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The Forgotten Reader 3: Sharing The Joy

Many blogs advise how to pitch projects to editors. But how would you pitch fantasy itself to *readers* — parents, Lewis/Tolkien-or-bust fans, or church friends?

We have already seen …

  1. Too many Christian-fantasy blogs focus on the joy and business of writing rather than reading. That’s a grave miscalculation in engineering, designed as if to prevent a launch.
  2. Before teaching others, we must learn how to read and receive stories ourselves.

That last brought some just criticism, on which I need to touch before moving on.

R.E.A.D.-ing bad stories

thumbsdownAustin said this:

[The suggested R.E.A.D. paradigm] artificially limits the spectrum of discussable stories to the awesome end only, and requires all book reviews to constitute potential back-cover blurbs.

To which I replied:

True, I was thinking mainly of the “awesome end” of stories. Yet surely even subpar works should be Received, even if they don’t also lead to Delight.

So what if a story is less incredible, or at best awful? We might modify the megachurch-sermon-style acronym a bit. It still starts with Receive, for criticism must still be humble.

  1. Receive. Even a bad story deserves our attention first. We can try to “lose ourselves” in it. (Parallel: Even in church we would listen politely to a bad vocalist, and not boo her.)
  2. Enjoy. Thanks to God’s common grace, few stories are fully horrible. What is good about it? What was the author apparently trying to do, and how might we admire that goal? (Parallel: We can be grateful for a church vocalist’s goal to worship, even if she’s awful.)
  3. Ask. Here is where we depart humble optimism, yet with humility. What made the story so bad? How could it be better? (Parallel: gracious yet truthful suggestions for a church vocalist. Even those who know little about music technique know what sounded poor.)
  4. Delight. Even constructive criticism will bring hurt feelings and outrage, often of a faux-spiritual sort — e.g., how dare you judge my heart; this is the story God wanted me to tell, and there are many worse pagan stories out there. In this case we would want to point to truly objective Biblical standards for art that glorifies God. Our goal in criticism is not having fun or even Improving the Industry. Our goal is to encourage better worship. (Parallel: our off-key church vocalist should be asked what helps her delight in music, and then be encouraged to seek training as that artist did, or another worship method!)

Now for some explorations on how to encourage R.E.A.D. concepts — positive and negative, with or without the corny acronym — in others. Here I’ll touch on the three likely ignored reader groups I mentioned two weeks ago, and in a format very familiar to we “writicists”:

The elevator pitch

Consider this. We get plenty of blog posts and columns on how to pitch a work-in-progress to an editor or agent. Less often do we hear pitched pitches on how to address readers.

Below are my scripts, which I invite you to read, challenge, and modify.

“Oh, so you read and write Christian fantasy? …”

1. Parents

child with toys“… I want to find good stories for my (son/daughter, [name], who is X years old).”

That’s fantastic. (If applicable) So do I, for my (child, [name]). And I don’t want only to find stories that will only edify, evangelize, or entertain, you know? They should be better.

“What do you mean?”

I once thought the goal of a story was limited to moral edification, or direct evangelism, or even just to distract the kids with entertainment. Since then I’ve found that God in His Story of Scripture doesn’t think like that. All those three things do matter, just as edification and pleasant melodies matter in a song of worship. But a story of worship should first glorify God and explore His beauty, goodness, and truth. That’s also why I want to enjoy stories for His glory. After all, if others don’t see me doing that, they may think that stories are only for those other things. (If applicable) My children should see that I love God-honoring stories.

“If the author didn’t get this famous, I’m not interested”?

“If the author didn’t get this famous, I’m not interested”?

2. “Lewis/Tolkien or bust” readers

“… I don’t read much other Christian fantasy. Just give me Lewis and Tolkien any day!”

I love those authors. We likely wouldn’t have any other stories today if it weren’t for them. But I’m sure they wouldn’t agree with us only enjoying their stories and not at least trying to determine if other God-honoring stories exist. They are out there; you would love them. Absolutely, some evangelical fiction is bad — but often because their authors get stuck on trying to imitate only Lewis and Tolkien, without tracing their art and beliefs to the roots. Let me tell you about this fantastic novel I was reading the other day …

3. Church folk

“… I don’t get into that fantasy stuff. I’m more of an Amish/historical/romance person.”

Ah, I’m certain every fiction genre can glorify God. Do you think fantasy or sci-fi can?

(If “yes”) Let me tell you about this fantastic novel by I was reading the other day …

(If “no”) How come? (Bypass objections to magic, someone-else-used-it-to-sin, etc. After this reply, the person will need to choose whether he/she really wants to call you a liar outright.)

Here’s why I think otherwise: because God’s Story is fantastic. I believe He is working today in miraculous ways to call out a Covenant people and redeem the world. He has promised that His people will someday live in a fantastic realm, when Heaven touches Earth to give birth to eternity. I love stories that help me think about such a time, and about good and evil, redemption, the miraculous. Fantasy and science fiction are fun, yes, but the central reason I want to love them is because they draw me closer to the Author of fantastic reality.

Invitation

You be the editor. Revise those scripts. Add realism based on your own experience dealing with those groups — or your own script about another group. What has worked for you?

How have you previously explained your fantasy story enjoyments to such folks?

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Bill Tillman
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Pitching fantasy to readers involves telling certain universal stories, my favorite is the coming of age tale, and the quest tale. Almost everyone can relate to these tales.

Bill Tillman
Guest

In addition to my own Fantasy Ya & Midgrade writing to review about 200-250 books a year. I have about 20 different publishers sending trade paper, and ebooks sending books for review. I post on Goodreads.com and Shelfari.com and Amazon.com/kindle
 
Blessings, Bill

Paul Lee
Member

Even more than following the model of a novelist’s pitch to a publisher or agent, this post appears to be subverting, or at least gently poking fun of, the tracts and flowcharts that try to account for all the possible directions that a conversation between an evangelist and a listening unbeliever could take.  Good one.

Our goal in criticism is not having fun or even Improving the Industry. Our goal is to encourage better worship.

My goal in the small amount of reviewing that I’ve done has simply been to tell the truth.
 
I agree that reading and enjoying stories is worship, that everything that we do should be an act of worship.  I believe that truth, goodness, and beauty are all one, or at least I think I do.  However, that doesn’t mean that outward aesthetics are indicative of truth or true beauty.  A person who is unattractive is not sinful because of his or her physical ugliness.  Likewise, I don’t think it’s necessarily sinful, or even un-worshipful, for someone who can’t sing very well to try to sing, even in front of people (if the bad singer happens to be sufficiently brave).  Granted, some Christians who don’t have talent probably believe that they have a right to be enjoyed and appreciated by other Christians, and that is not a worshipful attitude.
 
I think honest criticism is good and helpful, but I don’t think it’s always necessary.  There would be no particular reason for me to tell a bad vocalist who sang at my church that his or her singing is abominable.  If I were to write a 1,000+-word review about last week’s volunteer vocalist and give it to the pastor or the church secretary for inclusion in next week’s bulletin, I would be turned down, and they would think that I’m even stranger than they already think I am.

But I’m sure they wouldn’t agree with us only enjoying their stories and not at least trying to determine if other God-honoring stories exist. They are out there; you would love them.

But this hypothetical challenge from the hypothetical “Lewisian” speculative fiction skeptic demonstrates an area where criticism is definitely needed.  The natural reply to the response, “They are out there; you would love them” is, “Yeah? Well, give me a few titles.”  And then you’d better have more than one title to mention, and you really should be able to explain exactly why those titles are worthy of the attention of people who expect the depth of the Inklings.  It might help if you could take out a smartphone/tablet/laptop and navigate to a deeply critical but positive review published on the web.

Austin Gunderson
Member

As an apparent Lewisian (I guess), I give that last paragraph a hearty “Amen.”

bad_cook
Guest
bad_cook

This is where the disconnect comes in for me, because I personally have a goal of Improving the Industry, however hazy and improbable that is. I think better worship would be inspired from better material.
Aside from that, I would want to quibble on what exactly you mean by worshiping by reading. If we were going to discuss story as an experience vs. story as an action of the reader, I’m probably going to fall on the side of experience. Heck, I’m sure worship itself can be argued about in terms of experience vs. action, but for that I tend to fall on the side of action, so therein lies my conundrum.

Galadriel
Guest

Maybe I’ll consider these points with my parents and one of my brothers–the other one is a full-fledged Whovian and Star Wars fan(what are they called anyway) and needs  no nudging.   The problem is that “I don’t like that sort of stuff” tends to shut down conversation, but I do like what you said about shifting the focus a little to, this is a great story, not this is a great fantasy

Austin Gunderson
Member

Hey Stephen.  As always, I appreciate you taking point on this unfolding discussion.

I’m not at all sure that all stories — even bad ones — deserve our attention.  Is there a particular reason you make that assertion?  While I believe it’s a rare story indeed that has nothing of value to offer a discerning reader, the detriments of reading poorly-written or worldview-distorted stories often vastly outweigh the potential benefits.  I’ll use a personal example.  A few years ago, incessant popular acclaim convinced me to start reading A Song of Ice and Fire.  Seemingly everyone was raving about the series’ intricate plotting and ‘realistic’ characters.  So I cracked open A Game of Thrones, expecting something worth my time.  After witnessing like five sex acts in the first fifty pages, I realized that no, the debauchery wasn’t gonna stop and that yes, George R.R. Martin is a dirty old man.  That realization allowed me to shut the book, put it down, and walk away forever.

I understand that what I find mentally degrading and unacceptable may be no big deal to someone else.  I’m not now telling people to avoid Martin like the plague (although, if you really don’t relish the thought of every single character getting nekkid in like every other chapter, then Martin really isn’t your mug of ale).  What I’m pointing out is that, at least for me, no redeeming quality which might happen to inadvertently crop up later in Martin’s series could possibly be awesome enough to justify an interminably degenerative slog through the filth of his nihilistic fantasy world.  I was only able to Receive the first fifty pages before spitting them back out.  How then could I have Enjoyed, Asked, or Delighted?

And if I made the right decision by putting that book down, then we’ve just established that stories don’t deserve my ingestion by default.  They must earn it through a lot of hard work on the author’s part.  My time as a reader is incredibly precious.  The opportunity cost of reading a poorly-written novel — let alone an evil one — is incalculably high.  I do believe there’s a lot to be gained in terms of cultural and philosophical understanding for Christians willing to study various seminal secular works and flagships of pop culture even when those books feature twisted worldviews or cringe-worthy craftsmanship, but that kind of reading can’t really be defined as “delight.”  That’s a strong word.  I don’t tend to delight unless that delight is unqualified.

Something you said in your modified R.E.A.D. delineation prompts me to echo a point made by bad_cook above: that quibblement over your definition of “worship” now seems necessary.  You say that “Our goal in criticism is not having fun or even Improving the Industry. Our goal is to encourage better worship.”  But worship, by definition, is an act of the heart.  In the words of C.S. Lewis, “The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.”  It is therefore impossible to “encourage better worship” through criticism.  Such criticism merely returns the prospective worshipper’s focus back to him- or herself: “Was I doing it right?  Did I make a mistake?  If Austin and Stephen don’t appreciate my performance, how can a holy God?”  The real mistake comes in thinking of worship as a performance.  If it is a performance, it has little to do with God: its purpose is to please judgmental human spectators.  Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that; I agree with you that an off-key singer shouldn’t, ideally, be handed a microphone during a worship service.  Why?  Not because she needs to learn how to “worship better” — the worshipfulness of her heart is a matter between her and God.  No, she shouldn’t be raised up as an example of singing because there are more folks watching her than the One she’s singing to.  If she wants to sing God’s praises according to the measure of her ability without being judged, she’ll have to sing to Him in private.  The rest of the time, her artistic excellence or lack thereof will either help or hinder others’ worship.  Same principle applies in the realm of writing.

Which is why my book critiques are always intended to Improve the Industry.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

The problem with these approaches is that they aren’t ones writers can easily use on their blogs. They seem more about one-on-one evangelizing of a genre, and would require the writer to cross-promote books as well as honestly criticize them. Unfortunately, writers can’t easily do this, because they risk damaging reputations with fans, publishers, and fellow writers.  A writer loses a lot of power on any review site just by applying for that writer tag or self-pubbing/trad pubbing a book.

You’re asking them to be critics, and I think writers can’t do so within their own genre. Specifically, I mean. Maybe we can explain our own works in the light of your criteria or speak generally without naming authors, but that can also lead to navel gazing and a writerly approach to blogging too. I think this is why we see so much focus on improving the industry, because it’s really at the publisher, critic, and fan levels that you can achieve something like the steps you describe.