Reality Check #7: Silence Isn’t Golden

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Let’s face it. Some publishing realities contribute to low quality books too.

Start with money. We’ve got to sell books. But that creates a conflict of interest for Christians; the goals of business are diametrically opposed to God’s. No mission statements say “show us the money.” It’s just implied. Which means we’ll publish books we may not fully agree with in order to “give them what they want.” Some think it’s just the way it is.

Following the “give them what they want” philosophy is an obvious question. What books are those, exactly? Some say low quality, controversial books with familiar ideas in them. They certainly don’t want to read classics. They don’t want books that require a lot of effort, even if they might like them more if they gave them a try. No. Fluffy books, tune-out books, reads as disposable as candy wrappers.

Which brings us to the nutrition-to-candy ratio. With disposable books, surely nutrition and excellence are low on the list. If it’s for CBA, slip some God in there and we’re good. We don’t need artsy-fartsy stuff gumming up the works.

Maybe this blog is a complete waste of bytes.

The problem with all this is that books aren’t candy. Of course, we want them to be as popular as Pop Rocks, but what’s the cost to the reader? Quality does matter. In fact, it matters at least as much as message. Maybe more. When it comes to our creations representing the Creator, what carries the message to the reader? The vehicle of our craft? What if the Bible wasn’t excellent? What if God didn’t care? What if we didn’t build our church well and it came crashing down on our heads? If God doesn’t care, maybe we’re wasting our time here.

Why would I trade my good reputation to discuss these problems in CBA? I don’t want to be known as the guy who hates CBA. Talking about this on a public blog isn’t my idea of fun. It doesn’t facilitate working in the industry. Silently contributing to the mountain of books makes a whole lot more sense. But I think our books need to better reflect our master. Whether or not “literary” books sell, we need books that don’t contribute to the idea that faith is like a candy wrapper we can use whenever and however we like. I’m so happy there are editors and authors doing good work out there. But there’s still a lot of padding on the shelves, shoddy product produced too quickly without respect of our task and its eternal significance. And yes, it’s worse in the general market, but that’s not the point.

Can I suggest why this matters? Silence about the problems pays implicit concessions to them. Professional distance shouldn’t excuse us from bowing to market pressures. Christian publishers are cashing in on successes so regularly it’s become expected. We don’t even question anymore. Sales assumptions about nutrition-to-candy ratio dictate what books get published. There are accepted business practices that propagate a low standard. And we all are complicit in our silence.

Confession: I’m guilty too. I’ve compromised. I’m not clean and tidy either. I’m not sure if anyone in my shoes can be completely. And that’s a topic for another post. But we don’t need an overhaul of CBA. All I’m asking for is some dialogue, an open discussion to try to balance some of these realities. Let’s stand together and have some accountability. Let’s discuss the problems and not hide behind false decency or prissy professionalism. Maybe I don’t get to be thought of as classy for saying this, but I can’t worry about that. Let’s deal with our book-buying and publishing decisions and not take the bait of publishers hoping we’ll buy the next installment of candy. The silence contributes more to less-than-excellent books than anything. There are some closed doors that need opening. We should probably let them stay closed, but doggone it, you just can’t stop progress.

Okay, so that little term “nutrition-to-candy ratio” needs some unpacking. Come on back.

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16 thoughts on “Reality Check #7: Silence Isn’t Golden”

  1. One of the reasons this is such an excellent post is because you aren’t in the comparison (CBA vs. ABA) mode. “There’s still a lot of padding on the shelves . . . without respect of our task and its eternal significance. And, yes, it’s worse in the general market, but that’s not the point.” So true.
    The one thing I see avoided (and maybe necessarily) in these insightful and probably daring posts is specifics. With the exception of the Left Behind series being excoriated for poor writing and theology, and the mention of Gilead and Peace Like A River held up by some as the “best” of literature, there haven’t been a lot of real examples given of what this high standard is or looks like according to an editor who seeks more from Christian fiction than what is currently being offered or produced. (This is not a criticism–it’s more of an observation.) Granted, any preferences are still subjective. Plus, I don’t think most of us want to stand up and proclaim, “I hate so-and-so’s work, but they sell millions of books. What’s up with that?”
    I don’t think running a profitable business is diametrically opposed to God. I think man’s interpretation of “good business” and “making money” can be corrupted with greed and idolatry, thereby settling for what they think will bring it in fast and easy.
    Giving “them” what they want, spotting or setting “trends”? What the heck are those factors based upon when the selection on the shelves is limited? “They” (any of us as readers) are often settling for the stuff because there isn’t a whole lot of choice.

  2. The way I see it, once we’ve agreed that we hate cheesy Christian fiction and we’re not going to take it any more, we’ve got just a few options:
    1. We can produce an underground newspaper to shame and harrass offending writers by publishing their crimes, photos and home addresses. Instead of writing.
    2. We can forceably take over Waterbrook and Bethany House, plant our unwashed fatigues in the leather chairs, our grubby sneakers on the walnut desks, smoke cigars and lecture the press. Instead of writing.
    3. We can draw up a manifesto to outline what we mean by excellence in literature, and how precisely we propose to create it, ourselves. And then we can write.
    Hmm… Wonder which one Flannery would have done.
    Or is there another option I’m not seeing?

  3. I keep feeling like there is an open door, but we’re in that hallway of thousands of door and we’re turning the knobs one by one.
    God already knows which one unlocked. How long will it take us to get there?

  4. Well, it’s an interesting problem… right now, I’m in revisions and one of the questions that’s been raised is how much my text should be “dumbed down”… there is a worry that the bulk of readers won’t have what it takes to enter in…
    I understand this. If readers are lost, what will they find? The real question is… is it true? Will readers be lost? Our education system seems to think so, as do our corporations (who complain about the lack of communication skills)…
    In the end, what do we do? A little scaffolding perhaps. I’m simplifying a lot, but I’m leaving a lot of good stuff in there too. Nutrition to candy ratio? Maybe. (Though, on the candy side, I vote for organic, naturally-sweetened.)
    I’m interested in hearing further perspectives…

  5. I think there’s room for just about everything.
    I have nothing against escapist works, but I hope there’s also some weightier stuff to balance it out. If my WIP ever sees print, some people will think it’s escapist. Of course, those people will miss the lesson lurking in the background (some people who have read it get it and others don’t).
    But even escapist stuff needs to be written well. While we’ve come a long way in that regard, I’m troubled that Christian fiction still has some clunkiness to it that makes it seem less than stellar.
    Plastic characters that are lowest common denominator reductions of real people bug me a lot. Too many characters in Christian books seem like a collection of stereotypical traits rather than living, breathing human beings. Contrast this with secular writers like Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard who write outrageous characters, yet those characters live on the page.
    I’m also troubled by the way that some Christian authors overstress their points. Whether that point is the Christian message or some other crucial part of their novel, I get tired of hearing it repeated in every chapter. Ted Dekker’s a decent writer, but I’m reading one of his books now and he inserts his main character’s point in nearly every scene. What makes that worse is the reader knows the point is wrong. Man, that gets tedious fast! Dekker’s not the only one who does this. Christian or not, authors today don’t give their audience much credit for being able to follow a story. I shouldn’t have the author of the book questioning my smarts every scene. “Okay, okay! I get it!”
    As to the issue of Christian publishers making money, no one should despise anyone for making money. But when the bottom line is all there is, then there’s a problem.
    The entire publishing industry has gotten pragmatic to the point of obsession, but Christian publishing houses may suffer from this malady even more than their counterparts. As a result, they spend too much time reacting or jumping on trends with a “me, too” attitude that isn’t remotely Christian. They tend to sit back and try to see what everyone else is doing before they leap. We’re not too hot on Christians who put out fleeces all the time (“If this next traffic light turns green before I get there, then I’ll go on the mission field!”), yet this is how too many Christian publishers operate. It’s all about being pragmatic rather than dynamic, Spirit-led, and faithful. However, considering that just about every Christian publisher is owned by a secular house, functioning as a dynamic, Spirit-led, and faithful business becomes all the more difficult. I suspect that too many Christian publishers are treading lightly because they already feel they’re on shaky ground as “religious” publishers within secular houses.

  6. Lots of good things to think about here.
    I agree with DLE that too many books fail to give readers enough intellectual credit. (See also: Hollywood movies.) I expect that’s originally the fault of the author, but those of us who edit should be held equally accountable when such things “slip through” the publishing process.
    When I’m in editing mode, I look for those point-redundant sections and rework them with the red pen much as possible. (Not with glee, however, as some authors might picture it. I employ an empathetic strike-thru.)
    However, when I’m in writing mode, I can’t seem to avoid writing those point-redundant sections. I suspect this particular deficiency is due to my lack of writerly maturity rather than a conscious attempt to drive the thumbtack in with a sledgehammer.
    I just finished Mark Haddon’s latest, A Spot of Bother (followup to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). The storyline itself was a bit unspectacular, but the characters were well drawn and interesting (in an exaggerated sort of way that highlights eccentricities over subtler traits). There was lots of point-pounding in this book—the theme of mortality appeared with generous frequency. Most of the time the pounding was the point—credit Haddon for choosing the sledgehammer on purpose here. Still, there were more than a few places I threatened to get out my red pen.
    But that’s the ABA.
    The overstressing of the point in CBA fiction is not always a function of immature writing or lazy editing (or the rare wielding of a creative license to pound). I believe we have a unique problem and it is long-shadow evidence of earlier expectations in the CBA that Christian fiction—in order to match its non-fiction counterpart—ought to be so obviously Christian (remind readers often so they know they’re not reading a secular book) that books practically sprout angels’ wings when sitting on the shelf.
    I can see a reason for overstressing the point in a non-fiction work. I can be a little stubborn at times and a little repetition might help break through that wall. But I don’t want that in my fiction. I want to discover the point. I want to uncover the hidden things. I want to be surprised. I want truth to sneak up on me.
    When this happens, the point stays with me.
    And isn’t that the point?

  7. Good comments, all.
    To paraphrase an infamous quote from a less than honorable man: It depends on your definition of “the point”.
    For example, IF the gospel is employed in the story as a journey to be discovered, chances are it will appear in multiple places and forms to the individual character(s). IF it’s done well, the redundancy shouldn’t feel like a battering ram on a reader’s brain but rather produce an appreciation for the wonder and diversity of our God who makes the simplest things unique to each of us.
    Not sure why I had to make that “point” because both Steve’s and DLE’s points are certainly valid.

  8. Mick, when’s the last time I told you that you rock? (It’s hard to be both silent and a rock star, so good thing you’ve opted for making some noise.) Thanks for these thought-provoking posts and for stating your position with both logic and eloquence. You practice what you preach even as you preach it, inspiring the choir to go forth and do likewise.
    Beauty begets beauty (that baby in the corner proves it’s so), so keep singing till the rest of us learn the tune and join in. Perhaps the sound waves will eventually penetrate some fortress walls and shake some foundations. It could happen. :)
    DLE, I just realized who you are. Missed you at ACFW. No major swooning to report here. How ’bout you?

  9. Um, I like candy. I like escapist literature.
    But, I want well-written escapist literature (and is it really escapist if it’s well-written and smart?) Whatever. Oh, and I like both expensive candy (my five dollar a bar Niederegger and Valrhona) and cheap candy (Junior Mints and Chunky.)
    I think we have to let publishers publish junk, because the junk is bought by folks who want to read and not think (and yes, I’ve heard this a lot), who just wanna relax with a simple (or simplistic) tale. But publishers need to take a nice percentage of the superjunk profits and say, “Now we do artistic ministry. Now we take this and find the next Flannery or Lewis or Buechner or Percy or Tolkien or…whomever.”
    We all take a part of what we earn and earmark it to support God’s work. That’s how it’s done. X goes for a higher good.
    Well, X profits should go to a higher literary good. And that good should be pushed and promoted and heralded. And if it earns back enough to break even, hey, well, it was ministry. :)
    I’ve bought books I never intended to read to specifically promote a particular, struggling-financially author. I buy poetry, because poets go a-beggin, and I think poetry matters and should be nurtured.
    Where the heck is the CBA Max Perkins?
    Mir<--will never be M. Robinson or W. Dale Kramer, and I'm not fit to lick Flannery's coffin or Lewis' wardrobe (the regular one that goes nowhere), but I don't think we're all made to be giants anyway.

  10. Great post, Mick and great comments, everyone.
    Some quick points, but don’t expect any flashes of brilliance from me. I’m one of the unpublished writers, and I have more questions than answers.
    We should be better than the world. Our God is big, He’s awesome. I’ve seen this issue not only in the publishing world, but in a Christian ministry where I worked for three years. (The same one as you, Mick. It was before you got there.) In this evangelical culture, the “message” is everything. The methods can be less than excellent, the product can be shoddy. It’s the “message” that counts.
    Being a novelist is indeed a ministry on some level. However if one writes novels with the intention of “saving souls,” that sometimes gets messy in this business.
    Shouldn’t writers of fiction create characters and tell a story, allowing their faith to color the page in subtle ways, and not try so hard to make it a “Christian” story? Wouldn’t the message be there because a Christian is writing the novel? Shouldn’t we care more about crafting excellence? Shouldn’t we find, and be satisfied by, creative expression, exploring the knowledge of the holy, and using our God-given gifts? Why must all CBA novels have evangelical “messages” and conversion scenes? If they’re written for Christians, why do Christians need to feed on this? ?milk? Why can’t they dig deeper? Why won’t many of today’s churches dig deeper?
    If you are a follower of Christ, you cannot help but “show” your Christian worldview in your writing, no matter what you are writing about. Christ lives in you! How could your novel not reflect that? Why do you have to try so hard to make it Christian?
    I think that too many people have gotten into this business with the idea that this is their way of saving souls and it’s all about the message. That’s how they justify it. Otherwise, they’re telling lies for fun and profit. Not very Christian, right? But isn’t it all about the story? Isn’t that what all the CBA publishers say when they attend conferences? Isn’t all about producing a novel of excellence to God’s glory so that if an atheist reads the novel, he sees God in it, even if there is no “altar call” or “conversion scene?”
    Nutrition is what keeps us healthy day after day. Candy is really great. But too much candy and we get sick, because our bodies are not being nourished. Candy is best doled out sparingly, to keep a balance in life. Our culture, even our Christian culture, is addicted to pleasure and entertainment. Knowledge, wisdom, and holiness are passe now, although they used to be eaten at every meal. God doesn’t want us happy, he wants us holy. Until we resist the call to pursue happiness, all we have to look forward to is candy.

  11. Suzan, you always make great points, but I have to differ just a bit on a couple of them this time. I’ve read a few CBA novels where “the message” wasn’t there. In two of them (original and the sequel) the story was excellent, unique, amazing, but there was nothing to infer the author’s Christian worldview, and I mean nothing. I was genuinely surprised to find it published by the particular house because of their mission statement. The result of these two well-written novels was good entertainment but zero “message”. Written by a Christian ( a known and popular Christian speaker) with no Christian world view surfacing because admittedly he attempted to avoid his equivalent terminology to Bible thumping. Well, even an athiest couldn’t have guessed God was peripherally involved.
    It all gets back to the stories God has for each writer to tell. Evangelical stories have to be written very well or they become formulaic. The “message” is so good that it can be told over and over again–it just needs to be done better and better.
    Finally, although you can certainly see less and less desire for knowledge, wisdom, and holiness (even in some Christian fiction), I would agree God doesn’t want us “happy” per se, but I believe He desires we become “happy” or content to be knowledgable, wise, and holy and to pursue it at every level of our being–including writing.

  12. mick, i just don’t see how it can happen in the existing structure (or stricture, perhaps?).
    but i just had a convo with a youth ministries director for a major denomination’s regional area, and he recommended i read a book, which was also recommended to me by a young painter i met in denver (and curiously had the same discussion with),
    Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith
    by Rob Bell
    ( http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Elvis-Repainting-Christian-Faith/dp/031026345X/sr=8-1/qid=1160947065/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/104-4469805-7282329?ie=UTF8 )
    i pass this along without having read the book in the interest of furthing the discussion.
    we’re dealing with two different worlds here. the old guard world and the new guard world.
    suz.

  13. This is an excellent post with perceptive comments. I’d like to add one thing–literary Christian nonfiction is just as needed, if not moreso, than fiction in the CBA. It seems like there are tons of substantiative “academic” books out there, lots of fluffy and shoddily-written “popular” books, and little of quality written by people who can write.
    Don’t get me wrong, I read tons of Christian nonfiction…most of it I get from B&N or Borders though; almost nothing from Lifeway or Family. I can’t find Martin Laird’s Into The Silent Land or Patton Dodd’s My Faith So Far in these places…sigh.
    So yeah, I guess its a problem with writing the things on one hand, and distribution on the other.

  14. >>Wouldn’t the message be there because a Christian is writing the novel?
    Suzan, that reminds me of a story I heard about a woman whose neighbor was a Christian. The woman watched the Christian over time and admired her joyful, healthy lifestyle, her moderation, her kindness, her glow. Finally she said, “I just have to ask: Are you a vegetarian?” I think we have to spell it out a little for people much of the time. I could be wrong.
    Mir asks, >>Where the heck is the CBA Max Perkins?
    Oh, how I’ve wondered that. Sittin’ here in Cross Creek lookin’ for my Max, just lookin’ for my Max…

  15. I jumped to the writing world from the music world (with a hop and a skip in the theological world). Same story. And then, occasionally comes a group with mass appeal and musical genius. Occasionally. Sometimes the people recognize it, like the Beatles. Sometimes they die a pauper’s death, like Mozart (who, ironically, the people loved, who wrote amazing music, but couldn’t get the eh-hem, publishers to back him). One friend asked me to spell it out. Others said no. They got it.
    Jesus spoke in well crafted parables. And all the people said, huh?

  16. I have to thank L.L. for showing me the way here . . . and plead with her not to dumb down her manuscript! (I haven’t read it, so I’m not sure what I’m asking . . . but I don’t have to read it to know that 1) it’s probably beautiful and thoughtful and stirring, just from the things she writes on her blog and posts on other people’s pages, and 2) the world needs to be given a challenge.
    A few comments back, someone said that we should just let publishers publish the junk because that’s what people want to read — they don’t want to think, and they want to be entertained. Even if that’s what people want, it’s only what they THINK they want. And we shouldn’t just dole it out just because they ask for it. We should be helping people, culture, the world, the universe become better because God created us for more. I don’t even just mean the Gospel here, though I’m with everyone else that that’s the point in the first place. I mean even opening up their worlds, blowing their minds, stretching them further . . . even with stuff a little above their level.
    I’ve been writing for 8 years and editing for 6 — and editing for a CBA publisher for just two months now. I’ve been wrestling with these things for years, and now I’m dealing with it on a daily basis — almost like crises of faith, it feels like, when I drive home — now that I’m “contributing” to the market and having to keep sales dollars in mind.
    We should all quit our jobs and start a writing commune devoted to Christ and excellence in creativity. You might convince me and my hubby to join . . . especially if it was in Europe.

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