Friday, October 4, 2013

Redeeming Lost Things with Voices

I am mourning today the loss of a great novelist, Tom Clancy, whose novels – and the movies derived from them – are among my favorites. In fact, he is in part responsible for my own novels, because my husband’s urging to “write what you know” included the examples of John Grisham and Tom Clancy. 

(And of course one thing I knew quite a bit about was Mormonism, and my husband’s encouragement and insight encouraged me to write my first novel, Latter-day Cipher, a murder mystery whose plot and clues were derived from little-known peculiarities of that culture.)

I began writing with a formula that works:  An author knows things that the audience doesn’t know, and writes about them.

However, the relative success of the formula depends just as heavily on another factor:  The author’s ability to keep the audience interested while he or she tells about those things.

Those two elements--transmitting new knowledge or insight, and doing it memorably—do not guarantee the effectiveness (however that might be defined) of a book.

I’ll get personal here. One of the most perennial criticisms of “Christian fiction” is that books in that genre often lack those two elements. One reason might be is that CF is considered “safe” for an audience that might want stimulation and/or insight, but they often don’t demand that it be done memorably.

It’s called preaching to the choir. Telling them things that won’t make a difference. And often in a way they’ll forget right away.

What we see as a safe place, as former lesbian atheist and now Christian Rosaria Butterfield, author of Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert observes, looks very scary to thinkers.

I miss being in the company of risky and complex thinkers, people who are invested in our culture and who challenge me to think to the edges of my comfort zones. I believed then and I believe now that where everybody thinks the same nobody thinks very much.

I wrote my friend Rosaria and told her I was quoting her in this blog. I explained NovelMatters to her this way:

I blog there with five other rather unconventional Christian novelists. In fact, we're so unconventional that most of us are about to write ourselves out of the "Christian fiction" genre.

And yet we are wondering – and we ask you, our readers-- if it is a lost genre that needs redemption like all other lost things with voices; and if so, what is our part in that?


Susie Finkbeiner said...

About a year ago I attended the STORY conference in Chicago. It's a conference for "The Creative Class"...which made me laugh a little. But it was a great conference.

In the weeks leading up to that conference, I was contemplating whether I should remain in the Christian market or go toward the mainstream side. It's a big decision. And a scary one.

At the conference, a young man named Isaac Rentz presented a talk. He makes music videos for rock bands. He also grew up as a missionary and has carried his faith into adulthood. He said this, "Art isn't Christian or non-Christian. It's art. Do your best at it and do it for the best reason you can find." (a bit of a paraphrase gathered from my notes).

I don't know if Christian fiction is a lost voice. I do know that it's being used as a means to escape by a whole lot of people. That's fine. But I also think that those of us who what more than an escape are hungry for more books like "Goodness & Mercy", "Talking to the Dead", "Latter-Day Cipher", "Unraveled", "Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon", and "To Dance in the Desert". Novels that don't let us flip through the pages without wondering about life and beauty and God.

Not one escape novel I've read has made me long for God's redemption and glory. They haven't swelled in me a desire to seek. Most of them just stir in me dissatisfaction with my life.

I love this community. I love that we're even discussing the redemption of the Christian Novel. I think it's worth doing. And that it will be hard won.

Sorry for the super long manifesto. You've hit on a passion of mine. This post will linger with me for a good while. Thank you, Latayne.

Sharon K. Souza said...

You make so many good points, Latayne. Like Susie, this post strikes deep in my heart. Because I believe deeply in the idea of what we'll call Christian Fiction, for lack of a better term. But I rarely find the type of fiction I love to read in the CBA market anymore. I liken it to baby food --strained baby food at that. I believe publishers of CF have made a conscious decision to play it safe. But life isn't safe, and we need novels in CF that reflect that, and yet show the way to navigate the hard places we can find ourselves in. If not in CBA, then where? It makes me sad.

Cherry Odelberg said...

I am beginning to feel more and more at home here. Thank you.
Susie, so much food for thought. Sharon, if not CBA, then where? That is the question, the nagging, groping in the dark question.

Linda M Au said...

I've been fiddling with my own fiction for more than a decade now. When I sit down to start writing a new story, I don't ask myself whether it'll be "Christian fiction" or "mainstream fiction" or anything else. I ask myself what the best way to tell this story is. What point am I trying to make, and why am I trying to make it?

I understand why we need categories (they're more for the readers than the writers), but my issues as a writer come when I have to try to pigeonhole a story into this or that box (and increasingly narrower boxes as you hit sub-categories and sub-sub-categories).

I think if a writer sits down explicitly to write "Christian fiction," there's trouble a-brewing. Instead, sit down to write a great story. I'm tired of Christians tagging along behind non-Christians trying to "redeem" every artistic thing they do. Why aren't we at the forefront of all these genres, with no one pushing us off into a small corner labeled "Christian"?

And, just how many conversions do I have to have in my novel before I have to call it "Christian fiction"? I don't think I've written a conversion into one of my novels yet. So, does that mean none of my work is Christian?

When I write a story, my bottom-line goal is to not call good evil, or evil good. To not denounce Christ. To champion Christian concepts. But I don't think I'll ever purposely write "Christian fiction."

As a reader, I might ask what makes a novel "Christian fiction." Darned if I know. I just know that, as a reader, I still avoid it like the plague (just like I avoid clichés).

Marcia said...

Latayne, I just read Rosario Butterfield's book a couple of weeks ago on my Kindle. It held my keen attention--perhaps because my neighbors (also my friends)-- are lesbians, and I'm always wondering how to relate to them on a spiritual level. Rosario gave me a refreshingly different perspective. I recommend that book to anyone who wants to relate to people who are different than themselves, to see into the heart of people "on the other side" of life--no matter which side you're on.

I think Rosario has a large portion of what CBA is lacking--insight and a willingness to submit to questions that challenge our lifelong belief systems. We need to be challenged, we need the willingness to struggle and to sometimes fail. We don't have all the answers, nor should we pretend we do.

On the other hand, shouldn't we marshal the courage to raise bold, "what if" questions in our writing? What if God became a man? What if He loves us so passionately that one day He's going to marry us? What if He can actually talk to us?

And what if, in our writing, we allow God to be the central character, instead of portraying Him as a shadowy, backstage Presence?

Susie, I can identify with you about "coming up empty" with escape fiction. For me, entertainment for entertainment's sake fails to entertain. And that's not only in the CBA!

Cherry Odelberg said...

"Art isn't Christian or non-Christian. It's art. Do your best at it and do it for the best reason you can find."
I whole-heartedly believe this.
Back in the nineties, I was acquainted with a group of musicians whose aim was music for music or arts sake. There was a good deal of talk about those who "sold out," or "went commercial."
Today I think I have a couple of novels ready that would fly in the Christian Romance market. There might even be some open doors - immediately. But, who is reading those publishers? The choir? Is that my audience? If my goal is level ten, but I am not a level 10 yet and someone will take me at level six, will I be locked in, branded at level six forever? Perhaps I have been thinking too much again.
And so, here is my conclusion: When your goal is excellence, you may have to refuse some successes along the journey; you may have to say no to some opportunities - all the while knowing the door to what you really want may not ever open.

Sharon K. Souza said...

I'm loving this conversation!

Linda, "As a reader, I might ask what makes a novel "Christian fiction." Darned if I know. I just know that, as a reader, I still avoid it like the plague (just like I avoid clichés." Well said.

Latayne C Scott said...

I am so glad that all of you feel the stirrings to aim for excellence. I'm so torn with so many feelings about an industry that has taken risks for me: Zondervan took a risk on an unknown author with a controversial story 36 years ago and I have never forgotten that.

I do have to tell you that Rosaria's book is the kind of writing that makes me ache, makes me envy, makes me swell with pride that a writer of such quality has turned her craft toward her Lord.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Last weekend at the Inscribe Writers Conference Murray Pura addressed this issue. He described his long battle to write and publish outside the 'Christian' box. (I have not read his novels so I don't know how far outside the box he is.) According to him, CBA publishers have taught readers what they want and supplied it for nearly 50 years. He was encouraged at the ACFW conference in September to hear 3 long established CBA publishers state they were looking for more meat in their product.
We at Novelmatters are pleased to announce a rich cache of tasty, wholesome, tooth challenging fiction and non fiction ready to satisfy that 'new' demand.

Latayne C Scott said...

Henrietta, your comment resonated on many levels, but most of all by your phrase, "we at Novelmatters." If there is anything for which we are most grateful, it is that our readers know they are part of the "we" here. It is our highest desire to be a blessing to others.