Monday, September 03, 2007

Wanted: a little unreality, please

For a long time, we in the Christian fic biz have been talking (and talking and talking!) about the idea of writing “real” people, “real” characters, and “real” stories. Stories that reflect the way real Christians—or even non-Christians—live in the real world. Stories in which people can be weak, sinful, or maybe don’t even all come to salvation at the end (I know, I know, just deal with it :-)). For too long, we’ve put up with stilted vocabulary, avoidance of “euphemisms” that are so strict they’d make a Pharisee blush, and “no-nos” all over the board—prohibitions on a glass of wine at dinner, on a divorced hero or heroine, on single parents, on dancing, playing cards, movies, or gambling. This is, of course, in addition to the standard prohibitions on excessive violence (and the definition of that is subjective), sexual tension for its own sake, and a list of other land mines that seem to largely depend on which publisher you’re asking and what time of day it is. (!) But is “reality” in our books actually what we need more of? I might have said an unqualified “yes” just a few months ago. Now, I’m not so sure. I think what we’re after is “authenticity”—but that isn't the same as “reality” with all its bumps, grinds, spills, crises, depravities, and seediness. Because, you see, I don’t read fiction to learn more about the real world—I have a real world I live in every day (!), and if I need to learn more about those nuts and bolts, I can read enough nonfiction to choke a horse. But I read fiction for escape. For that lovely, delicious period of time suspended in someone else’s world, not as an eager student, but just as an observer. A fellow-traveler, if you will. For those purposes, more and more lately, I’ve found myself wishing that more Christians took that aspect of “unreality” a little more to heart. You know the kind of “unreality” I’m looking for: Vivid words. Compelling people. Deep emotions. In other words, just a plain good story. Not one with a “message” you hope I’ll get…so you hit me over the head with it. Not one that’s a “ministry” or a “tool to reach the unsaved.” Not one that shares “a spiritual truth the author needs to learn.” If you start out writing fiction with those things in mind, you’re already cheating. Because, gentle writers, fiction isn’t the place to preach. It’s not the place to pontificate. It’s not the place to tell me your version of the world is the correct take, and if I’ll just ask Jesus into my heart…. ENOUGH, already. You want to preach, write tracts. Not fiction. On the other hand, if you’re really brave—really authentic—you’ll share a story with me. And that’s a whole ‘nuther ball game than writing “to reach me” in some way. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be a certain kind of story. I love sweet, and I love sinister. I love urban, and I love homespun. I love city, and I love country. I love suspense, and I love soothing. I want my stories uplifting overall, but if I'm reading a Christian author, I'm going to assume they believe in the fundamental triumph of good over evil, so nihilism really isn't the problem. But the sensation I get that some authors are hiding their authenticities behind the So I would challenge my fellow authors out there not to be “real” so much as to be authentic. That is what we're looking for as readers, isn’t it? If your story is authentic, it’ll take me where I want to be—which is in that lovely, delicious place that is someone else’s world, just for a few hours. Just for a few hours, it will give me the break from what’s sometimes a harsh reality here in the vale of tears. (Gotta love us Catholics and our Purgatorial mindsets. :-D) But best of all, if you obey the rules of authenticity in your storytelling…you’ll get all the rest of the “spiritual” stuff across as well. It’ll be there. Trust me, I’ll find the treasure you put there—or, even better, I’ll find some other treasure of my own. If we need any more proof that what we need to do is tell stories, just think about Jesus versus his cousin. John preached. Jesus told stories. Of course, there’s a place for both of these things…but the Man whose words we can read every day of our lives and get something new out of them every time isn’t the man who preached; it’s the One who told stories. Most of those stories Jesus told were “unreal”—fiction—in that they weren’t told about knowable people that anyone could point to and say, “Nyah, nyah, the preacher’s talking about you, buddy.” No, they were posed more along the lines of “a guy goes into a bar, and…” And yet they’re among the most authentic stories you’ll ever hear, and stories that stay with you all your life. Seems to me we could do a lot worse than aiming for that brand of “unreality.” Thoughts? Janny


Donna Alice said...

Other than Amen, what can I say? I read a lot of Christian fiction too and I read it more as an escape. I'm already "saved" thank you very much, and I don't really need a book to point out my shortcomings. I'm quite well aware of THOSE too. Nor do I want a book that has all those questions in the back, just in case I didn't quite get the not so hidden "gospel" message.

When I read, I want story, not censure. How you'll get people to do this I have no idea. So much of Christian fiction seems to be a self-serving machine to "reach the unsaved" or to show us very unrealistic heroines who come to the ending understanding this GREAT WONDERFUL TRUTH they've never thought of before.

Authentic is a good word for what a story should be. It should speak to places in your heart that you didn't know were empty.

Deb said...

Just Tell the Story, eh? Funny how great minds think alike.

I hope I'm doing that in my WIP. Strange thing is, I look for places to interject a great big faith crisis, and find that isn't needed. So I skip it, and then wonder whether I'm writing "Christian" fiction. So far my main character, Jessica, has not really found anyone to "reach with the Gospel." I'm okay with that. These 14th C people are Christians, after all. For more on my thoughts about that, see my blog post "Right Faith/Wrong Trimmings." We won't even go there.

There is one sticking point for me in Jessica's relationship with the 14th C folks--that's the concept of purgatory. I can't have her react too much differently than I do. They believe it--she doesn't. I know Catholics do. That's just gonna be an "agree to disagree" sort of thing for Jess, if indeed it ever comes up.

If it doesn't, I'm not gonna force it to, because I'm not writing this book so it can be a pulpit. I'm writing it to ask "what if" certain things happened...

And that's the bottom line of fiction, isn't it?


Nancy the Romancechick said...

I'm a Catholic writer who writes romance and fantasy (I'm flirting with some mom lit) and while I would love to have my work bring someone to Jesus, I write to entertain, but my first book, Fabric of Faith, brought one of my friends back to reading her Bible, which I consider a great victory, even if it wasn't my plan.

I agree, we need to reach people where they are and if we entertain them when they're looking for entertainment, maybe, just maybe they'll be responsive to the message.

Drew Thomas said...

Janny, what you say in this post about fiction is so right on.

Deb said...

Further mullings on this topic: as long as writers believe their writing is a ministry, and has to be "more" than telling a story, I believe we'll continue to see this preachy mindset. After all, if you have an agenda, and don't further that agenda in your day to day work, doesn't that make you a dilettante? Or worse, a hypocrite?

One of the best things I ever saw in a review of my published books, was when the reviewer said it was clearly Christian but not preachy. Mind you, that was one reviewer's opinion, but it affirmed what I was trying to do. It sure felt good.


Donna Alice said...

I agree with Deb on this. I think you can have a "ministry" mindset in that you want to glorify God with your writing even if you don't necessarily have a Bible verse on every page.

In my children's writing, I try to write a very realistic little girl. She talks to God a lot--mostly to beg Him to not let her grandma find out she's been naughty! (And didn't we all do that?) There are some moments when my characters go to church--in one book the little girl remembers what her mother told her about how Catholics don't pray TO statues but to whom they represent. But, I don't have anything that someone non-Catholic couldn't read and enjoy. My moments are more like "hm, so that's interesting."

If I started to think of my books as a ministry, like I had to teach kids something, the work would lose it's flavor. While I believe my books do teach, it's more a subtle, coming to understanding way and not being hit over the head with the lesson or moral.

In fact, I ran into this problem once before when someone objected to my character "borrowing" without permission a book. The whole premise of the story would be changed if she just found it, etc. She had to do the wrong thing, get in deeper and learn a lesson from the experience. An unrealistic goody goody kid who does no wrong wouldn't have been half as interesting.

I think, with Deb, that if you tell a good story the message comes out clear.