Disease by Degrees

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Dearest Wormwood,

I smiled for the first time in a long while today. Can you guess what I was thinking? Of the impressive work you’ve done in removing that horrible stain of “good reason and common sense” from the torpid minds of our feeble enemies. That there are no longer any categories with which to define a discussion of high-quality Christian books is certainly cause for celebration, and your accomplishment of highest pride to me. And yet, not only have you convinced them there are no categories, you’ve conclusively proven that there is no one capable of interpreting even basic definitions of good and bad literature, the very thought of which has become ridiculous! Your skill for cunning suggestion seems matched only by your talent for fracturing thought. Any “qualified” monkey who might undertake the task of sorting out the truth of so-called Christian literature would be a mere mortal, and gleefully subject to the same prejudices and unbalancing biases as anyone else. Subjective judgments become completely valueless!

Brilliant! Everything “good” or “bad” is now in the eye of the monkey!

And had you seen me today, whistling Dixie down the scorched streets, you’d have heard me stop and shout, realizing a few of the less obvious extensions of our accomplishment:

  • The further slipping toward irrelevance of biblical sentiments about so-called “absolute truth.”
  • The plunging value of logic and intelligence.
  • Deeper apathy as more people stop working to discern the high quality of an art that isn’t there.
  • Bigger pitfalls of cynicism and potholes of ignorance.
  • The immediate irrelevance of Christian book reviews.
  • The soulful support by those who prefer the safety of uninventive reading material.
  • Cocoons of formula and ritual squelching beauty and meaning.

And the list goes on, my faithful one!

What a rare joy to think of all the work you’ve saved us! No more working to sabotage publishing efforts with prohibitive advance fees and book schedule crunches. No more worrying about undermining an authors’ personal credibility. No more struggling to isolate authors of rogue literary bestsellers from fans, painstakingly chipping away at their self-confidence until they crack. No more need for any of it since "high-quality books" are not an objective measurement, but simply what anyone prefers over other books! Our enemies can gorge themselves to popping on whatever pointless schlock they prefer and we won’t have a single worry about anyone convincing them to read something potentially dangerous. Without a true basis for high literary merit, there’s nothing to warrant a reader’s recommendation other than simple cheap thrills. The imbeciles will keep happy and quiet, knowing only that their books adhere to the standard Christian formula.

And—ho!—I just had a thought. I’ll bet it won’t be long before they won’t even need anything truly useful in their books at all. In fact, we could probably start writing those kind of books ourselves! Just a few a year to make sure there were enough on the shelves to keep them too distracted to notice the unfortunate anomalies. Sounds like fun, actually. What do you think of that idea?

I’ll end here with one last assertion of my deep satisfaction and humble gratitude for your continued service. And I’m sure you’ve already begun, but do prepare to give a full account of your triumph for His Hollowness upon your return.

Yours Forever Scheming,

Screwtripe

—-

(11.20.06) Please note the point being made here is about what happens where there is no standard of quality for Christian books. It is not a statement about Christian fiction in particular, nor is it intended to represent my personal opinions about the quality level of Christian books. It is simply a satirical post about what I believe goes on in the spiritual realm when we accept the lie that there is no standard with which to measure writing quality.

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15 thoughts on “Disease by Degrees”

  1. Mick, you have seriously ticked me off with this one. I’m not going to keep quiet this time. I’m not even going to try to hide my irritation.
    Lovely Jeanne D., I don’t think this is hyperbole. I think this is how Mick really feels. Let’s take a few of his phrases about Christian fiction: “Simple cheap thrills.” “Standard Christian formula.” “Pointless schlock.” “The safety of uninventive reading material.” And on it goes.
    This attitude really gets wearing. Does no one else who reads this stuff not get ticked? Is it just me? Maybe it’s because I’m working so hard to write the best I can and meet my deadlines in the industry this blog constantly cuts down.
    I just keep wanting to ask, “What books are you reading, Mick?” I read a lot of Christian fiction. I don’t see all these books of “pointless schlock.” I truly don’t understand your painting the entire industry this way. Yes, we all struggle to grow in our craft. We should. That doesn’t mean that everything that’s now out there reflects a “plunging value of logic and intelligence.”
    Mick, I challenge you–go finish your own novel. Publish it. It will no doubt be brilliant. The rest of us will then know to what quality we should ascribe.

  2. I have tried to compose a witty, yet appropriate response to this post, but I have neither the time nor the patience. So I will simply concur with Brandilyn’s comment.
    Robin

  3. Sales. Show. Schlock. Sells. (Down by the seashore.)
    Now not everything that sells is schlock. But if it is, it’s likely to have an easier time. These are generalizations, sure, but they’re not my hyperbolic opinion. There are hard sales numbers to prove it. I come up against them every day and want to throttle that person who spent good money on book “X.” I calm myself by remembering W.C. Fields’ axiom that it’s a sin not to take stupid people’s money, but I digress.
    Is it the mere suggestion that CBA contains schlock? I would think that’s fairly unassailable too. Or is it the assumption that I’m blaming authors for it? I’m not. As I’ve said, it’s more the publishers’ fault for hurrying and not concerning themselves with the fact that they’re putting out paint-by-numbers books. People still buy them, after all.
    Is it less-than Christlike to judge the quality of the books that bear his name? This is a satirical post, over-the-top sardonic statements about the reality (self-evident, in my mind) that GENERALLY, CBA readers don’t want “well-cooked” fiction, and no one can talk them into buying it because they’ve willingly given up their discernment, thinking they’re safe in Christian stores without it. Unfortunately, they’re not safe. There are statements being made about God in those books. And we’re checking our minds at the door?
    Thank God for Christian writers who buck the system and push back to publish what editors love: high-selling, well-cooked fiction. We all want to see the current restrictions loosen, and we keep trying, but readers keep crying foul. If readers demand more choices, supply will adjust and we’ll have a much easier time publishing diverse books and getting them noticed…
    But in my most-humble, hyperbolic opinion, truth and beauty will always take it on the chin with CBA readers, forced to continually disguise itself in more familiar, easily-digested forms.

  4. “No more need for any of it since high-quality books no longer exist! Our enemies can gorge themselves to popping on whatever pointless schlock they prefer . . .” – Screwtripe
    “Now not everything that sells is schlock. But if it is, it’s likely to have an easier time.” – Mick
    Screwtripe generalizes – high quality books do exist. But Mick speaks truth. The easy-to-digest stuff is usually what sells. The really good literary stuff CBA writers produce takes a back seat, sometimes hanging onto the bumper, sometimes left out in the dust completely. At least from where I sit this is how it too often appears.
    Publishers want what readers will buy. If Wormwood has been whispering “keep it simple” into anyone’s ear, it is the ear of the average reader, not the writer. Good stuff is out there. But it often goes under-noticed.
    MHO.

  5. I have faithfully purchased and read some excellent CBA fiction, and I have read the opposite of excellence and experienced “shopper’s remorse” at the conclusion of the book. I don’t know why or if this is a fact, but some authors I have read and liked very much in the past seem to be churning out some books in the present which are so unbelievably formulaic as to be like canned soup as opposed to homemade. And they don’t taste very good.
    Please don’t misunderstand me, either. Do I think CBA authors don’t write well? No, on the contrary, I think there are some great writers in the CBA. But some (note: some) of the recent books are coming off an assembly line of somebody’s formula for what makes a “good” or “acceptable” novel, and whoever the somebodies are who have established this rigid formula are mistaken. I hope writers like Brandilyn, who I respect and enjoy, and others will challenge their publishers and be allowed to break out of a mold that’s been created and etched in some kind of concrete by CBA publishers.
    Does my opinion have any merit? No, I’m just one consumer. One writer who remains untouched, unwanted, and un-sought by the CBA powers that be. [See “The Dues Are Due”, Into the Fire]. The novels I’ve written don’t fit the mold, but in a very small way they have ministered to the people who’ve read through them. Thank you, Lord, for that.

  6. I’m not published, so I have no room to speak about the publishing end of things.
    I agree with what Mick said about the “slipping away of absolute truth,” and the “lack of discernment.” I’ve posted many times on those subjects, so I’ll move on.
    The thing that really hits home for me is book reviews. And this comment is about the book reviews:
    First, I’d like to state that I know from personal experience that hardworking, good CBA novelists worth their salt welcome and take constructive criticism privately without a problem. We’re all in it together, and privately, we welcome correction.
    That being said.
    Two recent statements made to me by published CBA novelists:
    1. “The only reason why most CBA novels get poor reviews in PW is because PW hates Christians and the CBA.” (It has nothing to do with the novel.)
    2. “You can’t give a CBA novel a bad or even a mediocre review on amazon/cbd/b&n etc., because it’s such a small industry, you don’t want it to come back and bite you. And besides, it’s not edifying. Christians have to stick together.”
    So, I no longer read reviews of CBA novels on amazon.com. Most CBA books receive 4 or 5 stars, with an occasional 1 star by someone who doesn’t like “religious” stuff and has probably never read the book.
    Before I wised up, I used to waste a LOT of money buying poorly-written or poorly- plotted CBA books after reading glowing 5-star reviews on amazon. Now I go to the bookstore and read a couple of chapters before plunking down money.
    Don’t we all want the same thing?
    If we want the quality of CBA fiction to improve and always strive toward excellence, then we have to stop giving kudos when kudos is not deserved because we are afraid of offending someone or afraid we will make enemies and hurt our own career.
    I know the drill, people. We make friends in the industry, we read each other’s books, then we are dishonest on an amazon review because we don’t want to hurt feelings or get ourselves in trouble.
    Constructive criticism is a postive thing. Why should a mediocre or poor novelist want to improve or change the way they write if all their amazon reviews are 5 stars and no one says anything negative about their book?
    No, we just snicker in private about how bad the book is. Is that edifying? Does God not see us snickering? Does He not know how we truly feel inside about the book? Are we not lying? Isn’t lying a sin?
    Unkind, undeserved criticism and bashing is always wrong, but gentle, honest, constructive criticism with the author’s best interests in mind can only help CBA, not hurt it.
    We look the other way because we don’t want to judge people. We don’t want to criticize.
    We hate it when “the world” is “politically correct” and bashes us.
    But WE are the most “politically-Christianly correct” people on the planet.
    As a result, what passes for Christianity in our churches, and in our books, is a joke. If Jesus stood here today and rebuked Peter, we’d get mad at Him for bashing our religious leaders in public.
    Whatever your opinions of Mick’s posts, let’s be honest: CBA fiction has improved over the last few years, but there’s still room for improvement. If we think otherwise, we’re done for. Hang up the laptop and trash the WIP. Go watch TV.
    When we pat each other on the back and never offer constructive criticism on public book reviews, we are lying to each other in public so that the world sees that we are liars. That is NOT edifying the body, and NOT loving each other.

  7. Mick, the “pap” novels, the books that SELL, aren’t selling because the average reader lacks discernment, but because the average reader does not turn to FICTION when she seeks intellectual stimulation and wishes to examine spiritual truths. Novels are read primarily for entertainment, and as much as it chaps your hide, the very books you complain about are the ones that have provided hours of wholesome reading pleasure for millions of serious-minded Christians.
    Dear brother, no mater how often you protest that such is not your intent, the fact remains that your constant harping on the “substandard” quality of today’s Christian fiction insults the intelligence and impugns the integrity of the majority of Christian readers and writers. I don’t want to be a part of what you’re stirring up here, so as soon as I post this comment, I’ll be removing Your Writer’s Group from my RSS feed reader.

  8. Dear Screwtape,
    Thank you for appropriating this hackneyed metaphor to attack the level of originality in the industry from which you make your living. It helps to know that there are editors grumbling about the state of the industry while assisting in its mediocrity. This lack of internal consistency makes me as happy as a kid in a candy shop, to borrow a literary device only slightly more tired than the whole “Wormwood/Screwtape” thing.

    On a serious note, what you said here was shameful. It is not “conscience-pricking,” as an earlier commenter stated. It is just mean. And, the fact that you work in this industry makes it that much more reprehensible.

  9. Mick,
    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog and I love the way you’re not afraid to challenge conventional thinking and question the status quo. I respect your writing and your opinions, and I know you’re an intelligent and talented guy. But I must confess I enjoy your posts much more when you write about ideas such as “Christian vs. Christ-follower” or “Truth Isn’t Always Beautiful.” These pieces stretch my thinking and often bring to my mind ideas that I hadn’t thought about. However, like many other readers (obviously) I find the “Let’s Heap Criticism on CBA” posts frustrating because (1) They’re vague and generalizing, offering no specifics that might adequately support your argument, (2) They seem to label anything “literary” as GOOD and anything, well, “normal,” as BAD. (Unless I’m misreading you.) I don’t think this value judgment is warranted.
    I think it would be more interesting and edifying if you’d be more specific about the things that cause you to get so depressed about CBA. Maybe share more of the struggles of an acquisitions editor… what are you seeing coming across your desk? And why are you turning projects down? Plenty of your readers here would probably love to hear some feedback. What projects get you excited, and what specifically about them makes you want to say “yes”?
    I’d also challenge you to explore a little bit more deeply the question – Who is the CBA reader? It’s my opinion that most people who read books (Christian or not) don’t fall into the elite intelligentsia category, and the type of books you’re calling for wouldn’t be helpful to them. The “deep” or “literary” books are not what they need; in fact, they need books that meet them where they are. I don’t think we can criticize people for this, condemning them for being “unwilling” to think deeply about their faith. People are what they are. Jesus himself spoke clearly and simply to the masses, and I think we have an obligation to do the same. The objective truth is that a large majority of the population would not read any of the books you’ve listed in your sidebar under “what to read” – yes, they’re books that many of us love, but they’re not necessarily books for the masses. And CBA does need to serve the masses, don’t you think? I’m just pointing out that the books you and I love and consider “quality” are obviously not the ONLY kind of books CBA should publish.
    My opinions are informed by my personal experience, being married to a blue-collar-guy (a firefighter) and thus having many anti-ivory-tower friends. These people don’t think like I do and they could care less about the beauty of the words on a page. They build houses and save lives and in their free time they usually ride motorcycles and climb mountains and play hockey. They are amazing people, AND they read books. But when they do, they’re not looking for “literary” and they’re not thinking about the deep philosophical or theological relevance of a piece. They want to read a good book, period. They read Christian books, too, but again, “literary” is not on their list of criteria. Is it a good story? Does it reflect their values and have a good message and mostly, is it a page-turner? If it’s nonfiction, does it help them grow in their faith?
    That’s what matters to most of the population, and I think the CBA needs to meet the needs of Christians and seekers of all levels. It seems like you have fun sometimes putting down Jerry Jenkins, and admittedly, his books are not my cup of tea, either. But maybe I’ve never told you this… my husband actually took the first steps toward becoming a Christian because somebody gave him Left Behind. He read the whole series. Then got baptized and accepted Christ. Who am I to argue with that?
    So you see, I live with that “other half” (pun intended) – the rest of the population of Christians whose reading needs are different from yours and mine. And I confess, I get defensive when those people are condemned. And I sometimes feel that condemning spirit, if only under the surface, in your blogs. It makes me feel like my firefighter husband would not be welcome in your home because he would not read Buechner if his life depended on it, and could not discuss Calvinism vs. Arminianism, even though he reads a lot (almost as much as I do), and he does read the Bible.
    If I’ve misinterpreted things you’ve expressed in your blog, I’d love for you to set me straight. I just wanted to give you my little two cents worth—and I also want you to know that I do enjoy reading your thoughts and will continue to do so.

  10. that you need a caveat to state your purpose is mind boggling.
    your piece grieves me in that peculiar way that all your writing seems to, it is an ache. an echo. something familiar, yet foreign. known, yet unknown. i’m saying nothing to many, but you understand.
    and i’m grateful.
    suz.

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