f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 08/01/2004 - 09/01/2004

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

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Fiction Lessons from CCM a post by Stan Shinn

CBA fiction is evolving, and there is a hidden trend driving its growth. Contemporary Christian Music is a market that gives us a glimpse of the future of CBA fiction.

Between Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion’ and the ‘Left Behind’ fiction series, mainstream media is taking note. Religious America is a consumer group long starved. Our increasingly secular culture spits out movies and books filled with profanity, with messages often repugnant to our spiritual sensibilities. Home schooling has hit record high levels. Just as Atkins-dieters quest for new menus of carb-sensible cuisine, Christian’s buying habits are taking new directions. The number of CBA fiction books available, swelling from 500 titles fifteen years ago to about 2,500 today, is evidence of these changing tastes.

The scene was quite a bit different not too many years ago. In the early 1980s when Amy Grant’s ‘Age to Age’ went gold, other pioneering musicians including Steve Taylor and Russ Taff were finally reaching critical mass. Back then, Christian music was only to be found on marginal shelf space in Christian bookstores. These days they are often mainstream albums featured prominently in your local Target. Sound familiar? CBA fiction is following (though sometimes belatedly) this same arc.

In 1991 I remember listening to KLTY, a Christian radio station here in Dallas, when Amy Grant’s ‘Heart In Motion’ album first hit the airwaves. Her song ‘Baby, Baby’ received as much airtime on secular radio as the Christian stations. That album caused quite a controversy. The religious themes on this album seemed more an afterthought than the centerpiece of her message.

In the next few years, Amy Grant, NewSong, Sixpense and Jars of Clay continued the spearhead into the mainstream marketplace. The trend was notable enough to obtain a name – ‘crossover music.’

Today MercyMe, Stacie Orrico, Switchfoot, and P.O.D. get airplay in the mainstream media, press, and radio. All speak of God; many mention Jesus by name. It’s not always preachy or in your face. Though subtle its spiritual presence is real and something new for many of these venues.

Christian ideas made known to a larger marketplace; this is one way we can and should be salt and light to a dark world.

Contemporary Christian Music’s controversy has abated, and we have yet to see similar controversies (“They’re selling out and compromising!”) on the same scale within Christian fiction.

Not yet, anyway.

Now, years after the birth of CBA fiction with Frank Peretti’s groundbreaking This Present Darkness, new Christian titles abound. There are fiction books mirroring the secular marketplace – everything from Suspense, Romance, Science Fiction, even Horror.

Christian fiction is still defining itself. While many books still follow a familiar story arc (pioneer woman falls in love with widowed pastor, sinful protagonist finds salvation in the next to last chapter, etc.) other titles are becoming very similar to their secular counterparts. The distinction? CBA fiction is clean, written from a perspective of faith.

Which brings me back to Contemporary Christian Music.

Here in balmy Dallas, nothing soothes a drive home in traffic like listening to KLTY. Their format has changed a bit over the years. A few years ago they changed their slogan, no longer touting themselves as a Christian station, but instead simply advertising themselves as a station playing music ‘Safe for the Whole Family.’

Their music is Christian, but the songs aren’t necessarily out to save anyone. The music is from a Christian worldview, but many songs don’t mention God or Jesus or even themes of Faith. But they are fun. And clean. I can let my kids listen to the station without fear of a rapper’s expletive or the seductive vamp of an MTV vixen.

Is CBA fiction flourishing because more people want to read fiction stories about missionary adventures and sinners saying John 3:16? It’s not this alone.

At Barnes and Nobles, if I pick up a random title I have no idea of what I’m getting into. On page seventy I may discover it’s a rated ‘R’ title filled with sex and profanity. I like walking into a Christian bookstore and picking up a title, knowing any book I select will be clean, safe, and written from a Christian worldview.

I don’t need the book to be preachy, but I do want it to be a rated ‘G’ or ‘PG’ affair. Fiction that is ‘Safe for the Whole Family.’

Monday, August 30, 2004

Holy Complexity, Bookman! a post by Nicole Phinney Lowell

The past few weeks I’ve been trying to work on a novel and been feeling pretty stuck. To help loosen up the mental sludge, I picked up a recent Christy nominee, one with a plot loosely similar to mine. I couldn't read it for long. Frankly, the book annoyed me. It wasn't that the writing was bad. In fact, individual sentences and specific images were really very strong. But that was the problem—I noticed them, and the rest of story seemed beside the point. The parts had been brought together on the pages, but they didn’t move beyond there; they didn’t enter my life the way my favorite novels have.

In an essay called “Landscape and Narrative,” writer Berry Lopez suggests that when a story is told honestly, accurately, it does more than entertain or teach. It has the power to "nurture and heal, to repair a spirit in disarray.” I can’t think of any work that sounds more holy or more difficult, and I realize it’s precisely why I read fiction.

Stories have this power to restore us, Lopez says, not because they solve problems or end evil, but because stories invoke the truth as “something alive and unpronounceable. Story creates an atmosphere in which [truth] becomes discernable as a pattern.” And when we recognize this pattern, the truth puts our hearts back together.

Jesus engaged in this kind of truth-telling when he taught in parables. To an even larger and longer extent, faith in God has always been based on the wide, deep, continually confounding stories in the Bible. These stories have endured because they enter our hearts and resonate on their own. This resonance, Lopez would argue, comes from an “irreducible, holy complexity,” he says, “and I think intimacy is indispensable.”

This was what the Christy nominee was missing, I realized, “holy complexity,” and its handmaiden intimacy. Without these two things, well-turned phrases didn’t become a story. The book lost its potential to “nurture and heal.” It left me lonely.

In his beautiful collection Grace is Where I Live, John Leax writes of his calling to poetry. He says writing "leads to involvement—a lived and living relationship with the world. It is an immersion, a baptism, a dying to self." This is as good a definition of intimacy as I've ever heard. Far from sitting in a room alone with a computer, narrative should immerse a writer in the holy complexities of a lived and living creation.

But this involvement doesn’t come cheap or easy. Leax, I think, is right when he calls it dying to self. And I realize, this is where I fail most often in my writing. I want to stay on the surface of a plot and quibble over my words. Meanwhile, I watch my characters do things, but I resist getting involved in an intimate relationship with them.

If I ever want my stories to be better than the sum of their parts, I’ll have to muster the courage to just sit with the people in my book, love them as they are, tell their stories as truthfully as I can. I’ll have to immerse myself in holy complexity, sweat and strain working at my craft. The stories won't always be pretty. They won't always have endings I understand, but healing and grace can flow from them nevertheless. I’ll have the chance to sit close to my characters and my readers, and where two or three are gathered, God is there.

Nicole lives in Denver with her husband where she's occupied teaching college freshmen what a complete sentence looks like and freelancing publicity and marketing copy for a CBA publisher. She's currently pre-occupied with writing short and longer fiction.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Day 4 of Inspiration -- Formula vs. Serial – Two Types of Series Creation

Our final day of looking at methods of inspiration/creativity gets the farthest away from cold imagination and the closest to mechanical or mathematic reproduction.

I think the biggest place that formula fiction exists—or used to, at least—is in the world of children’s fiction. The Hardy Boys. Nancy Drew. Three Detectives. Bobsy Twins. These are some classic formulaic fiction.

This is fiction series in which there is very little forward progress in terms of character growth or development. The characters are static; the plots revolve around that sameness. This is different from say, a serialized series of books like Little House on the Prairie or Harry Potter. Serialization depends on reading the book before. At this point, it’ll be well-nigh impossible to pick up Rowling’s HP and the Half-Blood Prince and understand what’s going on. But pick up any Hardy Boys book and you’re caught up.

TV deals with this a lot. The current rage are the crime scene investigation shows. Law & Order I, II, and III. CSI’s I, II, and III. Very few character arcs or multi-show storylines. Compare that to something like Alias or, the classic example of 24 which is a literally a 24 show story. Law and Order and Alias might both garner 8 million viewers a week, but it’s likely that for Alias those viewers are consistently the same people.

I think it says something that so much formula fiction is written for children. Kids LOVE repetition. They thrive on it in many ways. They like the same jokes repeated. Like knowing the ebb and flow of stories. Like knowing the Shaggy and Scooby are going to yank the mask off the old man who was pretending to be a ghost at the end of every episode.

At the same time there’s a growing desire for forward movement. Little House is certainly written for young readers. I’m going through George Seldon’s linked Times Square books with my daughter. Classic kids fantasy series like the Dark Also Rises, Book of Three, and His Dark Materials are all impossibly serialized.

One of the most fascinating examples of this discussion comes from the wildly popular Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket. The first three/four books in this series are formulaic. Three orphans go to live with a family member. Discover they are being chased by Count Olaf. Try to escape. Tragedy happens. They are able to foil him at the very end, but now have to go live with other family.

Around Book the Fourth, something strange happens…suddenly plot threads are left dangling. Clues to a greater mystery begin to be left. The series, on a dime, turns into a serialized series. (And recaptured my attention. I would’ve given it up.) I have no idea what sparked it. Was it the author’s idea? The publishers? I would love to get the inside scoop on that transition.

Here at Bethany House we recently went about going the other direction. For a long time, we published Gilbert Morris’ HUGE House of Winslow series (now at book 36 or so) as a serialized series with numbered books. Because that was the industry norm. Now however, things are going to smaller series or stand-alones and since, technically, HOW is a formula series, we’re in the process of re-releasing all the books with new covers and no numbers to be found. Bookstores no longer have to feel odd about carrying books 4, 8, 24, and 34-38. Instead, they can simply carry as many titles as they like and readers can’t start wherever they like.

Both formula and serial series have their places in the industry. Know what you’re getting into with both, however. With formula books, you’re going to be called on to adhere, pretty closely, to the structure/feel/tone/etc. of your first book. With serial series you’re going to have to plot out from 3 to 5 to even more books. And the industry seems to be moving away from them. At least anything longer than 3 books.

In the end, though, you’re still going to have to write the books. You’re still going to have to entertain readers. That hard work never goes away.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Day 3 of Inspiration--Hitting a Grooved Pitch

A grooved pitch in baseball is a ball thrown right down the middle of the plate without much spin, usually to get a strike when the count is favoring the hitters. These are the pitches that all major leaguers, great or not, are supposed to crush.

One of the more famous “grooved” pitches of recent years was in the 2001 All-Star Game. Cal Ripken Jr., one of the more beloved players in baseball history was up-to-bat in his final All-Star game. The pitcher, Dodger’s Chan Ho Park, in a pitch many still believe to have been a gift (although his more recent career suggests the pitch may not have been so anomalous) fed one right down the pipe and Ripken jacked it into the left field seats at Safeco Field. And we, as Americans, felt as warm and happy as a nation, perhaps as we ever had.

Here’s the thing: regardless of whether the pitch was grooved or not, it’s no small matter to hit a baseball for a home run. It’s certainly much easier, in a lot of ways, than hitting a 93-mile-per-hour Randy Johnson slider, but it’s not exactly simple. Look at the home run derby…these are pitches that are supposed to be hit for home runs and the best players only manage a half-dozen or so per round.

What’s my point in all this? Well, to belabor the metaphor, there’s a lot of ways that coming up with an idea for a genre story is like trying to hit a grooved pitch. You know what’s coming, you know what’s expected of you, and the circumstances are certainly in your favor to succeed. But it’s no mortal lock. There’s still the swing of the bat; the writing of the book. And if you’re good enough, talented enough, chances are you can turn that project into a home run.

My fear here is that I’m being vaguely condescending. I’m not trying to be at all. But I do think there is a difference between Michael Connelly plotting The Narrows (a mystery that serves both as a sequel to his bestselling The Poet and his latest Harry Bosch novel) and Richard Powers writing The Time of Our Singing. That difference is the number of pieces already in place. Connelly has a main character who’s been defined from a dozen or so previous books. He has a villain from The Poet. He has reader expectations for thrills, twists, and at least one lame, mildly violent, sex scene. Powers has the desire to write about a biracial singing prodigy thereby illuminating a century of thought on music, race, and other complex things.

The same is true, to a lesser degree, if you has an unpublished writer decide: “I want to write a chick lit novel.” Or “I want to write a Tolkienesque fantasy.” The genre lines blocks up for you. Chick lit pushes you to female, first person narration, and mentions of clothing labels. Fantasy pushes you to omniscient narration, the use of weird first names, and an increased per capita use of the letter “Y.”

Still, the idea is just a start. The talent and uniqueness and creativity that drives the book from that point are the important things. Because if there’s one thing I’ve realized in my time as an editor it’s that ANYBODY can have a good idea for a novel. Very few have the talent to turn that good idea into a good novel. And even fewer have the courage and dedication to use that talent to turn that good idea into a good novel.

All of us, after all, can swing a bat. But can we make contact when it matters most?

Day 4 of Inspiration - The Tired and True or the Beloved Fan-Favorite

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Day 2 of Inspiration--That's a Great Idea!

Yesterday we talked about writing books that readers don’t know they want to read but enjoy, even love, nonetheless.

Today we’re going to talk about books that readers don’t know they want to read—until they hear about them.

To me, this is the high-concept idea. I choose archetypes (like Middlesex yesterday) for this kind of thing and the perfect archetype to me is: Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst.

I heard this book summary and thought: “I want to read that.”

The basic pitch is this: a widower (who happens to be a linguist), unhinged with grief after his wife’s odd death, decides to try and teach the family dog to talk—the dog being the only witness to what happened. That’s a premise I felt could lead, more often than not, to some interesting fiction.

The Lovely Bones is high-concept with a girl telling the aftermath of her murder from “heaven.”

These are the ideas that have “hooks” that sales people like. How does one sell the story of a industrial town or the life of a hermaphrodite (except on the reputation of their authors.) But a new author can launch a career with a book that features a solid dramatic hook.

My book, Ezekiel’s Shadow, had a supposed hook—namely, “What if a horror writer became a Christian, stopped writing horror, and got stalked for it by a pissed-off fan?” These books tend to be built on “What if’s?”

“What if a cad starting dating single moms because they were desperate and, ultimately, committed elsewhere?”

“What if a novelist, overwhelmed by success at a young age, couldn’t finish his second novel because he just kept writing?”

“What if a daughter was born merely to become an organ donor for her older sister?”

These ideas can come within or outside of genres. And they often face one enormous problem: reader expectations.

A book like Risk Pool—story of a son reconciling himself to a roustabout dad—won’t get very man folks excited out the outskirt. (Unless you love Richard Russo. Which I do. But that’s a different topic.)

Dogs of Babel though compelled me to buy it. I had a stake and interest in it and the book had expectations of entertainment to live up to. It did but not in the ways I expected. So perhaps even in that I was touch disappointed.

These are the books that lots of people in a publishing house can get excited about, however. Sales people have their marketing hook. Editorial people have a compelling story that’s unique. (Otherwise, it’s not high-concept. It’s copying.) And the author has the expectations of everybody around them.

Day 3 of Inspiration -- Creating Ideas to Meet a Need in the Market

Monday, August 16, 2004

Day 1 of Inspiration--What Do I Write?

Before you is a blank paper or empty computer screen. Words are supposed to appear soon, but before that happens you need to come up your idea. After that you can follow some people’s advice and map your entire story out or you can just start writing hoping that the process of putting words to paper will encourage the story to twist and turn in its own natural way. There’s room for debate about these methods, but that’s not for this week.

Instead, I want to look at the moment of first inspiration and deciding if an idea is worth pursuing and what affects your decision of what is worth pursuing.

Whenever I think of this topic I think of a single book: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. This is a book I have not read. My wife has. I think of it BECAUSE I haven’t read it. To me it’s only a synopsis or some back cover copy. And it speaks mainly of the grand possibilities that await us in publishing.

Here’s what didn’t happen. What didn’t happen is that a focus group got together and decided they wanted to see a novel featuring a hermaphroditic narrator. Nobody in sales and marketing looked at the market and shot an email up to editorial saying that the bookstores had a huge empty space waiting for hermaphrodite stories. I doubt even that Eugenide’s editor suggested a hermaphrodite book to the author.

And yet here it is. A bestselling novel by the way. Pulitzer prize award-winning. And nobody knew they wanted to read it before it was written.

After three weeks on genre, we’ve spent plenty of time being around books that we “know” people will want to read. If you are a good writer (whatever that means) and can churn out an effective (fill-in-the-blank with your favorite genre) novel there is a good possibility some publishers somewhere can be convinced to publish it. Because they “know” readers out there are waiting for it. They want the next romance, the next mystery, the next fantasy series.

What we’ve had a harder time of is convincing readers to pick up what they DON’T know they want. People don’t know they should want to read about hard rock mining in Georgia, but Bad Ground says otherwise. Or the salvaging of a shipwreck in the Pacific northwest in Cindy Martinusen’s Salt Garden. Or a growing number of other ideas that are coming out of the CBA industry.

We need our readers to begin to trust our writers. To allow novelists to take them on strange and complicated and fascinating and fulfilling trips of fancy and imagination. Trust is one of our readership’s lacking characteristics. Many are wary of anything that strays too far from convention, or leaves the orthodox. I don’t know that we’ll be able to overcome that. But I hope writers continue to try.

This is the ideal, after all, isn’t it? Coming up with a startling idea and being able to capture an audience with your words? I think it offers the greatest “personal” reward but also the most risk on behalf of the writer. Your risk is either neglect at the hand of bookstores and readers or rejection at the hand of publishers.

Tomorrow we’ll look at what happens when you try to minimize that risk and when compromise becomes something more than selling out.

Day 2 of Inspiration -- The Great Ideas

Friday, August 13, 2004

Day 13 (the Last) of Genre – General Fiction

Circus stories fall into this category. Books about dead girls looking down from heaven. Books about people trying to teach their dogs to talk. Novels about orphanages. Or dysfunctional families. Or baseball. It’s really a catch-all category.

We’re going to get into this further next week, but it appears that there are two ways you can go about writing. The first is to look at the market, see what people like, and write something for them. Almost always when you do this, you’re writing in a genre because peoples’ likes have been quantified and focused. You’re given boundaries and guidelines and pretty much a running start at a novel.

Your other option is to come up with a story and work on the principle that if you tell it well enough, readers will enjoy it to. I think that’s how a lot of general fiction gets written.
It’s an important distinction. (And usually it’s not an either/or situation. Usually you’re doing some of both.) But our attitude toward it guides our writing and our books and tells us a lot about what we want out of it and what we want readers to get out of it.

Getting back to general fiction, about the only rule is that you can’t be following any rules much beyond basic grammar and storytelling principles.

The names writing in this genre are legion. Irving, Updike, and Chabon. Erdrich, Tyler, and Proulx. Dale Cramer and Ann Tatlock. Lisa Samson and Melody Carlson and Vinita Wright. Me.

We are all, it seems, following the lead of Toad the Wet Sprocket who once sang (in a nifty, pulsing song) “I wasn’t looking for heaven or hell/ Just someone to listen to the stories I tell.”

More on Monday.

Also, on an incredibly last minute note, I will be away from blogging for over a week starting Aug. 20. If you’ve a thought or two you’d like to submit for posting, let me know. I like to have something new go up everyday and I may not have the time to double on my own writing. Mostly it needs to be coherent, somewhat focused to the topic of this blog, and less than 600 words.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Day 12 of Genre – CBA Fiction

If you don’t know the definition of CBA fiction yet, you obviously haven’t spent much time looking around this blog. I not only have written up an entire tour of the industry and the major players therein, but I’ve dealt with the topic on pretty much a daily basis day-in and day-out since starting this thing back in November.

My feelings toward CBA fiction—well, they vary depending on the day. It can’t be helped, I don’t think, working in the industry. I’m sure there’s some days when lobster salesmen look at the crustacean and think: “What’s the point?” The same thing happens here at Bethany House. I hope that’s not too depressing to people.

And really, it’s not so much the fiction (which I believe should exist, as much as I believe romance should exist) or the writers (98% of whom are terrific people with great hearts) but just the whole “thing”.

I’m waxing these days. (Or waning, I’m not really sure which it is.) But I’ll do my best to keep a level head.

C.S. Lewis in one of his books talked about vague “hate” and how in a lot of cases this was not really hate at all but anger and fear wrapped up in the word. His example was the British “hatred” for the Germans during WWII and yet when a wounded German paratrooper, a mere boy, landed in a neighborhood no mother could “hate” the boy.

I’m feeling a bit the same way toward the CBA readership at the moment and all the mechanics that have forged this industry. If I meet you on the street and you tell me you LOVE Janette Oke I will share my story of meeting her and we can have tea. But you and that woman over their and that guy reading Ted Dekker and the 1.4 million or so devoted CBA readership—I’m not real keen on you in totality. At least today.

Sometimes I look at the requisite “safety” of books and think—their entertainment, their right. Other times I look at it and think: “This is a lie. It’s a lie that we’re pretending is real. The world, God’s world that we've ruined, is not this way. We can’t keep pretending that it is.”

I have not much else to say on the topic. Maybe I’ll write again tomorrow. Maybe my waxing or waning will be done and I’ll be able to speak with confidence and authority about the ministry of these books, the nobility of protecting virtue at all cost. Maybe I’ll have met and had tea with someone and told them about how Janette Oke once sent me a congratulations note after my CBA (note the self-loathing hypocrisy here) book won the Christy Award.

Or maybe I’ll just start selling lobsters. And set up a blog. And complain about them too.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Day 11 of Genre – Romance

I think, of all the genres, that romance catches the most flack. There are more generalizations, this is more snobbery, and, in general, more disdain shown toward it and its practitioners. And in my experience the authors seem to feel this quite keenly. Of all the authors I’ve met, the folks who write romance seem the most intent on gaining outside respect and legitimacy and acclaim.

Romance is an enormous category and I’m certain there are readers out there who know far more about it than me, so I’ll only reveal a little of my ignorance. From what I can tell, there are imprints/publishers out there who offer a spectacular variety of romance “lines.” These sub-genres give readers, who tend toward the voracious, an immediate indication of the kind of romance they will be picking up be it: historical, contemporary, steamy, mystery, etc. There’s even a line of Regency romances set in a nine year period of English history when King George III was going insane and his son ruled as Regent in his place. It is a machine designed to meet the precise needs of its readership, who in turn, I assume, are incredibly loyal.

A tour through Romantic Times, an impressive magazine devoted to the field, basically shows an incredible range of fiction. You have “stereotypical” romance novels with pecs and breasts; you have “chick litty” novels; and basically every other combination of romance and subgenre including gothic romance that feature well-endowed vampires and/or werewolves. With what must amount to an incredibly diverse readership, RT includes both reviews of inspirational romance (there are a number of Inspirational Romance lines including Steeple Hill and, confusingly, both Heart Song and Heart Quest) and, just to make me uncomfortable, the occasional illustration of a man’s half-naked arse.

As a category I think it’s faced the abuse it has because A.) There’s absolutely so many books that it’s hard to sort through the pulp to discover the ones with shining stories. B.) We get funny around sex and when a book uses the word “engorged” and/or “throbbing” we tend not to take it seriously. C.) Those covers. D.) Romance and sex are tawdry. Love is noble.

The first three, to be honest, I can’t argue much with. Pure, stereotypical romances are never going to gain wide-readership, nor should they need. There is an audience who likes them, likes their covers, and likes bodices being ripped by page 45. Have at it.

It’s the last complaint that I have issues with. While I think love is certainly noble and worth writing about, it’s the romance that feeds and fuels any story of love. Romance—the pursuit of one heart by another—is perhaps the most fundamental force in existence. It’s so elemental that the very Bible is a romance—God trying to recapture the cheating heart of a stupid, wayward people. The ability to capture that pursuit, in any shape or form, is going to be instinctually relatable to almost every person on earth, especially in the context of the pursuer. We know what it’s like to chase and usually to come up empty handed. There is power in those stories that—if removed from cliché—can perhaps carry as much truth as any fiction out there. Which is why we need to be able to talk about sex as well, because in God’s world sex is the physical embodiment and fulfillment of the chase ended. If we can’t talk about sex (outside the context of erotica) we only tell half the story.

All of which is to say, I’m a fan of romance in its grander schemes and intentions. I think it has huge amounts to offer. And I look not down my nose at those who practice it, in whatever form. Have at your busty maidens and, ummm, endowed men. Write books with titles like Leave it to Cleavage: An Uplifting Tale. Make pears and cherries wicked and slutty. But in the end, look at the archetype for the tale you’re telling. Because it’s grander than anything Harlequin ever conceived and it continues and grows and includes each and every one of us—engorged or not.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Day 10 of Genre- Genres I’m Not Going to Talk About Much

Erotica – The other day, I went into Barnes and Noble to do some research on covers and I found myself in the romance department. I forget the company, but there’s a publisher out there who has an imprint with the words An Erotic Romance on every cover. And do you know what was on the covers? No, not heaving-this and moist-that—fruit. Pears nestled together and glistening. Cherries all tangled up at the stem. Made eating my peach today at lunch feel a bit naughty. Why am I telling you this? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have much to say about erotic fiction. Don’t submit any to a CBA publishing house, that’s for sure. This is a genre that Christian publishers probably won’t buy into anytime soon.

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual – I don’t think any CBA publishers are doing any work in this genre either.

Gothic – A long time ago we talked about the gothic genre in our discussion of Jesus Saves. Anne Rice rates high here. You can link it to horror but have it be more about the mood and existential and psychological underpinnings of our attraction/fascination with ugliness. Flannery O’Connor is our resident Christian gothic.

Adventure – Serious question: does this genre even exist anymore? It used to be that people were publishing Tarzan novels or Allan Quartermain novels. Not so much anymore. Chabon filled The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay with some marvelous moments of pure adventure. Other books just seem to be thrillers or suspense. Am I just overlooking some writers?

That’s it for today. We still have General, Romance, and CBA to get to and then our discussion of genre will be complete. After only three weeks. Yikes.

Sign of the Times

A New York Times Book Review piece by Laura Miller on how literature's great metaphor--infidelity--has been neutered by a culture that doesn't put much stock in sacrificial love. And how books are turning to the workplace more than ever for the grist that makes for meaty pages. She's got a point.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Day 9 of Genre – Horror

Stephen King.

Alright that wraps up that genre, should we move on? Yes, yes, technically I guess it doesn’t, but it certainly does a lot of the work, though, right?

I go in fits and bursts with King. America seems to as well. He started with a jolt by turning puberty into more of a horror-show than it normally is with his subtle-as-a-jackhammer novel Carrie. After that came vampires and werewolves and the Trashcan Man in his epic end-days novel The Stand. He’s done aliens and killer clowns and pets that won’t stay buried and irritated dogs that will eat you. He’s done demonic buildings and demonic cars. I’m pretty sure he wrote a novel about a helpless woman handcuffed to a bed after kinky sex with her husband goes awry and the man dies leaving her to…. Lovely.

King hit a period in the early nineties when he seemed to flirt with irrelevance. A switch in publisher, some good PR, and a few academics willing to go to bat for him changed all of that with the release of books like Bag of Bones and Hearts in Atlantis. Then he nearly got killed, which is never bad publicity in a morbid sense he, of all people, should appreciate, and he’s topped things off by recently announcing he won’t publish any further fiction.

It’s a long bit on King, but he’s really defined the genre for American literature for almost thirty years now. There’s certainly other authors out there—Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, even older names like Richard Matheson, whom King has always named as an inspiration—but King is the big gorilla.

What’s more impressive, at least to me, is King’s self-awareness, not only about writing but about his chosen genre. His nonfiction book Danse Macabre is a fascinating look behind the curtain of horror, and what it “means.” On Writing, as has been mentioned before, is a decent writer’s tool from a man who’s sold about 500 million books and therefore can claim the floor.

Horror is usually tied with the supernatural, although some of the more frightening scenarios are when horror appears in the real world, i.e. what happens when your huge, honking St. Bernard goes nutso on you or when your biggest “fan” finds you after a car accident and decides to help you recover by cutting your feet off.

It’s the supernatural—and the gore, too, but mostly the supernatural—that gets horror books in the most trouble with Christians. Vampires, ghosts, and things that go bump in the night are not seen as imaginary, even mythologic characters, but as portals into the demonic realm. “You’re playing with fire even reading these books,” the warning wisdom goes. And thus there’s not a lot of “mainstream” horror stories in the CBA. About the only guy who sorta gets away with it is Charles Williams but that’s because A.) his books generally aren’t stocked in CBA anyway and B.) it’s not exactly the simplest thing in the world to tell what in the world he’s talking about most times. It’s fascinating reading, though, and if you’re in for this sort of fiction, I recommend All Hallow’s Eve as a good place to start.

Instead, in CBA, we have spiritual warfare books. Frank Peretti launched his subgenre with This Present Darkness and has followed with some other successful books. It’s always at the heart of any book that tries to make it as a “horror.” The supernatural element is always either unmasked to be of human origin or revealed to be of demonic origin. Basically that sort of kills it on the suspense level.

The interesting question is: would a Christian be able to write Cujo? Or Misery? Should we want to? Is gore and suffering and the froth of rapid dogs antithetical to our call to look on beautiful and pure things? I think the only way to answer the question is to see what the point of the book would be? Is there something to be revealed about God’s character and provision or our faiths by placing Christians in such circumstances? I think some intrepid writer may try it someday. I’m picturing a hoard of angry housecats and a woman in a car filled with tuna fish cans she got on special at the A&P. Gives me shivers.

Best for your weekend.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Day 8 of Genre – Mystery

Encyclopedia Brown started me off in this genre when I was a youngster. Written with the clues right in the story, the books literally dared you to figure out what was going on by withholding the “reveal” until a separate epilogue at the end of the book. Time after time, I would sit puzzled for what seemed like hours but was more likely minutes trying to sort out the damning evidence before giving up and letting the book explain for me. I still remember the first one I figured out by myself and that it had something to do with the hinges of a door.

Twenty-three years later, I’m disturbingly the same at heart, only this time it’s with television shows like Monk and I’m annoying my wife by pausing it to shout out the answer. Because it doesn’t count as “solving” it unless you give the answer before too much is revealed.

It’s a hard task to give all the clues and still be able to surprise readers (or viewers). Most books hedge their bets greatly by keeping crucial facts hidden. Sherlock Holmes, of which I read every story one summer, was notorious for this. Lots of the major writers working today follow this formula to some degree. These “procedurals” put us in the shoes of the detective and so we’re often not privy to information we’ll need to crack the case. You have my undying respect, though, if you can unmask your criminal at the end and have it be both genuinely surprising and head-smackingly obvious in the same moment.

Mysteries have about as wide a spectrum as any genre out there. There’s hard boiled, cozy, locked room, historical, romantic, procedural, ones with cats. Book collectors can solve mysteries. Old ladies can. Monks and priests for us religious types. There’s the obvious mysteries that involve police, FBI, or private investigators. And/or their international counterparts. Lawyers and reporters get brought into the mix. Writers often too. (I set my writer, Ian Merchant, into a little mystery.)

Everybody has their favorites. I read almost all of Hammett, lots of Chandler, and have, for whatever reason, picked up Michael Connelly. Lots of times you recognize mysteries by their characters: Harry Bausch, Charlie Chan, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Spencer, Fletch, V.I. Warchowski, Kay Scarpetta, whatever the woman’s name is in the Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. Dorothy Sayers reused Lord Wimsey. G.K. Chesterton: Father Brown.

There’s lots of scattered mystery writers in CBA, including yours truly I guess, but it doesn’t seem like any series, detective, or author has really claimed a lot of spotlight. Either that or they always but up against suspense/thriller. Tim Downs was mentioned previously. Rene Gutteridge is working on a new series, but it may be closer to suspense. Brandilyn Collins. Terri Blackstock does mystery/suspense I believe. Athol Dickson recently got some good press for They Shall See God.

Downs will be an interesting name to watch. After two novels with Howard he has signed with Westbow and, from all indications, they are trying to launch him as the next big thing. His hook, for the moment, is forensic entomology. Yummm. We’ll see in upcoming years if anyone can find a detective who captures enough imaginations to sustain a long-running series.
BTW: the biggest downfalls to bad mysteries and/or unpublishable work I see here—poor research. The authenticity needs to be in place in terms of procedures for us to buy into what we’re reading. You can’t watch CSI or Law&Order and think you know how the police work.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Day 7 of Genre – Thriller/Suspense

Welcome to “overlapping genre days” at faith*in*fiction. I’m your host, Dave, and I’ll be splitting hairs, pinning jello to the wall, and generally trying to parse out that which can’t be parsed.

I think the easiest way to think of this whole problem of genre is to think of a spectrum. Remember ROYGBIV? In seventh-grade science you’re taught (or I was taught) that white light is composed of seven colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Usually there was some kind of teaching circle that went along with this showing each color in its own slice of the pie. In art class, when you’re handed the big box of 64 crayons you realize the more complicated truth: none of these colors is truly pure. Each simply represents a general portion of the spectrum and is made up of infinite and incremental gradients as you look towards the next colors. So there’s orange-yellow and yellow-orange. And they’re different somehow.

To me, we’re dealing with the same thing with science-fiction/speculative fiction, suspense, and mystery. (And possibly even horror?)

Here are books I’d consider suspense/thrillers, along with their subcategories:

Ludlum, LeCarre, Cussler, Fleming: Spy
Clancy – Military
Grisham, Turow – Legal
Crichton – Techno
Brown, Perez-Reverte – Academic
Benchley, Allen – Zoological
Harris - Psychological

Coming up with a unifying definition for these books might be complicated, but the easiest way to think about them is that the are novels driven by action and plot, and the characters aren’t policemen or detectives. That’s pretty lame, but I hope you know what I’m getting at. Usually suspense novels don’t play around with the identity of the bad guys. You know who’s good. You know who’d bad. Can the good guy stop the bad guy? Or the bad shark? Or (see Congo) the bad silver gorilla? It’s the legal subcategory that’s giving me fits, because in a lot of ways, they’re similar to mysteries. But we’ve always called them suspense. Likewise, a book like Silence of the Lambs is more suspense than mystery, because we “know” the bad guy. Where as The Bone Collector is a mystery because the identity of the bad guy is as integral as simply catching him. See, it’s a fine confusing line.

That said, this is one of my preferred genres to read. At least certain subgenres) The equivalent (or source, quite often) of the summer blockbuster, most of these books teach us little about writing, little about life, and are simply the literary equivalent of white-water rafting or visiting an amusement park. A good thriller should “thrill”—there should be a visceral response. My wife and I once listened to a novel (which was technically a “mystery”) while driving and she audibly gasped at one point. That’s what you’re going for.

In CBA, our current king of suspense is Mr. Dekker. There’s some legal thrillers from Jim Bell and Robert Whitlow. And there’s the supernatural suspense of books that look at spiritual warfare. (Which border much closer to horror in my mind.) Some of the subcategories of the genre are pretty difficult, in my estimation, to make “Christian.” Do we need a Christian James Bond? Or Jack Ryan? Some say "Yes!" I just purse my lips. With violence at the heart of so many of the books, can we justify the body counts with a generic Christian message? Or, if we remove the corpses, have we castrated the thing that lends the visceral impact to the book? I’ve yet to see international intrigue done very well in CBA.

Still, it'd be exciting to see somebody offer some different takes on these categories. The psychological category could be done quite well, I'd think--eschewing violence for mind games/control/manipulation...that sort of thing.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Day 6 of Genre – Science Fiction

Geeks. That’s what most people think of when they think about science fiction. I’m not trying to be cruel or spread stereotypes but those bad-haired, single, comic-book reading, Magic-playing, skinny as Mark Hamill in Star Wars dweebs standing in-line for George Lucas’ latest ego-trip or getting engaged in Klingon are the ones fueling the science-fiction fires. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. They’re just the media’s public face for science-fiction and given the how fairly the media always treats groups (i.e. Pat Robertson = Christians) it’s best we don’t get sucked into the rampant generalizations about the dorks who dress like Stormtroopers for Comiccon IV and lust after the Matrix’s Trinity and her hot leather pants. These are the people after all who are going to be fixing our computers or renting us Japanese Anime, so we need to be nice to them. Perhaps even talk to them in Wookie.

Getting back on the topic of the genre of science fiction, I think it’s important to note that I don’t really read science fiction. I’ve read C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, but that seems more like fantasy set on other planets. I’ve read all four (five?) books of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy and laughed. I got the Star Wars Christmas Album out of the library and listened to “What Do You Get a Wookie for Christmas When He’s Already Got a Comb.” So I know the basics.

The question is: What do you do with Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park? Here’s where the genre classifications fall apart for me. I know speculative fiction and science fiction often get lumped together and lord knows what with all the chaos theory crap that Jurassic Park had it’s share of science and speculation. But it seems to me much more the “thriller” than science fiction. To me, science fiction needs to be either, 1. in space or 2. in the future, and preferably some dystopic future where there’s either no water or too much water or the water is fine and the problem is that robots are doing mean things to us because we’ve done mean things to them. (Like what? Build them? Give me a break. We gave you life! Stop using us as fuel cells!)

CBA has “pure” science fiction (Kathy Tyers) but it also has lots of speculative fiction. Randy Ingermanson used time travel to try to assassinate the Apostle Paul. Shane Johnson landed people on the moon. Randy Ingermanson and John Olson landed people on Mars.

You could make a pretty valid case that, in a lot of ways, end times thrillers fall in this category too though I suppose I’d be pilloried by some people for suggesting such novels are speculation when Revelations obviously says with such precision and straightforwardness the exact way things are going to happen.

Anyway, all that to say I don’t know how broad we want to cast our nets over this definition. Is there a difference between techno-thrillers and science-fiction? I think we mostly came up with the name “techno-thriller” to get away from the bad PR science-fiction may have accumulated as a genre. In the end, it’s probably saying the same thing, though.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Day 5 of Genre – Fantasy

In a lot of ways, fantasy and science fiction often get lumped together. I’m not necessarily sure why this is case, but I’m guessing there’s two reasons behind it. First, I suspect that there is either the assumption or the fact that a good deal of fans of one are also fans of the other. Or could become fans of the other. The second reason fuels the first—these are the stories that stray from some aspect of reality as we know it. This “fantastic” element is the escape offered to readers who either are sick of their real world or certain that there’s something going on behind the curtain.

In fantasy, this most often reveals itself in the creation of an “other” world. Narnia from you know who. Middle Earth from you know who, too. Hogwarts from you know who, three. Wonderland from Carroll. Summerland from Chabon. The “other” earth of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequence. There’s plenty of others.

What’s strange, and I didn’t do this on purpose, is that I’ve listed books off the top of my head that are usually considered “children’s literature.” Adults love these books, too, but it points to an obvious prejudice against the realm of the fantastic. It is “childish” to not want to face reality. To need talking animals and lands of endless baseball. We’ve followed Paul and put away childish things to stare the cold hard facts of life in the face.

Ask any great fan of fantasy, however, and they’ll tell you that typically what they love about such books isn’t just the possibility of escape, but what such escape tells them about their own reality. Vast amounts of wisdom are mined all the time from Narnia and Middle Earth. Philip Pullman does his best to counteract any such wisdom with his series for non-believers.

Fantasy gets tied up with symbolism and allegory which makes it very attractive for Christian writers who want to be the next Lewis and/or Tolkien. I’ve seen a LOT of bad ideas/writing down this path though and just want to warn people that STORY and CHARACTERS need to come first. Karen Hancock’s Arena is getting lots of praise for fantasy. Stephen Lawhead writes in the genre, too. Otherwise it’s a genre that is both quiet and loud. Loud because the fans who love the genre and the writers who write are pretty vocal, especially on-line. It’s quiet though because there just doesn’t seem to be a critical or sustainable mass of them that CBA publishers have figured out how to reach.

My own interest in the fantastic is somewhat limited. I’ve done most of the major children’s authors and have now taken up Neil Gaiman, but it’s much more dabbling than any full devotion. I tend to like stories that twist reality rather than try to fully create new worlds. Gaiman’s Neverwhere is brilliant at this. For me, Middle Earth grew wearying, what with all the elf poetry going on.

I’m in the midst of listening to Narnia unabridged on tape. They’ve been rerecorded with wonderful British actors doing the voice work. Kenneth Branaugh, Lynn Redgrave, Michael York, and Jeremy Northam are among the readers. This is my third time through, I think, and I know this his bordering on heresy, but some of the stories just aren’t doing it for me anymore. Prince Caspian and The Horse and His Boy in particular just seem so-so. (Looks up for lightning.) Not that my opinion means much. Just thought I’d share.