Friday, February 12, 2010

Reading in the Land of Ought-to-Be

We’ve opened a huge topic here at Novel Matters this week, starting with Marybeth’s innocent question: Which books are on your “Keepers” list? These are the books you devoured and talked about incessantly to the annoyance of your family. Most titles offered by our readers came from the American Booksellers Association (ABA) or mainstream market, not the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) or inspirational market.

This led to Latayne’s question: Why aren’t CBA books found on “Keepers” lists more often? She bravely listed her reasons. Marybeth's and Latayne’s insights are thought-provoking. Consider going back to read both of these finely crafted blog posts.

Allow me to stir the pot a bit more by asking: Why do Christians who buy inspirational fiction prefer more formulaic storylines in an America of long ago?

I think there is a strong spiritual element to this question. Warning: I’m not a theologian. (Haven’t I said that here before?) I’m just trying to understand our market. Try this out and feel free to set me straight:

As Christians, we all live in a place of great tension. The Kingdom has come in the person of Jesus Christ. Eternity has started for us. We’re members of His family. We’re Heaven-bound and God-connected. We worship a living God, eternal and holy. We’re loved, saved, grace-doused. Hallelujah!

And yet . . .

We aren’t in Heaven yet.

Friends get cancer. Our children rebel. Husbands leave. Prayers aren’t answered the way we hope and certainly not as soon as we would like. Smut is everywhere. We’re seeing our values dissolve before our eyes. We can’t trust the schools, and some have been deeply wounded by the church (little c).

We are between what is and what will be. We live, for now, in the Land of Ought-to-Be. We have high expectations of living out our faith, but this proves challenging in its application. We desire praises and not profanities to flow from our lips; we’re desperate to be healed every time we pray, to love one another sacrificially, and to be Christ-like in the way we live, work, and play. But because we’re in the Land of Ought-to-Be, we fall far short of these expectations.

Some Christians have a lower tolerance for the dissonance of the Land of Ought-to-Be than others. Those on one end of the continuum crave a literary vacation spot where the world is on their side. They also need their faith and life-style affirmed.

On the other end of the continuum, readers are more comfortable with open-ended questions, and a view of the world that is as menacing—or more menacing—as true life.

Now that I have this working model of why some Christian readers like certain kinds of fiction, what am I to do?


I write the stories God dangles before me like a jewel in the sun, pursue excellence in form and content of my prose, and pray my audience finds me. And BTW, I enjoy a literary vacation, but the story must be well-written.

Did I even come close to understanding this phenomena? What’s your take?


Lori Benton said...

Patti, you've articulated beautifully something very close to my thoughts of yesterday, as I pondered what common them is it at the core of the stories I write that makes me so passionate about them. What I ended up calling it is the element of Caught-Betweenness. My characters are those caught between races, between cultures, between a desire to live Christ-like and the pressures to conform to society's expectations. You said it beautifully; "As Christians we all live in a place of great tension." I'm drawn to fiction that explores that tension and teaches me how to cope and overcome by example, that reassures me this world isn't my home however long we must stay here, and ends with giving me hope. I love CBA fiction when it does that. I think there's none better. And lately those books I choose to keep are more often CBA titles than they used be.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I really could camp here for quite some time.

You nailed it. At least in my understanding. I loved that explanation.

I gravitate toward the not-there-yet books, the ones with the questions on every page.

I think knowing the answer, I'm less afraid to ask the questions.

Enjoyed this week of posts.
~ Wendy

Nicole said...

"Allow me to stir the pot a bit more by asking: Why do Christians who buy inspirational fiction prefer more formulaic storylines in an America of long ago?"

I could never answer this question because I have no idea. I read contemporary Christian fiction, and formulaic in any genre drives me nuts. I can guess that those who read Amish stories seek a simplicity and discipline they don't possess and perhaps yearn for. In other historical fiction the romance of long gone eras mixed with authentic bits of those times and places captivate some readers.

I'm into the here and now. The spiritual struggles of today make fallow ground for meaningful stories of all kinds. Outside-the-box authors in CBA tend to be published by a small group of the bigger CBA publishers. Formulaic authors who are successful time and time again create unique characters and interesting plot lines with good voices to separate themselves from others.

Commercial fiction is just that whether it's ABA or CBA. I still think the writing is comparable proportionately in this branch of fiction.

My "keeper" list is too long to list, but the books on that list come from CBA. For me, it isn't enough just to write exquisite prose. Without the Lord in some measure, the beautiful prose lies empty. JMO

Patti Hill said...

Thanks to all for your thoughtful replies, proving that our readers are erudite and eloquent.

Lori:I love your term: Caught-Betweenness. That's where we are. Story is a powerful way to explore this tension and offer hope. I am waiting on pins and needles to hear something wonderful about your manuscript.

Wendy: I'm with you. Not-there-yet books are my first choice. They seem more honest to me.

Nicole: I always appreciate your straight-on opinions. Keep coming back! I agree with you, commercial fiction is what it is no matter what the origin. I suppose we may have to reopen the discussion--now that we know each other better--on what is literary, commercial, genre, formulaic, and up-market fiction. Let the sparks fly!

Anonymous said...

I have so loved the discussion here this week. The comments have been fabulous. Nicole, I'm with you, into the here and now. And though I prefer not to read or write "preachy" fiction, "Without the Lord in some measure, the beautiful prose lies empty." Well said.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I'm part of the readership that prefers contemporary storylines. I write contemporary stories as well. But I do think you're right on, Patti.

Btw, I think the discussion on Wed was so powerful. I couldn't jump in because I was so tired by the time I got to the blog... my thoughts were all a tumble. But I'll definitely go back and see if I have anything to add.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Patti, I think you perfectly described the tension where we live - as writers and as humans.

I once jumped off a forty foot bridge into fifteen foot water, on a dare (not something I recommend unless you'd like to wake up on the bottom of the Rio Grande - but that's a story for another day). And between the security of the bridge and the rush of the current, I hovered in midair. It couldn't have been more than five seconds but it was the worst part of the entire experience.

As readers and writers, we all hover between what was and what will be. And this is what we need to explore with our fiction - the discomfort and the anticipation.

I believe the best stories are those that enlighten our journey on the "in-between."

PatriciaW said...

Patti, I'd say you pretty much brought that one home. I've never heard a better explanation and certainly never came up with one.

Although I can enjoy a literary vacation spot from time to time, I prefer my fiction to open questions, to challenge my thinking, and in doing so, to cause me to run for godly answers, thereby raising my faith level.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Patti, I think you've hit on the reason Christian fiction is as popular as it is. I love your description of the kinds of readers who gravitate to stories that show Christians acting like Christians, non-Christians coming to faith, and God winning every time.

However, I don't necessarily think these readers like formulaic fiction. I work in my church's library once a month, and I see readers hovering over a shelf trying to remember if they've already read this book or that (because all the stories blend together). I've seen them sigh after looking at a handful of other authors and go back to the tried and true. They wish for a different story but along the same lines.

So maybe there's a third group of readers out there.

Thanks for this great discussion.