Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Christian Fiction

The November/December issue of by Faith magazine contains an article by Stephen McGarvey entitled, "New Direction for Christian Publishing?". In it, he offers an answer as to why so many of us find contemporary Christian fiction, the kind that lines the shelves of the nearest Christian bookstore, formulaic and unforgivably boring. We find it so, he says (if I may take the liberty of paring down his answer), because it is so. In support of this, McGarvey quotes Richard Terrell's essay, "Christian Fiction: Piety is not enough", in which the author calls Christian fiction parochial and pietistic, and Allen Arnold, who laments that Christian fiction is written to a narrow group of people and employs a pre-approved technique to create a "safe" story, ironically bringing about a dangerous loss of integrity in both the art form and the communicated message. Here's Allen Arnold on Christian fiction:

"Christian fiction has become a genre with a long list of things that each story should include and a longer list of what each story cannot include. It's often comfort food for the saved. It's billed as safe, as if 'safe' is a Christian virtue. But it's rarely culturally relevant or well written."

This reminds me of the gem I found the other day in Annie Dillard's "Living by Fiction":

"Sentimental art...attempts to force preexistent emotions upon us. Instead of creating characters and events which will elicit special feelings unique to the text, sentimental art merely gestures toward stock characters and events whose accompanying emotions come on tap. Bad poetry is almost always bad because it attempts to claim for itself the real power of whatever it describes in ten lines: a sky full of stars, first love, or Niagara falls. An honest work generates its own power; a dishonest one tries to rob from the cataracts of the given."

I was so glad Dillard said what she did in the way she did, because I spent a very unhappy hour the other week, trying to convince my husband that a popular Christian Christmas song was sentimental and lacked integrity, musically and lyrically, and that I was not merely engaging in my beloved and frequent habit of cynicism. (The fact that I could not put this intuition clearly and succinctly until I found Annie Dillard saying it does not bode well for me, as a writer.)

McGarvey goes on to quote author Bret Lott on the state of today's publishing industry:

"Lets be realistic. The world of books is run, by and large, by the notions of money... Christian undoubtedly even less interested in the art [of writing] than [secular publishing], and... is most interested in... how deep the pockets are of the choir to which it preaches."

The article ends on a hopeful note, citing several Christian publishers who are seeking writers and works with more integrity. I wonder if there is even a place for "christian" publishers of fiction. If Christians own and run a publishing company, they should publish books that have integrity; if a Christian's work of fiction is written with integrity, it should be able to withstand secular scrutiny and be meaningful to readers, whether or not those readers are Christian.

I cringe that I must here mention authors such as C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Conner... because every discussion of Christian fiction clings to these few bright stars in an otherwise cloudy sky. However, Dr. Randall Smith of Bellhaven College says of them something that is worth repeating:

"They wrote seeking answers and their novels are artifacts of their search for meaning, not testimonies to the false belief that they knew everything before they began... When the writing of the book is not an exploration of the mysteries of the world God has made, it is merely the dressing up of a few scriptural truths. We know truth, but we do not know all the truth that God wrapped up into creation- we have to write with this in mind."

Katherine Paterson said, at a writer's conference, that whatever she doesn't understand, whatever bothers her, whatever she can't accept or wrap her mind around, that is what she writes about.

"I write to understand", she said.


Unsaid said...

Felt. I write to understand as well.

Thank you.

Rachael said...

unsaid: You're welcome. Thanks for reading. I see you've evaded the problems of the publishing industry by self-publishing. I wish you and your poems well!

Michael Ciani said...

I must say, everything you write about the Christian publishing industry is just as true about Christian music, if not more so, driven as it is by the visual celebrity culture it propogates. Being removed from it by 2,000 miles has given me a whole new perspective on that often unreal reality. And certainly it is unquestionably driven by money. A friend called from Nashville the other day with yet another tale of a new Christian artist who left the mainstream world of opening for Backstreet Boys to pursue his "ministry," only to be so disillusioned after a year because he "was treated better in secular music than he is in Christian music by so-called Christians." Can't say that I miss it at all.

Rachael said...

Well, When Jim Elliott started his ministry among bush tribes in Ecuador, the natives murdered him. Perhaps this unsuspecting new Christian artist was confused as to who exactly were the savages.

oh_my said...

I have a real problem now. I think I know everything.