Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Salty Stories

I hear it all the time – it’s the big debate in Christian fiction, the one that writers and readers buzz about, the one that makes us stop typing and ask, “Is this passage preachy?”

I think it’s a good discussion, one we should continue to have because it helps us shape the industry of Christian books. However, it is a mistake to think that Christians are the only ones who need to ask if our literature is “preachy” and packed with messages that hammer rather than whisper.

General fiction has just as much reason to worry as Christian fiction does that it’s preachy.
I read broadly, as I suspect the vast majority of us do. In my fictional travels I’ve come across general market fiction that was so preachy it made me put the book aside. The adage that “no one likes to be preached to” is one mainstream writers need to heed every bit as much as religious minded writers do.

I’ve been reading The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, a book I wanted very much to like for many reasons. First, the author is Canadian (from Winnipeg). I read vast amounts of Canadian fiction (and I recommend you do too – there is a delectable “otherness” about Canadian fiction that is at once familiar and foreign), and I was happy to add Davidson’s name to the list, especially after I heard about the large advance he secured for this, his debut novel. The premise is so strong and compelling, it’s no wonder publishers snapped him up. So, I bought the book.

Remember – I wanted to believe. I wanted to love this book.

There are two things that keep me from falling in love with The Gargoyle. First, the writing – with a wobbly voice that never finds its track, to Davidson’s habit of writing in a way that minimizes emotional impact, to his lack of knowledge of the psychological, the writing left me feeling – well…cheated. Still, there are moments in the book that shine, and I would have overlooked (on tip-toe, mind you) the writing if only he would have refrained from his preaching.

But the real reason I couldn’t love the book was because several times I had to check the front cover to ensure I had not, by accident picked up a book titled “I am atheist, hear me roar” or something of that nature. He spoke his beliefs loudly and from the soapbox on the corner street Christians are so often accused of standing on. He didn’t let the story just tell the story of a man who didn’t believe in God yet couldn’t explain the things that were happening to him.

I don’t mean to pick on Davidson and his book. But, for the sake of blog post brevity, I wanted to highlight a concrete example of what I am talking about. All of us, regardless of the religious/political/ethical messages we wish to incorporate into our fiction, need to remember to respect the reader, and respect the story.

For the Christian, that means creating salty stories – fiction that is flavored throughout with the truth of God and His character. You would never sit down to a meal and drown it with salt, covering your plate until all you saw was white. We use salt in measure and allow it to bump up against the rest of the ingredients, soak in, and change the flavor of the entire meal for the better.

Jesus said we were to be salt and light to the world. These two things are perfect examples of how God wants us to write as well as live. Salt and light both are, in and of themselves, overpowering elements when taken in large quantity. Salt burns the tongue, light burns the eyes. But used wisely and in measure they are indispensable. Keep in mind though, it isn’t the salt or light that matter most, but the effect the salt has on the food, and the effect that light has on a darkened room that make them transformative elements.

What have you been reading or writing lately that uses salt in proper measure? How did the writer accomplish this?


Rachel said...

I love your analogy of saltiness within a book! Many times the word "preachy" is attributed towards Christians, but it can be applied to others as well, as you have pointed out.

Laura J. Davis said...

Thank you Bonnie, for this timely post. I'm currently working on a funeral scene for my new novel and it is dealing with suicide in Christians. I'm finding it difficult not to be too 'salty'. Ho-hum - time for a re-write!

Patti Hill said...

I absolutely adored Lisa Samson's The Passion of Mary Margaret. Her main character is an almost-nun (forgive me for forgetting the term)who never flinches from speaking to or about God, but the voice is so authentic, it doesn't come off as preaching. The key is to make spirituality such an integral part of the character that preachiness isn't an issue.

It seems like novelists who are closely tied to the global warming issue tend to be preachy, on both sides of the issue. I won't name any names...this time!

Nicole said...

I concur with passion about The Passion of Mary-Margaret: what a great novel. Made my all-time Top Ten or Twenty. Who knows?

I agree there is no shortage of preaching going on the general market, and I'm kind of an outcast with this opinion, but I don't think "preaching" can be avoided on either side. Writers usually stand for something, and that something is usually incorporated into story. Some can present the gospel, the godliness, the contrasts between the world/sin and the practices of a Christian in organic ways as Patti also suggested, but if some secular readers even see God mentioned at all--and heaven forbid the name of Jesus appear as anything but a swear word--then it's labeled preaching. Sadly, this is the same reaction of some Christians.

Bad preaching doesn't usually work in real life, nor does it work well in story form. From either side.

The gospel should be able to appear in the story just like it does in real life. Real. Passionate. All kinds of ways. All kinds of characters. All kinds of circumstances, questions, faith elements, doubts, fears, hopes, dreams. Good grief--it should never be limited to within the walls of a church.

Great instrumentation by another author: Kristen Heitzmann in her series Secrets, Unforgotten, Echoes.

Kathleen Popa said...

Nicole, isn't that the quandary? Every writer stands for something, and that something can and (I think) should find its way into the story. But we've all read bait and switch novels: we thought we were going to get a story, but instead we got a lecture. It's like walking into a movie theater and finding not a film but our mother with a list of chores we haven't finished.

That's why I like good characters. I think the best thing we can do in our stories is to give the reader a guided tour of the world through someone else's eyes. If I want to win an argument, I'll write non-fiction (something I may never do). In a novel, I only hope to start - and not finish - a conversation. I hope reader turns the last page and think, "Hmmm... Wow. Never thought of it that way. But what about...? Hmmm..."

Janet said...

Oh Bonnie, this was good. What a good way of expressing it.

Good examples? Do they get better than C.S. Lewis? Clearly Christian, but clearly entertaining. (Thinking more of his adult novels here, but it applies to the Narnia books too.)

Anonymous said...

Great post, Bonnie. Nicole makes a good point. Our convictions can't help but come through in our work, whatever those convictions may be. But they shouldn't be force-fed to the reader. All that does is cause a gag reflex.

Bonnie Grove said...

I think the story IS our argument. It doesn't contain our position - it is our position, with all of it's doubts, uncertainty, faith, and hard won world view.

It's the difference between saying God contains love and God is love.

At least that is what I strive toward. I don't pretend I've arrived!

Debra E. Marvin said...

I think about this a lot because when I write I think of a person who has not made a commitment to follow Christ. First I must entertain them, draw them in and they they must believe in the character enough to hear their heart and not close the book.

As for secular books - it's politically correct to be anti-Christian so the rules don't apply there.

Kathleen Popa said...


As I prepare for my son's wedding, I'm listening to the audio book of Dan Brown's Angels & Demons, and in it today I heard a speech given by the Camerlengo Ventresca somewhere towards the end of the book. I backed up and re-listened to the speech about five or six times, because 1) I loved every word, and 2) I couldn't believe Dan Brown, the man who did such dreadful things to the Catholic church in his prior novel, The Da Vinci Code, had written it. Some sort of repentance, maybe? I can't wait to see how much of this speech made it into the movie, and which parts specifically they left out.

Still, I can't help thinking of all we've been saying here on the blog. The passage was certainly a sermon, probably the "moral" of the story. Why do I like it? Well, um... because I agree with it, and think it a message that doesn't get told often enough.

So maybe that's a key to what makes a novel "preachy," or not. If the sermon is agreeable to us, then it's good literature, right?


Karen Schravemade said...

I totally agree with this post. I've read endless numbers of secular books that mince no words when
"preaching" against God. And yet it seems that as long as the message is anti-Christian, it is seen as somehow intellectual and philosophical, while those who express a Christian world-view in their fiction are labeled narrow-minded, if they can even get into print outside the inspirational market. I'd love to see a book published by a secular imprint that explores a Christian worldview for a change. Why should Christianity be marginalised in popular culture?

Bonnie Grove said...

Debra: So true - at least it seems that way. One book that I love which explored Monotheism with an open hand is Life of Pi. Yann Martel is quoted as saying something like, "The religious story is always the best story". Well, I'm not jumping up and down about that statement, but I think it's at least an attempt at fairness.

Katy: GREAT point. Sometimes we call something preachy because we don't agree with the message or with large parts of the message. But I can think of examples of Christian fiction (even books people are currently ga-ga over) and point to parts I considered preachy. So, back to that fine line thing, eh?

Karen: I would too. They are few and far between - but they are out there. I hope all of us who hang out at Novel Matters will share books they come across that do a great job of being salty without burning.

Gwen Stewart said...

Ladies, I love your blog!

I read an ABA novel recently that came highly recommended. The characters and plot were interesting. About halfway through though, the author took a soapbox stance, and the characters become nothing more than mouthpieces for her stance. It was sad to witness, and I stopped reading after four or five chapters.

Like your lovely post stated, I try to sprinkle Truth in the real lives of characters. It requires a light touch, in my opinion, and it's sometimes hard to find that balance.

Thanks for your wonderful thoughts!