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Lars Walker: Beyond ‘Wannabe’ Fantasy

This week Lars Walker’s “The Christian Fantasy” column gained many readers and reactions. Naturally we asked for a sequel.
| Mar 24, 2013 | No comments |

At Intercollegiate Review on March 20, a little column called The Christian Fantasy got a big readership — surprising, given the column’s contents. That’s not my view; that’s what novelist Lars Walker himself remarked after the piece gained more promotion.1

Why this attention and what is behind Walker’s thoughts? Naturally we asked for a sequel.

E. Stephen Burnett: Lars, you later said you “thought the material was fairly self-evident and had already been done by others.” True indeed — at least among Christian-SF “circles” and all those let’s-break-out-of-the-evangelical-fiction-mold blogs. So what do you think happened here?

Lars Walker: I honestly don’t know. I’m more surprised than anybody. Like all authors, I’m trying to get attention all the time, and in general I’m not very good at it.

ESB: How did this article come about, and what have you been hearing from readers?

Walker: Anthony Sacramone is the managing editor at Intercollegiate Review. He’s also a very funny – if intermittent – blogger, and I’ve gotten to know him as a commenter over the years. He asked me to write the article. He says he knew from the time he assigned it that it would draw attention. He told me his readership is mostly young college students, and they’re unfamiliar with the “conventional wisdom.” But it’s gone beyond that. A lot of the attention has been coming from people who’ve been fans for a long time.

ESB: If you would have known in advance that this column would receive more attention, is there anything you would have changed or expanded upon in the piece?

Walker: I might have mentioned Sturgeon’s Law – “Ninety per cent of Science Fiction is crud, but ninety per cent of everything is crud.” My beef is not so much that there’s a lot of substandard stuff getting written, but that I fear upcoming writers lack opportunity for the hard, cruel feedback that helps you write better. Because of self-publishing, it’s getting to be like one of those games they have for school kids nowadays, where all the participants get the same trophy. Games like that are for the participants. They don’t have much to offer the spectator.

ESB: Responding to the column, some readers shared examples of published Christian fantasy and science fiction they enjoy, including many Marcher Lord Press titles, The Lamb Among the Stars by Chris Walley, and The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson. If you’re familiar with those titles, do you believe those stories could also use some improvement? Or maybe for some reason they seem more “underground,” unnoticed by more readers?

Walker: No, I must confess I’m not familiar with any of these. My claim to ignorance, at least, isn’t likely to be seriously challenged.

ESB: For those who don’t know you and your work 2, what is your own storytelling journey?

Walker: I’ve loved books from the time I was able to read; I got the idea of writing pretty early, but didn’t think I was smart enough. Although I loved Tolkien, it was actually Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories that sparked the thought, “I could write this sort of thing. Maybe not this well, but this sort of thing.” My original plan was to be an artist – a cartoonist or illustrator. Every picture I drew had a story that went with it. When I started writing, the drawing sort of withered away on its own. One day I realized I wasn’t drawing anymore. Writing scratched my itch better.

critiquingcriticsofchristianfictionESB: Here on Speculative Faith, some readers suggested that Inkling-derivative or just plain bad fantasy is not any more unique to Christian novels than secular novels. Do you think that’s true — and if so, does that shared criticism even apply?

Walker: Pretty much, as I said above. There may be one problem in that Christian publishing at this point in history – speaking very broadly – has a lower bar for what’s called “professional.” I think the best Christian literature published today stands up with almost anything in secular literature. But I’ve read some novels published by our professional houses that were embarrassingly bad. No, I won’t mention any names.

ESB: Some writers, replying to your piece, repeated things like, “Yes, I agree with you that most Christian fantasy is bad. So please check out my own self-published work at [website X].” Yet you faulted self-published authors (solely self-published, anyway) in saying this:

Today’s writers, so often self-published (I’m not speaking in contempt; I’m self-publishing now myself), lack that thick wall to chop through, that sparring partner to toughen them up. I read so many self-published books now that leave me saying, “This writer has a good story and interesting characters. All he needs is a real editor to tell him to cut out the dead wood.”

What reasons could you give, along with craft-improvement reasons, to support seeking and accepting editorial criticism before going ahead and paying up for self-publication?

A fantastic little nonfiction doctrine book with fiction applications.

A fantastic little nonfiction doctrine book with fiction applications.

Walker: Craft-improvement is the first priority, if you’re a professional. Christians don’t sufficiently understand the idea of Christian “vocation” (my friend Gene Edward Veith has written extensively on this subject). If we understand that every day is God’s – not just Sunday – and that our work is part of our worship, then we’ll want to glorify God by working excellently. C. S. Lewis wrote about this too – what if the best book you could find on any subject turned out to be written by a Christian? This goes into the heart of theology – we believe in the Incarnation and the resurrection of the body. For Christians, there can be none of this nonsense about only “spiritual” things mattering. Everything we do with our physical bodies and minds is spiritual.

ESB: I always like to ask this, regarding notions that “if only Christians would get their acts together, if only we were more creative, if only we pioneered instead of copying others, then popular culture would like or at least respect us.” How much can we credit plain dislike of Christianity for the fact that even good Christian fantasy goes unnoticed? Or how much may readers need to ignore possible “it’s just persecution” excuses and raise standards higher?

Walker: You can never know. The prejudice (I won’t say persecution – yet) certainly exists and certainly counts. I don’t expect this to get better soon, frankly. But I don’t think we can strategize a counterattack. All we can do is our best work as unto the Lord. Success and “ears to hear” are His business. On the other hand, we can construct our own ghetto, to some extent, and lowering our standards definitely contributes to that. I mentioned Jeffrey Overstreet in the column. He responded very graciously at his blog. We’ve had discussions in my blog comments in the past, and we don’t always agree, but he’s a wonderful, wonderful writer. He doesn’t even like the term “Christian fantasy,” and he bridles a little when it’s applied to him. He writes the stories he wants to write, from his own point of view, and to him it’s just fantasy. He says, “My grandfather didn’t build ‘Christian houses.’”

ESB: Finally, where would you seek, or prefer to find in the future, better God-glorifying speculative stories — secular publishers, Christian-mainstream publishers (e.g. Zondervan or Thomas Nelson), independent publishers (like Marcher Lord Press), or self-publishers?

profile_larswalkerWalker: I had a wonderful break years back, when I sold my first novel to a secular publisher, Baen. I still haven’t figured out quite how that happened. My agent sent it in, and the late Jim Baen – a true original whose like we may never see again – took to it for some reason. I blew it with Baen after a few books – though they’re re-releasing a couple of my titles now as e-books, which pleases me immensely – but I’ve always taken pride in that mainstream sale.

One of Walker’s many Vikings-and-fantasy novels.

One of Walker’s many Vikings-and-fantasy novels.

I would hope that we can continue to infiltrate the mainstream market in an Overstreetian manner, through writing more and more quality stuff. I would hope that a rising tide of quality would improve the output of the Christian houses (and I believe that’s happening, too). But in order for that to happen, we need to see young writers learning their craft. And as I wrote, my great fear is that those young writers don’t have the apprenticeship opportunities they need to develop those skills. I think we need to develop some kind of network of writers’ and readers’ groups, where brutal honesty reigns and only the strong survive ( so to speak). Whether that’s actually possible, I don’t know.

  1. Including Christian at powerhouse theology sites such as Challies.com and TheGospelCoalition.org.
  2. You can browse all of Walker’s fantasy novels in the Speculative Faith Library.
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Brandon Barr
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Brandon Barr

Thanks for this. Lars insistence on brutal honesty in craft, and vocational focus is a chord well struck.

Paul Lee
Member

Seeing Lars Walker’s appearance here on Speculative Faith reminds me where I first learned of him, at an old, apparently inactive website for Christian fantasy.  A lot of those reviews are interesting and valuable.  Notice that Theodore Beale is listed on their “New Authors” page.  There’s a link to a bulletin board on the site, but the board is offline now.  However, when I visited the site in 2008 or so, the link to the board still worked, and if I recall correctly, I remember browsing old discussions that Lars Walker participated in, along with Emily Snyder, the owner of the website.
 
Browsing further, I discovered (and have rediscovered now) that this community seemed to be loosely connected to — or at least aware of — a Christian publishing company called Arx Publishing.
 
I found that website when searching for “Christian fantasy” or “Christian high fantasy” — a good while before I found a link elsewhere to MLP’s website, which lead me to Where the Map Ends, which lead me to the Anomaly forum, which eventually lead me to Speculative Faith.  This all goes to show that there are a lot of us, and we don’t all know about each other or read the same web columns.

Austin Gunderson
Member

I can’t express how happy it makes me to see such emphasis placed on Colossians 3:23-24 in the context of Christian speculative fiction.  The crafts of storytelling and wordsmithing aren’t mere flavors of frosting one can glom onto the cake of thematic substance if one happens to be an overachiever; they’re the butter and sugar without which a cake is nothing more than a tasteless hunk of bread.

If I stood seven feet tall yet didn’t bother to beat my body or make it my slave, I wouldn’t last two minutes in a fight against a much smaller man whose limbs were lethal weapons.  Imagination is likewise a wonderful gift, but it’s wasted unless channeled by discipline.  If I dream up the most fantastic worlds and fascinating civilizations, if I conjure astonishing technology or reveal ancient secrets, and if I do this all out of love for Jesus Christ and a desire to promote His glory, yet have not craft, I am only a resounding klaxon or a sword clanging against shield.

My good intentions speak well of me.  God cares about my intentions, because He looks at my heart.  But all anyone else cares about is outward appearances, and if I care at all about speaking to their hearts, I’ll make it worth their while to read what I write by striving after excellence.  And that reasoning doesn’t even account for the fact that, if my desires are at all synced with God’s desires, I’ll always desire to work with excellence simply because that’s what He always does.  Either way, mediocrity is unworthy and unacceptable.

Kirsty
Guest

I like this

Galadriel
Guest

That’s part of the reason I went to college–I knew I needed to develop skill and discipline,  and I wouldn’t do it on my own.

Zac Totah
Editor

As a young, aspiring writer myself, I’m interested in Mr. Walker’s desire to set up some sort of group for writers and readers to improve their work through the critique of others. From experience, I know that’s the sort of opportunity I need, and I suspect a lot of people would agree. Getting it done, however, is another matter.
I agree that we should strive to put forth our best effort in writing. If the chief end of man is to glorify God, then everything we do should fall under that umbrella. Writing isn’t any less of a genuine vocation then being a carpenter or businessman. If we would work hard to do our best in such jobs, why would we settle for anything less in our writing?
 

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Again I continue to see an emphasis on writers, writing, teaching others how to write in order to write better and meet other writers and keep writing, writingly. I don’t think this is the best approach. A better approach is to share and emphasize our mutual love of stories as readers and fans. Any discussions about craft and agents and publishing and editing and et cetera can then come second.

As for the idea of a new group that would promote such things, this strikes me as merely trying to reinvent the pen. Many such groups already exist. Wouldn’t it be better to find one of them and join it? At some point some of these need to start merging, anyway, so that it’s not about personalities but truly mutual goals.

One could start with the Realm Makers conference this August in St. Louis. 🙂 This is not a Speculative Faith “product,” by the way. Yet I endorse this enthusiastically!

Lex Keating
Guest

I think I’d have to disagree with a couple points, here. Sorry.
 
First, Walker talks in this interview and in his article about the writer’s craft. Not the reader’s influence. It should not be a surprise that fellow wannabe writers who agree (or disagree) with his stance talk about his emphasis on writing. Publishing is kind of an offshoot of writing, which is where agents and marketing and whatnot come in, but Walker was discussing craft first, and that’s what’s being followed up on. It’s a strong indicator that some audience members are listening. If we don’t like what we’re hearing, there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing, but for us to pretend that’s not the topic of conversation does no one any favors. As readers and fans, how work is spoken of and shared is a valid conversation, but Walker’s emphasis in both pieces is on writers pursuing high quality and constructive criticism. There’s not a lot of wiggle room there to talk about fandom. That would be a separate category.
 
Second, there may be a plethora of critique groups available, and writing communities that encourage each member and try to polish each others’ work. What there aren’t, however, are very many opportunities for would-be writers to study excellence. There is this great story about a man (whose name I cannot for the life of me remember), who I believe was a journalist in Chicago, who wanted to promote great writing. He sat down with a wannabe writer every morning and read the paper with him. They read other books and stories, talked about what worked and what didn’t. No homework, no polishing of manuscripts. This man never wrote a significant piece of literature. But his influence shaped five major American authors. (I want to say Fitzgerald and Steinbeck were two of the writers who read with him.) There are a lot of cell groups (not unlike terrorists 🙂 ) who read each others’ works, or talk about their favorite books, but this serious and persistent study of excellence is missing from most critique groups. Of the five different writing communities I’ve been involved in (some online, some in person), only one offered serious, useful critique. We scared off people with sensitive egos. (Not the tender-hearted; just the ones with selective hearing.) But really, ego has no place in a writer’s pursuit of excellence. Knowing when you can be proud that said what you meant and when you have to take your lumps and go back to the drawing board are two very different things. They take time and patience, and humility. Most critique groups, especially Christian ones, don’t nurture this pursuit of excellence. Pursuing publication isn’t the same as pursuing excellence, and a tacit agreement that pop fiction is just as worthwhile as literary fiction may play a part. Taking our shared love of books (or a specific sub-genre) to the next level (that of writing something of superior quality) means translating that love into a willing study. Writers are not going to write better by encouraging each other. Fan-girls and -boys looking at each others’ works-in-progress and cheering are very sweet. But Walker is lamenting the lack of whip-crackers who judiciously challenge each other to be their best. Not just good enough for publication. 
 
Is Realm Makers a good place to talk about this? Sure, why not. But it’s a question of analysis and critical thinking, not comprehension and affection. Forming a group that will pursue the former is hard, especially when most of the group already know and love how to do the latter. A round-table discussion (or other informal process) on critique guidelines and expectations, on the long-term application of thick-skinned critiques, on sharpening each other as like pieces of iron–with wisdom and grace at both ends of the critique–these are great questions to raise. The question is–will any solid answers develop from it?

Austin Gunderson
Member

Like Lex, I also must disagree.  As a passionate reader and aspiring author, I simply don’t get how a healthy discussion of writing constitutes a distraction from the consumption of good books.  Aside from one particular guy I know (who reads this site and knows who he is), I’ve neither met nor heard tell of a writer who doesn’t also read voraciously.  The two occupations seem inextricably linked.  Writing doesn’t snuff out my desire to read; it fans it into flame.  I find it not merely desirable but necessary to explore worlds other than my own.  I crave inspiration, competition, a fine whetstone against which to sharpen storytelling that’d otherwise likely degenerate into a dull expression of self-absorbtion.  Everything I know about writing I learned from reading.  Everything.  And the preexistent constellation of published speculative fiction is both reward and waypoint for a mind drained by the hard labor of sub-creation: reward because no one appreciates a good story like an actual storyteller, waypoint because nothing spurs new achievement like the contemplation of past success.

But writers of all stripes do tend to share one prejudice not conducive to unqualified fandom: they refuse to read poorly-written books.  They of all people understand the influence exerted by consumption over production.  They know that, just as bad company corrupts good character, a bad reading list will eventually corrupt good writing.  And thus are their QC filters merciless.

But isn’t that a good thing?  Isn’t that supposed to be part of the point of having discussions about reading, too?  Won’t better writing lead to better reading just as better reading leads to better writing?  Why must the two sit at opposite ends of the classroom?  It’s not like they were fighting …

As I mentioned, I’m an aspiring author.  I’m working hard on a novel I’ll likely require another decade to finish.  I want to be at the top of my game for however long it takes.  So I try to consume only the best stories, or at least only those stories that inspire me — that make my heart leap and my eyes light up in wonder.  Stories that stimulate my mind with their exquisite craft.  I’ve never read anything merely to support a genre, an industry, or a market.  And I don’t read books merely because they’re Christian.  Such a motivation seems mercenary to me.  I read as I write — out of love, not ambition.

Some months ago I took a risk, spent some money on a novel promoted on SpecFaith, and got burned.  I couldn’t make it past the first chapter, the writing was so uninspired.  It’s taken me a while, but I want so bad to read great Christian speculative fiction that I recently sprang for another heavily-lauded title.  Thus far it’s run the gamut from “Wow” to “Meh,” but at least I keep picking it up.  I guess there’s hope for this “niche” yet, but only if we don’t shrink into a little echo-chamber of unqualified fandom.  And I think the only way we’ll avoid that fate is by focusing on the quality of the writing we read.  And writers will force us to do just that.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Time for a few clarifications.

First, my intent is not to shut down any conversation. My thanks remains to Lars for his time, after I’m sure what was enhanced attention after this piece. Our goal at Speculative Faith is to become the premiere portal for exploring epic stories for God’s glory. We want to explore as readers and sometimes as writers.

Second, Lars had more to say than about the need to improve craft. In writing my comment up there, I was thinking of this statement:

Because of self-publishing, it’s getting to be like one of those games they have for school kids nowadays, where all the participants get the same trophy. Games like that are for the participants. They don’t have much to offer the spectator.

Consider me an informal spectactors’ liaison. 🙂

Third, and springing from that, I might paraphrase a Scripture:

If I write with the tongues of men and angels … if I give my body over to the Art of writing … if I have ability with my craft to to move critics … but have not readers, I gain nothing.

The fact remains that indie publishers have already drawn attention to fantastic novels and authors whose craft is on par with any other speculative literature. Yet where are thes authors? Folks don’t know them. Their books aren’t being traded in churches and reading groups. Their products may find some success and discussion on the internet, but is any happenstance promotion based on this story is one of the best I’ve ever read or instead this story is one of the best I’ve ever read (which gives hope that I too can finally have my work be noticed)?

Please make no mistake. I’m not saying “the heck with your dream.” I’m not rejecting writers. I’m only issuing the same kinds of challenges I think you two would ask: is this first about our personal dreams, or joint enjoyments?

Fourth, in response to Austin’s remark:

Aside from one particular guy I know (who reads this site and knows who he is), I’ve neither met nor heard tell of a writer who doesn’t also read voraciously.

I’m not accusing writers of “not reading.” I’m asking: why do they read? Are they readers first, writers second; or writers first, readers second? Based on the amount of blogs and web discussion, it increasingly begins to seem this little advocacy community is top-heavy: writers talking about writing and craft and publication and industries and agents and POD, and less about stories we love.

Similarly, I must point out what my brother Lex must have meant when he said:

there may be a plethora of critique groups available, and writing communities that encourage each member and try to polish each others’ work. What there aren’t, however, are very many opportunities for would-be writers to study excellence.

This sounds exactly like reading groups — temporarily delaying the mechanical exercises of craft and promotion and social-networking and such in order, simply, to read and enjoy great works of literature, fantastic and otherwise.

It sounds exactly like the kind of Christian-story-hedonism I fight to promote first in myself, and then on venues such as Speculative Faith.

It sounds exactly like advocating readers and reading first, writing second.

Fifth, in encouraging any support of existing fiction, I certainly do not mean:

[reading] anything merely to support a genre, an industry, or a market.

That’s an attitude more common either to the evangelical-cheese industry, or else the government-cheese industry (for an example of the latter, see this).

At the same time, I wouldn’t expect even a truly great literary/popular fantasy author with a Christian worldview to experience the massive worldwide success of the gifted-by-God-and-in-the-right-place-in-time Inklings. Given today’s climate, I’m guessing such authors could experience prejudice (as Lars also said above). So don’t make popularity among either “the masses” or secular literary critics any hint of a measure of whether an author’s story is good or not.

Sixth, a quick personal response about this:

Some months ago I took a risk, spent some money on a novel promoted on SpecFaith, and got burned.  I couldn’t make it past the first chapter, the writing was so uninspired.  It’s taken me a while, but I want so bad to read great Christian speculative fiction that I recently sprang for another heavily-lauded title.

That’s why we need reviews, or the world need reviews. I noticed you didn’t mention the title or author, Austin. While I can appreciate the sentiment, might it be better to be more direct (though also gracious and Christlike?). We don’t just want positive promotion or reviews here — though I myself have only been writing reviews of novels I enjoy (thus explaining why I haven’t written many!).

Of course, it’s easy for me to ask for names and specifics, being unpublished! 🙂

Lex Keating
Guest

I don’t think you’re trying to end a conversation. But I do think you want your viewpoint to be heard. (Did you ever see the film Moonstruck? I would guess not, because it’s an 80’s Nicholas Cage romance, but I hate to assume. Olympia Dukakis’s character walks around the whole movie, asking everyone the same question. She comes across as a little crazy, because she fixates on her own answer to this question. She doesn’t relate to another person with any degree of sense until someone gives her the answer she’s been looking for. In real life, a lot of us focus on the one point we want to be right on, and bring it into every conversation until someone agrees with us.) You want more people to be reading Christian speculative fiction. You also, I’m given to believe, feel very strongly that increased readership will alter-slash-improve the writing of this genre. The former is a simple matter to agree on. The latter conflicts strongly with what wannabe writers keep saying about writing Christian speculative fiction. Writing, not reading. Which you’ve pointed out. (Another film reference, in Where the Boys Are, two girls are talking about their Spring Break romances. One says to the other, “He keeps talking about sex, and I keep talking about marriage. It’s a shame we’re too busy having the same conversation to listen to each other.” Two approaches to the same subject that don’t leave a lot of listening room without grace.)
 
And while I am a wretched nitpicker, I’m not going to line-edit your point of view, except to say three things. 
 
One, I do object to the paraphrase of I Cor. 13. Chiefly because substituting readers for love is a dangerous, downright wicked argument. As though a writer’s resultant audience is in some way comparable to the initiating force of agape. Let me repeat that, so I’m not unclear: the structure of this sentence is such that love is the impetus behind the miraculous action, whereas your argument would substitute in its place readers as the desired end result. Someone else did something similar the other day, and it was equally troublesome. Did you alter other words in that sentence to make your point? Yes. Did you effectively make your point? Nyeh, you could do better. I think you could ponder the thing you mean to say, and find another Scripture to hammer into that peg hole. 
 
Two, the reading of books isn’t necessarily bad or a waste of time. BUT, enjoying a book has a very limited value in the grand scheme of things. This is where critical thinking skills come into play. When we read a book we love, emotions, thoughts, or reactions are invoked by the author. It’s not a complete interactive experience, but we take the story into ourselves and allow it to shape the way we see the world around us. I think that’s a large part of why so many spec fic readers become [wannabe] writers. We see a truth communicated in a book, and when we have something to say, we wish to pay it forward and do the same with our own writing. 
 
Depending on whose advice you take, educators divide critical thinking skills into anywhere between three and seven or eight categories. (I like the one with six, but I’m too tired to find it tonight.) Reading something and enjoying it is one category. Reading and understanding is another. Reading and comprehending the unwritten themes is another. Analyzing a reading for the unwritten is another. Evaluating the things said and the things unsaid is another. Communicating that evaluation and making a judgment call is another. Imitating that reading material is another. Creating new material to communicate your own understanding that may or may not be shaped by the thing you read is another. A lot of wannabe writers skip from the enjoyment phase to the creating-new-material phase. (Yes, you’ve mentioned the place fanfic has in your reading/writing journey.) All those steps in the middle are incredibly valuable when learning how to appreciate a story and how to communicate your own. It’s why teachers and professors assign so many essays. It’s why James Joyce divided quality writing into prose and essays. It’s why a good story is worth all that analysis.
 
I would hazard a guess that many people who have been burned–by a review, a reviewer, or a genre–are wary because some of these critical thinking tiers have been skipped, and it violates their trust of the reviewer/genre. A good writer (and this applies to a reader, too) needs to be able to analyze, evaluate, communicate, and recreate on different levels. Yes, these things are first learned by reading. Communicating clearly to others is not as easy as reading. Pretending that these elements of writing don’t matter doesn’t help anyone communicate better. Whether that someone is a wannabe writer, trying to share something precious, or a zealous reader, stuck on “love me or leave me.” Even when the focus is on reading, those critical thinking skills are vastly important in communicating to another reader why he should read this book you love. More books read, more books reviewed, more opinions on books reviewed–that’s quantity. If you want another reader to trust you (in the capacity of a fellow reader recommending a book or a writer selling a new world order), an honest expression of quality is needed. Quality of thought in what you communicate–evidence that your thought process in evaluating this book is either familiar to the reader, trustworthy, or alien enough to be leery.
 
Third, and you would really have no way of knowing this, I would be a sister, not a brother. 🙂 

Austin Gunderson
Member

Gotta chip in here to point out that it’s a tad harsh to claim Stephen’s paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 constitutes a “dangerous, downright wicked argument.”  If he had in some way insinuated that readership — a happy-yet-by-no-means-certain result of authorship — somehow existed in the same realm of consequence as love — a cardinal virtue — then we’d be on the same page.  But we all know that’s not what he meant.  What he was doing, besides poking fun at me (I assume), was employing a well-known formal template to express the idea that “A, B, and C are worthless without D.”  I think he has a valid point, at least if the value one places on a work of literature depends on the extent of its dissemination.  Nothing of menace there.

It so happens that I disagree with the thrust of Stephen’s argument, but for a different reason than you apparently do.  If writers “gain nothing” unless their work is consumed by a certain undefined number of readers, then it follows that writing is an outcome-based occupation of no intrinsic value or purpose.  But such a conclusion is negated by both personal experience and Scripture.  By experience because mine informs me that writing is a deeply spiritual endeavor which focuses the mind and ignites the emotions.  By Scripture because it commands us to work “as for the Lord and not for men.”  This may sound like pure cheese, but writing is for me an incredibly personal form of worship.  And it doesn’t even matter to me whether I ever get published.  If God wants my novel to be read by multitudes, He’ll open the doors to make it so.  But if Stephen’s paraphrase is true, all my work has been for naught.  I don’t believe that for one moment.

What interests me here more than anything else is Stephen’s use of the template itself.  Because he wasn’t equating readership with love, it follows that he employed the form of 1 Corinthians 13 for its own sake, irrespective of the content of the original, as did I in my earlier comment.  And why shouldn’t he?  It’s a beautiful form, valuable and memorable due to nothing more than its sentence structure.  Which brings me back full circle to the necessity of craft.  Craft makes truth attractive in a book.  We cannot afford to downplay craft — either in our writing or our reading — for in so doing we’ll downplay beauty itself.  And, as Stephen has demonstrated ( ;-p ), beauty has intrinsic value even when devoid of truth.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Stephen, you said “it increasingly begins to seem this little advocacy community is top-heavy: writers talking about writing and craft and publication and industries and agents and POD, and less about stories we love,” but I don’t think my response to that particular complaint will satisfy you.  You see, I love to gush about the stories I love.  I discuss ’em with my circle of friends ad nauseam.  There’s just one problem: the vast majority of stories I love are written by non-Christians.  So can I discuss ’em here on SpecFaith?  I think not.

It’s my theory that the reason so many aspiring Christian spec-fic writers want to talk about writing, writing, writing is because they recognize the dearth of well-written Christian speculative fiction.  The Space Trilogy and This Present Darkness both appear in my all-time favorites list, but I simply haven’t encountered any work of comparable caliber produced by Christians of late.  I have encountered and keep encountering such high-caliber work from Mormons.  It annoys the heck out of me.  I think their worldview encourages speculative thinking to a greater extent than does traditional Christianity — but that’s another gripe for another time.

So anyway, that’s why I brought up my disappointment with positively-peer-reviewed titles that’ve appeared here on SpecFaith.  In order to talk about the Christian-spec-fic books I love, I first have to love me some Christian-spec-fic books.  And, in the absence of lovable books, I’ll talk about writing.  It’s my way of pleading with all comers to please, please, please produce something of lasting beauty, truth, and goodness.  I’m working hard on my own end to meet this challenge, but, in the meantime, I refuse to be satisfied with mediocrity.

As for reviews, it’s against my principles to review a book that I dropped like a hot potato after the first chapter.  Such a review would certainly say something about me, but would, I’m afraid, say next to nothing about the book in question.  And I’m unwilling to sit through a poorly-written book just to vent my spleen online after flipping the final page.  I can only promise you this, Stephen: that I’ll review every book from the SpecFaith library I’m actually able to finish.  At this point, it looks like my first review might be approaching.  And, now that a certain much-ballyhooed author has boldly offered up an e-book at no cost, I might be submitting more than one critique.  We’ll see.

Paul Lee
Member

In order to talk about the Christian-spec-fic books I love, I first have to love me some Christian-spec-fic books.

That seems to be the main problem.  I’m sure everyone wants to be polite and gracious, but also, it is simply more difficult to review/discuss a book that you fundamentally disliked.  It’s hard enough to write an objective review about a book you thoroughly enjoyed; doing so about a book that you forced yourself to finish reading would be a miserable chore.
That said, I think there is value in forcing ourselves to finish reading books that may not be the best.  Then, people who have the time and dedication, should point out both the flaws and also any good qualities the book may posses.  The fact that a book may have failed for any particular reader is subjective, but the bad qualities that made the book fail for that reader, as well as the good qualities that evidently were not quite sufficient to redeem the book, are at least semi-objective.  In order to further discussion, neither the bad nor the good can be glossed over or ignored.  Refusing to read anything that falls short of perfection is simply another way to ignore the bad, just like cheery positive peer reviews.
 
I’m not trying to make anyone feel obligated to spend time reading sub-par books.  For me, reading novels is not much of a means of entertainment.  I don’t really do it for fun.  If reading novels is your primary means of entertainment and recreation, I can understand being exasperated with a disappointing read.  And I do understand.  I’m thinking I’ve read about 7 CSF books so far, and my ration of dislikes to likes is about 3/4.  That’s not a great score, considering I have a much greater chance of enjoying a secular high fantasy novel that I pick up at the public library.

Austin Gunderson
Member

You deserve commendation, then.  I myself am unwilling to read a book just to find out if it’s any good; I must first have a compelling reason to pick it up, and the most compelling of reasons is a recommendation from someone whose judgement I trust.  It’s pioneering readers like you who enable fastidious readers like me.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

From Austin:

In order to talk about the Christian-spec-fic books I love, I first have to love me some Christian-spec-fic books.

[…] I’m unwilling to sit through a poorly-written book just to vent my spleen online after flipping the final page.

Well, that would be an insurmountable problem, wouldn’t it? 😀

You make me consider two possibilies:

  1. Opening the reviews section beyond the Library’s listings.
  2. For Library-listed titles I simply couldn’t get into, I could write even a brief comment after the book’s Library listing.

For example, if The Shack were in the Library, I would write this:

All the theology-based negative reviews ultimately fail to capture how dull, saccharine, and manipulative this book’s opening chapters are. Months ago I tried to read it and simply couldn’t deal with the flagrant attempts to get readers on this guy’s side simply by throwing the worst kinds of tragedy at him and then at you. That’s manipulative — and perhaps even worse, in this case it’s a purple-prose-tinged manipulation.

If I return to barrel through the rest I may write a review, but if an author cannot genuinely show the world and honor God’s Story in his style, that alone should make me doubt his reflections of humans and God will be truthful or beautiful.

So that’s not a review — it’s a non-review that completely gets away with the fact that I haven’t actually read the book. 😀

At this point, it looks like my first review might be approaching.  And, now that a certain much-ballyhooed author has boldly offered up an e-book at no cost, I might be submitting more than one critique.

I wonder if this is the same lengthy fantasy/space opera free e-book I’ve been enjoying. I’m 70 percent finished with that one, without being put off one bit. If so, we can tag-team the reviewing process with different reviews, and now — thanks to changes with the Reviews showcasing — even interact about the book following the individual reviews.

And, in the absence of lovable books, I’ll talk about writing.  It’s my way of pleading with all comers to please, please, please produce something of lasting beauty, truth, and goodness.  I’m working hard on my own end to meet this challenge, but, in the meantime, I refuse to be satisfied with mediocrity.

Agreed. Again we have the same ultimate mission. I simply want to (here’s a hint) sneak expectations for great stories into authors’ minds and hearts by drawing their attention to what works in the stories they love and why.

Talking about craft, industry, etc., seems to appeal only to the head.

Like C.S. Lewis I want to, as fantasy author Jonathan Rogers wrote, avoid only discussing how exactly to build fires. I prefer making building a fire — or point to well-built fires — and say, “Here. Feel this.”

Austin Gunderson
Member

Stephen,

To address the shortcomings of SpecFaith library exclusivity without diluting the content thereof, perhaps y’all could develop some kind of “thematic grading” system: “Explicitly Christian (EC),” “Implicitly Christian (IC),” “Containing Christian Themes (CCT),” “Non-Christian (NC),” and “Anti-Christian (AC).”  Examples of the above could be, in order, Perelandra, The Lord of the Rings, The Way of Kings, The Name of the Wind, and The Amber Spyglass.  Just brainstorming here.

I absolutely empathize with your desire to leave off analyzing the textbook’s illustration of a fire and actually go build one.  That’s part of the reason I’m writing my own stuff; one of my greatest peeves in life is people who criticize work that they themselves wouldn’t have been able to achieve.  I’d much rather respond to the dearth of great spec-fic by getting my hands gritty than looming over someone else’s sandcastle to pass judgement.  My problem is that I’m a very slow writer because I love the craft itself.  But you’ve probably gathered that from the emphasis of my comments.  😉

And now you’ve piqued my curiosity.  What’s this free e-book whereof you speak?  The one I just downloaded was described as a “short story.”

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Further responses, following my thanks for your interactions and challenges:

Lex:

You want more people to be reading Christian speculative fiction. You also, I’m given to believe, feel very strongly that increased readership will alter-slash-improve the writing of this genre.

Let me qualify that.

  1. Yes, more readers is definitely a good thing.
  2. I don’t mean “more readers = better stories.” Rather, I’d prefer better readers.

That will do far more to improve stories because:

  1. Readers will less often reward subpar stories just because they’re “Christian.”
  2. Readers will reward existing well-written stories; they will “rise to the top.”

As it is, people can focus exclusively on craft, but how is that — so far — helping to encourage novels that are truly well-made? Again, they’re relatively languishing, or at least being hidden behind the continuing (and incidentally ignorant) cry of “most Christian fiction stinks.” Or, “We need to improve our craft.”

Yes, I agree some Christian fiction stinks. And definitely authors must improve craft.

But when I say that without supportive readers these approaches “gain nothing” (more on this in a moment), I mean that they won’t revolutionize the genre as much as authors think. They’re top-heavy. In my view this fits with what Lars wrote:

Games like that are for the participants. They don’t have much to offer the spectator.

For example, I’m thinking here of a truly well-crafted science fiction series, The DarkTrench Saga by Kerry Nietz, or author Marc Schooley’s paranormal/historical/magic realism novel Konig’s Fire. To dislike these novels, you would basically need to dislike the genre(s) (not that that’s wrong), but they’re indisputably well-made.

Where are they, though? Rising to the top? Perhaps someday. As it is, they’re kind of lumped in with other arguable Narnia-ripoffs and self-published stuff. That seems unfair. For that difficulty, my solution is to continually challenge and train readers, not just to be good little industry-pushing workhorses, but to mull questions of what makes a good story and what is the purpose of story. In asking such questions I am perfectly allied with the quest to promote better story craft. Yet this does take a longer view. Frankly, this is an attempt to raise expectations for a generation.

I do object to the paraphrase of I Cor. 13. Chiefly because substituting readers for love is a dangerous, downright wicked argument.

Austin pegged my intent before I did in saying:

What he was doing, besides poking fun at me (I assume), was employing a well-known formal template to express the idea that “A, B, and C are worthless without D.”

No intention here to equate “number of readers” with Biblical love per 1 Cor. 13. 🙂

Which brings me to Austin‘s rebuttal:

If writers “gain nothing” unless their work is consumed by a certain undefined number of readers, then it follows that writing is an outcome-based occupation of no intrinsic value or purpose.

Ah, I did not intend to challenge the fact that imagining or writing a story as an act of worship is somehow worthless if no one but God and worshiping-author ever see the story. Not at all. Here I’m still working within the framework of sharing-stories-with-readers. And I’m faulting and challenging not authors but readers.

That brings to mind another point: wouldn’t this not be a way to alleviate the burden from aspiring authors? Doesn’t it say: Guys, yes, focus on your craft, and if more people do not notice, that is not necessarily your fault; it may be their fault?

Finally from Lex:

Third, and you would really have no way of knowing this, I would be a sister, not a brother.

Blast. Would you believe that is the third sex-confusion moment I’ve had this week?

Ah well, given the news (in the U.S.) about the Supreme Court “gay marriage” debate, I suppose sex and “gender” confusion is the name of the game this week. (Good Friday? Resurrection Sunday? Pfssh. Let’s all yell on the internet and TV news about how we should be “tolerant” to everyone except Christians and of course God, who first brought to you this whole “marriage” concept anyway. :-P)

What interests me here more than anything else is Stephen’s use of the template itself.  Because he wasn’t equating readership with love, it follows that he employed the form of 1 Corinthians 13 for its own sake, irrespective of the content of the original, as did I in my earlier comment.  And why shouldn’t he?  It’s a beautiful form, valuable and memorable due to nothing more than its sentence structure.  Which brings me back full circle to the necessity of craft.  Craft makes truth attractive in a book.  We cannot afford to downplay craft — either in our writing or our reading — for in so doing we’ll downplay beauty itself.  And, as Stephen has demonstrated ( ;-p ), beauty has intrinsic value even when devoid of truth.

Sweet point.

Which brings me again to one of my guiding complaints/principles: that yes, one can go on all one wants about making beautiful things  (and yes, absolutely, we must do this and writers/artists should have that conversation among themselves). But if fewer and fewer people are being taught to enjoy such beautiful arts “for their own sake” — that is, for God’s sake — is this encouraged “shop talk” not over-limited and fail to share these Godly joys with our neighbors?

The way we do that is by, as I believe Lex recommended above, studying well-made stories as their receivers. To that I re-add that more-direct discussions about how to be creators of more beautiful/good/truthful stories should happen, yes, but not nearly as much as the discussions about receiving the stories.

This is primarily an issue of theological shortages, not materials shortages. Many Christians simply don’t know how to enjoy beauty when they find it. They want only to use the beauty as tools for edification, education, or entertainment. Ugh.

But such folks don’t know any better. They really don’t. That’s where my heart lies.

And seeing as how the “let’s all pitch in and improve our craft and take publication by storm” side of it seems well-covered by dozens or hundreds of blogs and indie publishers, I spy a huge unseen opportunity to build those folks’ reader base.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Many Christians simply don’t know how to enjoy beauty when they find it. They want only to use the beauty as tools for edification, education, or entertainment. Ugh.

It occurs to me that an expansion of the SpecFaith library to include the wide wilderness of non-Christian speculative literature could really drive home your perennial point that God-glorifying beauty exists apart from sanctifying “usefulness.”  In its current form, the SpecFaith library may never manage to transcend the notion that its books are only worthwhile because they are in some way “Christian.”  Admitting the works of non-Christian writers would send a strong message that there’s far more at stake in the art of storytelling than doctrinally-sound theology.

The message would be strong, yes, but it also might prove unclear.  For in emphasizing beauty, we might end up downplaying truth and goodness.  I’m not gonna pretend that either of those qualities are especially prevalent in the canon of secular speculative fiction.  And the best means I can think of to confront untruths and evils in literature would be the thematic rating system I mentioned above, which I happen to like but which may prove insufficient for a lot of folks.  Hm.