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What we really want

Most of you know by now that I had a little personal revolution recently that took me away for a while. Tonight I want to share with you what I learned.

It began with a word. A friend was confronted by a number of writers who had begun to tune out my strong opinions about the current Christian fiction market, hurt by the accusation that their contribution was weak, insubstantial, or worse—compromised. Though I’d been careful not to point fingers at writers, especially individuals in the industry, some heard otherwise. And concerned that I might be causing harm with my little blog, I decided to step back and reevaluate if I was behaving poorly.

I found I had been, at least at times, unbalanced and unloving. Though I’ve been reading Christian fiction since Janette Oke and This Present Darkness, and I read a lot now, it’s grown increasingly more selective. That approach gives, at best, a limited view of the subject. I wasn’t giving a fair and balanced view of the whole of Christian fiction. If all you know is the unusual stuff, you don’t know what else there is.

So I went looking further. I found that there are still a lot of things that bother me about the system. But it’s no different in virtually any entertainment industry you can find. There are authors working within the existing market and doing interesting, challenging things. People like Shelley Bates, whose soon-to-be-published novel Pocketful of Pearls which was used by Publisher’s Weekly as an example of Christian fiction expanding into “gritty, unsanitized” territory. And there are many more coming. Some of them, we’ve met here.

So I can’t say Christian fiction is all superficial anymore. Even when I was saying it, I was really only speaking generally, and I didn’t think I was saying anything unrecognized since the same is true in the secular market and of made-for-TV-movies and radio music. They’re designed to be popular. And though we might have opinions about the intellectual level of some of it, pointing fingers at Jerry or Tim or Tyndale for their role in Left Behind or anything else like it is simply wrong-headed since there’s no moral law restriciting people from writing to that very big market. And thanks to that particular example, we now have the opportunity to drive a very big truck of innovative Christian stories through that very wide gate they opened up.

Christian fiction is much more diverse and interesting than first blush would suggest. There’s still some deplorable stuff out there just as there’s truly deplorable stuff in ABA, but that’s not really the point anymore. The point is change, growth. Depth. Revelation.

So what do we really want? I’ve got ideas. But what are some of yours?

I think (since you’re being so attentive) what we need to do now is rally around the concept of innovation in fiction. “Popular” tends to designate the reprocessing of familiar assumptions and old ideas. Why? Because being comfortable is nice. None of us choose to read things that make us angry, make us struggle and squirm. It’s uncomfortable. What we’re trying to do—to get people to read uncomfortable fiction for pleasure—if we’re honest about it, is completely counterintuitive. But innovation is important and even most popular writers are amazing innovators. They have to be. They’re usually also keen observers of social trends and cultural interests, but that’s another matter. In as much as you can make innovation popular, you’re doing well.

Focus Features, division of Universal Films, has an interesting take on it. If you’re familiar with their films, The Motorcycle Diaries, Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you’ll know why their tagline makes sense. “Committed to bringing moviegoers the most original stories from the world’s most innovative filmmakers.”

That’s not bad. It’s specific, but not. You think, they do movies that stand out. But if you don’t know their movies, you’d figure they’re just looking for the best. Every filmmaker believes that’s them, so what’s the issue? But there’s an inherent exclusionary, intolerant part that’s implied: “Formulaic blockbuster writers need not apply.” What? Is that really what they’re saying? I suppose you’d have to ask them directly, but even then, they’d probably know enough not to admit it.

My recent journey into deeper reflection took me to a place of realizing that I don’t want to be known as the guy who rails against popular writers simply because they’re not innovative enough, challenging enough, or whatever. I want to be someone who encourages innovative writing and strives to be both popular and challenging. That’s a good goal for a blog, I think, and a good goal for a writers group.

I think that’s enough for me for now.

19 Responses to “What we really want”

  1. michael snyder says:

    I decided to stop bashing Christian music and fiction a few years ago for, what I believe, many of the same reasons as you. My mantra was something like: “If we have the Creator on our side, why do we insist on following in the creative arts instead of leading?” But industry is more nuanced than art.
    To answer your question about what we really want…I think we have to break it down to the individual. What I want is an amalgam of Coen Brothers, Richard Russo, Over the Rhine, Focus Featrures, Flannery O’Connor, Radiohead, Douglas Coupland, Nick Hornby, and about thirty-or-so of my other favorite artists. I want what I want, just like you want what you want, just like my mom wants safe, antiseptic, “lite” CBA fiction–and loads of it.
    To me, that’s the problem–or at least a big part of it–that the secular markets are so vast, the choices so rich and varied, that the CBA arts seem small and narrow-minded by comparison.
    But in the words of Timbuck 3…”things are gettin’ better”. I really enjoy Anne Tyler and Elmore Leonard. And now the CBA has Lisa Samson and Chris Well. (Not implying that the CBA’ers are in any way copycats. Just a general point of comparison.) There’s also Brad Whittington, Eric Wilson, Donald Miller, Lauren Winner, and many more.
    I’ve never been an advocate of pushing boudaries just to watch them move. But I believe the trend toward open-minded art is a very good thing. I doubt I’ll ever find the “perfect” novel or cd in either camp (CBA or ABA). The good news is that the CBA is growing and maturing (yes, I said MATURING) and thus by its size and diveristy will give more people what they really want. More good art to go with the mediocre and bad.

  2. siouxsiepoet says:

    yes, i agree with snyder.
    and for those of us quirky enough to enjoy cutting edge stuff, we may indeed be the minority. i constantly meet people and ask, what are you reading? fiction is generally, typically, and constantly the reply. not classical fiction, but the dime-novel stuff, both markets are glutted with. i generally don’t talk books with people in 3d.
    sure we all like a good movie, a movie that stirs our souls and that is truly art, but how many people really get true art? in hindsight maybe, but there are not a whole lot of people out there wanting to grapple with difficult things. new concepts and means of delivery. that is not to impugn the deliverers of what people “the masses” want to glut themselves on. but it is also not necessary to get all upset about those who are able to speak out. (silence whitman’s new form? there would be no ginsberg then. and what good would that have done any of us?)
    i see a need for you mick to perhaps temper your speaking, but also to continue saying what is on your heart. there are some (we are not the most influential by any means) but we don’t want you to shut down simply because the powers that be got a bit flustered.
    what i want. someone that sounds like dave matthews, elicits images like robert frost, uses words like maya angelou, and speaks to my soul through pictures like ridley scott. a lot to ask. i am not sure i can even produce the kind of writing i want to read, but it doesn’t keep me from striving toward it. searching for it. grappling with it.
    if christians, writers, all of us readers could look into what hurts, what might be slightly offensive and find out if there is any truth to it, that would help immensely. if there isn’t any truth in it for us, then just let it be. but do we have to silence the speakers who are brave enough to speak, simply for our comfort?
    frustrated in josephine,

  3. Mike makes some excellent observations to go along with yours, Mick. (If I ever find the novelist equivalent of Over the Rhine, I’ll buy every book he/she writes!) We all have our own tastes, and even those tastes mature. What appeals to me today wouldn’t have twenty years ago. One man’s fine wine burns another man’s throat. And that’s okay. Meanwhile, we have the delightful privilege of challenging and sharpening one another. If I thought I’d reached my creative limits, I’d be depressed.
    If you’ll help me grow, I’ll try to help you, too. And as for popularity, Mick, IMHO, you’ll always be one of the cool kids in the ‘hood.
    Peace out, yo. ;)

  4. Jeanie Shilton says:

    Hi Mick,
    I just finished reading Ted Dekker’s trilogy Black, White and Red and loved it. Not my usual choice in reading material but it captivated my imagination and I couldn’t put it down.
    My question is. What are you reading to Ellie in children’s fiction? I’m looking for CBA material that is written for children – not written for adults who buy it for children – a great marketing strategy though – but great children’s stories that create wonder and mystery about our creator and life with families and dogs and backyard adventures finding frogs etc etc.
    My grandson Sammy is two, he is very typical of today’s two-year-olds (Ellie included I’m sure) in that he is much more advanced in his understanding of the world than my sons generation was at that age. He knows what the Hubble Telescope is, he recognizes a Chimney Nebula. Many of the books I read to him are silly – and silly is okay – but I’m finding authors are speaking down to children and are not writing to ignite their imaginations or covering material that is relevant for two year-olds in this point in time.
    Has anyone come across a wonderful story for 2-4 year-olds lately – I’d love to add it to my grandma library.

  5. “Is it innovation if everyone can see that it is?” (Michal Ostrowski)
    Encouraging innovative storytelling will probably still ruffle feathers, Mick. And I’m thinking it should. I’m thinking that is what compels us writers to exercise our stowed wings. Perhaps we need our feathes ruffled from time to time so that we will leave the safety of the comfortable nest; so that we will have the desire and the energy to fly high and soar long. And get noticed in that big, open sky out there.

  6. Acornstwo says:

    I think I’ve got it easier than you, Mick, because I’m not an editor, who must think globally about where the industry is going, and where it should go.
    I’ve just got me to handle.
    I don’t want to write with the goal of being popular or challenging. I hope my work will be challenging, and wouldn’t it be nice if it were popular? But for myself, I doubt that’s the way to write a book.
    As I indicated in my blog, I take a pretty mystical view of art. I believe the Holy Spirit’s at work in the words and images that haunt me.
    Am I the only one to notice that the things that trouble me will turn out to be the same things that trouble every second or third person I talk to? Could it be that Aslan’s on the move?
    Believing that, I do my best to write from the place where, spiritually, I’m most at sea–trusting my boat will ultimately harbor someplace good.
    That’s the kind of writing I want to encourage, and that’s the kind I want to learn to do well.

  7. Acornstwo says:

    Here’s an interesting post from Deborah Gyapong at the Masters Artist, about who’s really buying all those Christian books in the secular marketplace,  and what really drives the secular book and film industry:
    Here’s her summation of what she really wants:
    "My dream? That excellent writing, screenplays, movie production by
    Christians would not only make money but would help transform the
    culture. Not through propaganda, or ideology-driven work, or the
    Christian equivalent of pap, but real art."

  8. MW says:

    What I want goes right along with the previous comment. I want to see truly innovative fiction. Innovation that takes our writing in new directions and shapes the art that comes after it.
    There seems to be much talk devoted to content. I think content is important but I like that Mick pointed out how any entertainment industry has the problems he finds in the CBA industry. The sad fact is that superficial junk is everywhere. It’s endemic across all art forms. Even the grittier, edgier fiction tends towards the highly formulaic and cliched.
    Its great that CBA writers can feel that it’s okay to write about any topic or from any angle they feel is necessary to express what God wants to say through them. If they feel they need to be a little darker, so be it. I am, however, wary of purposefully trying to make content seem more authentic or gritty. Ironically, that usually only leads to a sense of artificiality.
    On top of that, I’m not sure there are huge inroads to be made in terms of content. I don’t think it’s the stories we’ve been telling, but how we’ve been telling them that’s frustrated some people. Art forms don’t usually move forward by introducing new content. It’s stylistic progress that pushes art. Picasso didn’t do anything new by painting a portrait of a woman. But he did give her a square head and we still haven’t heard the end of that.
    I don’t think stories change very much except on the surface. How we tell them, particularly to reach new audiences, does change. There are endless possibilities to explore in how we tell stories. It may not be that we need to talk about new things, just talk about them in a different way. I’d argue that most writing involves the same ideas used over and over again. Successful fiction succeeds when it brings those old ideas to us in a new manner. In that respect, and I mean no offence to anyone here, I believe there’s been a craft-gap between CBA and ABA literature. That’s not a big deal because many readers aren’t sitting down with a book to worry about its artistic merits. However, to get to the front of the art form, we have to be willing to push the stylistic envelope. That is changing and there is excellent fiction coming onto the CBA market that finds a good balance between popular fiction and art. There’s no reason that CBA literature can’t lead at the artistic front of literature.
    That’s what I want.

  9. Well, I’ve been thinking about this, and about Brandilyn Collin’s three-point rebuttal to CBA critics (posted earlier), and I’ve finally posted something in response here: http://www.jmarkbertrand.com/2005/06/same-old-new-christian-fiction.htm
    My concern is that the “signs of life” in CBA fiction not be mistaken for a clean bill of health, and that they be seen as examples of authors bucking the status quo rather than leading it (or even more misleading, being nurtured by it). All this should be stated in an appropriately humble tone, but it will be offensive anyway, and I’m not sure that this is a reason not to say it.

  10. Maria Ott Tatham says:

    Good discussion. Some thoughts. Why look for the perfect author as a patchwork of our favorites? We don’t make friends like that. Friendship happens (with work) with a person who is inexpressibly unique, and who doesn’t neatly fit our preconceptions. We wouldn’t want a Doystoyevsky to be a hodgepodge of the best. Why look for that in a current writer? Why not accept a writer as one would a person in one-on-one encounters–perhaps there will be friendship of a unique matchless kind.
    About fiction that must make us squirm and be uncomfortable and challenged. Why must we squirm? The mandate to write this way may simply be giving in to the misunderstood over-used mandate to “get out of our comfort zone.” I want a comfort zone in reading, a place where I am ready to settle down spirit to spirit, mind to mind with someone who is writing their heart out with God’s help.
    About telling the same old stories. Yes, telling the same stories (birth, life, new life, death, heaven and hell) is not a bad thing–and in fact it’s all we can really do. As noted, it is HOW stories are told that is our contribution. I would add that they don’t HAVE TO push an envelope, just communicate authentically.
    On this score too, I think it is important for writers to pick significant substantive themes and stories(or to be picked by one). A theme or story that is worth the investment of time for a writer and readers. The best books, poems, plays, films, TV shows deal with things of over-arcing importance, for example, Schindler’s List or Suzanne Wolfe’s Unveiling. Take a classic, Hugo’s 1793. Having honed his craft, sweated and prayed, how could he go wrong in showing the microcosm (individual characters) and macrocosm (sweeping events) of the French Revolution? I will only add that we who use comic treatments can have a little more lea-way to be unimportant.

  11. Maria Ott Tatham says:

    I just came back to briefly say–before doing dinner–I hope I didn’t sound as obnoxious as I think I did. Sorry! Thanks for the discussion. I became paniced upon hearing “squirming” and “pushing the envelope.” Thanks, everyone!

  12. Mick says:

    MW wins the prize for best title: “Adventures in CBA Craft-Gapping.” I’d buy that.
    Jeanne—If you ever find the novelist equivalent of Over the Rhine, I’ll buy every book you write too. And you make a great point. Mike, Sue, you too. Maybe your ideal self is the personal embodiment of what you’re looking for. It seems to me, our favorite influences, when they’re stripped bare-honest, tend to reflect that perfect self that doesn’t yet exist. How many of us are willing to stop looking to the outside to produce what only we can contribute?
    This is worth some thought. Maybe we’re afraid. We’re vicious critics of ourselves–the writer’s curse, right? But maybe some of our discontent with the market and this faceless amalgam of consumers is just preferable to continuing to bang our heads against that familiar blank wall. I hope we’re willing, at least for the time we’re not reading here, to let that critic take us back underground and strap us to our desks until the excuses fly. I know if I was braver, I’d just write myself out of this place.

  13. Mick says:

    Jeanie, I’ll risk sounding like a bully here, but you too. Go write it! Adventures in Grandma’s Backyard.

  14. “Jeanne—If you ever find the novelist equivalent of Over the Rhine, I’ll buy every book you write too.”
    Mick, at first I thought the final “you” in that sentence was a typo. Then I realized you were paying me a humongous compliment.
    Thanks for your faith in my creative ability. I’m honored. And I’ll try not to disappoint you.

  15. Bev says:

    It’s 4 in the morning and I’m sure what I’m about to say won’t be coherent, but I’ll try…
    “My recent journey into deeper reflection took me to a place of realizing that I don’t want to be known as the guy who rails against popular writers simply because they’re not innovative enough, challenging enough, or whatever.”
    I read that comment and thought, hmm….
    I love suspense books that challenge me to figure out who/what/where before it is all revealed. I love putting the pieces of the puzzle together; it’s just the way my mind works.
    But right now, I’m ill and when I tried to read my favorite author’s new book, I could not even follow the story. I couldn’t keep the characters straight and that upset me. So I picked up a chick lit book.
    I was able to read the whole thing and even take away a nugget or two of comfort. It’s not an innovative book. Nor challenging. But it met a need I currently have.
    My first book was what I call ‘fluff’. I like writing light because my job is so dark. I love comedy. I was surprised, however, with the thoughtful and thankful reader mail I received.
    I think the challenge in Christian fiction is, as writers, to grow and be the best at what we do — not for the sake of being innovative or challenging, but because of where our gift comes from.
    What do I want in Christian fiction? Books by writers who let God use them to tell a story — edgy, gritty, simple, funny, profound, or whatever. I don’t want something just because some guy [:)] railing against Christian fiction thinks it needs to be so. I don’t want something just because it pushes the envelope or breaks every rule. If we’re doing that, then we might as well be writing secular. Don’t you think?

  16. DLE says:

    I’m new to your blog, but spent most of the morning consuming your recent entries.
    Ironically, just last night I wrote about my struggles as a Christian novelist looking to get his first novel published. (See the link on my initials on the post.)
    The question I have is how willing are Christian publishers to question doctrine that in some denominations has hardened into an immovable rock? Like I noted in my post, can I write a sympathtic charismatic character who speaks in tongues? Or would that alienate too many readers who object to charismatics altogether? I also wonder if some of the breakthroughs in new Christian imprints will only further ghetto-ize Christian writers to the point that the ABA will automatically relegate us to the “Christian” market.
    Thanks for the blog, I’ll read it every day via Bloglines.

  17. Acornstwo says:

    I’m pretty sure Jeremiah Land in PEACE LIKE A RIVER speaks in tongues. He attends a pentecostal church. An ABA book, but I’m betting any CBA house that wasn’t stupid would jump at the chance to publish a book like that.

  18. DLE says:

    Is Jeremiah Land…
    …a serial killer?
    …the villain?
    …totally harmless in a flaky sort of way?
    If not, then he’s the only tongue-speaking fictional Christian that’s none of those things. That’s a first, I think!

  19. Howdy. I’ll dip my toe in the water….
    Naaahhhh, I’ll just jump right in!
    My compadre Shelley Bates put me on to your blog and golly Moses, am I glad she did. Reading your blog, I feel like I have inadvertently wandered in to a conference room and found a roomful of people who have the same dimple in their chin that I do. What I thought would be a cool and reserved meeting of strangers feels more like an impromptu family reunion. Family as in “you mean there are OTHER people who love Jesus passionately but find their writing jumps out of the CBA box every dang time?” Holy Toledo. Do I squeal with joy or pinch myself in disbelief? (Or am I just squealing ’cause I pinched myself and it kinda hurt?)
    What do I want?
    I want to tell beautiful, scandalous, redemptive stories that offer grace for where we really live.

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