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Reading And Standards For It

Maybe the entire reading experience is subjective. Maybe there isn’t an “everyone should read this” book out there. Maybe the best we can do is know ourselves and what’s good for us to read.
| Mar 18, 2013 | No comments |

Genewolf1OK, I’ll confess. It’s supposed to be good for the soul, you know.

Last Friday, after reading Matt Mikalatos’s excellent post introducing the work of Gene Wofle, I rebelled. I value Matt as a quality writer with high standards. I think he understands writing and theology and brings both to bear in his work. I think he did an excellent job giving us an overview of the work of Gene Wolfe.

But after reading his thoughts and those of some of our commenters, I put my own recent reading experience into the mix and sort of revolted–not seriously in such a way as to disown fantasy or walk away from my faith or anything drastic like that. In fact most people wouldn’t realize I was rebelling if I didn’t tell them.

But here’s the thing. In response to my little rant Friday, D. M. Dutcher, one of our Spec Faith followers, interacted with my thoughts on his own blog:

Rebecca Luella Miller had a counterpoint on her blog. She’s rebelling against the idea that there are must-read novels or styles. I think it’s more about how she shouldn’t feel forced to read something which violates her sense of ”whatsoever is good, pure, etc” from the verse. She mentions disliking the violence in Christian horror, or not being able to get through A Wizard of Earthsea due to lack of interest. The Book of the Dun Cow is an interesting choice to dislike too. I’ve read it, and it is a fairly violent little fable for what it is.

To be honest, I was surprised by D. M.’s comments. It’s never crossed my mind to use Philippians 4:8 as a standard for what I read or watch on T.V. or what movies I go to. Several years ago I realized upon reading Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment (IVP Books) by Brian Godawa that other people actually do take that verse and measure the books they choose to read against Paul’s list of things he says we should “dwell” on: whatever is true, right, honorable, pure, lovely, of good repute or reputation.

I’m not sure why I’ve never thought of that list as a standard for fiction–perhaps because I thought it unattainable in life. I mean, it’s hard to interact in this world and only let your mind dwell on the good–simply because the evil is right there beside and among the good. So too in reading.

Take Narnia, for example. Before Lucy, Susan, Edmund, and Peter ever find their way through the wardrobe, they are forced into a separation from their parents because of World War II. Then upon entering Narnia they soon encounter the tyranny of a never-ending winter and the rule of the White Witch. Was any of that pure, lovely or of good repute? No, no, and no. So do we stop reading fiction, and perhaps history too, in order to maintain this standard?

Personally, I think this list fit in with what Paul was addressing earlier in chapter four–an ongoing dispute of some kind between two Christian women. I think Paul spends verses three through eight addressing ways to bring such disputes to an end: rejoice in the Lord (a change of emphasis), speak with gentleness (a change in approach), be anxious for nothing (a change in attitude), pray (a change in power), and finally, dwell on things that are excellent and worthy of praise (a change in focus).

BoxersD. M. also mentioned my “dislike for violence.” I immediately thought of a scene I wrote in book two of The Lore Of Efrathah in which the Kadahak cannibalize one of their own. The entire series, in fact, has a good share of violence.

In my post, I had a particular book in mind when I wrote

I hefted myself through a number of “Christian horror” titles, and yes, there were messages of redemption toward the end, following pages and pages of ritual pagan human sacrifice, loss, and grief or fear and madness.

However, I was thinking less about the violent act and more about its affect on me. As I’ve thought during the weekend about my standards for what I read and write, I realize my reaction to the story plays the biggest part. From my post again:

I don’t want to read stuff that is dragging my mind and heart into despair

That’s why I would have no trouble watching Avatar again. There’s a movie that is blatantly anti-God as He revealed Himself in the pages of Scripture, and there is a lot of violence and hate. But the movie didn’t create despair, at least not in me.

So maybe the entire reading experience is subjective. Maybe there isn’t an “everyone should read this” book out there.

Maybe the best we can do is know ourselves and what’s good for us to read, what will stir us to love and good deeds, what will cause us to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, what will help us fix our eyes on Jesus.

So, yes, I think I’m done reading what other people tell me I ought to read. Not that I won’t entertain suggestions and recommendations, but I’m not going to give in to guilt and read stuff I know going in will leave me in a place I don’t want to be.

Is that hard-headed? Am I closing my eyes to “reality”? I’ll let you be the judge.

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E. Stephen Burnett
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I don’t want to read stuff that is dragging my mind and heart into despair

That’s the key, I think, and if anything that is the only part that is “subjective.”

Readers would likely agree that there are some objective rules as to what makes a good story. Still there are some subjective aspects as well. In the superhero-film front, for example, to this day I still appreciate Green Lantern (2011), which most people maligned, because some of its themes particularly resonated with me. The same is true of, say, the ignored 2002 Disney film Treasure Planet, or many Christian novels that most people (including myself) regard as a bit subpar.

Similarly, my now-wife and I left a 2008 showing of The Dark Knight with different reactions. We were both shaking with the “grit” of the thing, but later I realized that despite the film’s darkness and rather challenging finale, I wanted to see it again, and have since seen it four times. By contrast, my dearly beloved does not want to see it again, and severely dislikes my vocal impressions of The Joker according to Heath Ledger (Mark Hamill’s B:TAS The Joker impressions are allowed). We agree that unusually, for us, we had very different reactions to this film. And then our reactions to The Dark Knight Rises last year were identically positive — though she waited to see that one on DVD in case it ended up being like its predecessor!

At the same time, I now wonder if all that Gritty stuff was really all that long-lasting. Intead it seems to have been, not a flash in the pan, but an irremovable chunk in the pan. The same filmmakers explicity deny they want to “gritty reboot” Superman for Man of Steel this year, The Avengers busted blocks because it was not all gritty, and fanboys have moved on to mocking rumors of “gritty rebooted” film franchises.

All that to say: Yes, it’s subjective which stories count as “depressing.”

But such a story’s impact is limited.

Am I closing my eyes to “reality”?

No. In fact, I daresay it’s the “you must read this depressing book or else you’re not aware of Reality” critic who has blinded him- or herself — or perhaps even fallen for a kind of legalism. As many know, I enjoy reminding SF readers of C.S. Lewis’s backhanded warning against redefining “reality” as only dark, depressing stuff:

[Screwtape writing] The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist.

— from Screwtape on Redefining Realism, Speculative Faith, Jan. 22, 2013

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I don’t think it’s bad to be a Phillipians 4:8 person, but I shouldn’t have thought of you as one. I’m so used to Christians using that as a standard that I never thought many don’t. Sorry about that.

Given what I read on the Wolfe post and your blog, I don’t mean to imply it’s bad to dislike things based on this, or that purity means 100% free of artistic violence. My point is more that we as writers sometimes have one standard of books we read, and it’s not always something that many readers like. There’s a strong argument that Christian SF writers should read Wolfe, or other Nebula award winners, for craft reasons. I think there’s also a good reason to read him besides that if you like literary speculative fiction. But readers shouldn’t feel compelled to do so, and your reaction was a good illustration why. You don’t want to feel forced to wade through things you feel are despairing or harmful.

It’s a tough thing. I think Christians, and Christian SF books in general, need to get out of their comfort zone. I’d like more people to read Wolfe, or Tim Powers, or R.A. Lafferty. But it can’t be from the top down, with a list of “must read” books governed by writers. You brought up real reasons why that can be dangerous, because some of us are used to things in fictions others aren’t. Sometimes a little too used to it for our own good.

Jonathan Lovelace
Member

The point of the quote in the comment above from the Screwtape Letters is a good one, but I’d go further. Not only is “Reality” not confined to “dark, depressing stuff,” because of the Resurrection and the renewal of all things which is to come and has already begun, anything that emphasizes the “dark, depressing stuff” is either a false or an incomplete portrayal of true Reality, just like (to use the example of Narnia) painting Narnia as “the land of perpetual winter,” full-stop, is badly inaccurate.
There’s also the point that “we are what we eat” spiritually as well as physically. The science of nutrition is informed by the laws of chemistry and by repeatable experiments, but because not everyone’s body reacts in precisely the same way (corn and corn-derived products make it much harder for me to listen to the part of me that says “You know, that might not be such a good idea …”, for example), one person’s ideal diet can in extreme cases be someone else’s poison; similarly, while there are objective standards by which we can measure books, different people can have—and may need—different “diets,” even aside from issues of “palate” or “taste.”

Literaturelady
Guest

Hi Becky! 
Great post and thoughts!  I don’t think sticking to preferences is hard-headed or willingly ignorant of reality (if you take any comfort in the infinite wisdom of a 20-year-old.  🙂 ).  If anything, it’s probably a waste of time to plough through a novel that scares or depresses you, unless you are reading it for research purposes.  I myself tend to avoid genres that leave bad tastes in my mouth (such as Christian fiction), because I have better things to do with my time than lie awake scared, or constantly roll my eyes, or rant to my sister about disturbing/angsty/weak aspects of X novel.  (However, there usually are exceptions to genres I dislike; The Last Sin Eater is the best Christian fiction story of the 23+ I’ve read!)

I think you’re right about knowing what’s good for you to read and what’s not.   My sister, for example, can’t handle most fantasy because she reads very literally; thus, story devices like symbolism throw her for a loop.  Me?  Never had a problem with those aspects.  Thus, I read fantasy like there’s no tomorrow, while she sticks to other genres.
 
Again, great post!  I’m looking forward to seeing what other readers/writers have to say.
 
Blessings,
Literaturelady

Jill
Guest

I have to say thank you for writing this. I also echo Jonathan Lovelace’s comment above. Reading and eating are for me a combination of what I prefer and what will benefit me. If anybody tries to tell me, for example, that grains are an essential food group, I will disagree vehemently. I have taken so much flak from Christians over a few things, and I’d like to call it the Harry Potter Pork Paradox. I don’t eat pork, and once upon a time I wouldn’t read HP. Many Christians have insinuated that these are spiritual sins against God because refusing them indicates I also reject salvation through grace, when it’s altogether possible that pork simply makes me physically ill and that reading about witchcraft scares me because I dabbled in it when I was young and impressionable.

Paul Lee
Member

I completely agree with the post, but I think I’ll add that, for me personally, sometimes I think I do benefit from reading books that I don’t really like all that much, and never thought that I would like.
 
If I only read for pleausure, I would only read high fantasy.  Fantasy set entirely in an imaginary continent in an imaginary alternate antiquity.  It’s old and overdone, and I’m an absolute sucker for it.  Maybe I would read some space opera, since that’s what I like watching on TV the best.
 
But I want to be literate about fantasy/science fiction, and so I’ve read a fair number of sub-genres that I find only mildly interesting.  My reading is still pretty narrow, and I wouldn’t force myself to read things that disturb me or that I absolutely have no interest in, such as Amish romance or time travel.  (I sort-of have a problem with time travel.  I’m not comfortable with the theological ramifications.)

Janeen Ippolito
Guest

Good thoughts!  I found myself giving this argument during college.  The popular phrase there was “Christian liberties” because for all the buttoned-up conservative Christian students who wouldn’t dream of disobeying their parental or church bylaws on content, it seemed like there were just as many who were eager to get UNbuttoned and dare to read THAT book…or watch THAT movie…y’know, the one their family/pastor/youth groupd had told them was SO unapproachably sinful…

It is ultimately a heart issue and a God issue, and that makes it much harder than just some simple rule about “this is good science fiction to read” or “Christians in the speculative fiction market shouldn’t read this” or what-have-you.  Because that true ability to delineate what is good and bad for oneself is dependent on having that strong, secure relationship with Jesus Christ and to be so in tuned in the Scriptures and Holy Spirit that you know where you stand on things, what is your “peanut allergy/Achilles heel” and what isn’t.

For me growing up the big “no-no” was anything with the m-word: magic.  Ironically, as an adult I find that magic bothers me little–mostly because the majority of it on-screen is silly and fictional anyway.

However, what I really can’t tolerate is anything that portrays angelic activity.  I’ve always been spiritually sensitive to that kind of thing, and the idea of watching or reading something that tries to depict angels (Christian or non-Christian), while I know angels are in the room (because we all have guardian angels, and they don’t take a day off), makes me feel awkward and embarrassed.  It’s like watching a show with obvious racial/cultural stereotypes with someone who is actually from that race/cultural.

I understand that many people like books with angels, and some people have done well portraying them, I suppose…it’s just not for me.

Galadriel
Guest

Something like that is why I’m fine with Doctor Who, Firefly, and Star Trek, but refuse to even consider watching Supernatural. Because the angels on Supernatural are (at least as far as names go) based on Judeo-Christian angels but with a radically different theology. I am aware that, say DW, is fictional and therefore feel more comfortable with, for example, the monster in the Satan Pit episode, than the idea of the angel Gabriel inhabiting a human man.

Lex Keating
Guest

The question of what to read/ what to recommend is an on-going battle amongst Christians. Especially Christians who like spec fic. This is too preachy, that is too gritty. Some of it is about personal standards, and considered through the lens of I Corinthians 8:7-11. This passage is usually applied to things that can be stumbling blocks for others (alcohol to a recovering addict, romance novels to a recently-saved erotica fan, the smoking section to someone trying to kick a nicotine habit, etc.), and it is used by lovers of spec fic. Sometimes, perhaps, as an excuse to read what we like. And we always want people we like to enjoy the same things we do, so we tend to pressure our friends to like the things we like. Is it fair or kind? Not always. Do we mean well? We generally think so. 
 
In his book On Writing, Stephen King touches on how writers write. He includes a snippet of “explicit” intimacy and a snippet of metaphorical “bonding.” Because of how these are written, the intimacy comes off as very clinical and the metaphor violates the reader. This is done through word choice, active verbs, and some very particular subtext. Writers sometimes write with the intention of offending a reader. Maybe to draw attention to something, maybe to keep the reader from empathizing with an event, maybe to pass on convictions to the reader. And because readers always come with their own built-in subtext, different readers are offended by different things. Some readers don’t mind offensive writing, while some readers don’t wish to be offended.
 
One example I can draw is from my own childhood. I grew up with two intense skiffy nerds for parents. The house was full of Gene Rodenberry, Luke Skywalker, Bagginses, Pevensies, and Frank Herbert. Among others, but those were the most frequently quoted. Until the day I scooped up my father’s dog-eared copy of Dune. (I was nine, and was out of age-appropriate material.) I wasn’t through the first chapter before the book was snatched away and I received the first of several lectures on “be careful little eyes what you see.” My parents cleaned house that afternoon. A lot of their sci-fi had elements they didn’t want their sponge-headed children absorbing before we had healthy filters and boundaries. I didn’t read the book until 15 years later. Very glad I missed it as a child, because there are themes and moral decisions in that book I should not have accepted as “okay” as a child. I could make the distinction as an adult, but not as a wee one. Conversely, when they foisted Brave New World on me a few years later, I had developed sufficient guards to not only be aware of the offense given, but to use that offense to make certain command decisions. (Mommy couldn’t recommend any more porn, for instance…) My innocence was not valued in feeding me this book, and I do sympathize with Becky in trying to define her own limits of interest and vulnerability.
 
So I do think that sometimes this becomes a question of “what gives offense?” Perhaps it’s okay to offend, perhaps it’s not. With the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis wasn’t writing the sections touching on war to give offense. He, I presume, grasped that many aspects of war that bother mature adults would be foreign to children, so he focused on the parts that would make sense to a child. Very hard to give offense when you tailor your story to a child. Song of Songs, from Scripture, may be a love story, but nowhere in there do you find passages designed to inspire lust in the reader. The metaphors and euphemisms in that book pass through the reader’s mind without inciting sin within an innocent reader. The intimacy is unmistakable, and can make more “experienced” readers feel self-conscious of their preference to avoid such nakedness of the soul. Do we, then, take offense from Scripture, or do we take that uncomfortableness to God and ask Him to give us eyes that see without offense?

Kessie Carroll
Member

Wow, what a negative blogpost. I think it deserves a positive followup–what books are on your Must Read list, then?
 
I’m well aware that the things I read and write aren’t palatable to everyone. It’s one reason I’ll never hand my realism-grounded inlaws my YA urban fantasy books. They just wouldn’t get it.
 
For myself, I don’t like dystopian. I didn’t know what it was called, but lovely titles like Brave New World, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 warned me off the genre. (Although I do fervently admire Fahrenheit 451.) Wool reminded me of how much I detest the genre. I know a lot of people adore dystopian, and that’s totally fine. My brother happens to lap up post-apoc like water. It just doesn’t suit my particular taste.
 
I like modern fantasy–MG, YA, adult, wherever I can find it. I’ll read some high fantasy (Becky Minor’s excellent books come to mind as returning me from my Dragonlance-induced burnout). I also enjoy animal books (there was an interesting discussion on Facebook recently about violence and Jack London’s wolf books) and mysteries.
 
Now, fantasy mysteries are AWESOME, but they seem to fall in the adult genre, like Dresden, and have the corresponding adult content.

R. L. Copple
Member

I don’t think anyone has the right to say you must read this, that, or the other. For example, I don’t like horror. To date, I’ve not read on Stephen King novel, and only watched one movie, which I didn’t like all that much. Yet most people would say I should read one or two. And who knows, maybe someday I will. But I simply don’t care to be scared. It does nothing for me except to create tension I don’t like.
 
The Philippians verses I take to mean what you focus on. It would be silly to avoid anything negative. You wouldn’t read anything if that were the case. But like many have said, what crosses the line for one person is subjective, and is different for another. Yet Paul’s warning is appropriate here: in our Christian freedom, we can do all things. But not all things are beneficial. Be careful in what you approve.
I’m sure most all of us will have to answer to what we approved of.
 

Galadriel
Guest

I’m not sure if I would say there are books anyone must read, but there are certain stories I would recommend to anyone (some with maturity caveats  some not) remotely interested in their genre.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Becky, I think you’re absolutely right to lay the responsibility for standards at the feet of individual readers.  Though Paul in Philippians 4:8 delineates clear guidelines for a healthy thought-life, he doesn’t bother to affix his adjectives to specific objects, actions, or ideas.  What’s more, Romans 14 has him pretty well endorsing a “reader-response criticism” of culture-consumption: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”  (Rom. 14:14)  Since we’re all distinct individuals, we’ll each experience different reactions to media content.  Something that would rot my mind from within might be perfectly safe for a stronger Christian to ingest on a regular basis.  I must know my own limits without assuming those limits should be adopted by all my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I also applaud your shift of focus away from what the story’s content is and toward the response it elicits in you.  I call this “the taste a story leaves in my mouth,” and, though it’s incredibly difficult to quantify, it easily eclipses the influence of all other elements on my gut-level reaction to any given story.  While the sense of triumph — of completion — that suffuses the denouement of Avatar is certainly emblematic of James Cameron’s desire that viewers exit the theater with a spring in their step, a “good taste in the mouth” has little to do with whether a story’s characters all survive happily ever after this side of the grave.  Personally, I thought Avatar could’ve easily transcended the good/great demarcation if it’d taken some lessons in bittersweetness from The Last Samurai.

This “taste in the mouth” is such a nebulous concept precisely because it’s the summation of a story’s other elements.  Plotting, pacing, editing, sentence structure, cinematography, tone, lighting, thematic emphasis, the decisions and reactions of characters — all these and more have a part to play in that final amorphous gestalt that comprises “the taste in my mouth.”  That’s why examinations of isolated story-content elements have never been of much help to me in my quest to find quality storytelling.  Is there a sex scene, a bloody battle, a blast of profanity?  Those bare facts tell me next to nothing about a story’s worthiness.  I need to know what function in the greater whole is being performed by any given “objectionable” element before I can pass judgement.  Do the villain’s tortures highlight the hero’s courage?  Does the temptation of evil accentuate the beauty of goodness?  Do we long for the dawn after stumbling around in the dead of night?

At the risk of sounding Eastern, allow me to riff on that last thought.  Contrary to common misconception, Adam and Eve didn’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Evil.  They ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for without knowledge of the latter, one cannot possess knowledge of the former.  Without encroaching darkness, how would we ever recognize the light?  It’s impossible to show love unless there’s also an alternative to love.  Without the existence of sin love would still be love, but we wouldn’t be able to appreciate it as such.  There’d be nothing to compare it to, nothing to contrast it with, nothing to reveal it as being as pure and as beautiful and as strong and as perfect as we can see that it is, living as we are within this world of sin.  Sin brings out the best in love.  Without sin, God would have had nothing from which to rescue us, nothing by which to so powerfully demonstrate His love for us.  Deep darkness makes the light shine all the brighter.

And that’s why we simply can’t afford to employ Philippians 4:8 as a rulebook for storytelling.  If everything is sweetness and light, there is no story.  And God’s story as revealed in Scripture is anything but pure sweetness and light.

Marc
Guest

I feel there is an ironic nature to this post – Wolfe’ himself has a must read list that includes … The Bible, especially the New Testament.  The most authoritarian, restrictive lists of literature always seem to be on polar ends of the Faith spectrum – thou shalt read this, thou shalt not read this.  Yet many fervent, violent atheists have only a superficial knowledge of the things that they are rebelling against, or at the very least only understanding of one particular, narrow creed that perhaps turned them away from it.  I guess I have authoritarian tendencies – there are some books everyone should try to read, in my opinion, because they represent the peaks of human artistic achievement.
 
I am a fan of “must read” lists that allow you to expand your horizons and decide for yourself if it is nonsense and should be thrown away – there is no temptation to someone who knows themselves.  I can read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and say, wow, what avalue-bereft piece of complete emptiness. 
I really think everyone regardless of faith should read Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Wolfe, Faulkner, Mishima, Proust, The Bible, studies of other cultures, historical documents like Herodotus, and experience the art, spirituality, and beauty that is rife in God’s beautiful world.  Not every beautiful thing is a temptation.
(alas, your picture of boxing is fascinating – the only sport I can follow avidly.  Does that make me a bad guy? Maybe just a violently cathartic one.  There have been many times when my natural temper has been dulled and pacified by hours at the boxing gym – sometimes the things that are perceived negatively are wonderful for the soul)
I suppose I dont buy the relativistic argument of value … then again, neither do most Judeo-Christian philosophies and religions.
 

Morgan Busse
Member

I think this shows how different people have different tastes in books. I loved Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, but didn’t care as much for Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. And after telling my high school English teacher that I wanted to do my senior project on J.R.R. Tolkien and his use of mythology in his work, she  told me in a hushed voice that she never finished Lord of the Rings, that she couldn’t get into the books 🙂

Forcing me to read a book I don’t like is like forcing me to eat seafood. I don’t like seafood. Bleh! I tried it, didn’t like it, and moved on. I’m all for people trying different things. You never know, you might find you actually like it. But I would not sit down and eat seafood everyday simply because someone told me I needed to.

We love different colors, different types of food, different music, even different seasons. So is it any wonder that we enjoy different books? We are all unique and different, and that is a good thing.

 

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