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Another Look At Good Versus Mediocre

Do Christian writers want to write great literature? You know, the kind that will be around for another hundred years (provided Christ’s return doesn’t come before that)? Do we even want to write books that will stay on bookstore shelves […]
| Apr 25, 2011 | No comments |

Do Christian writers want to write great literature? You know, the kind that will be around for another hundred years (provided Christ’s return doesn’t come before that)? Do we even want to write books that will stay on bookstore shelves longer than six months, or ones that won’t be the first to go on the yard sale pile or become donations to the local used bookstore? Do we want to write books people will want to re-read?

I ask because it seems like so much Christian fiction today is the temporary kind.

I work in my church library, and more than once I’ve helped a patron looking for the right book to read. They’ll often stand before a shelf of books by their favorite author and say, I don’t remember if I’ve read this one. They’ll read the back cover, thumb through the first chapter, then chuckle and say, I think I’ve read it, but I’m not sure.

Books like those are not “keepers.” They might give moments of pleasure, but they are just as quickly forgotten.

Shouldn’t Christians write “keepers”?

In the discussion to last week’s post, it seems we (writers and readers) might be divided on this subject. Author Mike Duran, implying he believes Christians should aim to write books that fall into this keeper category, said

As to the art is subjective issue, I am growing weary of Christians using that argument. From my perspective, it is usually employed when defending a work that others don’t like. Frankly, I wish believing artists would spend more time raising the bar, than arguing there isn’t one.

Others, however, defended the notion that readers could care less if a book is poorly written as long as it tells a good story.

Author and Tuesday’s Spec Faith contributor Fred Warren said

there’s a lot of pure dreck on the market that people embrace because it resonates with them on some level.

Galadriel said

I was recently thinking to myself that even if you divide art into catagories based on skill, there are times when lesser works are just what is needed.

Bob agreed:

If readers are like me, the story is the most important thing and the telling of it shouldn’t interfere by being too stylized.

So did Morgan:

The more and more I find out about the writing world, the more I realize I do not care as much about style and artistry as much as I care about a really good story. I will forgive an author of almost anything if they hook me.

The thing is, I think both positions have merit. I agree that “style and artistry” should not spoil a good story. At the same time, I think Christian writers should raise the bar because a lot of our books are not keepers.

Of course a lot of general market fiction isn’t of the keeper variety, either. But we Christians are writing about timeless, universal themes of eternal value. We understand the core needs of the human heart. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. So why are so many of our stories so … temporary?

I return to the idea that many people are looking for nothing more than a good story, a brief respite from the daily grind. But I wonder if that wouldn’t define almost all fiction readers. The difference might be in how we define “good story.”

Baring price, would anyone choose economy class?

I think an analogy might be helpful here. Everyone boarding a plane from LA to Denver wants to reach Denver. The destination is the same. However, the flying experience isn’t identical for every passenger. Some want window seats. Others sit in the turbulent tail section while others pay the extra fee and enjoy the ride in first class.

But if money wasn’t an issue, wouldn’t all passenger opt for first class? They might have different preferences — window seat or aisle — but I have to believe that no one would rather be cramped or prefer not to have special amenities or personal attention from flight stewards.

Is first class necessary? Clearly not. Every passenger will arrive in Denver. Not every passenger will have fond memories of the flight, however, or want to take that airline again. Some will consider the flight “good” as long as they arrive in Denver safely. Others insist the flight can’t be considered good because they hated the movies that were showing.

Of course, I can already hear critics of this picture saying, Some people don’t even want to go to Denver, they want to go to New York, so the destination for all passengers isn’t the same.

I agree. However, the destination in the analogy, I think, more nearly represents genre preference, not quality. Let me tap into another illustration.

Some (most?) of us prefer "burger and fries" stories

Some people are regular meat-and-potato folks. They don’t need fancy French cuisine. In fact, they’d opt for a good burger and fries from Carl’s Jr. any day over caille en sarcophage from Lavendou. Preference.

Gourmet burgers are still burgers, with added value

And yet … can’t even a burger be better? Carl’s itself advertises their burgers are “Six dollar” burgers, only at a lower price. But how about a ten dollar burger or a fifteen dollar burger — more meat from a better cut of beef, garnished lavishly with the freshest ingredients and arrayed on the plate in an appealing fashion. Wouldn’t that burger be better? Still a burger. But the meal would be more nutritious, less apt to clog the arteries, more apt to give the body its necessary fuel. And I have to believe, the eating experience actually might be more pleasurable, too.

The question is, do we settle for the fast food version of our fiction because we don’t know we could have gourmet burgers instead?

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Esther
Guest

I think it depends on who you’re writing for. If you’re writing for the market, then write dreck if it sells. But if you are crafting your art FOR God and BEFORE Him, then you have a higher responsibility.

Part of art’s job is to give us a glimpse of those higher things we are supposed to be focusing on, to give us a taste of Heaven, and to educate our taste FOR Heaven.

I don’t intend to just promote my own blog here, but the definition used to define True Art over on that blog helps to clarify the conundrum presented in the article above: “True Art magnifies the greatness of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit illustrating God’s Word through the artistic medium thereby motivating the gathered Church to proclaim the Gospel, to cherish God’s presence, and to live for God’s glory.”

If you are an artist, and a Christian artist, then my opinion is that you have a responsibility to reach for that standard of art every time you produce a work of art. But if you’re goal is simply to make a living…I don’t know. I guess if your family is starving and writing dreck will fill their stomachs, then it would be better to write dreck than let them go hungry, if you are trying to hold to scriptural priorities.

I think it takes “keeper” books to achieve the standard of True Art. Not every book will be one, but every one written by a Christian ought to have that as its goal even if it doesn’t reach it.

Frankly, bad writing ruins a story for me. I DO notice. And I won’t think the story worth reading if the grammar is bad, the story crafting clumsy, and the characters bland. I promise I won’t finish the story. If you’ve got a good story, why dress it in rags? It deserves to be well written.
my .o2

Bob
Guest

What are the standards for art.

C.S. Lewis’ fiction would rate sub-par with today’s standards, and I’d guess that modern art would’ve be considered inferior with Rembrandt. This would indicate that standards, if they are objective, are only during a specific period of time. Does that mean they’re really subjective? So why are the works of the two above mentioned artists keepers?

Maybe the absolute standard is what God calls good. Why did God call his work of creation good?
Because it was perfect. OK, let’s skip that one. Because it was imaginative, creative, unique, orderly, diverse, deep, mysterious, wonder-full … If we can emulate some of this, I think we’d have more keepers.

Galadriel
Guest

Bob has some really good points

Amy Rose Davis
Guest

I find it inconceivable that any author would set out to write something he or she considers substandard just to make a living. I honestly believe that almost all writers agonize over every word they put on the page. Am I being naive? I don’t know. I just know that all the writers *I* know–self-published, traditionally published, unpublished–Christian and non-Christian–set out to write the best books they can from beginning to end.

I understand Duran’s argument that we shouldn’t aim for mediocre. I agree. I aim for perfection, knowing I’ll fall short of it. But I can hit the point where I think it’s as perfect as it’s going to get and *still* have a lot of people saying, “this isn’t a keeper.”

And even when I think something is as perfect as it’s going to get, I could improve my craft and story-telling ability and look back and think, “wow, that really stunk” somewhere down the road.

Should Christians strive for “perfection” or whatever human equivalent? Absolutely. Should we worry whether consumers are going to see our books as “keepers” or not? Well, not as much. I still think Terry Goodkind’s “Wizard’s First Rule” is a keeper, even though it has huge flaws. But I’ve tried to read “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss, and I just can’t get hooked, even though other fantasy fans say it’s brilliant, life-changing, and a keeper.

Maybe I’m missing the point of this post or of the argument altogether. I’m left scratching my head at the concept that any writer doesn’t give it his/her all every time, straight out of the gate. Again, maybe I’m naive… It just seems like this isn’t the kind of thing you do as a lark, intending to produce substandard work just to make a buck. If making a buck is your own goal, there are WAAAAYYYY easier and more lucrative ways to do it.

Patrick
Guest

Has anyone here written a keeper? Did you believe it was a keeper when you arrived at the finished product after all your time and effort you put into writing it? Has anyone here intentionally written a book you knew was dreck, rationalizing that because it’s a popular sort of dreck it’s fine because it sells? It’s easy to make harsh opinions when we think we are talking about other people- but with the nature of this particular blog I suspect we are really talking about ourselves.

Morgan Busse
Member

Keepers for me are books that I will read over and over again. The story resonated with me. As Bob pointed out, there are many old books out there that would be considered sub-par by today’s standards. If they were entered into a contest, they would rate average or less on POV, too much description, not enough active verbs, etc…

However, these are the books on my bookshelf that I will read over and over again. Books by Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice), Maude Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables), C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and many more.

I think (if I were using the hamburger analogy) that it comes down to our different tastes. For example: Red Robin is a gourmet hamburger joint. All their burgers are gourmet, but I do not like all of them. Same with books. There are some well written, award winning books out there. They’re just not my type.

Sally Apokedak
Guest

I have a new rule. If my comment is over 400 words I put it in a blog post instead of in the comments. My comment today came in at over 500 words. So, thanks for the interesting topic. Becky. I will be blogging about it soon. 🙂

My short comment is that a good book, like good food, takes time to prepare, and shortcuts never make anything better.

Sally Apokedak
Guest

Oh, so to answer the question you posed…I think readers are reaching for the best they can get, but that many writers are cranking out fast food—assembly line burgers—-and I think they do it not because they don’t know there is a better way but because they are too addicted to instant gratification to take the time to prepare the healthy, tasty, artfully prepared meal.

Morgan Busse
Member

Great point. To be honest, I have very few keepers on my own book shelf because I’m hoping for the gourmet burger to come along (lol).

Morgan Busse
Member

Just thought of another point. When does a writer admit that they are only a grade B writer? Perhaps there will be improvement over the years as they learn, but in the end, they will never be a Hemingway or Tolkien? When does a writer finally be content that God made them a grade B writer, but as a writer, they are still reaching people?

I don’t know the answer to that question myself, so I thought I’d throw that one out there 🙂

Bob
Guest

Morgan,
Do your best and don’t worry about the grade. Somebody will give you an A, even if it’s from your own family.

Kaci Hill
Member

Do Christian writers want to write great literature? You know, the kind that will be around for another hundred years (provided Christ’s return doesn’t come before that)? Do we even want to write books that will stay on bookstore shelves longer than six months, or ones that won’t be the first to go on the yard sale pile or become donations to the local used bookstore? Do we want to write books people will want to re-read?

Yes.

Of course a lot of general market fiction isn’t of the keeper variety, either. But we Christians are writing about timeless, universal themes of eternal value. We understand the core needs of the human heart. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. So why are so many of our stories so … temporary?

To be completely trapped in one-liners: “We are far too easily pleased.”

But that said, I don’t immediately write something off just because it follows a formula. Bad dialogue, terrible execution, sure. But just because I see it coming doesn’t mean it didn’t work.

Amy:Should Christians strive for “perfection” or whatever human equivalent? Absolutely. Should we worry whether consumers are going to see our books as “keepers” or not? Well, not as much.

I prefer telling people to strive for excellence. It’s measurable and attainable. Like my dad says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.”

Amy Rose Davis
Guest

Kaci, I agree. But even “excellence” is subjective.

I hate to be the grouchy one here… I still think I must be missing the point… I think my novel is a “keeper,” but I suspect most people on this blog and in this comment section wouldn’t because of some of the content. As far as the quality of writing, I’d hold myself up next to most of the quality writers out there. I think I do characters as well as (or, dare I say, perhaps better than) Stephen Lawhead, but he leaves me in the dust on sheer poetry of writing. I think I do dialogue as well as David Eddings did in the craft department, but he smokes me in snappy comebacks. I avoid adverbs, I use normal dialogue tags (said, asked, and the occasional tag to indicate volume), I vary my sentence lengths, etc. etc. There are still going to be people who hate my work and people who love it, and some will be Christians and some won’t be. In both camps.

When I think of “keepers,” I think of books like Pride and Prejudice, Call of the Wild, Little Women, The Old Man and the Sea, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Chronicles of Narnia, Goodnight Moon, Oh! The Places You’ll Go!, Yertle the Turtle, The Lorax, A Song of Ice and Fire (by George R. R. Martin), several series by Stephen Lawhead, Dune, A Wizard of Earthsea, Sense and Sensibility, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times, everything by David Eddings…. I could keep going. You see a pattern–there is no pattern. I have eclectic tastes. And I’m positive I’ve listed at least one book or series that someone on this blog or in the comment section will say is a terrible book.

By the same token, if anyone ever wants to torture me, just force me to read some Steinbeck or Faulkner. And, horror of horrors, I’m still struggling to read through the Lord of the Rings.

I guess I don’t understand why “subjectivity” has to be a bad argument. ALL art is subjective. There were probably storytellers in the crowds around Jesus who said, “that whole thing about the prodigal was good and all, but he could have given me a better sense of setting. Also, the dialogue was stilted.” And surely there was a crowd of little old ladies outside the Sistine Chapel saying, “Well, this isn’t the art *I* grew up with, and must he really cover the entire ceiling?”

Here’s what I’ve come down to: I write the story in my head to the best of my ability. The audience’s reaction isn’t my responsibility. It’s my responsibility as the artist to craft a good story that’s as representative of truth as I can make it.

If we’re all going to wait for God to come down and personally bless our books as “keepers” before they go out the door, we’re most likely going to be waiting a very, very long time.

*ducking now while people throw things and I’m banned forever from commenting*

Kaci Hill
Member

If we’re all going to wait for God to come down and personally bless our books as “keepers” before they go out the door, we’re most likely going to be waiting a very, very long time.

Haha. Of course. I wasn’t suggesting we try to ‘rate’ ourselves or anyone else – that was the point. “Excellence” is both striving for your best and challenging yourself beyond what you’re currently capable of. Everyone’s got their own mix of strengths and weaknesses, yes (I won’t forgive Tolkien Tom Bombadil).

The subjective part is a matter of taste. I don’t like Renaissance art much (not into nudes, don’t get why they’re all nude), but that’s not what makes it excellent or not. I’m annoyed by most classics, but that’s a matter of flavor (I think many are convoluted and I have little respect for writers who penned work while high).

What every book you listed has in common is that it’s well done, whether we like it or not.

As for being realistic about ourselves, I think you illustrated that nicely.

Assuming that makes sense….now I have an assassin to write…

Martin LaBar
Guest

I agree with Kaci Hill, on all points (the ones in her comment, anyway).

Keep up the good work, Speculative Faith!

Morgan Busse
Member

To somewhat answer the question I posed above, I think we should strive for excellence as Kaci stated, but we also need to find contentment in the writer God has made us. I say it this way because sometimes in our strive to be the very best we lose ourselves. I am a competitive, driven person. And if I let those aspects of myself rule me, then I will turn into a person I don’t want to be. I must be ruled by God before I strive for excellence.

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[…] slightly, I want to move from how a writer writes (see “Good Versus Mediocre” and “Another Look At Good Versus Mediocre”) and how a reader reads (see “Readers, Writers, And What Each Understands”) to what a […]