himself a Christian. (He actually calls himself—or did—a “Buddhist with Christian tendencies.”) I’m not suggesting that these interpretations should be considered gospel truth. But they can add to your understanding of the Bible in a unique way without contradicting history or the passages themselves.

The last major aspect of Lamb and the one that is more likely to annoy Christians (even more than the swearing and sex) is the weaving Moore does between Christian tenants with the philosophies of the Tao, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Josh, it turns out, while sure of his unique divinity, is not quite so sure what it means to be the Messiah. To find out, he heads East to track down the three Maji who first sought him. After all, if they traveled so far, they must have had some reason. In meeting and studying with these men, Josh takes individual pieces of their teachings to form the core teachings he’ll bring as the Messiah.

Any discussion of this begins worrying Christians. The narrow path, they say. One God; one path to God. I’m not arguing that. But it needs to be pointed out that Christopher Moore isn’t a believer and isn’t compelled to hold to such standards. At the same time, it’s imperative for Christians to understand the underlying principles of these ancient religions. Truth is truth, no matter who speaks it. A Taoist who says, “Treat your neighbor as you’d treat yourself” speaks the truth even if the underlying reason isn’t there.

In today’s postmodern world, Christians need to be aware even more fully of these connections. You all need to decide for yourself the line that stands between watering down the gospel and being inclusive, but the days of “Jesus only, no discussion” are over.

And finally, a few more thoughts on humor.

I’ve known many different kinds of Christians. I tend to get frustrated by the broad and sweeping generalizations that are made about Christians, particularly those branded “born-again” or “Jesus freaks” or “Bible thumpers” because all those terms reveal an inherent ignorance about the demographic they’re supposed to be commenting on. That said, I’ll make my own sweeping generalization right now.

I think satire is often missed by Christians with a more Fundamentalist/literalist bent to their faith. Satire is often rooted in irony and subtlety. It is, in essence, a lie or an exaggeration for effect. Because, however, literalists tend to be very straight-forward in their beliefs and actions and decisions, the necessary untwisting of satire needed to find the humor and meaning tends to be missed. This isn’t limited to Christians either. There are just personality types that don’t deal well with satire. I just tend to find a larger concentration of that personality type in the church than anywhere else I’ve gone. (But I could be wrong in a big flaming way.)

So that’s it for today. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about the future of humor in the Christian publishing world including some avenues I’m interested in seeing some manuscripts on.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

You Must Be Joking! Well, Yes, Today I Guess I Am.

“Being a shepherd seems easy. I went with Kaliel last week to tend his flock. The Law says that two must go with the flock to keep an abomination from happening. I can spot an abomination from fifty paces.”
Maggie smiled. “And did you prevent any abominations?”
“Oh yes, I kept all of the abominations at bay while Kaliel played with his favorite sheep behind the bushes.”
“Biff,” Joshua said gravely, “that was the abomination you were supposed to prevent.”
“It was?”
pp. 28-29
Ah, bestiality humor. Nothing better to start a journal entry, I’ve found. This was one of the jokes I laughed at in Lamb. It may not be to your taste. It probably shouldn’t be to mine, but it was.

The humor here emerges from two things. First, Biff. At this point, he’s an 11 or 12 year old boy. His presumptive arrogance and actual ignorance are funny. Second, the humor emerges from our societal disconnect to many of the Old Testament laws. Moore knows this. Much of Leviticus doesn’t just sound oppressive—it sounds downright weird. We’re without cultural context and so it simply becomes absurd. (The same thing rings true of those weird laws from early America. Things like, “It is illegal to hold a chicken on your head on Sundays” or whatever.)

The joke itself hinges on the repetition of the word “abomination” (which carries the weight of our cultural disconnect), on Biff’s self-assurance, and then the final reversal. And thus, because we’ve practically diagramed the thing, it’s no longer funny.

The interesting thing about Lamb as opposed to other comic novels is that much of its humor is found in dialogue. These are “spoken” jokes that rely on the voice of the characters as much as anything in the set-up of the story. That joke works out of the context of the story because it’s a joke. In other novels, you have pithy turns of phrase that can be quoted, but mostly you see extended scenes with punchlines that don’t seem funny if quoted without the set-up.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book like Lamb before that used the dialogue jokes so fully. I can’t say that it’s my favorite style of writing and I wonder if Moore repeats it in all of his books. My biggest issue with it is that the book becomes, by necessity, so dialogue heavy. I tend to feel like I’m reading a screenplay at such points and it loses the richness that books allow. Moore doesn’t fall completely into this trap and manages a decent balance of narrative scenes as counter-point. I wouldn’t select this book as a prototype for a comic novel, however, merely for that fact.

The next question is: What is a comic novel? There’s all kinds, of course, with all sorts of purposes. One generalization I think you can make is that, at their heart, they are about something more than just the jokes inside them. There is a plot; there is a story; there is a narrative drive to discover something. Whether these books mean “more” than that is often left to the writer.

Here’s some humorous novels I’ve read and my categorization of them.

Isn’t It Romantic by Ron Hansen — This is called “An Entertainment” rather than “A Novel,” so you should know what you’re in for. A romantic comedy that includes scenes of fish-out-of-water, bedroom farce, and situational comedy, there’s nothing in here that will surprise you if you watch movies or television. They’re well-done though and breezy. It’s a nice read.

The Tetherballs of Bougainville by Mark Leyner — I think I’ve read this. I know I’ve read one or two of Leyner’s and the experience was quite enough. Absurdist, parodic, and wildly over-the-top, Leyner’s novels are called “satires” but I never think they can carry that weight.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller — This one, meanwhile, can carry all the weight you dare to throw at it. Deadly incisive on the absurdity of order in the face of atrocity, it’s more than just a comic novel. It carries real power and now stands as the embodiment of our disillusionment with the armed forces following Korea and Vietnam. I think anger and frustration drive a book like this.

About a Boy by Nick Hornby — “Lad-lit” they call it now, insisting on having a counterpart for “chick lit.” Forget it, Hornby rises head and shoulders above most of the dreck that passes itself off as entertainment for women. This book is a satire as well, but a gentler one. It’s a very sweet and hilarious story of a cad who’s forced to realize he’s not a rock, not an island, but a person who needs to love and to be loved. If you saw the film, it’s actually a pretty good take on the book.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams — Take one uptight British person and send him careening off through space with a half-dozen insane companions including a morose robot and you have debatably one of the funniest books ever. The equation here is the juxtaposition between Arthur Dent’s stolid unflappability and the absurd/ridiculous events that try so hard to flap him.

Straight Man by Richard Russo — For my money, this is the best “humorous” novel of the past decade or two. Russo offers a spoof of academic life that somehow manages to be meaningful at the same time. There’s real drama here. And it comes without the expense of a single funny moment. This book sets up long and situational comedy rather than simply jokes. The prologue alone about trying to name a dog should have you hooked.

This is a small list and certainly not comprehensive. (Here’s another list from a library. I haven’t read most of these.) The point is that you can have humor without sacrificing meaning or power. Often it can serve as wonderful counterpoint. Think about the possibilities that tackling a humorous novel might open to you.

And tomorrow we’ll talk about the one rule in writing humor—you can’t try to write humor.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

“God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” Voltaire

I don’t have my copy of Lamb with me at the moment so I feel a little blind as I head into this entry, but we’ll soldier through. I do know that the quote above serves as the epigraph for Section I of Moore’s book. I don’t know if the quote is meant as a defense for what’s about to come, a one sentence summary of Moore’s own philosophy of religion, or simply the theme of the book, but I like the quote.

G.K. Chesterton did some writing on the problem of pleasure that fits here. His point is that just as “the problem of pain” (how does pain exist in a world with a supposedly beneficent and all-powerful God) is a major thorn-in-the-side for Christians, so too is a pleasure a thorn-in-the-side of atheists (i.e., “why do we experience pleasure at all in things like beauty or nature if they weren’t created for us”) I guess my own feeling is that God has the best sense of humor of all of us and that our attempts sometimes to maintain the holiness of Christianity also strip it of its promised joy.
The problem is: Where’s that line in the sand? When do we step over into irreverence or mean-spiritedness? Like with most things in Christian culture our answer seems not to try and actually discuss the issue, but rather to say that its safer not to even talk about the question. Tolerance and freedom are sacrificed in the name of forced abstinence –which is its own kind of heresy.

We don’t have gobs of humor in popular Christian culture. There’s magazines like The Door and sites like Holy Observer and Landover Baptist Church ("Unsaved Unwelcome. As Jesus Commanded."). You have VeggieTales. (Which I find funny sometimes, but feel the humor often comes outside of any religious context for the most part.) You have a handful of Christian humorists (Barbara Johnson, Dave Meurer, Martha Bolton) who are writing and then a small handful practicing stand-up as well. And I'd say it's about 50-1 in terms of serious novels to light-hearted ones. (Though this trend may be changing. Flabbergasted by Ray Blackston, Rene Gutteridge's Boo!, and Paperback Writer by Stephen Bly are some recent offerings that were funny. On purpose.)

Lamb tries to pull off an interesting trick by being wholly irreverent in nearly everything but the characterization of "Josh," Jesus to you and me. While this book certainly won't make many church book club's reading lists anytime soon, the author profers much more respect for Jesus than one might have expected. There's a certain appreciation for Jesus' life and teachings and, very little that I found disrespectful. (You may have other opinions.)

If you're going to try to write for the CBA Market though, my guess is that anything less than almost complete honoring and revernce of the Bible is going to be looked at with a lot of skepticism. It may be a good way to raise a ruckus and possibly offend a lot of people (which may not be bad) but it may also get your manuscript returned with a "no thank you."

What can you joke about then? (Other than Elisha sending the bears to attack some teenagers for calling him "bald" and the sensous/goofy images of Song of Songs. ) Mostly you can set your humor amid Christian culture. Flabbergasted is set in the church singles scene and there's a few good send-ups of folks who attend for reasons other than to be uplifted. That's your best bet if you want to write CBA fiction. I think the culture as a whole needs a bit more skewering and lampooning and I'd rather it be done by people of faith than those who despise even the saving words of the Gospel. Just know that to really write sharp, incisive humor you're going to have to get rid of self-censorship and simply go for the jugular.

Lamb isn't about going for the jugular. It's not a satire; it's more of a spoof. Think Mel Brooks or the Airplane guys rather than something like Dr. Strangelove. The humor tends to be a bit broader and often on the bawdy side. There's some anachronisms thrown in for cultural laughs but most of the jokes aim a bit lower than the brain. This is mostly because a good portion of them come from the mouth of Biff, whose brain is about fifth on the list of organs that controls his actions.

Tomorrow we'll look at some other "comic" novels and break all the rules by analyzing a joke. We'll see if learning to write humor is a talent one is born with or a skill one can learn. ,

Monday, March 15, 2004

Dodging Lightning Bolts—A Week of Christopher Moore’s Lamb

Christopher Moore is the author of seven books including Island of the Sequined Love Nun, Practical Demonkeeping, and his latest, Fluke which came out last year and is about a whale with the words “Bite Me” on its tail. Prior to Fluke, he published the book up currently for discussion, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. And this week we’ll be talking about humor writing, the role of humor in writing, and the very nebulous line one walks when writing comically about all things “sacred” or “holy”.

Seeing many of my fellow brethren react with vitriol to this and-that-affront to Christianity and/or common American values, I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t just get offended more often. It’s a tough question. Has my heart hardened? Am I missing out on fine opportunities for righteous anger? Do I not own enough respect for the sacredness of my own faith? Maybe Lamb would push me over the edge.

Nope. Wasn’t offended. Yes, angels cursed. Yes, Jesus did too. (And Biff does A LOT.) But in the end, Moore’s Jesus is an interesting, complex character endowed with many of Jesus’ character traits—and one who seems more “real” than I found the simple, agonized beatific savior of Gibson’s film. Both are fictionalizations of Jesus. One hews closer to the gospels and yet somehow seems to end up further from the truth.

The book begins in a third-person omniscient POV as Raziel the angel, not one of God’s shining examples of the genre, is ordered to earth to resurrect Levi who is called Biff in order that Jesus’ boyhood friend can write his take on Jesus’ life while he and the angel stay at a hotel in St. Louis, Missouri.

The majority of the book, however, is told through Biff’s first-person, both present-day, and then in his writings as we enter his gospel to witness Jesus’ life as a boy and man. You see many scenes that you’ll recognize from the gospels…and many dealing with the 18 unmentioned years in the Bible that are speculative.

The book is not short and, in a quick review, seems to be one of those perfect definitions of uneven. Jokes fail, sections lag, and nearly all the present-day sections are annoying. That said, there’s a lot that works and much to enjoy. I laughed out loud a handful of times and way more jokes work in the book than miss.

That’ll be it for today. The rest of the week we’ll be talking about humor (probably two or three days), research and history, dialogue, philosophy in fiction. Come along!

Friday, March 12, 2004

Self-Reflexive Narcissism or Friday Sloth...You Decide

I thought about talking a little today about Christian autobiography but the two examples I have at home (C.S. Lewis' Suprised by Joy and Shelden Vanauken's A Severe Mercy ) are pretty well-known and nothing I can get too excited about for the moment. So instead, and because it's Friday and this week has been battering, I'm going to post something I've already written. This came in the wake of the publishing of my first novel and was used on my "author" site. It fits today's autobiography theme and it's about writing, so I hope you enjoy.

On Writing and Worship—December 2001

Much as there are two halves to the Christian faith (believe with the heart; confess with the mouth) there seem to be two halves to Christian writing.

The first, the outward ministry aspect, seems to get the most attention. Ask most Christian authors why they write and they’ll explain their desire to write books that glorify God for the encouragement of Christians and spread the gospel for the benefit of non-believers. Like all ministries, it’s grounded on serving others.

The second, more personal, aspect, however, is just as important. And this is the one with which I struggled for a number of years before finally being granted a bit of understanding on what God expected from me with my writing. That insight came in the form of a small verse in Philippians (4:18b) in which Paul thanks the church for the gifts they’ve sent. "They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God," Paul calls them, couching his praise in Old Testament imagery, and its about the best compliment you can imagine.

The thing I struggled with for so long was how to make my writing "pleasing to God." I’d start stories filled with the hope that they’d capture some small measure of genius and soon find myself bogged down at each phrase. Or worse, I’d begin by praying that God would grant me a chapter of words exceptional enough to find favor with Him. Never happened.

What finally changed my approach was a better understanding of praise, worship, sacrifice, and offering. Essentially, the road I’d been on was a dead-end. Nothing I could produce would ever be "worthy" or "acceptable" to Him—unless it was offered through thanks to Jesus. The Philippians offering was not special for any other reason that they did it out of obedience, humility, and love to Jesus. He allowed it to be fragrant, to be pleasing.

And so now I try to approach my writing the same way. God’s blessed me with a love and gift for writing and I want to acknowledge that by offering it back to Him in this small way. [My novel] was a joy to write not because it’s the best book ever or the most important, but because I found myself freed from trying to match all those expectations. It’s the small coin offered by the poor widow—all I had, all I ever needed to give.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Angel or Devil?—Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

Depending on whom you ask, Ray Carver may very well be known as the savior of the short story or the destroyer. Sometimes a person may very well say he’s both.

Carver died in 1988, but his impact on the form is undeniable. He along with Andre Dubus, Alice Munro, and some others made collections of short stories commercially viable for perhaps the first time in modern American history. And once something becomes commercially viable, watch out. What follows is a slew of sloppy seconds as people try and replicate such success.

Carver and Dubus also represent some of the first larger successes that developed through a writing program. Usually, M.F.A. students go their degrees and headed off to colleges and universities around the country to teach creative writing and hopefully to continue getting their stories published in journals. One of my profs was a student along with either one or both of the two writers and he seemed at once ecstatic for their fame and perhaps a bit bittersweet for his own anonymity.

So Dubus and Carver made it possible to be a writer, head off on scholarship or grant to a writing program, and then publish your collection and maybe make a name for yourself. The downside to all this, according to some, is that this mindset forced M.F.A programs became factories. Instead of creating writers who are discovering their own voices, they taught talented writers how to craft stories that would be picked up by journals. Publish or perish, baby.

One of the most public reactions against this was a joint effort between Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s journal (which, depending on your tastes is either hip and groundbreaking or annoying) and Michael Chabon titled, understatedly, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. From the introduction, Chabon laments the state of the American short story in the premier magazines. Gone are the pulp and genre masterworks for folks like Hammett. Gone are the action pieces of writers like London. Instead, the short story has become “recycled, plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew.”

That’s Carver to a T. Except at the time he wasn’t recycled. He was writing in a fresh new vernacular that stripped language down to its essence and found power in everyday life. Carver is the literary equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting. His pages are filled with roustabouts and drunks who often despise their lives. Each Carver story, though, tends to fashion one moment of transcendence, one sparkling facet of understanding that in literary terms is called the “Epiphany.” This isn’t new to Carver. Short stories have found that moment for centuries—it’s just rarely been found in such mundane lives and situations. (The finest epiphanic story for my money, and the greatest short story ever, is Joyce’s “The Dead.”)

So that’s the mix into which we’re thrown when we read Carver these days. He feels dated in a lot of ways and I no longer stack his work up against Dubus’. But there are a number of stories of his that I like and “Cathedral” from the collection of the same name is one of them.

Told from the first-person POV of an unnamed narrator, we’re taken into the life of a married man who’s wife has invited an old friend over for the night. This friend is a blind man named Robert whom she’d read to as a summer job over a decade ago, but with whom she’s continued to keep in touch.

Our narrator doesn’t want the blind man over and though he finally acquiesces it’s not without some petulance. Robert shows up. They talk. They eat a huge meal. The watch TV. They drink a ton. (As does everyone in Carver’s stories. Would it shock you to hear he’d died of liver cancer?) They smoke dope. Chabon’s gripe about plot—absolutely valid here.

The epiphanic moment comes as Robert and our narrator “watch” a television program on cathedrals. The blind man has never seen one. The narrator tries his best to describe what’s on the television. Fumbles about and fails. The blind man suggests a different alternative and has the narrator draw a cathedral as he follows the etched lines with his fingers. And for the first time our narrator truly sees a cathedral as well.

Here’s a passage that gets to the heart of our narrator’s fumbling.

”They’re really big,” I said. “They’re massive. They’re built of stone. Marble, too. Sometimes. In those olden days when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life. You could tell this from their cathedral-building. I’m sorry,” I said, “but it looks like that’s the best I can do for you. I’m just no good at it.”

“That’s all right, bub,” the blind man said. “Hey, listen. I hope you don’t mind my asking you. Can I ask you something? Let me ask you a simple question, yes or no. I’m just curious and there’s no offense. You’re my host. But let me ask if you are in any way religious? You don’t mind my asking?”

I shook me head. He couldn’t see that, though. A wink is the same as a nod to a blind man. “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it’s hard. You know what I’m saying?”

“Sure, I do,” he said.

“Right,” I said.
What follows with their drawing is as close to a moment of grace as this narrator may have ever come.

I’m not sure what we can or should take from Carver. He ended the era of more stylized short stories filled with weighty dialogue and instead gave us a different kind of stylized story, this one blue-collar and stripped of its “literariness.” If you’re unfamiliar with him, his stories may catch you by surprise. I definitely encourage you to check him out.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Stanzas and Meter and Symbols, Oh My!—A Short Meditation on Poetry

I was an English major. You don’t get through most colleges as such without doing a fair amount of reading across a variety of eras, authors, and forms. So in four years I crammed quite a few novels in, lots and lots of short stories, some non-fiction, and more poetry than I can even remember at this point. Four years wasn’t enough to convert me into a poet.

There are poets I’ve become fond of (Roethke and cummings come to mind), but too often poetry becomes about everything other than what is on the page that I twitchy around it. I will say that if you are a Christian who knows her Bible at all and you end up taking a poetry class focusing on the Elizabethan era, you’ll find yourself in a good spot. From Donne to Marvell to today’s subject, George Herbert, much of the poetry that has survived is spiritual in theme or, at minimum, uses lots of biblical imagery. I remember stunning my class by knowing that Esau was hairy.

Anyway, I pulled out my copy of Herbert, who I remember liking in college, to talk over one of his poems. I didn’t repeat yesterdays minor miracle. Today I sifted through his verse and found that one’s reasons for liking something may dissipate in time. I need to look through my old papers and see if I can find the theses I wrote on Herbert to remind myself.

I did locate one fairly accessible poem. It’s called “The Pulley” and I think we’re far enough into public domain with this one that I can reprint the whole thing. Mind, some of the formatting is a bit off, but it doesn’t look terribly important for this one.

The Pulley

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by;
Le us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flower, the wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.

Yeah, so that’s it.

The poem seems to hinge on one theme—that of rest. And as I just typed that, the title of the poem may become a tad clearer. The poem is “narrated” from the third person limited omniscience POV, which is mildly ironic since we are limited to an omniscient God, so I’m not sure if that’s actually limited or not. God, as he does in the Bible, talks to himself a fair amount as we gaze at him creating Adam.

Blessed with “riches” that make the world’s offerings seem small, Adam is given every advantage. Except rest.

But what is “rest”? To me, it’s a contentedness or fulfillment. It might very well be Pascal’s God shaped hole. Man can search all he like among the riches of the world, but his efforts will lead him only to weariness. God is our only source for the rest that goes to the soul, the rest that Hebrews 4 mentions.

This raises a perplexing problem about people who are content without God, but that seems to be for another day. Tomorrow we’ll look a little further at the short story with a work by Andre Dubus’ classmate (I think) while they were in the Iowa Writer’s Workship together, Ray Carver. The story is called “Cathedrals” and can be found in a volume by the same name.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

1 Stone, 2 Literary Birds: An Essay on Short Fiction by Andre Dubus

A search of faith in fiction reveals that I have mentioned Andre Dubus in six entries so far. Honestly, that’s criminally low. I think I’m overcompensating for my great appreciation for the man by consciously not mentioning him. So he may come up a lot more here in upcoming weeks.

Today, I was intending to write about my favorite essay of Dubus’ called “On Charon’s Wharf.” This is a piece of non-fiction that I think should be, and I mean this in the least heretical way, added to the canon of the New Testament. It’s a wonderful call to living in the moment and treasuring life but it’s one of those things (like bubbles or jokes) that may lose itself through dissection. So instead I urge you to pick up Broken Vessels by Dubus (Half.com has used copies for under $4.00 before shipping.) and read it.

In the meanwhile, we’ll talk a little about “Marketing.”

Staying on the sacrilegious side for moment—you know how in Christian books, someone opens the Bible and finds a passage that perfectly addresses the issue they’re dealing with at that moment? And you know how in real life, if you open the Bible randomly, you’ll probably get something about breasts from Song of Solomon or a list of naughty kings from, well, Kings? Well, I opened Broken Vessels today and found an essay that absolutely plays into what we’re all about here at faith in fiction. What this means, I'm not sure. But it was fortuitous at least.

“Marketing,” which first appeared in Boston Magazine in 1978, is Dubus’ story of his dream deferred in his quest to have his short stories published as a collection. And how men and women high-up in publishing houses all said the same thing: “We love your stuff. People don’t read short stories.”

Sound familiar? This is us, ladies and gentlemen. Like Dubus at the time, we are currently in an era of Christian publishing that is in flux. We say were are changing, but that change is glacial. We say we want progress, but then we write back to you and say, “Sorry, we like it, but our readers won’t.”

Dubus’ answer is to drink and listen to Kris Kristofferson. While I can’t advocate either of those solutions, I will point out some other take home lessons from the essay.

First, Dubus feels despair. At one point, he shelves his stories, finally resigned to never seeing them published. As he writes:

“I put the stories in a drawer, told myself they were published in quarterlies anyway, and it was time to be satisfied with that; told myself there was nothing cowardly about leaving this game I could never win; I was luck to have a life as a teacher and a writer whose stories appeared in quarterlies; it was a life with dignity and I was foolish to need a book on my shelf as testament to it; and many writers would trade circumstances with me in a moment. I still believe all that, but it was a belief I could not life with, for my dream was stronger than my conviction, my hope stronger than my belief, and eight months later I took those stories out of the drawer.”
A few months later, Dubus’ collection finds the right publisher (David Godine, who also published Broken Vessels.) and his dream has been fulfilled.

Dubus (and his publisher) made little money on these stories. But they were part of the slow change in American publishing that began in the 1980s and continues today. Dubus was one of the trailblazers that made it possible for short story collections to be published by the brightest and best writers. Your stories today may follow such a path some day as well.

Two caveats about this all, however.

First, Dubus was an immensely talented writer. Uniformly, his work was praised—it was the form of the work that was the problem. We’re not quite at that stage yet. We need to better our writing before we can get too self-righteous about it being turned down.

Second, Dubus never blamed the publishers for their response. Why is that important? Well, if you must know, it’s because I’m the “publisher” here. Here read this:

“For six weeks one summer [an editor] held my stories, and I felt they were in caring hands. We wrote letters which became as long and passionate as love letters: about Chekhov and writing and the short story as a form which publishers had to neglect, which she would probably have to neglect too, for she worked at a house that had to make money. No one can blame a publisher for that. So that woman and I had none of the solace that comes when you can rage at someone, can blame them. Like doomed adulterous loves, we could only share our passion and futility and the wish that our lives had not come to this impasse. And we share our hope.
So skipping all the slightly odd “adultery” references, I just want to say that I’m this editor! I share your hope. I want, as much as you, for our market to change. And yet…I’m going to bring many of you the same bad news this editor brought, Andre. It pains her. I will pain me. But little by little, things will change. We will find books that fit our vision for expansion. You will hopefully find publishers will to take chances. And things will change.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Outside Fiction—Faith as Expressed in Other Art

It’s instructive (and necessary for my sanity) to occasionally step back from fiction to look at the expression of faith in other art forms. I’ll mainly be staying with the literary arts* (non-fiction, autobiography, drama, poetry, etc.) because I think there are lessons we can learn from them and they are forms I feel comfortable commenting on. As well, consider this a kind of very slow education on some of the more popular or classic works of faith. Familiarity with a breadth of works (modern and classical) can only help us as we join the millennium-long conversation about what it means to believe in life’s great meaning.

Today we’re going to head back to Catholicism for a play called Agnes of God by former Nittany Lion John Pielmeier. Some of you may have seen the movie based on the play (starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, and Meg Tilly). I haven’t, so this discussion will be limited to what was found in the script of the play itself.

Written around 1979 and first performed in 1980 in that theatric hot-bed of Louisville, Kentucky, this is a three-woman play set in a convent. A young nun, Agnes, is on trial after a newly-delivered infant was found in a wastebasket in her room, strangled with its own umbilical cord. Assigned to her case is a psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone, who interviews both Agnes and Mother Miriam Ruth, the Mother Superior of the convent.

Like Mariette in Ecstasy (and many other works of art that deal with visions or miracles, I’m finding), this is essentially an existential court case. Although literally it’s Agnes on trial, figuratively it’s the notion of faith or even God Himself who stands accused (usually of not existing.)

The prosecutor here is Dr. Livingstone, whose own sister chose to be a nun only to die in a convent from appendicitis when not allowed to be seen by a doctor.

The defender is Mother Miriam, a literal mother of two who also was married for twenty-three years. She is also, it turns out, Agnes’ aunt.

The defendant is Agnes. Kept at home by an abusive mother until she was seventeen, Agnes is sent straight into the convent and has never known the outside world. She is called an innocent who has little idea how the world works. She says she does not remember being pregnant, giving birth, or killing her baby. Her mental stability is questionable.

The play raises a number of hard topics, including again the notion of the miraculous. One slight variation on the them from Mariette in Ecstasy is the closer examination of what the ecstatic means to others around her. Here what Agnes comes to stand for to both Mother Miriam and the Doctor is has as much importance as anything in the play. Numerous questions go “unanswered” though I’m sure in productions of the play the actresses can steer an audience with their performances. It’s an odd play, in the end, because it seems like all three characters come off poorly. Maybe such was the state of theater in 1980, but I felt like each had made the worst possible choices for the worst possible reasons and thus suffered the worst possible consequences. It’s a laugh-riot, in other words.

I think the best thing one can learn from plays is the need/ability to deliver point-counterpoint on an argument. There are few plays that work with one person being obviously right and another person obviously wrong. Plays are about tension and conflict expressed through dialogue and so there needs to be strength in both characters and their arguments for this to work. Agnes of God is as good an example of this as any although my favorite (as I’ve mentioned before) continues to be Art by Yasmina Reza.

I think you can look at the power of dialogue in a play, but I warn against too many scenes in a novel that read that way. Plays live and die by their dialogue so EVERYTHING needs to be in there. Novels that begin freighting dialogue with thematic or symbolic import too often just get bogged down. Sure it’s always nice to throw a good monologue in every once in a while, but keep it to a minimum. I mean can you imagine this is a novel setting?

“And that’s when I realized that my religion, my Christ, is this. The mind. Everything I do not understand in this world is contained in these few cubic inches. Within this shell of skin and bone and blood I have the secret to absolutely everything. I look at a tree and I think, isn’t it wonderful that I have created something so gree. God isn’t out there. He’s in here. God is you. Or rather you are God. Mother Miriam couldn’t understand that, of course.
An actress on the stage manages to make that sound normal, proper within the context of the play itself. It’s harder to do it on the page, though from time to time you’ll want to. I just tend to find that trying to be profound within dialogue is a good way to sound pompous. (Or maybe it’s just whenever I try to say something profound in real like I end up sounding like an ass and thus don’t want to replicate such embarrassments in my fiction as well.) Just ponder whether those meditations for within the context of the narrative.


Thanks for stopping by. To those who’ve submitted writings, please know I’m in process of getting a lot more reading and commenting done this week. Hopefully I’ll be able to respond to many of you. Thanks for your patience. And tomorrow we’ll turn to the world of the essay with Andre Dubus.

(If you’re interested in other art forms, I know there has been a long, complicated, and impassioned history in expressing faith through the visual arts. Numerous books have been written on the subject and many metropolitan areas have artists groups devoted to such discussions. I have lots of information including web pages and some critical resources that may be of interest.)

Friday, March 05, 2004

The Choice Is Yours: Selecting a POV for Your Novel (Part 7 of series)

There’s a very simple way to choose your POV for your new novel or short story. Take your pen (or open a new page in Word) and write your first sentence. Now write another. Write a third. If by this point you don’t know what POV you’re writing in, well I’m not sure I can help you.

Is that the best point-of-view to choose? Now that’s a dog of a different breed entirely. Let’s look at the five points-of-view and discuss some optimal narrative circumstances for choosing them and some problems you may encounter in your choice.

We’ll start with the easiest ones.

Second-Person Point-of-View — I can’t think of too many rational reasons for selecting this. It’s cumbersome and unnatural to read. It draws a lot of attention to itself. Still, if you’ve got a story that you need your reader to really participate in, this is your option. You better have a darn good explanation though.

Third-Person Objective — Likewise, this is almost an impossible point-of-view in which to tell a novel. You risk your story being flat and emotionless as we stay always on the surface. Maybe, though, that’s what you want. If you’re using multiple narrators in a book, one of them might be objective (or close to it). It’d certainly distinguish itself as a voice.

Now for the others:

Third-Person Omniscient — Well done, this is a masterful storytelling tool. This works best for large, sprawling tales in which ideas and action and plot are as important as characterization. It’s also good for covering stories that take place over a long period of time. Think epic and wide-ranging.

Another reason to choose this POV is to impose an authorial presence on the novel. You want readers to always be aware that they are reading a “story.” Two concerns: this is often distracting to readers who don’t like the authorial interruptions, and it often undermines the importance of the greater story being told.

Overall, omniscience has a few trouble spots. There is a tendency to stay too removed and to simply “tell” everything rather than allowing any “showing” whatsoever. As well, readers may remain distanced from characters if too much of the narrative remains in the “omniscient” voice.

First-Person — I think this acts like the default point-of-view for writers who are just beginning. It’s easy, in general, to write in the first person. It’s easy to create a voice in the first person, even if it’s just our own voice put into a character’s mouth. None of these things are bad, per se, but ease is a bad way to choose point-of-view.

There are three questions to ask yourself before starting a first-person book:
1. Where is my narrator speaking from? — Remember Scout, looking back on her life as an adult? You need to place your narrator in time. Is it right after the events of the story happened so they’re unreliable? Long after, so they’ve gained perspective?

2. To whom are they telling the story? — I had an instructor say that, unless they were writing a book, the answer couldn’t be “to the readers.” I agree with him in principle. A narrator should have a specific audience in mind for their story—and we should get a sense of who that audience is. Is this a deathbed confession to be read by children? Is it a tale told to a psychiatrist? A diary meant for themselves? Whowhowhowhowho?

3. Why are they telling the story? — In life, people don’t randomly begin telling stories. Something usually provokes them. What’s the impetus for this story being told?

If you don’t have a good answer for two of these and a solid answer for 3, I’d recommend skipping first-person and moving to third-person limited. Some other concerns or limitations of first-person are more practical. Your narrator must be able to account for all the information they know. Complicated plots revolving around lots of people don’t go over so well in first-person (unless you use multiple narrators).

Finally, remember my charge that all first-person narrators are unreliable to on extant or another. Just be aware of the judgments they make, the secrets they keep, etc.

Third-Person Limited Omniscience — It’s my personal opinion that most developing writers should at least consider using this POV for their first attempt. It’s not quite so user-friendly as first person, true, but it also seems to offer the most flexibility and a blending of benefits from both full omniscience and first-person. Here you can develop a character’s voice at a step back. Thoughts and memories and feelings are all easier to take in this POV than first-person which is so dynamic and intimate.

Again, you have some limitations on what your character knows and can relate, but these tend to be solved easily. Plus, with third-person omniscience there’s no worrying about why the story is being told or needing to provide outside justification. You’re the one urging the story forward.


Other questions to ask yourself:

Is the richness of my plot or the intention of my story going to require a second or multiple narrators? If so, be sure to make the narrators’ voice distinct from each other. Much of this comes through refining and editing.

Do I want complete differentiation in my story between sections by choosing not only different narrators but completely different points-of-view? If so, be aware that your readers are most likely going to like one plot thread best. Each section needs to at least hold its own or readers will be exasperated.

Am I going to try to make my point-of-view “invisible”? Or am I trying to make a point about the nature of storytelling or the notion of communication itself by bringing attention to my point-of-view? You can do this by making the narrator dead or by naming the narrator after yourself or by a hundred other goofy things. But you need to understand the implications and defend your choices.

Like Paul said (sorta): All things are permissible, but not every choice is beneficial.

So that’s our lecture series on POV. I had no idea it would turn out this long. Yowsers. Please let me know your feelings about this. Was it beneficial? Would you prefer for me to stick with the publishing business? Anything, let me know.

Next week, I think is going to be a mixed bag of things. The week after that I’ll be discussing Lamb by Christopher Moore.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Now That You Know the Rules, Here's How to Break Them (Part 6 of series)

I want to talk about playing around with point-of-view today and it seems easiest to do so simply by looking at books that mess with or adapt the guidelines we’ve talked about so far. (Caveat: many of these books were read a while ago and, in some cases, I may be remembering their narrative points-of-view wrong.)

The Lovely Bones - A first-person book. Should be simple enough, however, in this case, the narrator is dead. Susie Salmon is talking to us from heaven. It seems as though the book’s entire (and huge) popularity seemed hinged on this high-concept choice, but to be frank it did nothing for me. A film that takes this tack is Sunset Boulevard.

Bright Lights, Big City - In looking through stuff about point-of-view I came across this as an example of a novel told in the second-person. Symptomatic of the 80s, I suppose, that we needed a novel written featuring “us” as the stars.

Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance - This wonderful book by an amazingly overlooked author named Richard Powers is about nothing less than the entire twentieth-century. There are three narrative point-of-views—an obscure and anonymous first-person “narrator” (who isn’t the author), a modern, limited third-person account of a young man who sees a woman on the street and decides he has to know who she is, and a historical third-person account that enters the (real-life) photograph that’s used on the cover and that serves as the title of the book. Small threads link the three sections, but the cumulative effect is astounding. Here’s a ridiculously “intelligent” interview with Powers during which he comments about a passage of Three Farmers: “…the ideas here about the bi directional relation between narrative and cognition are at the heart of my various attempts to wed narrative with discursive writing, to find a form where each betrays itself as the flip side of the other. Good writers know what they’re doing—even if it is gibberish to us.

Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - I think this one also uses three points-of-view. Two are standard, just simple third-person limited accounts of the two main protagonists, young cartoonists Joe Kavalier and Samuel Klayman. The third takes us into the narrative of the comic book (The Escapist—which is actually going to be a real life comic book written by Chabon quite soon) the two boys are working on. Chabon is so utterly talented it’s ridiculous. I’ve seen the “story within a story” thing done before, but this is a comic he’s describing. And it all comes to life vividly. You want to learn to write historical fiction, read this. You want to learn to write adventure fiction, read this.

You're an Animal, Viskovitz - Now we’re getting into the fun stuff. Here, we have a first-“person” narrator who is, how do I put this, sort of reincarnated into various animals through the book. There’s about twenty sections in the novel and in each on, Viskovitz is a mouse or a fish or a parrot. What’s absolutely absurd is how wonderful this book is. And how much it has to say about humans and love and death and life. It also proves there is simply no need to be boring in your choices of subject-matter and/or narrative devices.

Dracula, Bridget Jones, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and the book I’m reading now, Lamb - What do these all have in common? They are epistolary novels or variations on the theme. Jones uses a diary. Incident is a journal. Lamb meanwhile (and we’ll be talking about this book in a few weeks, I think) is (brace yourself) a fifth gospel, written in 21st-century St. Louis by Biff, the resurrected best friend from Jesus’ child hood days. Yep, you heard me. Epistolary novels are first-person and the intended audience of the writing determines the tone and/or content.

Poisonwood Bible - I haven’t read this, but I think it suits my purpose. Someone can inform me if I’m wrong. This book tells the same story through the perspective of three different narrators, thus offering three different takes on one set of events. The film Rashomon by Kurosawa is always held up as the archetypical cinematic example of this narrative choice.

Galatea 2.2 - This is Richard Powers again. Here he plays with the notion of authorial presence by having a significant percentage of the book told from the perspective of a first-person narrator named Richard Powers who also is a hyper-intelligent novelist. (I think there are also sections told from a third-person perspective as well. Can’t remember.) Theses are written on the intention behind such choices, so I won’t bother here, but sufficed to say it’s another layer of complexity.

So you can see that point-of-view isn’t static. And it doesn’t do much good to pretend that we can discuss outside of the novel as a whole. As you can see, most of the examples given aren’t twists of point-of-view (they’re all still first, second, or third), but rather how POV is manipulated by some other character or stylistic choice. We’ll talk about how those choices are made and the other factors within your story that you need to keep in mind while thinking about POV. Till then, ta.

By-the-by - If you can think of other examples in which POV is twisted or altered from "standard" form, please post a comment and share the book and what the alteration is. I was pulling these off the top of my head and they are in no way meant to be comprehensive.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Playing God—The Omniscient Narrator and Authorial Presence (Part 5 of series)

Our final POV to be discussed is full third-person omniscience. The prime example that always sticks out in my head for this point-of-view is Crime and Punishment. A sprawling book in the first place, the book flits from character to character (often within given scenes) and turns it into a reading experience quite unlike what we’re used to today.

“On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.”
This is the opening to Dostoevsky's novel. The voice we hear in our head in not the young man’s (Raskelnikov), but an unseen narrator’s, whose perspective is never revealed as a presence within the book itself, but always remains outside, relating the actions to us. This omniscient narrator (as someone commented yesterday) can certainly have their own distinct voice separate from all the characters they talk about and this voice is developed, as always, by the things that are “said” and the way the narrator “says” them.

Philip Pullman in his HIS DARK MATERIALS series, a youth fantasy trilogy that’s rather spiteful toward faith, introduces one of the more judgmental narrators I’ve read in a while, casting aspersions on characters with an arrogance and authority that I suppose might come if one is omniscient.

The question in some circumstances is whether an omniscient narrator equals the authorial voice. I’m never one to take hard-and-fast lines, but for the most part I think an equation can be made. I would never allow that it’s a one-for-one substitution but I think most authors writing omniscient novels are doing so because it affords them the control and authority over their characters.

One interesting twist on this question is the notion of an authorial narrator. Read this:

“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
I’m sure you all recognize this as Dicken’s Christmas Carol. In the second-paragraph we have the narrative-“I” that indicates a first-person POV, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Instead, we’ve got the presence of an author who is reminding us that (in the case) he is telling the story. The rest of the book, for the most part, is third-person omniscient (since the narrator doesn’t actually participate in the events of the story) but you have a much more distinct sense of the author participating in the telling of the story. (In cinema, we’d be shown a man with a large book, who opens to a story which we then enter.)

On the other side of this coin is a book like Empire Falls by Richard Russo. The narrator’s voice in this omniscient novel is almost always confined to characters’ perspectives so that you have far less a sense of authorial presence. Comments made yesterday regarding a Canadian author intimate the same thing. These are author’s who use the omniscience to set scenes rather than become viable “characters” themselves.

Why omniscience?

I said yesterday that it’s a fairly straightforward point-of-view to write, and for the most part that is true, however it’s not easy at all. It takes a grand amount of control and confidence. Essentially you are setting yourself up as narrator. It’s your storytelling, your decisions that lead us through the narrative. It’s a Masters-level point-of-view and one that a novelist as talented as Russo didn’t even attempt until he had four novels under his belt. Here's a wonderful interview with Russo, one of my favorite novelists, that addresses this point.

Authorial presence is a different story. It seems to be an older style of point-of-view and tends to suit stories that are so obviously stories or morals. A Christmas Carol is a perfect example.

So that’s a few days worth of point-of-views. Tomorrow we’ll look at all the ways you can twist the guidelines and rules. Friday we’ll talk a little about how you should select the point-of-view you’ll use in your novel.