Clarifying the issue: quality in CBA

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Dangerous business, this question of art in Christian books, isn’t it?
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I’m a bit random tonight after reading many of these comments, so stick with me here. Sheri’s reading Pat the Bunny to Charlotte while I write this. I’m struck by the obvious value of the book to our 7-month-old. To her, this is a “quality” book. And from her perspective, in this context, I can see that it is–a “children’s classic,” in fact. It’s even stretching her, which makes it easier for me to value personally. She isn’t switching her brain off to engage with it. And although she’d probably think it was even higher quality if it was good to chew, I’m not going to give in and let her.

So what if people want to check out, use drugs, drop out, drink battery acid? Shouldn’t we let them? Should we make up vats of it in our basements and sell it? I mean, it’s obvious that’s what people want.

I’m not implying Left Behind is battery acid. I merely want us to consider this.

How do we define quality? Maybe a better question is, do we define quality? We may judge according to different standards, different ideas of what constitutes a book’s value. But there must be an absolute standard in each of those areas. So what is our standard? Other books? Other markets? Our enjoyment?

This is hard. Art is hard to define.

Does every book have to be art? Probably not. But God does want us performing to the best of our abilities, and for some reason, people really get riled up when I suggest Jerry isn’t, even though he admits it. The problem is, among other things, we have different criteria for evaluating Christian books. I want to look at the “book” part, others look at the “Christian” part. I want the Christian part to be inherent in the book part. Is that being prejudiced? Shouldn’t we all just relax and let people read the books they want to? Why are we being so mean?

I’ve been asked what I have against “dumb” people.

So it hit me today as I drove home, we need to keep on, pushing on with this struggle to make room for the innovative stuff. Yes, high-selling books like Left Behind help to do that. And certainly, books like that have allowed for some great books in CBA to take on the work of real change to the landscape, challenging readers to look at the higher shelves. The Left Behind series isn’t the great evil we might think. In fact, if you tune out your judgment, there’s plenty to enjoy there.

But there’s my challenge. The tuning out part is difficult because I wish we could all be discerning readers. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use books to escape. We all need escape; thank God for the escape of grace. And there’s a correlation to Jerry’s “cookies-on-the-bottom-shelf” ideology and God’s coming down to our level. I do see that. Yet still, grace remains difficult. God made it available; he didn’t make it easy.

I think there’s value in asking these questions. It’s not just to be negative or judge people and their books. It isn’t to be elitist or even suggest there’s a problem of mediocrity in CBA we need to fix. I want all kinds of books for all kinds of people. I just want to give equal time to books that point higher, maybe even books on the bottom shelf that challenge people to look up, reach higher. Left Behind does that for many people, maybe not everyone, but that’s no crime, is it?

Ultimately, it’s the writer who will have to answer for how he uses his talents. That should be something we all agree on.

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22 thoughts on “Clarifying the issue: quality in CBA”

  1. Very thoughtful comments.
    Since you do what you do, perhaps you could give writers an idea of what kind of quality you like, enjoy, and/or prefer in your fiction.

  2. I’m on your side, Mick. I’m a rigorously discerning reader, with strong opinions about what makes a book worth reading. I’ve got standards higher than I can write–that’s uncomfortable, but there wouldn’t be much hope for me if I didn’t.
    So anything specific that helps me refine those standards and then actually meet them is a good thing. The best way I’ve found of doing this is to study the best books, and see if I can reverse engineer them to find out exactly what the writer did that was so wonderful.
    As for the “problem of mediocrity in the CBA,” I just think it makes more sense to let you editor-types worry about it. I’ve got writing to do.
    Now can you help me with these standards?

  3. Insightful comments. This very discussion (and tne ones that precede it) is a critical piece of the very puzzle you’re presenting. This sort of wrestling helps us to discern what truly is excellent.
    I think for writers it is (as noted in the above comment) all about having standards that stretch our abilities and make us reach higher.
    For the editor, it seems a greater challenge, though, because no matter what aspirations an editor might have in raising the bar, publishing houses still focus their efforts plowing the groove where success runs deepest. I imagine if you were to ask any of the publishers in the CBA universe if they’d have wanted the Left Behind series they’d say “yeah, of course we would.” And while some editors at those houses might squirm a bit at the thought, they’d still cheer the decision if only because it might afford them the opportunity to publish a few more of those “more excellent” books in the wake of that success.
    There’s a lot of mystery to these questions of “what is art” and “what is quality.” There’s just as much mystery to why certain books find such a large audience (else every publisher would have its own Left Behind success story).
    I don’t expect that we’ll soon see a perfect correlation between “literary excellence” and “bestseller status”. I also don’t think “equal time” for books that point higher is likely. (Audience or a perceived “potential audience” will probably always be the determiner of “time allotted”…not literary quality.)
    However…as long as champions like yourself (Mick) and those like-minded denizens of the Web who join you in this discussion (not those who simply stop by out of morbid curiosity to see if you’ve been fired yet) keep pressing on (and up?), there’s always a chance that someday I could be wrong.
    I wouldn’t mind being wrong.

  4. Hey, Mick. I read your last post and all 347 comments. Way to stir the old potski! The discussion of quality may not be new, but Lord help us if we let it go. We could toss our rafts on the river of apathy and glide along in a daze to the cesspool of mediocrity at its end. Or we can keep shouting until the slumbering someones wake up. I say keep shouting.
    I’ve just had a wake up call, ringing in my ears from ages past. George and I returned from three weeks in Europe on Sept. 19, with our heads and camera full of “quality” images. It’s easy enough to see artistry in a cathedral with its marble pillars, towering arches, and symbolic floorplan–visible only to the heavens in an age before men could fly. And yet, they flew. They flew in their imaginations, and their vision led them to labor for decades producing their art. To be worthy of God it had to be magnificent. Time, effort, and expense didn’t figure in the calculation. Excellence was the only plumb line.
    Many may argue that the church is people, not buildings, and a metal pre-fab building houses the body of Christ quickly and efficiently, thankyouverymuch. Why waste money that could go to missions on grand architectural endeavors? I think the answer to that question is the same answer you’re looking for here, at least in part.
    Even the physical quality of books has been greatly cheapened for the sake of mass production and money. There are all kinds of practical reasons why this is and even should be so, but the truth is we aren’t building for future generations. Our books are like our “food.” Fast. Convenient. Processed. We’ve forgotten what lingering over layers of simmering flavor is like. We just want to fill our bellies and move on.
    Quality takes time. Art takes contemplation. The machine wants fuel and it wants it now. The age we live in is not conducive to the production of classics, but I truly hope there will be some who choose to produce them anyway. I want my future great-grandchildren to snap shots of our windows and gaze in awe at the paintings on our ceilings. Somehow I don’t see them standing amazed over rusted folding chairs and indoor-outdoor carpet.
    If not for ourselves, then let’s leave something solid behind for their sakes. Crumpled fast-food wrappers won’t cut it. Let’s give them something that will nourish their souls.
    (So, um, yeah. Sorry for jumping on a soap box, but I’ve been out of the loop for a month. I guess I needed to burn some energy, and your yard has the best swingset.)

  5. Whenever I read another published Christian author’s blog, I invariably note the author mentioning deadlines and contractual obligations.
    I might be a fool to question this, but do deadlines and contractual obligations lead to better or poorer work? I suspect the latter. I recently read a book by a well-known Christian author who’s written great work in the past. But his rate of writing books continues to pick up, and I suspect it’s hurting the quality of what he puts out.
    This is mostly a publishing house issue, though, and editors deserve some of the blame here. In the rush to satisfy the demand for more Christian fiction, is too much emphasis given to meeting deadlines rather than to publishing only the best work an author can produce? I’ll wait for a great novelist to write a great book, but I’m disappointed when that same great author is forced to make a deadline and the book he or she churns out is half-baked.
    This is not just a problem with Christian publishing houses, though. Still, Christian publishers need to ask if–in the true spirit of serving God with their fiction–they should cut their authors some more slack on delivery times. In addition, those houses should demand of authors that extra time result in better fiction.

  6. I think Jeanne just said the magic word: time. There is precious little space for artisans to shoulder their way toward excellence when they are constantly detoured by the demands of a society defined by the maxim: Time is money. Perhaps we need generous benefactors who understand this dilemma and are willing to swim against the tide to buy that time for some of our emerging voices?
    Time is a pesky paradox for us, though. Whether the words or the images have been simmering in the soul for ages or are revealed suddenly as if commanded into existence by God, isn’t it the immediacy of the angst or the passion of the present that drives writers to write and artists to…art? Were it not for the press of time, we wouldn’t have reason to press on toward the completion of our art. Granted, there is a role here for patience…but it is a restless patience because art longs for that completion.
    I have often wondered…what books that are being published today will we still be reading fifty years from now? What’s on your list?
    I have been enjoying the latest book from Frederick Beuchner, Secrets in the Dark. It is a collection of sermons dating back to the year I was born. (Um…1959. Yeah. Does that get me a discount at Country Buffet? No. Not yet.) I am constantly amazed at the timelessness of Beuchner’s words. While there may be an occasional dated reference here and there, the truth that he speaks will probably ring just as loudly fifty years hence. Eugene Peterson is another of these seemingly timeless voices. Do we have them in fiction as well?
    What does this all mean for a writer? Maybe the “hurry up and get your novel done” mantra I have used as motivation for myself (and others) ought to be modified a bit. Perhaps I should be saying to myself “shoulder your way to excellence, even if it takes a Marilynne Robinsonian twenty years.” Gulp. Would I rather be known for a prolific and “successful” writing career…or for walking the long road to excellence? My wallet says the former, but my soul says the latter. I’m going to have to go with the soul on this one. (Please feel free to copy this comment and email it to me if I fail miserably and sell a million copies of a cheap novel with stock characters. Maybe I’d send you an autographed copy for your efforts. Or become one of those benefactors noted above.)

  7. Since we’re sort of discussing the time constraints placed on authors’creating processes and seeing the resulting products of some as being possibly less worthy of appreciation than their previous works when they were, perhaps, less in demand, I’d like to add my consternation topic to the mix.
    I prefer longer novels–well done, of course–because they feel more complete, less formulaic, and, well, yes, less edited maybe. Nothing against you editors–your skills are incredbile and much needed. However, here we go again with the pressure thing–time and money. Yes, we have some authors who are allowed to write beyond the 80-100,000 word count, but for the most part it seems as though most Christian fiction books come in under the 100,000 words.
    From my own reading of several CBA books a month, I can testify that shorter is not always better. The cry to adhere to the story rings false when so much is left out of the story by shearing the words that fill up the story. Some stories take more to tell them. Just because there’s a higher word count doesn’t mean a writer has opted for a labored treatise of over-wordy magnitude. On the contrary it takes a good deal of skill to stay on track with meaningful writing, and like others have said about being willing to wait for a lengthy period of time for a sequel or a second or third book from a favorite author if it guaranteed a certain quality, likewise, I think readers are willing to take a chance on a larger novel if good writing is involved throughout.
    (Those of you who’ve heard my gripe before are rolling your eyes about now. “Here she goes again.” Can’t help it.)
    Periodically, you’ll hear accomplished authors speak about treating the readers with respect, not dumbing down the writing because one thinks the average reader can’t handle some particular level of skill. I think that also can apply to the length of a book. Look back to some of the best. Here we go with demographics of our society, dictating that we’re too fast-moving, too fast-food oriented in our fiction consumption to tolerate more than 300 pages, etc. I think people will read a good book no matter how long it is. If they want to read, they’ll stick with it, and their reading time allotments will be spent with one novel instead of 2 and 1/2 smaller ones. Again, can’t we have all kinds?

  8. DLE’s comments about the time pressures of the publishing machine seem right to me based on a recent conversation I had with a twice published author. Personally, I haven’t written anything for publication (or attempted to do so), so I am hardly an authority on the subject.
    When it comes to quality, I think it’s easier to recognize than to standardize or describe. It is somewhat subjective. Judging from some of the previous comments, I think most people who read this blog have probably read Peace Like a River and Gilead. Both fine books, in my opinion. Now, if you ask me which one I like better, I say Peace Like a River, hands down. I felt like it had more heart. I cared about the characters a whole lot more–especially Swede. Plus, the portrayal of the spirituality of the father, in particular, was terrific. Refreshingly radical, yet natural and unforced. If one were to look only at the “quality” of the sentences (say, in some masters writing program), I suspect that Gilead may come out on top, and it did win a Pulitzer Prize. But a story is so much more than the quality of its sentences. Excellence from a stylistic standpoint is necessary but not sufficient for a great book. I’m sure many of you prefer Gilead to Peace Like a River, but can anyone really say with absolute certainty on the basis of some arbitrary standards which one is better? I doubt it. (Disclaimer: I don’t mean to denigrate Gilead at all. Great book. I just enjoyed “Peace” more.)
    Actually, as I think about it some more, I guess it would be very possible to say that I just don’t know what’s good for me. That I don’t have a fully developed appreciation for excellence. That I’m, at best, a “middle-shelf” kind of guy. That would, in principle, be no different than me saying the same thing about a Left Behind fan. From that standpoint I ought to choose books not just because I think I might enjoy them but also because I think I should enjoy them. That is, they might stretch me in a good way and over time, change my tastes. There’s some validity to that argument. I can become more discerning. I can grow. I can strive for excellence in terms of the books I choose to read. (I’m leaving aside, for the moment, the possibility of me ever writing something myself and striving for excellence as an author. I don’t think it’s any different than talking about reading.)
    On a side note, I just finished “The Closers” by Michael Connelly, and though I haven’t read a whole lot in that genre, I was left with the impression that he’s a pretty darn good writer. Almost no wasted words. Believable charaters. Interesting story. He made it look rather easy, which I think is another indicator of a great writer at work. Okay, that’s it for now. Go ahead and tell me where I’m wrong. ;)

  9. You might enjoy a parallel discussion of the question “What is art?” in Betty Spackman’s book A Profound Weakness: Christians & Kitsch.
    As for Left Behind, it’s not my cup of tea. But, I’ve been amazed that one of my very intellectual Jewish friends reads it in secret. Who coulda predicted that?

  10. To touch briefly on Nicole’s last comment, I have to agree about longer sometimes being better. I had to trim my novel from 142k to 92k for the publisher, and words can’t describe how that hurt. I had carefully plotted one character’s conversion and another’s reasons for refusing to convert, but most of that had to be trimmed out. While I’m not advocating “fluff pages” just there to fill the book out, I think there should be a little wiggle room to allow story depth. Not sure who set the 90k word limit, but I don’t think I agree with it all the time. Of course, when a writer walks into a story with the knowledge it can’t go beyond a certain number of words, it helps to tighten the writing, but at what cost to the plot? For every Tom Clancy giving more details in a novel about how to work a submarine than the average Navy Admiral knows, there’s a Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child using every sentence to propel you deeper into a rich plot full of twists and turns you never see coming.

  11. Nearly every novel I’ve read in the last three years, secular or Christian, was too long by twenty percent or more. Everyone knows how to fix bad grammar or technical mistakes, but does anyone trim the fat?
    The tendency in books today to slightly modify previous scenes and repeat them later is also epidemic. (Frank Peretti’s Monster illustrates this problem better than any recently published novel I’ve read.) That’s lazy writing–and boring, too.
    The hatred for novellas and novelettes in publishing realms forces this issue. A book may say everything it needs to in a 100 pages, but imposed bloat arrives and you get a 250 page book instead. I recently read a Christian supernatural thriller that suffered from that problem of a novella’s worth of ideas expanded into a novel-length work. Christians, of anyone, should embrace the power of the short story. Instead, few paying avenues exist for Christian short story writers. In fact, the short story suffers everywhere. If Flannery O’Connor were writing today, she’d be unread.

  12. DLE, since you are a man of such astute opinions, don’t be misled into thinking those astute opinions make you right. You have your opinion and others have theirs.
    Part of House’s problem was it was written by two authors who work in opposite ways of story development. It was a hard book for both of them, and neither of them would be particularly fond of doing it again, especially Peretti.
    You’re a technical writer, aren’t you? That might explain your compulsion to keep things brief and concise. Nevertheless, you’re entitled to your opinion, but not to mine or anyone else’s.

  13. Matt, I liked Peace Like a River tons more than Gilead. (Don’t mean to throw the discussion off topic – this isn’t a book review blog.)
    It’s good to wrestle with these questions, and I am loving the struggle I hear here.
    And isn’t that why many of us write to being with? The questions, the struggle, and the worship of God – usually happening simultaneously?

  14. Just one quick comment…I think that DLE and Nicole are in agreement on something here, though it may be hard to see (or maybe that’s just my middle child speaking up in search of some sort of peace).
    Aren’t you both saying, essentially, that it would be nice if books could be “just the length they need to be to tell the story best”? Whether that’s 500 pages-plus (Time Traveler’s Wife, anyone?) or under 200 (I really liked Steve Martin’s novellas, for example), it would be lovely if writers weren’t funneled into an arbitrary word count.
    The realities of the production side of things (paper costs, economy of scale, etc.) and marketing and book buyers’ expectations (right or wrong, they like a certain size of book) have built that funnel. There are notable exceptions to this “rule,” however, which suggests there is hope for a time when more books could be “just the length they need to be.”
    A good book ought not be defined by its word count anyway. Right?

  15. Nicole,
    I believe DLE referred to Monster not House. Also, I’m not sure that it’s fair to describe his opinion that too many books are unnecessarily too long as a “compulsion” for brevity. That’s some pretty loaded language. Nothing he wrote indicates to me that he’s opposed to a long book in principle. Even if he does prefer short books and short stories to longer ones I think it would be more fair to call that a “preference” than a “compulsion”. Furthermore, I don’t see how DLE isn’t allowing other people to have their opinions by stating his own. Of course he thinks his opinion is right just as you or anyone else who posts something thinks their opinion is right. There’s nothing wrong with that! DLE does have some strong opinions but I find that they’re always worth thinking about even if I don’t always agree 100%. I don’t know him, but I’ve read his blog and I find him to be a good writer, an independent thinker, and yes, maybe even a bit of a contrarian from time to time. (He’s got all the makings of a prophet!) Obviously, you were being sarcastic when you called his opinions “astute” (meaning “of keen penetration or discernment”), since you clearly don’t agree with them. I don’t know if you realize it but from where I’m sitting, at least, you have some pretty strong opinions yourself, and you, like DLE, may not be right either! (Just as I may not be right also. But why bother stating the obvious?) Sure, it stings a little when someone challenges our opinions, but that’s not always a bad thing. It can produce humility and learning if we allow it. DLE’s the kind of guy who doesn’t allow others to get away with sloppy thinking. Yeah, his style is pretty direct and self-assured but I don’t think it’s necessarily arrogant or rude. In any event, a comment section like this isn’t about winning arguments. I think you previously replied “good comeback” to one of his responses which seems to miss the point even if it was in some sense, complimentary. (Maybe you just meant it in jest and it wasn’t any kind of competitive thing. I don’t know.) It’s really not about making “comebacks,” it’s about sharpening one another and maintaining some civility as we do so. Of course, we’re not going to all agree about everything all the time but the tone here seems to have become unnecessarily adversial and I don’t think that advances the discussion at all. Indeed, blessed are the peacemakers.

  16. You’re absolutely right, Matt. I do have strong opinions, and if you prefer DLE’s strong assertions to his opinions over mine, then perhaps I’ve overstepped my boundaries.
    (I don’t know why I switched to House when I originally started to comment on Monster. Maybe because I thought the comment fit the book House better. Whether or not you liked one or any of Peretti’s books, I’d still hesitate to refer to his writing as “lazy” since he is known to labor over his work.)
    Let me defend myself this way: I don’t have the right to tell you what you should think about the style, length, or quality of a book. I do have the right to tell you what I think about those things.
    “Christians of anyone should embrace the power of the short story.” It’s the sweeping generalization(s) I object to with the implication that DLE has THE answers for everyone.
    I can abstain from further comments, if you’d prefer.

  17. Nicole,
    No need to abstain from further comments. I wouldn’t want that at all. We’d miss your contributions. I’d miss your contributions. I mean that.
    I’m not sure why you feel the need to “defend yourself” by saying that you don’t have the right to tell me what to think about various aspects of writing (true, true), but you do have the right to tell me what you think. I’m not sure I’d necessarily call it a “right,” but, that being said, I can assure you, I have no desire to deny you either of those “rights” and I don’t believe anything I’ve written suggests that.
    It doesn’t really matter whose opinions I tend to agree with more often. FWIW, I think you both have good things to say. That’s not what my post was about. It was about the tone of the conversation. It seem like you and DLE are quite a bit alike in the “strongness” of your assertions and I just didn’t think it was fair to call him out on it or make subtle (or not so subtle) digs about his opinions when you’ve been just as adamant as he has in defending your own views.
    It is certainly legitimate for you to disagree with his assessment of some of Peretti’s writing as being “lazy” or to think he makes some overly broad (“sweeping”) generalizations. Fair enough. Show him (and us) where he’s mistaken without sarcasm and without making it personal. We’re all on the same team here.
    Through my blog reading I’ve come to believe that DLE is a guy who doesn’t follow the company line when he disagrees with it. I’ve seen him post at JollyBlogger (an excellent, mostly theological blog written by a very “astute” ;) and gracious pastor) and here where he’s taken issue with something either David (of JollyBlogger) or Mick has said. A lot of people wouldn’t do that. It seems he’s not afraid to step on some toes but that doesn’t necessarily make him a bad guy. (Incidentally, as I said before, I don’t know him and he certainly doesn’t need me to defend him. I just don’t like it when message boards get personal. Especially one comprised of Christian brothers and sisters discussing an important topic. I can easily go to a college sports board if I’m looking for arguments, etc.) Peace.

  18. Thank you, Matt, for your gracious explanation. We have some basic differences. And you’re right about me not having the “right” to air my opinions. I had the opportunity so I gave them, and re-gave them in contrast to those I opposed.
    You are of the opinion that DLE was not “necessarily arrogant or rude”. I disagree. Lumping Christians/Christian writers/etc. into sweeping (overly broad) categorizaions and generalizations is unfair, opinionated, and smacks of injustice. (Mary DeMuth wrote a wonderful commentary today on one of them.)
    But, no matter. I’m a passionate person–and am often either passionately right or passionately wrong. I think this whole system is personal, art is personal, opinions are certainly personal, and normally I am totally non-confrontational. Since writing is my passion and my call, and since I spent a lot of time in the world, I guess I resorted to some old tendencies toward sarcasm and smack talk because of his approach and what I construed as a lack of grace to those who differed with him. Couldn’t bring myself to show him much either. I apologize to all those I offended.

  19. Thanks for your response Nicole. It’s all good. I appreciate your passion for writing.
    Okay, enough of this typing away. It’s beautiful outside and I’m going to go for a run. Blessings!

  20. Hey, interesting comments. I never made it past chapter 2 of Left Behind. Never read another book in the series, either, but I know people who’ve read every one. In fact, a woman at our church became a Christian after reading Left Behind. Gotta give Jenkins credit for putting it out there. It’s just not for me. Neither is anything Peretti wrote. Now Dekker? He rocks!

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