Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Weary of It All

I feel a little lonely and more than a little tired this particular morning, as a Catholic Christian writer. This feeling comes and goes, depending on the cultural currents around us. But two recent incidents made it come to the fore in especially vivid relief. The first one came when I was reading my way through a novel called Any Bitter Thing by Monica Wood. The book has a promising setup: a woman recovering from a serious accident begins to discover stuff about her life that will change her forever. I love stories where stuff gets revealed, secrets are told, and people’s lives change as a result. So it sounded like it’d be a horking good read. What was even more promising was that one of the major protagonists in this book was a Catholic priest, a man who took custody of the heroine as a child, when she was in need of someone to step into her life and provide stability. He was written wonderfully…for awhile. Unfortunately, the author then took the cheap, easy, and all-too-predictable path. (I guess she couldn’t hold out forever.) She had a character talking with Fr. Mike ask, “Father, do I have to obey all the Church laws? Even the stupid ones?” Well, you know what the “stupid ones” are, don’t you? Yeah. Anything to do with sex. The contraception prohibition, among them. And, of course, a contemporary author wouldn’t be worth her salt if she didn’t hint that stuff like not letting women be priests and/or not letting priests marry (this space for violins), among other things, are just so terminally backward that they also fall under the “stupid” category of Church law. Now, this was disappointing enough. But when this character gets done having her say, what does Fr. Mike do? He could have used this as a wonderful teaching moment. Heck, he could have even just fallen back on “we’re not called to know all the answers, we’re just called to obey,” which is not only perfectly Catholic and perfectly Christian, but a perfectly okay response even in many secular situations. (Think military and/or medical settings, if nothing else.) He could have talked about faith. About God giving strength to people to do things on faith that, on the surface, may not make sense in human terms. So how did he answer her? He commiserated, chuckled, and finally confided, “Actually, you know what? Don’t tell anybody, but…I agree with you.” And I tossed the book across the room. Frankly, I've gotten to the point where I’d just about sell my soul—figuratively, at least—for someone, anyone, to write and publish some faithful Catholic characters for a change. Not the overly-pious end-times crazies that pop up in some of the apocalyptic literature—that’s just as bad as going the other way. But a few ordinary, everyday, next-door-neighbor types wouldn’t come amiss. Failing that, I’d be willing to take characters who were at least neutral. Who were willing to say something like, “Well, there’s a lot I don’t understand, but since I’m in this Church, I do the best I can to be faithful to her.” Or if they’re not in the Church, to say something like, “Well, I don’t believe that way, but a lot of people grew up with those beliefs and they turned out all right…so it probably isn’t all that bad.” That may be damning with faint praise, but even that is better than the endless nudge-nudge, snicker-snicker, isn’t-this-just-like-those-stupid-reactionary-Papists stuff. Especially when it comes from characters who are supposed to be on our side. Where are all the characters who aren’t chafing against “stupid rules,” who aren’t badmouthing the Church when things get a little challenging, who aren’t kicking against the goad? Where are the priests willing to stand up for Mother Church? In real life, they’re out there. They’re some of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet. They’re perfectly normal, too, amazingly enough—reasonably intelligent, informed on current events, participatory in their modern worlds, with healthy senses of humor and healthy senses of realism. It’s not like they’re all living in caves. So why don’t they ever show up in stories? One might be tempted to assume that one didn’t show up this time because this book is secular literature, but the problem goes deeper than just secular versus “spiritual.” Some so-called spiritual writers offend equally, and sometimes in more egregious ways yet. The plain fact of the matter is that in our culture, it’s considered not opinion, but fact, that “Catholic Church rules are stupid.” And, like any propaganda does, that skewed perspective has had the effect of convincing many people that the idea behind Catholicism is “Just be nice, the rest doesn’t count;” or that the Catholic Gospel is less concerned with conversion than with liberating people from oppression, saving trees, or turning a blind eye to lawbreaking in the name of “loving Jesus.” None of this is true. None of this is authentic Catholicism. It’s not even good Christianity, for that matter. But it persists, and the more even fictional characters reinforce these predictable, ignorant bigotries, the narrower the field gets for all of us.

I experienced this narrowing in the second incident that set me apart.

I found a new Christian publishing house starting up, got along famously with the editorial people I contacted there, and asked them if they were willing to do reprints. Turns out they are, so I submitted From the Ashes to them…which, as you might expect, is Christian fiction from a Catholic viewpoint.

Now, the last time I looked, Catholicism was still based in Jesus Christ. Which, by definition, makes it Christian. But I was told very nicely by the editor in charge that if I wanted to have that book reprinted by her house, I’d need to remove the “Romanism” from it, because she is aiming at a broader reader base that is more heavily Protestant.

On the surface, this sounds like an innocent enough request. After all, she knows her potential market, right?

But is it really all that innocent? Or is it rather a matter of a huge number of Protestants buying into a picture of Catholicism that they've been fed by secular media as “what Catholicism is about,” and dismissing us and/or being offended accordingly?

That’s wrong. It’s a mistake. And the worst part of all is, it’s a huge blind spot that may come back to bite us when there are bigger battles to fight.

Our culture is literally racing toward dismissing anything pure, moral, and decent in favor of the impure, the immoral, and the indecent. If we needed any more evidence of that, the following piece of tripe I encountered in PW (Publishers Weekly) spells it out in rather chilling terms.

It’s an excerpt from a review in the June 11, 2007, issue. The publication in question is a comic book/graphic book called Misery Loves Comedy, by a certain Ivan Brunetti. Apparently, boys and girls, comic books ain't what they used to be. Not if you can believe a review that says, in part:

“Brunetti constantly offers up the worst possible image of himself alongside his portraits of a despised society. His festival of self-loathing, sexual depravity and brutal cynicism, is, however, amazingly clever and incisive. Whether from the point of view of a miserable comics artist and workaday hack, a nihilistic Jesus Christ or a raging ‘feminazi,’ these rants are fascinatingly convincing, readable and smart.”

We have already reached a phase in our culture where “self-loathing, sexual depravity and brutal cynicism” are considered “clever and incisive.” And yet, here I am with a clean, wholesome book to sell, submitted to where ideally it should fit right in...yet it is somehow not quite “right” for a “Christian” fiction market. Its Catholic identity makes it somehow...flawed. Risky. Possibly even dangerous.

Words fail me.

Note to my Christian publishing sisters: As erotic depravity takes over romance fiction, and comic book writers get praise for the kinds of things cited above...Catholics ain’t the ones you ought to be worried about.

We have bigger fish to fry. But it’s going to get real lonely in that frying pan pretty soon if we don’t have the sense to start frying them together.

Thoughts?

Janny

10 comments:

Deb said...

I'll address the "remove the Romanism" bit of your post exclusively.

As you pointed out in your previous post, it's largely a matter of choice. You choose to follow Jesus Christ as a Catholic--okay, be that, 100%. You choose to serve Him as a Protestant--be that, the same 100%.

That said, the shortsightedness of the publisher mentioned above just crinkles me vitals. We can't publish this, because SOMEONE MIGHT be offended...but we CAN publish the worst sort of smut, ignoring those who WILL be offended. Those like me, who will leave such books on the bookstore shelves by the gajillions, and never buy one.

But don't ask me to go into a Christian bookstore and find anything but stories dealing with Prods. Heavens! I wouldn't want to see tales of people loving Him a different way than I do...

I submit that this is doing our Prod and our Catholic readers BOTH a disservice. It also makes us look like narrow minded bigots.

Besides, I hope this standard is very narrowly applied, otherwise my medieval time travel romance will never sell--the medievals are all Christians...but the wrong kind (see my blog at justttellthestory for further ranting on this topic).

Horrors!
T2

Donna Alice said...

I agree---it seems there is a huge Catholic bias in many areas of the world with publishing being one. I've been told several times that while an editor might like my book, they want the faith watered down to be more generic. They seem surprised to find out I'm not willing to compromise.

I too would love to read a book about truly Catholic characters. Actually, I do that when I read several of my projects. One I'm aiming at the Catholic division of--well, darned, now I can't remember--I have it bookmarked.

Guess if there were more Catholic publishers willing to go big and sell the same things the Christian market sells, we might get somewhere.

Oh--what a world that would be!

Drew Thomas said...

You said: "Frankly, I've gotten to the point where I’d just about sell my soul—figuratively, at least—for someone, anyone, to write and publish some faithful Catholic characters for a change."

Then I really encourage you to read the recent novels by Regina Doman (www.ReginaDoman.com). First chapters are posted on her book site at www.FairyTaleNovels.com. They are currently self-published but she is in negotiations with a Catholic publisher to take them over.

Happy reading.
Drew Thomas

Janny said...

Drew-

I appreciate the reference to Regina Doman's site--but frankly, I'm not impressed with the work I've seen there. So maybe I should have qualified what I was looking for a little more, and mentioned that I would pretty much sell my teeth for really high-quality, compelling, believable fiction with faithful Catholic characters.

There's fiction with faithful Catholics all over the place--mostly self-published, and for good reason: most of it's not worth the paper it's printed on, it's so embarrassingly badly done. So I guess what I'm looking for is more like the quality of Katherine Valentine or above...or a Catholic version of Angela Hunt.

Now THERE'd be a horking good read.

Take care, and thanks for reading!
Janny

Drew Thomas said...

Janny,

I tend to agree with what you say about most of the self-published Catholic fiction out there. But to be fair to Ms. Doman, her first two books were not self-published. They were originally published by Bethlehem Books, and they were planning on publishing her third book, when (according to her old updates page which she seems to have taken down and replaced with a blog) they were more-or-less compelled to discontinue their line of fiction by new authors and so gave the publishing rights back to Ms. Doman.

Since she had so many fans who had been waiting a long time for the third book, she decided to self-publish it (along with new editions of her first two) while she worked out negotiations with another publisher to take over her series. And, according to her press release for Waking Rose, it looks like that will happen sometime in 2008.

Frankly, I think she’s at least as good as Katherine Valentine, though she is writing for a younger audience (teens and young adults), so maybe your preference for Katherine Valentine is more a matter of taste. In fact, it was only after I made my post on your blog that I later realized you’re not really part of Ms. Doman’s target audience. When I first came across this post, I was under the impression you were in your early twenties. It was only after reading more about you that I realized you were actually much older (in some ways you seem to write like a much younger person! :-)). If I had known that beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have bothered posting my recommendation that you take a look at Regina Doman’s books in the first place.

I can understand if you’re not impressed with her writing, but I think each of her successive novels has been better than the previous. I agree with you that she’s not as good as Angela Hunt (yet), but I think she is definitely working hard to master the craft of writing and that she is improving as a writer. I will continue to follow her series since I've enjoyed each new book better than the previous. And I like fairy tales…and her retellings of them.

Janny said...

Drew,

Indeed, the Regina/Katherine debate can be a matter of taste--but please understand, I'm not really a fan of Katherine Valentine, either. I tried to read one of her earlier books (the series about the parish--can't remember the titles) and was bored to tears after the first page. The one I'm reading now is THE HAUNTED RECTORY, which is much better overall--although there are places where her pacing absolutely drives me nuts. So the jury is still out on her work as well, but at least it reads better than Doman's.

As for Regina, I went back to one of her sites and read over part of SHADOW OF THE BEAR(I think that's the title). And, while it has promise, it reads like the second or third draft of an aspiring author, not one who's published already. If this is an example of her latest and best work, I cannot fathom who in the world would have bought her first ones. The first chapter's first few pages were so full of unnecessary clutter and stilted dialogue that I couldn't even continue reading. And I have seen her name on some Catholic sites, so I'm sure I've tried to read her stuff before. It needs a LOT of work...not publication. That first chapter alone could have been half the length and done the same job of storytelling. Obviously, either no one looks at her stuff before it gets "published" or the people who are looking at it really don't know much about storytelling.

I don't mean to sound either harsh or arrogant--but the fact of the matter nowadays is, you have to grab readers fairly quickly and not let go of them, something many, many, many authors at small presses and/or self-publishing outfits haven't learned. There's a reason that a lot of these authors don't sell anywhere else--and it has nothing to do with the "big boys not wanting to give anyone a chance." It has much more to do with the quality--or lack of same--involved in the books. Time and time again, I wait for someone in this field (Catholic fiction) to prove that adage wrong...and time and time again, they fail.

I do appreciate the notion that I seem to write "younger" than I am. :-) What a hoot! But in fairness, my age has nothing to do with whether I find Regina's work appealing; no one should ever excuse weak writing on the basis that it's aimed at a young audience. Her writing is weak, and even younger audiences deserve better.

This isn't by way of putting down her efforts, or her work ethic, or anything else. But merely because someone is "working hard" doesn't mean I'm going to give them a free pass, or the "benefit of the doubt," either. I'm simply going to say, "Write more. Read more. Work at the craft more." And, if I were editing Regina, that's what I would say to her...not make a contract offer.

Other people, obviously, felt differently. In a way, that's a shame, because we all suffer when inferior work is out there branded "for a Catholic audience." Catholics like horking good storytelling as much as anyone--probably more, since many of us come from long lines of Irish storytellers to begin with. :-) I'm still waiting for the Catholic author who'll blow my socks off with some good old-fashioned Catholic characters who don't sound like little nuns in civilian clothes...or screaming feminazis with a wink and a smile and a token nod toward being "socially Catholic." There's got to be a happy medium. I'm ready to write it, and in fact, I have...I just need someone now to BUY it. :-)

Take care, and glad to have you as a reader! Come back and visit again!

Janny

Drew Thomas said...

Janny,

I agree, the opening chapters of The Shadow of the Bear need to be tightened up. In her defense, it was Regina Doman’s first novel published ten years ago (1997) by Bethlehem Books (although it was originally called Snow White and Rose Red: A Modern Fairy Tale). And I think it is at least as engaging (actually even more so) as the opening chapter of A Miracle for St. Cecilia’s by Katherine Valentine. Did no one at Viking Penguin look at her stuff before it got "published" or did the people there who were looking at it not really know much about storytelling?

And the opening scene of Doman’s second book, Black as Night, starts off with some pretty engaging action similar to the prologue of Angela Hunt’s Roanoke: The Lost Colony. Although Black as Night needs tightening up in places, overall I found it quite engaging. The climax was pretty cool and a nice twist on the fairy tale “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”.

Although Doman’s third novel, Waking Rose (based on “Sleeping Beauty”), has an opening chapter and a half or so that moves slower than I prefer, overall I like it the best of the three. The plot just picks up and keeps going. And there are just so many fun and interesting characters.

But, I think you make an excellent point. Nowadays, authors need to grab their readers quickly and not let go of them if they are going to stand a chance at gaining a wide readership. Hopefully, Regina Doman will learn to make the opening chapter of her books as engaging as the later chapters. I have hope that she will. Did you know that she is overseeing the creation of the John Paul 2 High series that Sophia Press is publishing? I think the opening chapter is more along the lines of what you are looking for in a Catholic novel.

BTW, you seemed to indicate in your last post that you had written a book. Have you? Is it published? Given your thoughts on writing story, I would be quite interested in reading it.

Drew

Janny said...

You know, Drew, I think we're gonna just have to agree to disagree. :-)

I read the first part of BLACK AS NIGHT and it was...well...pretty bad. Not that there's not action in it. There is. But oh, my word, the purple prose about choked me! I have to say, if I were judging this in a contest, it wouldn't make the finals, let alone get a publishing contract. Besides the purple prose, the author never grounds us in anyone's point of view, but insists on remaining outside of it all; there's nothing wrong with omniscient viewpoint, but a writer has to be very, very careful how it's used, or it can turn into...well...that chapter. The chapter has promise, but it once again could have been cut--mostly to relieve the endless (and unintentionally humorous) overwriting involved. So...sorry. That writing is below par, as far as I'm concerned.

Same with the beginning to JP2 HIGH, although that has way more promise than this older stuff does. Even that's a touch overwritten--although not as badly as NIGHT.

As far as A MIRACLE FOR ST. CECELIA's is concerned, like I said, I'm really not a Katherine Valentine fan--that's one of the books I read about three paragraphs of and put back on the shelf. Did nothing for me. But I must say, her HAUNTED RECTORY has it all over the St. Cecelia's stuff, so maybe she's finding a new stride and will be much better in later books.

On one hand, it'd be nice to have a publisher willing to take on weak work and let us "get up to speed"--but on the other, do you really want your name on something you might well be embarrassed about later? Probably not. :-)

As far as the Angela Hunt work you mentioned is concerned, I did notice it was 11 years old, almost 12. Taking that into account, I can understand how the writing seems way weaker in that book than her latest stuff is. Just goes to show you that authors grow after publication, too. But this effort is still lightyears beyond Doman's...so it still leaves me wondering about this Bethlehem Books taking her on so long ago. In their shoes, there's no way I would have.

Finally, yes...I DO have a book, in a manner of speaking. I say that because I sold an inspirational romance to a small publisher in 2001--but the rights have now reverted to me, so I'll be looking to resell it somewhere in here. Realistically, I can't expect that to happen until I get a few more other books sold to a bigger house who'll maybe be willing to take it on later. :-)
If there's anything publishers are more wary of than new novelists, it's fairly new novelists' reprints!

However, should you like to read it, I'd be happy to send you a copy. I've got some author copies left...so if you want to e-mail me a snailmail address, I'd be glad to send it to you. Let me know!

Thanks,
Janny

Drew Thomas said...

Yes! What's your email address? janet@janet-w-butler.com?

Janny said...

Drew-

Reach me at jbutler824@aol.com. The janet-w-butler link probably isn't going to work anymore, since my website is temporarily down until I reconstruct another, new, improved, better, flashier...well, you get the idea. :-)

I'll be glad to send you a copy of the book if you like--just let me know.

Janny