Story as Controversy

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I feel like I’ve said much of this before, but it probably bears repeating. I know I’ve made the claim before that you can’t have a good story without some measure of controversy, however minute. Controversy is the provocative interest that keeps people reading. Contrast, conflict: these things get at the essential provocation of the battle within each of us. The fact that many of us are used to being provoked in this way doesn’t make it any less controversial. All it takes is meeting someone who belives all stories are evil unless they’re from the Bible. Yes, people do. And yes, they shop in CBA.

But story brings that invisible tension to the surface. Make no mistake: it’s an inherently controversial thing to arouse the soul’s conflict with story. It’s nothing to take lightly. There’s a reason that fundamental, reflexive dissonance normally remains hidden. If you want to tell stories, you will have to wield your power of throwing those doors open very carefully, with care and consideration. People will take offense and make accusations. You will need maturity in order not to become defensive yourself. You must find a way to live within this controversy that fits your subversive act.

Currently, I’m tired of the popular cop-out among some less-than-artful Christian writers and industry folks who advise us to skip over the controversy of being honest about evil in our stories and go straight to the resolution. There’s no need to get into the controversy of evil, they say. And besides, it’s always better not to fall into the trappings of questionable content. Simply, paint the evil with broad strokes and let readers fill in the rest.

Well, that might work. Or maybe you’ll end up with propaganda. You can take out the conflict and avoid any controversy, but you’ll also avoid telling a good story. And, worse, you may actually end up lying. A story washed of the truth of evil, pain, and suffering may, in fact, be a greater evil, for it lies against nature and the world God desires to redeem. If we were assigned the task of writing, of using our words to define, shape, and call into existence those metaphors of truth, beauty, and goodness, then by God, we can’t turn away from the task. It may become difficult. It may take us to places we’d rather not go. But uncomfortable as it may be, we have to go there, clear of mind and pure of heart, to bring back the story of what redeemed really means. If they were just stories, we might be able to get away with less. If we were only writing entertainment and not also education, if we weren’t writing to help others understand the tension tugging at their souls, maybe we could stop at just one or the other, i.e. propaganda. If our job was to help people escape the truth, maybe we’d be okay providing manufactured stories—and some supposed Christians certainly do this. Oh, I know. I shouldn’t say that. It makes me sound judgmental. And I’m not one to judge. But thank God many people aren’t interested in those false creations. Many, even commercial Christian fiction writers, are writing stories that tell the truth—or at least as much of it as they’re allowed by the fickle, sanctimonious, and protective readers. Another thing I shouldn’t say. But this handful of frightened people still wield an undue power over the choices artists are given to portray truth. Though a writer may be telling truth, he’ll be criticized and castigated for his efforts. The fact is, there’s very little left to say about the situation. It’s not a fun thing to dwell on. But it does give us a goal, a higher purpose, reason to pray and learn more and write better.

So that’s what I’m off to do. Thanks for reading. And writing.

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10 thoughts on “Story as Controversy”

  1. My heroine feels God has abandoned her, so she searches elsewhere for power and peace, and finds herself in quite a predicament before she finds peace with God once more. The challenge is to make her challenges challenging without enticing the reader to try the same forbidden things. So, other characters voice warnings and she suffers panic attacks and headaches as she goes deeper into her misguided quest for truth and ends up face-to-face with a demon. Not so literary, I guess, but quite literal. One agent said he’d be interested in the book if I made the demon a figment of her imagination. Well, the heroine is also an artist, so maybe it could be a pigment of her colorful imagination? But no, I can’t do even that–they’re real, I tell you, they’re real! : )

  2. “If we were only writing entertainment and not also education, if we weren’t writing to help others understand the tension tugging at their souls, maybe we could stop at just one or the other, i.e. propaganda.”
    I think you have it backward. If you’re writing only for entertainment, it’s not propaganda, that’s entertainment. (A bad word in some lexicons, but not in mine.)
    It’s exactly when you turn a novel into a platform for “educating” the poor souls out there who just don’t get it like you do, when you feel a compulsion to force your novel “to help others understand the tension tugging at their souls” that you end up with propaganda.

  3. well, I don’t think you should get down on the fickle, sanctimonious consumers. If I buy a book you write and I hate the theology in it, or the way it’s written, then am I not within my rights to complain?
    Take Shadowmancer, Mick. I hate that book. Don’t I have a right to say as much?
    I do want to see CBA publish a variety of books–not just the books I love and agree with. The reason is that a variety of books is good for us. It is good for us to look at what others believe, to take it apart, to interact with it, to critique it. But if you gag us then we have lost all the good that comes from discussion of books we disagree with.
    So, while I can agree with your desire to see artists freed up to publish what’s on their hearts and to write deep stuff, I think the answer is not to get the consumers to sit down and shut up. Rather, I think we have to welcome the discussion and engage others in debate.
    Of course I could be wrong. It’s been known to happen. And I don’t have the insider’s view that you have either. So keep on posting, Mick, and I’ll keep on wrangling with your posts and trying to find my own way. =0)

  4. hey mick,
    you wrote:
    Or maybe you’ll end up with propaganda.
    i have thought and said this before. and i do feel propagandized by the entire christian thang. not just the books.
    what i’d like to see is more flesh and blood people being honest and true, communing with God and ministering out of the abundance, not out of some mustered up commitment to convert me as many times as possible (since i keep slipping away, apparently, another contradition i don’t understand).
    God doesn’t seem to be able to keep His grasp on a slippery fish like me, but that is a complete lie. we make him sound like the nutty professor, not the All Mighty Creator of the Universe. a little evil never thwarted His plan.
    i’m glad you’re sick of it. you’re in a position to do something about it, even one book, one author at a time.
    peace.
    suz.

  5. Interesting how the meaning of “propaganda” became the controversy here. It’s one of those words with a straightforward definition but an evil connotation. I think the use of the word creates controversy in itself! Once you declare that one of your purposes in writing is “education,” you open yourself up to charges that you are the one dealing in propaganda.
    Lauren Winner talks about the two perspectives from which we can write books: either “the expert” or “the fellow pilgrim.” I think most of us prefer to write as fellow pilgrims, because who among us would claim to be experts in our walk with God? I think you, too, Mick, write as a fellow pilgrim, and I’m surprised you used the word “educate.” Rather than educate people, aren’t you simply exploring truth, grappling with it, turning it over and trying to get a handle on it, and asking your readers to come along with you on the journey?

  6. Actually, what I meant to say was “edumacate,” as in “let’s get us sum a that edumacation so’s we can get a job.”
    Suz, you were meant for a brighter species. Wish I could clear heads for you.

  7. Okay, so when I came up with a black family in my little town and the whole object was the discrimination and prejudice that this family would endure I had to educate myself to write the storyline believable. What I’d like to know is what is so god-awful about me taking the education that I had to glean to write honestly and then turn around and educate my intended audience with what I had learned?
    Propaganda? By the boatloads. Should I apologize? I think not.
    Introduce myself, maybe… Smiling broadly and taking a slow step out the back door. And why not? I know the alley well.
    And how about my formerly gay, gothic praise and worship leader? Don’t think that he graced my story without my having done my homework. But will he see the light of day?
    Controversy for the sake of controversy is not wisdom, but controversy for the sake of exhortation and liberation has a place in this world. Just maybe not in the Christian market.
    And tell me this, while I’m all about getting educated. How do you find representation when you are breaking out of the mold and touching on hard issues?
    I’m Audrey and I’m really a nice lady… honest

  8. audrey asks:
    How do you find representation when you are breaking out of the mold and touching on hard issues?
    and that is the million dollar question, isn’t it? it occurred to me, go secular. go to secular houses if the christian houses only want white bread writing. go to the houses that publish without so many caveats and conditions.
    suz

  9. Suz,
    You’re a sweetheart ~ thank you for responding to my rant. I know better, especially when I’m not even known, but I just couldn’t help myself!
    The only problem with going with a secular house is that my novels are not only controversial, but they are also ‘in your face’ Christian. I don’t pull any punches on storylines or presentation. I question motives and morals and ‘religion’ while presenting the Gospel in so many words. (At least in my first novel.) My colorful praise and worship leader is not in my premier novel, but my unsaved preacher is, as is my backslidden preacher and a whole cast of other unseemly people… For my third novel I’ve moved on, but then it’s teens I’m dealing with, and a person has to know how ‘electric’ that can be. (I’m half-way done with that one)
    This marketing maze has me completely at a stand-still with my writing. In fact, except for my blog, I’ve really not been writing.
    I thought of a way for me to get back in touch with my characters just this morning. I’m going to take them out to lunch! I’ll find out how well I know them as I interview them. Leonard Freeman is my first ‘guest’ on my blog. (Colorful guy I mentioned)
    Thanks again for the support Suz. I really appreaciate it.

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