Belated Thanksgiving

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Hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Mine was good…apart from the debilitating worry that I’d dug myself into a hole I might never work my way out of.

Actually, it wasn’t that bad. I did feel thankful for so many who contacted me with encouragement and constructive response to the Screwtripe thing. Had I known just how many people he would convince to equate my personal POV with his, I’d have been a bit more forceful in getting him to distinguish his diabolical voice from mine. But you know, that’s just like the devil to resist his editor’s suggestions.

Many of the comments, in fact most, I do see a lot of truth in, which is why I feel a heavy mix of gratitude and humility in pointing out the explosive undercurrents beneath our discussion here: there are good ways and bad ways to encourage deeper truth and beauty in CBA books, fiction and non. And please don’t think I know every time which way is appropriate (From the beginning, I’ve questioned whether a blog is the best way for writers to engage with this–so easily mangled).

But as anyone, I want to be clearly understood. If you see anything in this blog, recognize that there is a spectrum of diverse opinions on this issue, and while I understand much of the passion that goes into it, many times I want to come out from behind the curtain and breathe fire. Damn it! They’re not getting it! I’m not talking about literary fiction, genre fiction, Christian erotica, or whatever posterboy you’d wish I was. Please, observe the new rule in the sidebar: When you click over to your writers group, check your ego at the firewall.

This is a blog with a moderate level of traffic by a 32-year-old American male who works in Christian publishing and was heavily influenced by the Evangelical God Club from a very young age. It’s taken me many years to learn how to temper my resistance to those who promote the Christian bubble either directly or in their books (so my grace to you who haven’t yet learned is freely extended). But to me, the first task in the war against low quality books is to break down the artificial barrier that protects us from the the scary unknown "out there." I hoped Screwtripe’s perspective would show us how having no objective definition for "quality books" actually keeps us in our defensive trench rather than progressing into new territory for the kingdom. I’ve wanted to resist this cliche of warfare imagery, but feel forced into it now, trying to slice through the BS to tie together our disparate voices into a cohesive whole. Stop fighting. Look at yourself. What are you doing to put your skills toward a proactive CBA and get us unstuck from the reactive early years.

In fairness, I’m going to start telling you what I’m doing personally. People have asked why I don’t do something about it and I’ve wanted to point to the things I’m committed to–writing reviews, short stories, articles for Christian mags, editing, acquiring fresh voices, etc.–but I’ve also wanted to maintain a clear dileneation between what I’m doing, my work as an editor, and my own writing, and the larger discussion going on around us in writing groups and publishing houses who carry our industry’s reputation. It’d be too easy for some readers to hear me spouting my achievements and dismiss the real message.

But I’ve been overjoyed over the past year at the progress I’ve seen in every level of Christian publishing, the once-rare diamonds becoming much more prolific on our shelves, fewer raw, clunky stones giving way to more polished gems. But over the year, I’ve also seen the same reduction of God, the dismissive treatment of his truth and beauty, that has characterized Christian books since before my time. You tell me: How much of my short time holding your attention should be spent patting backs?

Yes, there’s progress, dear writers. Hear me, I beg you: Your efforts are making a difference. I wish I could convey the high esteem I have for the professionalism of your work and the dedication with which you perform it. I would not for the world–or for all the filthy lucre I’m raking in with this goldmine of a blog (wink)–wish anything here to discourage you, undermine your progress, or derail you from your own journey as an artist. That is 180 degrees from my goal. Simply, my goal is to open our eyes and bring in other vantage points to show us what we do in the name of God by allowing less-than-excellent work to proliferate through our art. And I contend, and will continue to contend, that anyone who takes offense has either misunderstood this, or is acting in complicity with low quality without their knowledge. Once we get a clear picture of the figure CBA cuts to the world, I believe all the well-meaning defenses fall away. We have no business arguing ourselves out of responsibility for the decline of absolutes and the near-universal image of Evangelical Christians as sincere but insignificant artists. We cannot profess personal responsibility for creating works of art in response to and for the glory of God without taking into account the hundreds of years of art, literature, and learning that preclude any valuable contribution to art on the world stage. And while not everyone in CBA is writing to be on the world stage, the fact is, your books are traveling the world, influencing people to believe a particular view of God through the eyes of one of his accomplished people. I believe we all have to ask ourselves what figure we’re cutting.

You may not like me asking if Jesus would write what you’re writing, but frankly, if that question makes you uncomfortable, I’m glad. You may not want to consider whether Jesus would read escapist fiction or extremist nonfiction, but I can’t wait for you to come around. We can all keep making excuses for ourselves–our complicity, our choices of reading material, the way things are–or we can seek truth and beauty. One road leads to despair, the other leads to abundant life. The choice is ours.

I do not say that writing or reading "commercial" fiction is wrong. Each book is different and your motivation is between you and God. I have not said that literary fiction is better. Much literary fiction is worse because it lies about God just as often. This is not a battle between genre fiction and high art. It is a battle for the distinction between books for God and books for man. Books for God will be books for man by default, naturally, in their entertainment value, in their honesty, their humor, and their unquestionable superiority over any title we might apply ("commercial," "artsy," "edgy," whatever). I’m asking authors to look at your books as though no one else is reading them but God. I’m asking editors to acquire books as though they’re for no one else but God. And I’m asking all of us to put down our egos and get in the fight to reclaim and redeem this holy ground of producing books that attest to the fullness and the richness of our Creator of sacred words.

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21 thoughts on “Belated Thanksgiving”

  1. Great post. Thanks for the clarification. Some of the things you said remind me of a quote from a decidedly non-Christian book back in the 80s:
    “Argue for your limitations, and they’re yours.”
    Maybe that’s what we’re doing with our defensiveness.

  2. Mick,
    Thanks for your honesty and vulnerability on this blog site. I love what you’re saying and am referring others to this site. It is helping me re-shape my chapters. Don’t stop now!
    Cathee

  3. Lots to chew here. And I think I agree for the most part. I didn’t follow the earlier posts–sorry for that. Your conclusion makes me think of Paul saying we are not trying to please men but God. I’m learning that I absolutely HAVE to keep God at the center of my writing or else my ugly ego gets in the way. It’s not easy and takes extreme diligence. It is also a battleground. So, yes, inherently, if we write for God, then we are writing for the people He wishes to reach. In a nutshell, I think as writers, we have to trust the details with God—be obedient to HIM and let HIM take care of the rest.

  4. There have been times that God has used extreme conflict to get me to move because I was too comfy and didn’t understand the way He wanted it to be. After I learned that it is in God’s nature to use conflict for His purpose, things started looking a lot different around me.
    So now, writing for Him–writing what He wants me to write–is much easier. Not easier in the sense that I don’t have trials, but easier in that I know His right hand is on me and I know He is the ultimate choreographer.
    That’s where the freedom is.
    Because then I don’t have to care what you think about my story and I don’t have to worry about CBA rules. I don’t think about which agent or editor I need to schmooze.

  5. Thanks, Mick. We bear a great responsibility as writers for the King…in a world that is entertaining itself to death. Our main preoccupation should be with Him, our audience of One.

  6. I read on some blog somewhere (hey, if the author of Hebrews can do it, by golly, so can I), that the criticism needs to be applied to self. Unfortunately, I must confess that my criticism is more outwardly focused. Even worse, when I apply criticism to self, my pride drives it.
    And I wonder if in some ways we need to just lighten up. I’m not sure I even know what I mean by that except to write for God and enjoy what He does through us. A piano maker loves pianos, loves crafting them, loves the sounds his piano will produce. I think sometimes I need to relax and just enjoy what God does through me and in me, genre, literary, nonfiction, blogs, letters, whatever it is.

  7. Mick, my primary objection is that you insist on sloshing everyone in the county with paint from your absurdly broad brush. Your comments are so general that they fail to be of any specific use. It’s not defensiveness or pride or jealousy. It’s annoyance with lazy thinking and writing. And that is doubly annoying when coming from someone who is insisting on excellence and a high calling to quality.
    The problem is that I want your statements to have meaning, because I believe CBA is broken to the point of irrelevance. But I can’t get past the fact that your diatribes demonstrate the very “dismissive treatment” you decry.
    Digging through the archives could yield a wealth of examples, but I’ll just pluck a few from this post. You make a disclaimer that there are those you hold in high esteem, and then you say such things as:
    “We have no business arguing ourselves out of responsibility for the decline of absolutes and the near-universal image of Evangelical Christians as sincere but insignificant artists.”
    We? Can you define the “we”? Surely there are those published in CBA who have championed absolutes and have consistently produced quality art. How are they responsible for the decline of absolutes and a negative image of EC art? Is Walter Wangerin included in that “we”? Not to go into a list, but if I can trot out exception after exception to that statement, then the statement is useless.
    “We can all keep making excuses for ourselves–our complicity, our choices of reading material, the way things are–or we can seek truth and beauty.”
    All? Tell me that’s not such a broad brush that it renders anything following it useless for any practical purpose. To say “we can all keep doing X, or we can do Y” implies that we all are currently doing X and not doing Y. It implies that we all are making excuses, that we all are complicit, that we all are making poor choices of reading material, that we all are failing to seek truth and beauty. Which of course is utter nonsense. You can say that’s not what you meant, and perhaps it isn’t. If that’s the case, then why did you express yourself with such lack of precision and excellence?
    I agree that CBA is rife with pathetically written books. I think it’s worse than you say it is. I don’t think “the near-universal image of Evangelical Christians as sincere but insignificant artists” is strong enough for the actual. I think the image is of third-rate wannabes who wouldn’t recognize good writing if it slapped them with an OED. I know of many exceptions, but I think the prevailing image is abysmally low and with good reason.
    So, here’s my point. I’m challenging you to turn the searchlight on yourself and your own blog entries. Look in the mirror and apply all the one-size-fits-all castigations to your own rantings. If you really want to help CBA, and God knows somebody needs to, then you must be clear, concise and robust in your thinking and writing, qualities you have yet to demonstrate. You have shown us passion, which is important, and desire, also good. But all heat and no light will not get CBA out of the pit it is in. It will only generate the kind of backlash you experience in cycles, as the fits come on you and you spew out your vagaries.
    While you’re at it, you should excise all the statements that exude arrogance, which contribute to the backlash. Here are a few examples. The smartass comments following are meant to demonstrate how your statements can be taken, not necessarily how I take them. How you write creates much of the negative response you get. You can remove a large percentage of the resistance simply by writing better. Something you should be interested in doing, right?
    “Violators will be shown mercy, grace, and the meaning of quality writing.”
    Nice. Imply that people who disagree with you (or those with an ego) need you to show them the meaning of quality writing. Nothing like a pre-emptive putdown to get the blood flowing.
    “It’s taken me many years to learn how to temper my resistance to those who promote the Christian bubble either directly or in their books (so my grace to you who haven’t yet learned is freely extended).”
    Also nice. Sounds like, “I will condescend to be gracious to those of you who haven’t attained my high level of learning and sophistication.” It’s almost like you’re trying to provoke reaction. Since I don’t believe this is the case, then I’m left with the conclusion that you’re either dense (sloppy thinking) or very poor at communicating what you really mean (sloppy writing). Both are counter-productive for one practically frothing at the mouth about how CBA needs to get its quality groove on
    “Simply, my goal is to open our eyes and bring in other vantage points to show us what we do in the name of God by allowing less-than-excellent work to proliferate through our art.”
    You’re here to open our eyes. Thank you, oh wise one. First, do you not see the arrogance implicit in this statement? The same idea can be expressed without the arrogance. Second, your point is obvious. Of course bad art done in the name of God is not good. Saying you’re trying to open our eyes to an obvious statement implies we’re too stupid to realize obvious things. That’s arrogant and insulting.
    Passing off the backlash to your statements as ego-driven is self-serving and disingenuous, particularly when you have done so much to create it through your own sloppy writing.
    This is not a trash-Mick post. It’s a plea to get your own act together so you can actually accomplish your goals. You are very well placed to achieve good things in CBA. I challenge you to step up to the plate in shape and ready to hit the home run instead of slouching into the batter’s box and blindly swinging in all directions.

  8. Probably need to tighten up the painting yourself, Chris, and color within the lines of common decency, not to mention leaving out your rather large portrait of personal arrogance. Although I recognize this is written to refute Mick’s broad statements, it would seem you might not want to make the same “mistakes” in your own writing. For example: “. . . because I believe CBA is broken to the point of irrelevance.” and “I think the CBA is rife with pathetically written books. I think it’s worse than you say it is. . . . third rate wannabes who wouldn’t recognize good writing . . . prevailing image is abysmally low and with good reason.”
    Wow.
    Who made you judge and jury of superior tomes? In fact, who made ANYONE capable to make sweeping generalizations about a group of writers like you just did? And anyone who can single out the CBA as producing faulty, “pathetic” art in literature without including the secular author’s version of pure manure in the ABA needs to see through new lenses. Lenses that reveal God used an ass to speak to a phony prophet. Which one are you?

  9. Nicole, I’d hug you if I was close enough.
    I think Mick has a sense of humor and I think a lot of what he says is tongue-in-cheek.
    But maybe I’m just an ignorant fool who likes to laugh? LOL

  10. Chris, you make some excellent points. You’re right that I struggle with pride, an annoying aversion for specificity in my posts, bunkers of vagaries. There’s also the fact that I probably don’t take myself seriously enough and prefer elusive sarcasm to biting accuracy.
    But while I hear your concern, I’d challenge you to balance your encouragement with more winsomeness. It may not seem so to you, but my hopes for CBA do often impinge upon my better judgment and I forget myself. I don’t always succeed at what I’m trying to do by making too strong a challenge and focusing out there rather than on myself. Some generalizations are necessary to preserve balance. The corporate “we” is vague, but it is what I mean: we are all responsible for what we contribute. I’m still learning what that means for me, so I appreciate the feedback.
    And you’re right again: quality writing does require specificity. But this is a public blog, not a novel. And quality writing also requires precision, mental acuity and toughness, but it also calls for humor, grace, and beauty.
    So I’ll accept that look in the mirror if you will. My words are the point for me, yours are for you. That’s not to say quality is relative, but each of us must look at ourselves and learn from what we see, take in the various viewpoints and adjust. We’re talking about a big industry with many shades and colors and none of us has the final word. Don’t reduce the power of what you’re saying by issuing too strong a challenge. Progress must come gradually. And your words must carry the grace, mercy, and love you hope to convey in your own art.

  11. Mick, it’s amusing when someone so ready with the hardball cautions another about burning a few fast ones across the plate. I’ve never been one to mince words, but then New Yorkers aren’t exactly known for tact. Yes, I’m blunt, but that unconscionably long comment would have been twice as long if I had to lob it like a softball.
    You said “It may not seem so to you, but my hopes for CBA do often impinge upon my better judgment . . .” To the contrary, it does seem that way to me and that’s exactly what I said. As I said, your passion overrules robust thinking and clear writing. That’s the problem.
    You followed that by saying: ‘The corporate “we” is vague, but it is what I mean: we are all responsible for what we contribute.’
    You might have meant that each is responsible for their contributions, but it isn’t what you said. What you said was that each is responsible for “the decline of absolutes and the near-universal image of Evangelical Christians as sincere but insignificant artists.” That’s a very different thing. Now, if you had taken the time to say what it sounds like you meant, that each of us should reflect on whether our contributions are abetting “the decline of absolutes . . .” or are building a body of work we can be proud of, then I wouldn’t be breaking china in your shop.
    You follow with: “And you’re right again: quality writing does require specificity. But this is a public blog, not a novel.” Which means what, exactly? That writing in novels requires specificity but writing in blogs doesn’t? That makes no sense whatsoever. If you mean that the public forum prevents you from being specific, then you should quit now and stop annoying the pig. If you’re on a crusade to change something, you have no choice but to be specific, not only about what needs change, but also how it will be changed. You have to do more than launch mushy statements that aren’t even true because of their outrageous generalization.
    That’s it. It’s just hit me what is happening. You are writing with such lack of focus that you end up with generalizations that either can’t possibly be true, or can’t help but be true because they are tautologies.
    Focus, man, focus. Pull yourself together. Do this blog as unto the Lord with quality thinking and writing instead of the haphazard thrashing you’ve been displaying. It might not change anything, but at least then it can be something you can be proud of. As it is, your own writing gives the entrenched establishment the reason they need to dismiss your message.
    As far as your statement that, “I’ll accept that look in the mirror if you will.” I’ve looked in it. I’m fine with provoking a reaction with blunt speaking. Perhaps you mean that you might dismiss my message because of my delivery. I can live with that. It won’t make things any worse than they are now.
    As for, “And your words must carry the grace, mercy, and love you hope to convey in your own art.” You assume I’m a writer and not some frustrated copy editor or marketing drone or sales person or store owner or just a lowly reader with no pretension to creating art. There are many caught in the cogs of this machine and not all are artists.

  12. Chris, again, you make some solid points. But if you’re looking for something specific to swing at, I’m difficult. I’m looking for nonspecific, general dialogue, not a logic competition. I don’t have time to argue the bigger point of the blog again, so I’ll refer you back to my original post. Most readers here stand in the gap between complete mush-love and your razor-edged logic (it’s not always a gender divide, but I find it’s generally the case), so that’s the balance I’m trying to strike. When I throw out a hardball, I’m trying to wrap it in a softball skin so as not to put out any eyes.
    If that doesn’t work for you, you’re welcome to keep pointing out my limitations. I’d just ask you to keep from making egotistical generalizing statements while you do it. You have a fabulous mind and I’d sincerely love to hear more of it.

  13. Okay guys, I’m jumping in here to say I was encouraged by this statement of Mick’s.
    “I’m asking authors to look at your books as though no one else is reading them but God. I’m asking editors to acquire books as though they’re for no one else but God. And I’m asking all of us to put down our egos and get in the fight to reclaim and redeem this holy ground of producing books that attest to the fullness and the richness of our Creator of sacred words.”
    I admit that I can get caught up in the writing and forget who I’m writing for! Thanks for the reminder, Mick!

  14. “What are you doing to put your skills toward a proactive CBA and get us unstuck from the reactive early years.”
    Thanks, Mick for reiterating your efforts. Mine have been less influential to the publishing world but very profound in my own walk–I’ve stopped writing from where I want to be to where I am right now. There’s no use in fictionalizing my fiction if even I wouldn’t believe it.
    “I’m asking authors to look at your books as though no one else is reading them but God. I’m asking editors to acquire books as though they’re for no one else but God.”
    Is it just me, or does that resemble a prayer? Where one person bares all, to blazes with everyone else’s opinion–here am I, Lord. Forgive me, grant your peace, show me how to accept your grace, show your glory through my imperfection.
    While I can relate and respond to most of your post, I can’t imagine how difficult your job must be. But I am encouraged by your dedication to the conversation.

  15. I’ve got an outside thought… I bet, Mick, that you have a lot of other really interesting things to talk about too. (I met you at Calvin, at the Rushdie talk…and you seem full of life and good humor.)…
    Maybe it would be good to mix it up here… talk CBA thoughts but tell us about your great kids too… and how funny they are when they goop oatmeal on their faces… just a humble thought about developing community. (Those are your kids up top, aren’t they? Otherwise, oops!… tell us about other people’s kids? :)

  16. “If that doesn’t work for you, you’re welcome to keep pointing out my restrictions.”
    Contrary to the impressions of some, I didn’t comment in order to point out your “restrictions.” I finally weighed in hoping that perhaps this blog could be a substantive force for change in the industry. I have concluded I was mistaken. I don’t think a blog that exemplifies the very lack of excellence it complains about can accomplish true change in CBA.
    “I’d just ask you to keep from making egotistical generalizing statements while you do it.”
    The generalization is your province. Mine is the blunt, biting, graceless harangue. Hence all my statements (other than my comments on how I think the world views CBA) have been very specific. I don’t see how they are egotistical, but that’s not important.
    Sorry to have ruffled the feathers and raised the blood pressure of anyone incensed by my comments. My intentions were good although my methods were harsh. I’ll disappear, now.

  17. Chris, blood pressure can be restored, and you don’t need to “disappear”. A “New York attitude” implies quite a few things such as rudeness, cynicism, and sarcasm. However, Suzan (also a New Yorker) always manages to get her point across without condemning generalizations. Yes, you were generalizing, sweeping and condemning generalizations about the CBA, and I fail to see how you offered anything remotely helpful. And by setting yourself up as the lone critic with the only possible valuable, intelligent assessments of the state of writing in the CBA, you came off as immensely arrogant and egotistical, as well as harsh and graceless.
    If you had offered even one well prepared, thoughtful, or helpful suggestion as an opinion instead of as an “authority”, I’m sure you would’ve had multiple readers listen and agree with you.
    Condemnation does little for improvement. That’s how the devil operates effectively against us.

  18. I am a New Yorker, usually blunt, occasionally sarcastic and almost always cynical. I try not to be rude. What’s the point of being rude?
    The way I see it:
    Study, learn, get informed, on both sides of the issue. Then take a stand and state your case, without emotion. This way everyone stays within the confines of civilized dialogue and good discussion, rather than descend into angry rants and emotional sound bites that aren’t thought out, and have nothing to back them up.
    (I’ve ranted in the past. I’m trying to quit and become a reformed ranter, and thus want to convert everyone.)
    One can take a side and disagree without hating the other side and disliking the person they disagree with.
    I’ve enjoyed the discussions on this blog, from both “sides” of the opinion fence. When we think that we can’t learn anything from people we disagree with, then we’re in trouble.
    Sorry to generalize, but the theme of these discussions often centers around a universal problem: acceptance of mediocrity. Have you noticed that it’s everywhere? Shoddy workmanship. Quantity, not quality. Nothing lasts. Nobody cares that things don’t last.
    It’s not unique to CBA or to publishing. My husband has to deal with it all the time. He’s known for quality work, but people don’t care about that anymore. They want cheap and fast.
    I may not always agree with Mick, but I appreciate his efforts to challenge us.
    If you are not someone who accepts mediocrity in your reading or your writing, then don’t take Mick’s posts or the comments personally.

  19. [And I contend, and will continue to contend, that anyone who takes offense has either misunderstood this, or is acting in complicity with low quality without their knowledge.]
    Adding to the problem unaware. God help us. (Or should I say ‘me’ so my inference is not misconstrued?)

  20. Wow, a lot of passion flowing here. That’s encouraging. I didn’t have time to read every comment but got the idea. Just wanted to say your post was a great reminder to be writing for an audience of one first and foremost. It’s always good for us to examine ourselves, our work and motivations. Thanks.

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