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How To Help Fantastic Heroes, Part 2

Don’t act like ‘support zombies”; only promote fantastic stories because they delight us.

Last time I suggested two ways to help two kinds of fantastic heroes — both the heroes found in great books (or onscreen), and the heroes who make them up. Here are two more.

3. DO buy, enjoy, and recommend fantastic stories.

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“Wrote me a book ‘bout some magical heroes. My work here’s done.”

This should go without saying, but alas, it doesn’t.

If you want more great “quest stories”1 in any market, you can’t just write one and self-publish it and then heroically ride off into the sunset. You also need to find, love, promote, and review the stories you love — solely because you love them and not for any other reason (see below).

Note for aspiring authors: I’m sure that’s difficult. Trust me, I know. Is there also a part of you that doesn’t want to promote others’ stories strictly for their own merit?

cover_merechristianityLately I’ve pondered how to overcome this impulse. I wonder if Christian fantasy’s patron saint, C.S. Lewis, in his nonfiction Mere Christianity might have a solution. In Lewis’s words, about something that fantasy fans should enjoy: “Let’s Pretend.”

What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.

[…] You see what is happening. The Christ Himself, the Son of God who is a man (just like you) and God (just like His Father) is actually at your side and is already at that moment beginning to turn your pretence into a reality.

That may be the key: Even if you want to promote stories for the secret goal of eventually promoting your own, succeeding, and doing nothing but writing the rest of your life, act as if you weren’t. Gradually the apparent “hypocrisy” will give way to better habits. Might this be, as Lewis said, a hint to defeating sin-shrapnel and conforming our minds to Christ’s?

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4. DON’T act like ‘support zombies.’

"Support this story. It has Moral Values." "Suppot this story. It has Realistic Grittiness." Just two strains of the same evangelical Support Zombie plague.

“Support this story. It has Moral Values.” “Support this story. It has Realistic Grittiness.” Just two strains of the same evangelical Support Zombie plague.

Here I used the phrase “support zombies” and said evangelicals do this. It’s fairer to say we often do this. It’s fairer to define the (reluctant) term and say that evangelicals, no matter their cultural views, often cry for Supporting a thing not because it brought them delight, but to help defeat a perceived enemy.

It’s easy to apply this to folks who demand we Support, say, a ridiculous religious holiday movie because we Want Values in Hollywood™.

But this zombie plague could also come back to bite us. Might we end up promoting fantasy, gritty, paranormal, or “edgy” stories, no matter their quality or value, mainly to stick it to folks who we believe have been shuffling about droning “shuh-pporrrt” for sappy stuff?

Let’s not do that. Really.

However, let’s also not flog the poor Christian authors who truly try hard and just don’t see that the results aren’t that great. This caution is behind my reluctance to review bad books. I used to point them out with gusto, even here on SpecFaith. Now, not so much. If I review a book, it is solely because I loved the story and heroes and want others to know. Might it be better to let bad books quietly pass by? To pretend our stories are better until they are?

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DON’T act like ‘support zombies.’

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  1. See part 1: that is my temporary(?) term to replace “speculative fiction.”

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23 Comments on "How To Help Fantastic Heroes, Part 2"

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Paul Lee
Member

Might we end up promoting fantasy, gritty, paranormal, or “edgy” stories, no matter their quality or value, mainly to stick it to folks who we believe have been shuffling about droning “shuh-pporrrt” for sappy stuff?

I’ve felt that inclination. I’ve also been a support zombie for Christian speculative fiction in general, because I thought it was cool that Christians were writing real stories. But if you really believe what you are saying, you can’t let yourself support a book just because it was written by a Christian author and promoted within a Christian Internet community. You can love a story for portraying Christian themes, for showing truth in a distinctly Christian way, but you can show no preference or allegiance for the author’s religious affiliation or the culture or community in which the book originated. All that is “meta information” as far as the story is concerned.
 

This caution is behind my reluctance to review bad books.

It sounds like you need reviewers who don’t know you, and don’t know the CSF authors, and don’t care about the community one way or another.
 

Might it be better to let bad books quietly pass by? To pretend our stories are better until they are?

No, I highly doubt it. I understand the feeling. I share the inclination to agree with people and to promote unity. But I’ve been becoming more of an antagonist lately, and I realize that I’ll never do anything real if I’m too afraid of disunity to express what I really believe. Christian speculative fiction will never be “real” as long as there is a community and/or a culture with that promotes allegiance and interpersonal unity over complete honesty. But what we really need is outside scrutiny.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

A clarification: I don’t mean lying by saying, “Christian novelists’ works are all  better.” I mean simply ignoring the stuff that doesn’t altogether pass muster and only “behaving as if” only the great novels exist. That’s actually a bit more insulting, some to think of it, to Christian brothers and sisters who are trying hard. Yet I believe their craft quality control should be more on the editorial/crit group end, shouldn’t it?

Leah Burchfiel
Member

I feel like that’s another prompt for me to start my own low-trafficked review blog among the masses of others on the Internet. I think I’ve got the background to bridge the chasm between semi-separatist, conservative Christians and the mainstream, but 1) I’m poor and can’t afford to keep buying Kindle books, especially if I keep planning to move out of the parents’ house with as little mooching off them as I can manage, 2) I would use swearwords, because it’s MY blog, and that would alienate a solid portion of the more conservative parts of my potential audience, if the comparative liberalness didn’t already. Also, I don’t know if it’s a good idea for me to be in charge of a comments section, because I would be strongly tempted to change all the troll comments to things like “Notleia, you are the wisest, most graceful being to adorn the surface of this planet.”

Leanna
Guest

Let the library feed you books to review. 🙂

Leah Burchfiel
Member

I live about a 20 minute drive from the nearest one, but maybe once I move….

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I tried doing that, but it’s tough. I need to get back on track with it. It takes a lot more stamina than you think, especially if you read both bad and good books. I have Quantum Mortis in the Kindle now, but trying to find out where the heck to start with the five Bryan Davis books was an issue.
 
It’s actually possible to do this on the cheap, with Kindle. Keep an eye out for the first books of series (which often are discounted or free,) or the often common sales Amazon or publishers have.

kaci
Guest

Also, I don’t know if it’s a good idea for me to be in charge of a comments section, because I would be strongly tempted to change all the troll comments to things like “Notleia, you are the wisest, most graceful being to adorn the surface of this planet.”
 

Having been a moderator, that’s probably one of the gentler, funnier things you can do.  

Austin Gunderson
Member

“Might it be better to let bad books quietly pass by? To pretend our stories are better until they are?”

Simply put, no.  Not for one moment.  Not in the slightest.  You see, if I as a fan of speculative fiction read a given story, it’s not my story.  I didn’t create it; I can’t change it.  The belief that my perception of reality has the power to alter reality itself is, at best, an example of ‘power of positive thinking’ thinking.  At worst, it’s akin to Prosperity Gospel mentality.  Actions are directed by thoughts, yes.  But thoughts not followed up by actions are totally worthless.

Now, if C.S. Lewis’ point about ‘pretending’ — through action — that something is true in order to make it true were applied to the writers of Christian speculative fiction, then we’d be getting somewhere!  Why don’t the writers go ahead and pretend to be members of a community that values quality just as much as content?  Why don’t they pretend to be targeting an audience who’ll refuse to give them a free pass on their mediocre stylization and storytelling just because they happen to hold certain beliefs? Only then would the quality of Christian spec-fic actually improve.

But what’s left for us readers to do, then?  Are we powerless to affect change, mere victims of our writers’ mentalities?  Of course not.  What we can do is ‘pretend’ to not find mediocrity acceptable anymore.  We can ‘pretend’ to have higher ideals.  We can ‘pretend’ to want to hold shoddy writers accountable for their lax standards, even when such a stand makes us feel snotty, negative, or ungrateful.  We can ‘pretend’ to write negative reviews to prevent others from falling into the “it’s Christian, therefore it’s worth my time” mindset.  We can ‘pretend’ to demand more, higher, greater.  Only then will we get it.

Fred Warren
Member

Actually, silence is often the most scathing criticism the Christian readership can offer a story. We’ve been conditioned to believe anything less than full public support for our brothers’ and sisters’ products is “not nice” at best and “betrayal” at worst (or perhaps even “the voice of Satan”). The default response to something we can’t bring ourselves to applaud is to ignore it, as if we’re imposing an Amish shunning.

As a writer, I’ll take honesty over over false enthusiasm or silence any day. Honesty at least tells me whether or not I’m connecting with my readers.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

So Fred, you would agree that ignoring a poorly done story is a worse result, and that offering genuine and public criticism is by comparison a greater mercy?

Fred Warren
Member

I agree with Austin that without honest public criticism, there’s no spur to improvement, and it fosters a toxic sense of entitlement to glowing reviews.

Private crit groups are essential, but they’re still a closed loop, and if you rely solely on inner-circle feedback, you’re silencing the audience’s reaction, which is the final word. A story is a conversation between author and readers. I can’t tell if I reached their hearts if all they’re allowed to do is offer insincere praise or silence. If all I get is silence, I can’t even tell if they’re reading.

There’s a balance, of course. If you don’t like something, it’s easy to cross the line between frank feedback and trollery. It’s also easy for a writer to misinterpret constructive criticism as a personal attack (and part of maturing as a writer is learning how to tell the difference). Silence sidesteps this awkwardness, but I think it’s a convenience we can’t afford if we want these authors and stories to prosper.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

All right, that makes sense and that helps me. I suppose I would be more willing to do this thing if authors explicitly supported it. Frankly I’ve read some novels from Christian publishers that are so polished, and their authors so committed to a Big Slick Gleaming Platform of Spiritual Ministry — rather than the ministry of craftsmanship — that it’s clear my negative review won’t help them (or their future characters) on bit.

Fred Warren
Member

Maybe I’m just weird that way, but you’re right that we don’t often hear authors shouting from the rooftops, “Bring me your criticism!” I have heard on more than one occasion in authors’ forums, from people I respect, that there’s no such thing as bad feedback, and the wise writer will swallow his/her pride and value both positive and negative reviews as a resource to improve their work.

Part of the problem is that reviews have become so closely tied to sales in everyone’s mind, particularly in the Amazon world, to the point where every missing “star” is perceived as money stolen from the author’s pocket.

I’d simply like to foster an environment where people feel free to say they didn’t like a story, and why, without fearing they’ll be tarred as a traitor, thief, thug, jerk, or tool of the devil.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

The problem too is that everyone in this subculture seems to want to write or work in the industry. To be honest is going to make enemies and limit your prospects, no matter how polite you are. A lot of people don’t want to gamble that by telling the truth, you’ll alienate a powerful someone in the future who can get you blacklisted. Or get their fans to rate you down to oblivion. 
 
People tend to wind up covering their butt first, and speaking later. 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Which is why we seek reviews and reviewers who are either 1) not interested in joining The Industry but who simply want to promote great stories, 2) still interested in joining The Industry but are able to be fair and firm and gracious even in the negative reviews they write.

Conversely, that may be why so far I’m only reviewing books I enjoy. 🙂

Shannon McDermott
Guest

In all my review-writing, I have never imagined the possibility that The Industry would notice what I said, let alone be moved to action by it. I have a hard time imagining it now, though I don’t know whether that’s right.

I’m disinclined to give negative reviews. Occasionally I’ll do so – a few times I’ve accepted a review copy, and had to – but I prefer to write positive reviews. It’s nicer, in more ways than one.

There is, of course, a legitimate place for negative reviews. But before you take out the rhetorical long knives, it’s best to take a moment to justify to yourself why, and not simply assume that carving up some poor author’s work is for the good of fiction everywhere. Not all authors will be hurt by a negative review, but neither will all be helped. Sometimes silence must be best, and at any rate it’s good to err on the side of kindness.

Before I end, I’d like to make a quick distinction: By “negative review”, I mean a review that gives a thumbs-down on a book, not a review that contains criticism. Reviews that end by recommending a book often have a paragraph or two of “what could have been done better”. One can critique and promote in the same review.

Austin Gunderson
Member

No reviewer who aspires to somehow “change the industry” has a realistic view of his or her own role in the world.  And you’re absolutely right that mean-spirited or ad hominem rants are never acceptable, not even in a negative review.  But those realities in no way make negative reviews any less legitimate or necessary than positive ones.

When I write a book review, whether it’s positive or negative, my sole purpose is to communicate with potential readers.  My purpose should never be to communicate with the book’s author, because that author, now that his book’s been published, is entire beyond anyone’s help.  The book is now finished, set in ink, exposed for public dissection.  And when I dissect it, I’m doing so for the benefit of the only remaining variable: the reading public.  I want them to know whether the book is worth their time and money.

But the Christian spec-fic community is very, very small; it’s a place in which authors, if they so choose, can easily encounter reviews of their work.  How terrifying that prospect for the reviewer!  Instantly (unless one is a troll) the fear sets in: what if I’m rejected as a conceited perfectionist?  What if the author sees my review?  What if I hurt his feelings?  These are all unworthy thoughts.

At this very moment, I have pending reviews of books whose authors I see beside me on this site’s comment threads all the time.  I’ll be honest: it’s daunting.  As a writer myself, someone who’s spent the past seven years of spare time working on a novel, I know what it feels like to have your work criticized.  I know the almost violent resentment that can spring up when some philistine who wasn’t even present in the birthing chamber heaps scorn upon your baby.  I know the vulnerability it requires to release your helpless creation to the wolves of public opinion.  It’s not easy.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not absolutely necessary if my work is ever to rise above its default level.

Far, far worse than negative critique is the Silence of Niceness — of people who read my work and then never get back to me about it because they’re afraid of hurting my feelings.  Yes, they would hurt my feelings were they to voice their criticism.  No, it would not be “nice.”  But unless I’m thrust into a head other than my own, unless someone allows me to take a step back and look at my work from an entirely different perspective, I’ll be left to my own inadequate devices.  I’ll never be challenged, never have the opportunity to rise to the occasion of necessary revision, never improve.

And if nobody respected me enough to provide me with the service of their criticism during my writing process, and if I then only read “nice” reviews of my book once it’s published, the cycle will repeat.  My Christian community, out of a misdirected sense of compassion, will have insulated me from reality and prevented me from attaining my full potential.

It turns out, my first book review on this site was read by the author, who proceeded to discuss his writing process with me in the comments section.  I don’t think he agreed with the majority of my assessment, but our interaction was nonetheless a quite positive experience.  But that’s beside the point.  Even if he’d closed himself to criticism and thought me a mean-spirited troll, I would’ve been doing the right thing by posting my review.  You see, it was never about him.  It was about the readers.

I respect my fellow readers enough to tell them to avoid poorly-written books.  They may choose to ignore my advice and read those books anyway, and sometimes they may conclude that I was off my rocker for attempting to dissuade them from such action.  I don’t claim to have a corner on the One True Way to appreciate literature.  But one thing I do know: unless people can trust me to tell them when I think something’s bad, they’ll never trust me when I tell them that something’s good.

It’d be intellectually dishonest of me to spout nothing but praise for Christian speculative fiction.  I’m entirely uninterested in seeing this sub-genre “succeed” in the worldly sense of popularity or profitability.  What I want is for individual stories to succeed in terms of their actual quality, and for readers to appreciate good stories and eschew poor ones.  If this isn’t happening, then “Christian speculative fiction” doesn’t deserve any worldly success.  The fact that it’s an industry brimming with Christians is totally irrelevant.

Not once does scripture command us to “be nice,” or to “err on the side of kindness.”  Instead, we are commanded to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).  If I withhold the truth because I’m afraid of offending someone, then I’ve betrayed the Body of Christ.  And my love for this particular organ of that Body demands that I offer it my genuine, partiality-free responses as a reader.  Whether or not those responses are accepted as “constructive” criticism is entirely up to those who read my reviews.

Shannon McDermott
Guest

I’m not sure to what extent we disagree, and to what extent we’re just missing each other. I concede the constructive facets of negative reviews, for instance, which I did not mean to dispute. Here a few points I’d like to make clear, and I’m sorry if I am, or appear to be, misunderstanding you:
 
(1) I do not aspire to “change the industry”.
 
(2) Writing positive reviews – even writing only positive reviews – is not to “spout nothing but praise for Christian speculative fiction”. Most positive reviews, if done right, will have a dose of criticism, just as most negative reviews, if done right, will have a dose of praise. The difference between a negative and a positive review is a difference of ratio and final conclusions. It is emphatically not a false dichotomy between praise and critique.
 
(3) Of course there is no Bible verse that reads, “Be nice.” As we all know, there is a Bible verse that reads, “Love your neighbor.” And this is why you’re wrong when you say that “What if I hurt [the author’s] feelings?” is an unworthy thought. It is a Christian thought.
 
This is, after all, elemental to what they call Christian charity: When you talk about people, you consider whether your words will hurt their feelings.
 
Yes, yes, a time comes to tell the truth even if it does hurt feelings. A time does not come to simply dismiss people’s feelings as a concern from the outset.
 
We have to work out our honesty with kindness. Humanity being fallen, and often mistaken and frequently annoying besides, we all have endless opportunities to engage in honest criticism of everybody we know. But if we took all those opportunities, we wouldn’t keep the second greatest commandment. (And we’d have no friends …)
 
And as in our relationships, so in our reviewing. Reviews are worthless if they’re not honest, and unfair to readers. You’ve gone wrong if you make authors’ feelings the deciding factor in what you say about their books. But you’ve also gone wrong if you make their feelings no factor at all.
 
“Speak the truth in love” is an excellent motto for reviewers. In reviewing, as in everything else, we should say only what we think is true. But if we speak in love, it will change how we say things. Sometimes it will even change what we say.

Paul Lee
Member

The difference between a negative and a positive review is a difference of ratio and final conclusions. It is emphatically not a false dichotomy between praise and critique.

I agree, but I wish we didn’t have to label reviews as “positive” or “negative” at all. A review is an interpretation of a book’s meaning and an analysis of the book’s component parts. Neither of those functions is inherently positive or negative.
 
This is another case where I think we ruin things by labeling and categorizing them to death.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Shannon,

(1)  When I said that “changing the industry” isn’t a realistic goal, I was agreeing with you, not indicting you.  Sorry for being unclear.

(2)  While I agree with you that, in most cases, no book is entirely excellent or entirely pathetic, there are infrequent occasions in which a reviewer has only one sort of reaction to give.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  If a reviewer actually paid attention to a book while reading it, and actually made a real effort to accept it on its own terms, then there’s no way he can write a poor review, even if it’s a completely negative review.  No reviewer should ever just make up nice things to say in order to counterbalance negativity.  That’d be dishonest.

(3)  Was Jesus loving His neighbors in Matthew 23?

I’m serious.  “Love” doesn’t always equate to “kindness” as it’s commonly understood.  If I write a negative review, I’m being “kind” to those readers whose time and money I’ve helped to steward, but I’m also being “loving” toward the author whose book I’ve reviewed by being honest with him about my reaction to his work.  If he doesn’t agree with my reaction or doesn’t want to see it in the first place, that’s okay — nobody’s forcing him to read my review.

“You’ve gone wrong if you make authors’ feelings the deciding factor in what you say about their books. But you’ve also gone wrong if you make their feelings no factor at all.”

I would agree with that statement.  That’s basically what I meant when I said that “mean-spirited or ad hominem rants are never acceptable, not even in a negative review.”

Shannon McDermott
Guest

(1) Okay. Good to know.
 
(2) Agreed.
 
(3) C.S. Lewis sold me on the distinction between kindness and love when I first read The Problem of Pain. So yes, I easily agree that both negative and positive reviews may be loving (or not).

Paul Lee
Member

When I write a book review, whether it’s positive or negative, my sole purpose is to communicate with potential readers.

When I write a book review, I try to approach it with the sole purpose of expressing insight about the story or the way that the story is presented. I specifically don’t write consumer reviews to help undecided potential readers decide whether or not they want to spend their money. Undecided potential readers are part of my target audience, and that is why I try to avoid spoilers like the plague. The author is also part of my target audience, if he or she is willing to read reviews. My target audience is anyone who wants to explore the meaning and significance of the book.
 
This has been said before, I don’t know by whom:
 
A good review can be enjoyable for its own literary merit. A book review is part of a larger conversation about what the book communicates, and about the value of what the book communicates.

Austin Gunderson
Member

I wholeheartedly support such endeavors, but I wouldn’t call them “reviews”; I’d call them “analyses.”  I don’t see that there’s an effective way to comprehensively “explore the meaning and significance of [a] book” without divulging spoilers to one’s readership.

And I absolutely agree that a good review should be enjoyable for its own literary merit.