At the end of May, the Gospel Coalition posted an article entitled “How to Discourage Artists in Church.” While there was much in the article that I didn’t agree with (not the least being that the author left off writers from the list of artists!), one thing that came out in the discussion was that Christians need to learn how to evaluate art.
A number of writers have said something similar, in particular pointing to a lack of informed reviews that help readers evaluate beyond determining whether or not they liked a book.
I happen to think liking a book is important, but there is more to evaluating a story. I liked Avatar, for example, but I also thought the story was derivative and preachy and the theme was anti-Christian. I was happy it did not win the Best Picture Oscar. But I really did like it. It was entertaining, kept my interest the whole way, and had stunning special effects. Stunning!
As it happens, we are drawing close to the time when readers will be voting for the 2013 Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction. We have thirty-three nominees. How are we to choose one Best Book?
Already some of our commenters have said they are going to have a hard time voting because there are so many good books to choose from. I also think there are good books on the list, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy to pick the one I want to vote for as best of the lot. But I’d like to think through the process of making that choice.
First, no reader should pick a book as best if they haven’t read it. This seems obvious, but the problem is, there are a number of online contests that are nothing but popularity contests. I’m thinking of the Predators and Editors contests (which they may or may not still hold). In the past, on any number of email loops an author would say that their book was nominated for best cover or best fantasy or best inspirational or whatever else, and please go to the link and vote for their book.
Of course, not having read the book or any of the competing books makes it impossible to actually say, yes, book X is better than all these others. But we can say, I like the author who asked me to vote, so I’m going to vote as requested.
The author, then, who has the most friends willing to respond, is the one declared the winner.
This is not consistent with the goals of the Clive Staples Award.
Instead of identifying a popular author, we want to honor fiction well written. The method we are currently using to determine this is Readers’ Choice–readers who read the book declare with their vote, this book is better than the others they read.
But what does “better” look like?
There are Standards posted as part of the contest rules, worded in a sort of “judge’s sheet” format. Any reader who wants to play judge is welcome to print out the standards and rate the books they are considering in each of the categories, then vote accordingly.
I know that’s a lot of work though, so maybe we can simplify the process for the rest of us. There are five sections in the CSA standards–writing, setting, characters, plot, and theme.
Writing. Good writing is not boring. It doesn’t go on and on, isn’t too flowery, filled with repetition, or too hard to understand. It might be lyrical, poetic, even beautiful in painting a picture, but it doesn’t do so at the expense of the story. In other words, the writing in fiction should serve the story rather than the story serving as a frame for the writing.
Setting. Speculative fiction often refers to this element as worldbuilding. Good worldbuilding comes down to this: do you, the reader, believe it and is it consistent? If you ever find yourself reading along and think, Really? the world is probably not as believable as it should be.
At the same time, if you’re reading along and say, Wait a minute! What happened to the . . . or, Weren’t there two of them in the last chapter? then the setting, the worldbuilding is not as consistent as it should be.
To avoid going on and on (because even nonfiction can do so, which makes it boring as well), I’m going to save a closer look at characters, plot, and theme for next time.
Meanwhile, share your thoughts about evaluating books. Is one of these elements, characters or plot, for instance, more important to you than the others? Is it OK to vote for a book that might be weaker in one element but is strongest in the element you believe to be most important?