Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fear of Fiction? A guest post by She Reads co-creator Ariel Allison

Lately I've been thinking about fear as it relates to fiction: both the writing and the reading. A
note showed up in my inbox two weeks ago from a

woman who wanted to know how She Reads could recommend a novel that wasn’t published in the Christian marketplace (this month’s selection, THE VIOLETS OF MARCH by Sarah Jio). She was appalled that the author (a Christian) chose to take

her work to the general market, appalled that there is mild language in the story, appalled that it has steamy content. It bothered this woman to no end that we would put our stamp of approval on a book that depicted the ugliness of human behavior. How could we encourage readers to “be entertained by sin?" She ended her note by saying that she would not read this novel, that she would encourage every Christian she knows to avoid it, and she prays that God will forgive us for what we have done. First I laughed. Then I groaned. Then I closed my e-mail and wandered away. I eventually responded (a post for another day) as graciously as I could. The truth is this woman has never read the book. She does not understand the power of story. She is afraid. I get that. What I don't understand is why we as believers nurture this kind of fear

in ourselves and in our readers. Why we seek out only those books that are safe. Or, in many cases, why we write them. (All the while, I might add, touting the merits of Lewis and his unsafe Lion)

About twenty years ago my father handed me a novel by an old Scottish storyteller named
George MacDonald. In the years since I've collected many of his books. He reminds me of my father (the blue eyes and the wild beard and the high Scottish nose), now dead eight years. MacDonald posed a question in his novel that has stayed with me since that first reading:

"Do you love your faith so little that you have never battled a single fear lest your faith should not be true?"

Do we love our faith so little? As readers? As writers?

"Where there are no doubts, no questions, no perplexities, there can be no growth into the regions where he would have us walk," MacDonald goes on to say. Fear is not unique to readers it seems, but writers as well - particularly those of faith. Fear that if we tell our stories with unflinching courage they won’t get published. Fear that if we use strong language we will offend a reader. Fear of telling the truth. Fear of asking hard questions that we can’t answer.

Better to play it safe, right? Take the easy route? Slap a bonnet on it?

Writing honest fiction is a messy job. Flannery O’Conner says in her classic, Mystery and Manners:

The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”

I wonder what would happen if every writer of faith battled her “doubts, questions, and perplexities” right there on the page? Would we not produce fiction that is brave and true and terrifying? Flannery O’Conner did this very thing on her deathbed, as she wrote PARKER’S BACK, the story of a man tattooed on every part of his body except his back. In reality it is her story of questioning God’s sovereignty as she died of lupus. We see her surrender in the character of Parker, a man who first stands barefoot before a burning tree profaning the name of God (hello symbolism!) to a man who has a picture of Jesus tattooed on his back. Painful,

dirty, human stuff right there. Terribly unsafe.

The world needs us to take our fear by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Take Sarah Jio for example. She had the courage to tell her story in the wild and unsafe way it deserved. And because she did not pull her punches she later got an email from a reader who ended an emotional affair with an old boyfriend after finishing THE VIOLETS OF MARCH. This woman didn’t want to live with the same regrets and heartbreak as one of the characters in the novel. Would she have felt so compelled had she not witnessed that “ugliness of human behavior” on the page in front of her? I doubt it very much

My question for you today: as writers of faith what are you afraid of? And will you have the courage to battle that fear in story form? We very much need you to.


Pedro Ramirez III said...

Interesting post. I understand what you're saying, and as a writer, I generally agree. Some of what I write deals with spiritual matters - the proverbial battle between good and evil.
As a writer, I do consider the weight of my creation. At times, I show what is rather brutal. Maybe to some it is too much. I wrestled with it, and did eventually decide the ugliness needed to stay.
But, I must admit that there are some lines I won't cross. For example, my characters don't use profanity. In my fiction, it serves no purpose.
I can understand where another writer's story may call for more explicit material because it just makes sense for the story.
Bottom line for me is whether it serves the story. But not all people are writers, so they won't think like writers. Just my thoughts, though...
Thanks for an interesting post.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

SO true. I'm with you - that woman's reaction makes me groan and shake my head. I can understand her not liking the book personally (if she's actually read it) but defaming an author's work to everyone she knows? Makes me wonder about the future of my books. :/

It's a real risk for me to write with that level of honesty. I'm a people pleaser. I want the approval of others. But the stories that burn inside me aren't particularly safe or pretty. To me, the HEART of the story is what's most important. And God is at the heart of it, just as he's at the heart of this beautiful, ugly, messed-up world.

I can only hope my stories will find a home, and that when they do, I'll have the courage to deal with the scathing and criticism of people who don't understand.

I love what you have to say about this.

Dina Sleiman said...

Sounds like that woman doesn't understand that many people read to be challenged and to grow--not just to be entertained.

I guess in my first novel I tackle a fear of not knowing what love is and never truly finding it, as well as the heroine's fear of poverty and of her own passionate nature. In my second novel I have three main characters and three strong minor characters, so that leaves a lot of fears to be conquered.

I think for me, I at least have to be on the road to healing and peace in an area before I'm ready to tackle it in fiction. I have areas that I'm still dealing with that I hope to bravely write about in the future.

Anonymous said...

This post is a challenging one. One that is making me think. Thank you Ariel.
I understand that beast of fear. I live with it daily and tread carefully to avoid facing it. I rarely reach for a fiction book that is too gritty simply because I really am not sure I can handle it...and sometimes, I really can't. But there have been times when God's used those books to challenge me as well. So I agree with you...and yet I see the flip side too.
We talk a lot on this site about the Bible and the power of the story it gives (though it is not fiction)...but the Bible has this incredible balance of being challenging and gritty without adding temptation...
I'm thinking about what you said about "The Violets of March" (which I might add I have never read so maybe I shouldn't even be commenting on it!). You mentioned there are some "steamy" parts in that book. Is it necessary to give those details in order to reach someone's heart? The Bible talks about sex, about lust, about such things...but without detail into the what, how, it necessary for an author to go there? Yes, I agree that God CAN use it for good...and most especially if that is the prayer of the author as they send it out into the world...the Lord blesses work done in His name I believe...BUT, God can use ANYTHING for His, just because He can use it, does that mean it is necessary for us to get ugly? Maybe my question is HOW ugly should it get? Like I said, the Bible talks about ugly...murder, rape, thievery, grief, anger...but how often does it spell out the details of that ugly (I can think of some gruesome war Jael in Judges 4)...and how does a Christian writer know when that's appropriate? I believe any writer writing such material must go before the LORD with fear and trembling and tread that wire with much prayer. Like Pedro said...does it serve the story...are the details of importance to the lesson being taught? If they are not...if they are merely a device to get more people to read your story so you make more mula...then of course that is not appropriate...BUT, if the content and detail is important to the purpose of the story, then of course, the writer must tread where the "Pharisees" would have him/her stop. For me right now, the Bible is enough gritty (non-fiction)story for me to chew on each day...but I see the value and purpose for those stories in Christian circles as well. At some point, we need to remember quite humbly, that it's all just another vessel through which the Holy Spirit can do His work. He is the teacher...we each must seek how we can be that vessel...and for some of you, it means writing some tough blessings to you! And get on those knees as you tread those waters! Much thanks Ariel...great post!

Judy said...

Thank you, Ariel, for this wonderfully written and thought-provoking post. Love your mention of your father, among many other things in this essay. Judy Christie

Heather said...

What you are saying is so true..thank you for saying it!

Marian said...

I'm afraid of being misinterpreted, of being judged unfairly. I'm afraid of all those people who think like the lady who wrote the e-mail.

But now that I've read this post, I'm determined to overcome this fear...and not by backing down.

MelissaHambrick said...

Fantastic post, Ariel! I think we all have our own set of boundaries, and it is important that we recognize them for what they are--places that, left to our own devices, we might wander out too far. Some people know that reading (or writing) profanity, or steamy scenes is just too much for them; others can handle it and know that reading a few bad words won't take them down the wrong path. Knowing your own limitations is one thing, but trying to impose those limitations and judgements on others is a whole other. I am so glad that I have the world of fiction (and non-fiction) out there in front of me like some giant buffet. I know what I can handle and what I can't--and there are definitely books that I will read a chapter or two of and just return to the shelf. But I've also learned to stretch a little and read things that might be uncomfortable, and in the process, learned so much from them...and the Bible is a great example of that.

Nicole said...

Melissa: so true. If only those who cannot deal with certain things would not think we all should not. A lot of us came out of the world. We lived those things. A lot of others should realize the tight constraints they put on reading leaves out a huge number of people who benefit from reading stories that help them realize they're not alone in their quest and searching for answers.

Ariel, well put.

I guess I'm not afraid of those who read with such restrictive and critical eyes because I doubt they'll pick up my novels, but I am afraid of that attitude that is unforgiving of those who see the world through the eyes of the lost and portray the sometimes sordid road to redemption truthfully.

"Steamy" is different to everyone. This is the point. What offends one doesn't even cause a ripple in another either because they've lived it or because they recognize the honesty. Secular steamy is a whole 'nother gig usually with a completely different objective.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Thanks for the encouraging comments, everyone! A couple additional thoughts: when I mention that there was mild language in Sarah's book, I mean MILD. As in almost non-existent. And the steamy scenes were non graphic at all. She closed the curtain quite tastefully. Very benign considering. So it amazed me that anyone could take issue with them. Truth be told, Francine Rivers REDEEMING LOVE was more graphic.

Pedro: you're right. Every story calls for different content. Swearing is appropriate in some books. In others, not so much. And every writer should know their own standards and stick to them.

Karen: the farther along I get in the writing journey, the more I realize that what we fear most is often the reaction of other Christians. I can't find anywhere in scripture where we are called to fear men. Continue to write honestly and your stories WILL find a home!

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Dina: a friend once told me that you, "Can't take others somewhere you haven't already been." It sounds as though you're making the journey in your heart before you write. Wise woman!

Ashten: thanks for your comment! As I mentioned above, Sarah's book was beautiful but not graphic. She handled all the elements with class. And yes, the Bible is full of eye-popping stuff. The word of God is not for the faint of heart.

Judy: we need to catch up soon! Thanks for your encouragement. It always make me smile to hear from you.

Heathee:thanks! I've been known to speak my mind. :-)

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Marian: I will stand with you in not backing down. A writers job is to tell the truth.

Melissa: so cool to see you here! We usually do our bantering on Facebook. And yes, we all have our boundaries. There are things I will not read or write.

Nicole: and unforgiving reader is the hardest to win over. But we can do so with grace and humility. Or at least I hope we can. In the meantime we must do what keep writing.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Yikes! That last comment to Nicole was meant to read "we must keep writing." Clearly I could only assemble my thoughts long enough to write a post. Comments are beyond my mental capacity today. :-)

Anonymous said...

Good morning. I've been following Novel Matters for awhile now…good thoughts here…not many male voices, but I get that (hi, Pedro).

I see you all as mermaids…bear with me, alright. You're not CBA and you're not ABA, you're something in the middle or some combination of the two. And as such, like mermaids, many will swear you don't even exist…and as you know, it may be incredibly difficult to find a publisher. But one thing about mermaids is they sing with intoxicating beauty, so much so that many a sailor was wooed to his demise.

My point? Write beautiful human fiction and you'll be feared by the landlubbers (the lady who wrote the email) and the seafarers (bonnet-haters) alike...and why? The beauty of the song. But it's got to be beautiful enough to woo...and therein lies the worthy challenge.

Anonymous said...

Ah hah! And there ya go...Redeeming Love is one of those reads that challenged me and will always remain one of my favorites...but all the ugly in that story was appropriate to the story even though it was dreadful and I hated every bit of it...that was the point! It was was helped me understand the degradation those poor children/women face who are caught in that world.
I think that's the point we're ALL getting at here...tell the story. If the ugly is pertinent to the story...then it must be told. Fearing what men think is very much an unwise way to live - because men are not God. If we are walking in trembling humility with our gifts before the God Who gave them to us...then we must trust that what He asks us to write/do is going out there with purpose. I also agree with Melissa...SO important to know the limits of your OWN heart and discern accordingly...but judgment is for the Lord. Having an opinion about a story you've read is one thing...calling out judgment in ignorance and fear against a brother or sister (namely the author or his/her readers) is another matter entirely...a much more serious matter than a swear word written in a book.

By the way...did you all know that the words "piss" and "pisseth" are in the KJV of the Bible? Interesting...

Henrietta Frankensee said...

To put relevance in my comment I'll tell you that I will live to write another day. I was supposed to have a biopsy today but the offender had shrunk so much in a week that they didn't think it was worth the trouble. Praise God and pass the quill!
God is great no matter what, even if we are struck down but this is the adventure He gave me today and I wanted to share it with someone. Thanks for Praising Him with me.
I have been reading about vibing no matter, and exile and beauty. I agree and concur and am grateful for this community.
How hard would it be to buy each others' unpublished (finished and ready for public exposure) works? Not for editing or critique. As a buying customer who wants to read gritty and honest and can't find a publishing house that will commit to supplying such material. We are here lamenting the lack of such to read at the same time lamenting the lack of readers. What would administration of such an exchange look like?
I am afraid of administration, to answer Ariel's question. I can dream up a novel but getting it polished and all the etc. scare me silly.

Dina Sleiman said...

Okay, I wasn't going to mention this, but in light of Henrietta's comment, I have to say that WhiteFire Publishing is trying to provide an avenue for this type of fiction. My novel is probably similar to the one Ariel mentioned, and WhiteFire has published it as a Christian book. I would recommend you all check them out and consider submitting there. I'm helping out in acquisitions right now too.

Anonymous said...

Mermaids...yes and yes!! I love that!

I grappled with fear over a short story I wrote just the other day. I'm doing this crazy contest/challenge on my blog (my readers gave me character, setting and conflict and I write the story). Well, one just wouldn't end happily. Not even a little. There was no redemption. No hope.

I was terrified that I would be put before a firing squad.

Instead, my friends and family have really embraced the story. It has touched their hearts. And, so, I learned something about writing.

I learned that I can be edgy, raw and vulnerable while at the same time being loved.

Kathleen Popa said...

Henrietta, I'm so very glad the doctors decided you do not need a biopsy. Hallelujah! But (and I hope this does not seem a lack of faith) I hope you will ask when they should take another look, to be sure.

Dina, thanks for mentioning WhiteFire. It sounds interesting.

Thebeautifuldue, I'm so glad you stopped lurking and joined in. And I LOVE it that you called us mermaids who sing with intoxicating beauty and woo sailors to their demise, when all the while I thought we were misfits.

PatriciaW said...

I LOVE this post. The fact is readers read for different reasons, reasons which are very personal and which we should not judge. Some read for pure entertainment and Christian readers of this ilk want a certain level of purity in their reading. Others read to gain insight and wisdom and to grow in their Christian walk. For them, story is as Christ used the parables, to teach them in a way they can connect with.

What I don't get is why folks think it's an either/or situation. Why can't we have both, as long as we learn to be respectful, and not condemining, of individual choices?

As a writer, I understand the fears. I battle with them. I hope to overcome them, that my writing might, if nothing else, represent my authentic self.

Bonnie Grove said...

Mermaids. And I've just finished writing a novel called A GIRL NAMED FISH.

Glub, glub.

Anonymous said...

The beautifuldue: I think I can speak for my NM comrades when I say we've felt for some time that we've been stuck in no-man's land. I know I have. But you've provided a completely different picture for that in-between place, and I love it!!!! Thank you for sharing. Please visit us often.

Anonymous said...

Next photo shoot...Mermaids! Who's with me???

Bonnie Grove said...

I've got my silvery-blue tail all picked out. Strings of pearls for my hair. Webbed gloves for my hands.
And sharp little teeth like the mermaids in the British live action film version of Peter Pan (the one version of that movie you really NEED to see).

Oooo, and I want a big wig like Cher wore for the cover of the movie Mermaids.

Hilarey said...

Fabulous post. Thanks.

Christa Allan said...

Years ago I assigned The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien to my incoming Advanced Placement juniors. The novel is a fictionalized account of his experiences in the Vietnam War.

A few parents complained about the language in the novel. I can promise you, if O'Brien's characters spouted things like "Golly,gee Billy, this sure is an awful war," or "My stars, Sam, your foot was just blown off," I would have thrown the novel across the room. How realistic would that have been for twenty-somethings, sloshing through the horrors of war, deaths, putrid decaying bodies...

If language or scenes are gratuitous, then that's another issue. I wouldn't support that in novels any more than I would in movies.

Life is messy business.We don't all live in communities separated from the world.

Lately, I've had my share of scathing emails about my recent novel. As I recently responded to someone: "I know my novel brings up a lot of questions that Christians struggle with. I'm a storyteller, so what interests me is how individual people live and think and relate."

It's that simple...and that complicated.

Embrace said...

This has been an incredibly fun post to read - along with everyone's thoughts.
I might add that fear and I are dancing duo I am trying desperately to separate. I can understand both sides of the coin.
Some folks fear the world so much that it blocks their view - I see it as a Pastor's wife in every church I have ever been a part of.
Others, like myself fear the church and its traditions and rules and status quo so much that it hinders our witness.
When God asked me to write almost two years ago I soon became afraid to type some of the themes and topics he had given me to write about. If God hadn't been so clear and so exact in how He asked to do the writing I would have turned my back already. Instead, I stand here proclaiming that God knows better than anyone of us how gritty, dirty, messy, steamy and provocative life really is. He has a front row seat. So, when I am afraid to write a sentence, statement or stance I remind myself that there is nothing new under the sun and nothing new to Him. And if I can steal a line from Tamera Alexander's book, Beyond This Moment, God never leans over the balcony of heaven and gasps!
Write from your heart and from His and know that you will never make people on both sides of the fence happy.
I have enjoyed this so much I would like to comment about it on my own blog this week. May I link back to yours?

Deb said...

Without meaning to disrespect anyone who writes "Christian fiction," the reason I seldom read such books is because there is more often than not an air about them of, well, unreality.

I've lived a very hard and eventful life, as have many people I know. I've found that "regular" or "secular" fiction helps me so much in fumbling my way through this world and, oddly enough, often leads me into a closer walk with my Lord.

I need protagonists who bleed and weep, who plunge into sin and must bear the consequences. Yes, even the ones who might rage at God, and ask all the hard questions most of us don't want to think let alone verbalize.

I need fiction that depicts stumble-bums attempting to live their lives with some kind of dignity and awareness, whether they be saints or sinners who have yet to make that one eternal connection.

Kathleen Popa said...

Deb, if you don't mind, I'm going to add your comment to the discussion on today's post, because it relates so well. You're an attic person. I love attic people.