f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 05/01/2006 - 06/01/2006

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

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Day 1 of Abide With Me – New York Can Publish Mediocre Fiction, Too.

The march of CBA toward ABA and ABA toward CBA takes its next step with the publication of Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout. Why? Because now, not only is the ABA publishing fiction with Christian themes but it’s publishing fiction with Christian themes that aren’t reaching the high peaks of literary achievement. In other words, this isn’t Gilead or Godric. In my mind, it was less successful—in terms of literary quality and overall story—than the best general fiction emerging from CBA houses today.

I have no idea if this is progress or not. It is, however, a tangible example of just how hard it is to write successfully and fully in this sub-genre.

Abide With Me tells the story of Tyler Caskey, a young Congregational minister in Maine who is struggling with his calling, his congregation, and his family in the wake of his wife’s tragic death.

What’s interesting to note about the books coming from ABA dealing with Christian themes is that (among the more major releases) only Peace Like a River has avoided the use of a pastor as a vehicle for tackling these themes. Passion of Reverend Nash, Gilead, Abide With Me, Lying Awake, and Mariette in Ecstasy are among many that take place within the confines of the established church life. In other words, ABA seems bound by the conventions of organized religion, unable in some ways to speak of faith in an ordinary life.

I’m trying to make sense of this. The easiest assumption to make is that we still primarily see religion as a cultural institution not something that will literally impact an individual life. And so religion can’t be separated from its existence within that institution. Pastors and priests and rabbis are fine because they are definable part of that landscape. You can look at it much the way professors exist within academia. Certain discourse makes sense…but it’s not like the common man goes around worrying about Robert Browning’s imagery in “My Last Duchess.” Likewise, perhaps it’s impossible to think of the common man talking about faith outside of church.

I can’t imagine that this is an imposition ABA is forcing on authors…but rather it’s one by which authors do seem self-limited. We are all fighting, I suppose, the tricky problem of finding a narrative in which discussion of faith seems natural.

Any other thoughts on what might be occuring?

::

Continue to Day 2 of our discussion of Abide With Me

The Devil Uses Typepad

Satan's henchman is blogging. And finds things to like in CBA. And links to f*i*f.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Common Misspelling

Lose is not spelled "loose."

It's bizarre; I see this everywhere. To the point, in fact, where I'm wondering if kids are learning to spell it wrong?

Friday, May 26, 2006

Christian Satire

Ray Blackston pointed out to me that he'll be taking a stab at Christian satire this fall. And, I have to say, his cover backs up his claim.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

U.S.! - The Question of Writing Propaganda

A quick break in our series on density to talk about writing from a defined religious/political viewpoint.

Chris Bachelder recently released a cock-eyed satire on the state of dissent in the country called U.S.! It's a weighted title standing in for the United States, us, and it's titular hero--Upton Sinclair. In the novel (which obviously steals from Waking Lazarus) Upton Sinclair is an oft-resurrected muckraker whom the "left" continues to turn to as their symbol of pig-headed, stubborn, unyielding virtue, and who the "right" continues to assassinate.

It's a sharp book that pulls quite a number of narrative tricks out of its sleeve, working in interviews, poetry, protest songs, phone call transcripts, and on and on as it creates this world where we so desperately need someone willing to stand up for what's "right." It's at once a pretty understated indictment of imasculation of the current "liberal" voice in America and a frustrated argument against America's unchecked capitalistic tendencies. Being a satire, many arrows are shot far and near, wide and narrow.

It's a piece of art trying to say something meaningful, politically, about the state of the world. At the same time, it's an examination of the difficult of saying anything meaningful, politically, about the state of the world through art. Upton Sinclair is not just assassinated bodily, but (since he continues to write) his books are constantly excoriated by reviewers for being little more than jeremiads--propaganda gussied up to look like art.

Given how often Christians are condemned for such back-door proselytizing, there are obvious connections to be made.

Bachelder uses a bit of a letter from Edith Wharton to Upton Sinclair after the publishing of his (real) book Oil! and I think this is a real portion of Wharton's thoughts. She writes:

It seems to me an excellent story until the moment, all too soon, when it becomes political pamphlet. I make this criticism without regard to the views which you teach, and which are detestable to me. Had you written in favor of those in which I believe, my judgment would have been exactly the same. I have never known a novel that was just good enough to be good in spite of its being adapted to the author's political views.

That last sentence is an interesting one to me. Part of me agrees and part of me thinks it's absurd to think we divorce ourselves so entirely from our material when we create art. To claim one is an objective artist, merely reflecting the world rather than commenting upon it, seems ludicrous. And so, mostly, it's a matter of degrees that we're arguing about. We're all, I'd argue, trying to make a point...some just raise the point to be the point. While others subsume it for the sake of narrative.

I think Bachelder acknowledges this in his book. It's not a screed. It makes it's points in the course of the story. In fact, it ends up offering a doubly-interesting acknowledgement about the power of propaganda.

One thing Bachelder has going for him that we don't emply almost at all in CBA fiction is irony. Irony is a phenomenal way, I think, to make your point without making it. Take this exchange between the resurrected Sinclair and a disillusioned "worker" when Upton asks what the plan for the future is:

"Well, OK. First we wear out our welcome here in paradise. We pull all the big fish from the lake and eat them with lemon. Then, let's see, then we send out our resumes to the Man. We lie about the spreadsheet programs with which we are familiar."

He said, "Are you finished?"

I said, "We get in at the ground floor and we work our way up. At night we watch television and eat frozen pizzas. We grudgingly accept the distribution of wealth. We come to believe that wealth and wisdom are connected. Wealth and character. We shred documents. We throw quarters in cups and guitar cases. We don't provoke the police."

He began to object, but I interrupted him.

"We have no political conviction and thus no guilt. And thus no responsibility. We try not to imagine that the lives of others are fully as large as our own. We play video games with incredible graphics. We determine the number of deductions. Nobody--not one person--fires a weapon at us."

He said, "You know I don't think that is funny."

"There's no plan," I said. "Let me tell you a little story. In 1907 a young American writer, not yet thirty years old, published a novel that predicted the USA would be a fully Socialist country by the year 1913. With Hearst as our Socialist President. Good God. How about that for a plan? So, fish. Just fish, goddammit."

Sinclair said, "I misjudged Hearst."

In today's society there are more acceptable "modes" of critical commentary and satire is certainly one of them. Without satire or irony (which we really don't have in CBA) we're left with earnest straightforward storytelling and modern readers have a knee-jerk reaction to "messages" being communicated in this form. Andso in the end, just like poor sincere Upton, we're accused of writing propaganda.

Just an observation as I was reading.

Relief Journal News

A few weeks ago I mentioned Relief Journal, a new print literary journal that was seeking submissions. Well, there's some more news about who'll be directing the fiction wing--a certain Mr. Bertrand.

I've gotten to know Mark fairly well over the last months. He's an excellent choice. Though his divergent predilections for stories about llamas and/or girls who don't shave their legs will lend the journal a jaunty, insouciant tone. Also, he prefers fiction written in 2nd-person, future tense.

A Survey of Beach Reads

Slate talks to authors about what they read on the beach. Don't expect a lot of insight...just more book recommendations.

My recommendation: Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil. Or some sprawling crime fiction--James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia or The Big Nowhere. My wife would probably recommend Jodi Picoult or Sophie Kinsella.

Friday, May 19, 2006

A Third Observation About Dense Writing

The world of the novel feels real.

To me there are three main elements to this.

1. A physical setting is evoked. We're not talking a Cooperish dissertation on leaf structure...but there is a sense of place that emerges in the reader's imagination. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon renders late-30s/early-40s New York in vivid colors. I think of this as "dense" writing because it fills in the scene for us, like a vivid backdrop for a play.

2. Time passes in a realistic way. I've read many manuscripts that wrench and lurch in fits and starts as they try to cover only a few months. Time is out of joint. Other stories can have you leaping back and forth through time and across generations...and yet you're always in the moment.

3. Finally, the world feels occupied. I suppose a great novel can be written about only two people (likely you will now name one) but none spring to mind. In fact, the novels that feel the most vibrant and alive are often crawling with characters. We have a lot of novels within our industry that toggle back-and-forth between POV A (woman) and POV B (man). The concern is that they're usually spending so much time together that even swapping between two POVs we're still only meeting those two characters. Other faces and names barely make a dent. Juggling a lot of characters is not an easy thing. It forces you to be dense with your writing. You can't devote swaths of words to each person...so the words that are chosen need to be the right ones.

I think Athol Dickson's River Rising does a strong job of populating his imaginary world of Pilotville, LA.

Best American Novel - Past 25 Years, Take 2

Unsatisfied with the New York Times results mentioned a few days ago? An intrepid blogger is surveying a slightly different group of folks--us unwashed but book-loving masses. If you want to send in a vote, she has instructions here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Second Observation About Dense Writing

First, I'm changing this series to "observations" rather than "rules." I don't like writing rules. I don't necessarily think there are such things. And the first thing people do when you mention a writing rule is to find five examples that break it. So...these aren't rules. They're merely things Iv'e noticed in my reading that seem to have broad application for us as writers.

And the second thing I think I've noticed may be counter-intuitive to much of the advice given today. That is: density of story emerges primarily through narrative and exposition rather than dialogue. This is not meant to give you a free pass on your dialogue--I'll have more to say on that later in the series. Rather, it's to say that the heavy work of filling a book is done between the scenes.

This becomes difficult to parse out because in the best novels everything is for the sake of advancing the novel at some level. If it does no work, it should be excised. However, too often we've reduced that maxim to simply, "Everything must advance the plot." And with that I disagree. A richer understanding of a character's thoughts, a fuller development of a theme--these things make up the richness and fullness to which I'm referring.

Richard Russo's Straight Man begins with a seven page prologue. It is at once superfluous to the plot and intrinsic to the main character. Do you leave it?

Lying Awake pauses in its story to give flashbacks, set apart in italics, of Sister John of the Cross' childhood. Not a single one is pertinent to her dangerous medical condition. But each opens her life a little wider to us.

There are more and better examples out there. Hopefully you see what I'm getting at. Story is all. But story is not plot. And therefore plot is not all.
::

Mark Bertrand has recently visited this topic in his study on craft, although from a slightly different angle, cracking that old chestnut about "showing, not telling."

We do need to learn to show. But as Mark says, we also need to learn to tell...well.

::

Continue to the Third Observation About Dense Writing.

When an Ignoramus Blogs the Bible

A proud but non-observant Jew who self-identifies as an "ignoramus" decides to actually read the Bible. And blogs about about it at Slate.

My goal is pretty simple. I want to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based. I think I'm in the same position as many other lazy but faithful people (Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus). I love Judaism; I love (most of) the lessons it has taught me about how to live in the world; and yet I realized I am fundamentally ignorant about its foundation, its essential document. So, what will happen if I approach my Bible empty, unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents? What will delight and horrify me? How will the Bible relate to the religion I practice, and the lessons I thought I learned in synagogue and Hebrew School?

I don't know if he intends to keep going into the New Testament.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Cab Driver Turned Technology Expert on BBC

This "story" is racing around the internet at the moment. Things like this, well, they make me so happy it should be illegal.

Here is a video of his appearance.

Publishing Oddity - Hot Dog Edition

Publishing is an odd industry at times. With so many books coming out it's inevitable that certain titles and subjects are going to cross swords. Usually they're predictable (see DaVinci Code debunkers) and sometimes they're mildly random.

Take for instance these two books on competitive eating. I'd been waiting for Horsemen to release because a friend is about to marry the author. But before it could, Eat This Book beat it to market. Behind-the-scenes, apparently, Random House bumped up production schedules and actually released Horsemen early...to take advantage of the buzz/press its competitor had generated on the topic. And so two books on the same topic with rather similar covers released within perhaps weeks of each other.

Which is better? I've not yet read either (and I'm obviously biased) but...

Entertainment Weekly
reviewed both side-by-side (Eat vs. Horsemen) and gave Horsemen a slightly better review. Plus it's a quite a feather to place a 6000 word excerpt in The Atlantic Monthly.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The First Observation About Dense Writing

(A caveat: I have no idea what I'm doing here. I often write these posts blindly but I feel I'm doing it doubly-so this time. Don't spare me if I say something off base here.)

I think the first rule of dense writing should be that our language must be precise. We need to understand the words we select (choose, pick, proffer) entirely (fully, wholly, in a biblical sense.)

Not only do we need to understand what they mean on a denotative level (literally) but what the shadings of the word imply as well. (I'm going to stop with the little paranthetical games for the moment. You should get the point.)

Precision on a word-by-word basis is not about mining your thesaurus--although it likely will mean expanding your vocabulary. This isn't random substitution of words merely for effect. It's being conscious (likely during rewrite!!) of how word selection shades and changes voice, tone, style, etc.

From Gilead:
This morning the world by moonlight seemed to be an immemorial acquaintance I had always meant to befriend. If there was ever a chance, it has passed. Strange to say, I feel a little that way about myself.

John Ames is an intelligent man but his language is spare. Simple, almost. "Immemorial" here then becomes an important adjective. It heightens the poignancy of this statement...a dying man realizing just a bit the presumptions of immortality we all delude ourselves with.

After precise words, then the next level of precision should be at the descriptive level. We want our metaphors, our physical descriptions, our settings to (usually) render themselves transparently to our readers. There is a time, one can imagine, for vagueness or passivity. But not too often.

From Lawrence Dorr's "An Act of Admiration:"

I was fifteen the summer of '36. To me Hitler was no more than the stub of a pencil held to my upper lip to make my sister laugh.

That's a good first two lines of a story, isn't it? You get the naive innocence of a child juxtaposed with the unspoken horror that the next seven years would render. And you get a concrete image to boot. I think that's precise.

I realize tearing these things from their context isn't all that helpful or instructive. I don't have too many other ideas for how to go about it. We'll keep plugging away.

::

Continue to the Second Observation About Dense Writing.

The Best American Novel of the Last 25 Years

I somehow missed this the first time. Thankfully Tony Hines pointed it out to me. (BTW: Just got early copies of his Waking Lazarus on my desk. Very exciting. Many have read it already and are weighing in with nice things.)

Anyway, the NYTimes decided to start one of those pointless debates by naming the Best Work of American Fiction over the last 25 years. The winner didn't surprise me. Nor did most of the nominees. It was sort of depressing actually. You can't tell me that the same people who were writing important novels in the 60s (Updike, Roth) are the only ones writing important stuff today. Bleh.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Density in Writing

Maile Meloy is on my mind. Her latest novel, A Family Daughter recently released and I’m looking forward to reading it. Most of all of you weren’t around for this but her first novel, Liars and Saints, which was among the first things I ever wrote about at this blog. It was a slim novel and in my first post on it I mention being in wonder at it.

This book is a marvel, a wonder of storytelling that somehow intertwines and illuminates the lives of 5 generations of a Catholic family into 260 pages without feeling thin. This alone could be studied for days.

Well, I didn’t study it for days. I didn’t study it at all. But it sticks with me. How something 260 pages can feel richer, more substantial, and “longer” somehow than a 350 page novel is worthy of consideration. Gilead is the same way. The book is 247 pages. Lying Awake is briefer yet…just 181 pages.

And yet I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody complain about these books feeling slim or less-than-fully developed. (I’ve heard other complaints of course…but just not those.)

What I want to begin chatting about is the notion of density in writing.

When I was a Nittany Lion I grew weary of writing short stories because they were just at the length where an instructor or those annoying poetry students could insist on “getting every word right.” You can “perfect” a twelve page story. You can be held accountable for every word. Not so in a novel. It was too big a beast. Too sprawling. The language wasn’t tantamount anymore. Important of course, but not perfectable.

It’s a lazy way of thinking. Lazy and, I think, wrong.

The story we write rests on every word we choose. There’s really no other way of looking at writing. If were not focusing on the words…what in the world are we looking at?

Great writing hones and focuses language. They make their sentences work for them.

Please note what I didn’t say. I didn’t say that great writing is complex words in complex syntax. It can be when it needs to be…but it is always working. Word after word. Sentence to sentence. Paragraph to paragraph. Chapter to chapter.

I skipped out exploring how this happens last time I had the chance. I think it’s important though and so twenty-plus months later we’ll return to it.

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Continue to the First Observation about Dense Writing.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

I Never Forget a Pretty Narrative Arc

The Lemonheads, an imminently forgettable 90s “alt-pop” band who got big by unnecessarily remaking Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” once said, “I’ve never been too good with names, but I remember faces” in their other hit, “It’s a Shame About Ray.”

That's not true for me. I’m awful with names. But I make up for it by forgetting faces, too.

However...what I’ve found is that bits and fragments of your proposals—at least those that’ve caught my attention—do stick with me. I’ve been around long enough that not only am I meeting people, I’m re-meeting people. And when I do, this is how I’ve responded:

“Yeah, you’re the 900-page fantasy novel woman. There was a spark there.”

or

“Yeah, you had that great opening chapter with the EMT.”

There are, it must be admitted, forgettable proposals. I look at hundreds, possibly thousands of ideas a year, so there’s no hope of remembering them all. (Or, on occasion I remember proposals for their atrociousness.)

But I think acquisitions editors across publishing are wired to react to strong ideas. It’s like a gold panner whose eye is trained for the glint of aurum. Or a muskellunge glimpsing a lure out of the corner of his eye. Or a Houston church-goer enticed by a preacher's spangliness. A character or plot or something will click and suddenly you see a hint of a cover, hear a whisper of a title, see the shape of the novel, and the book just seems like it’s there, ready to be the next hit.

For all of these “glints” of course most turn out to be literary pyrite. But the memory lingers. Of the next possible project. The one that “could work.”

So if you contact me, it’s almost inevitable that I’ll forget your name. It’s possible that I’ll stare at you blankly, perhaps mere hours after talking to you. But if you send me a good idea—even only in part—then you’re likely to be locked away in my brain forever.

To paraphrase the Pixies, (Christopher Fisher’s new favorite band) I’m not looking for the mother lode. I’m digging for fire.

And you’re the sparks. Or something like that. I need to go home.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Title? Good. Cover? Bad.

Steve Laube pointed out this book to me. The title caught my attention in his email.

The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show by Ariel Gore.

I like the title a lot. Looked it up on Amazon. The cover is just...bleh. So much to work with and so few results.

Homonymetic Names

As a kid, I was a huge baseball fan (still am) and one of my favorite players from the late 70s was the Yankees third-baseman, Graig Nettles. I think I was about fourteen before I realized most guys with the name actually spell it Greg. I had a friend Craig and the two words rhymed--why wouldn't they be spelled alike?

Likewise, I was at least ten or eleven before realizing Sean (a character in a book) was actually pronounced the same as the Shawn I knew from my neighborhood. I kept reading it as "Seen," which seemed a pretty stupid name for a character.

Many thanks to my parents for giving me a name you can spell only one way. Unless you're just ornery.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Relief: A Quarterly of Christian Expression

Looking for another outlet for your stories, poetry, and/or creative non-fiction? I was alerted to Relief, a new-ish journal that is looking for excellent submissions for their debut November issue.

Take a gander.

Interview with James Scott Bell

James Scott Bell is the author of twelve novels to date. He was recently named a finalist for the Christy Award in Historical Fiction for his novel Glimpses of Paradise, published by BHP. As fellow devotees to the noir genre and those who have a vested interest in where the mystery/suspense genre is going in CBA, Jim and I thought it'd be interesting to chat over email about the topic.


First question: Who's your murderer's row of mystery/suspense writers? I go: Hammett, Chandler, Jim Thompson, James Ellroy, and Michael Connelly.


That's a great list! They'd all be on mine. I'd include the two MacDonald boys--John D. and Ross--as well. The End of the Night by John D., and The Galton Case by Ross are classics.

These gentlemen's stories seem to go from charcoal gray to pit-of-hell black in terms of how dark their world is. So how is this genre compatible with Christian fiction?

I always think of Raymond Chandler's description of the modern detective: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."

Isn't that exactly what Christians must be? We live in a world that is sometimes very dark indeed, yet we are not to be tarnished by it, nor afraid. We are to take our stand and show the redemption that is real and near.

It seems to me the issue is not the darkness, but how one responds to it. Is there any basis for hope? Or are we merely carbon based atoms awaiting our inevitable destruction? Can we make real difference?

When light breaks into darkness it is startling and satisfying. That's what I try to get into my fiction.

Read the conclusion to the interview here.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Study of Publishers Weekly Coverage of CBA Fiction

It seemed to my colleague and I that fewer CBA titles were finding themselves reviewed by Publishers Weekly in recent months. So I decided to do a little study. Using the review archives online I've compiled the following. (2006 numbers are obviously only to date.)

2006 - 15 reviews* - 9 publishers - of these, 8 appear in annex*
2005 - 57 reviews* - 12 publishers - of these, 7 appear in annex*
2004 - 36 reviews* - 14 publishers - of these, 2 appear in annex*
2003 - 33 reviews - 11 publishers
2002 - 61 reviews - 12 publishers
2001 - 52 reviews - 10 publishers
2000 - 22 reviews - 6 publishers

*The review annex is "bonus" reviews found only online at publishersweekly.com.

As it stands, so far in 2006 only 7 reviews of books from only 5 CBA houses have appeared in the print magazine. At our current rate we'll have about 16 total reviews in the print version, easily the lowest total in years.

I'll try and dig up some answers on the shift. Till then, see you in the annex.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Pixies Covers

Have you ever wondered what it would sound like if, say, Frank Sinatra or the Bee Gees covered the Pixies? Likely you haven't. But somebody did. And then recorded these "what ifs." This will mean nothing to you if you don't like the Pixies...but then why wouldn't you like the Pixies? Are you some kind of Communist?

via Neil Gaiman