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What Makes Novels Mediocre?

How does sin influence our mediocre expectations? What makes reading novels a duty rather than a delight — or even makes you put down the book and refuse to read further?
| Oct 19, 2012 | No comments |

On Monday Rebecca LuElla Miller discussed what pulls us into great stories. Wednesday brought my poll about negative reviews — would “anonymizing” reviews add benefit?

Now for a question to tie these all together (in lieu of a guest author who needed to re-schedule). What makes novels mediocre? What makes reading them a duty rather than a delight — or even makes you put down the book and refuse to read further?

I’m finally drawing near to the end of a certain Christian-speculative book, and I’m very glad my e-reader shows 97 percent done. Reading this book was certainly more a duty than a delight. And ordinarily I would not have finished it, following a rule of “if by 50 pages you are not satisfied, stop reading.” But I chose to finish it, so I could complain here about it.

We likely know that yes, people wrongly stereotype “Christian fiction” as being worse than “secular fiction.” Yes, we are pioneers in many ways (as in fantasy and even post-dystopian quasi-sci-fi). And yes, it’s silly to suggest all Christian fiction is averse to nastiness, when Frank Peretti’s characters in The Oath say “oh my god,” and a Stephen Lawhead Song of Albion demonic creature is bloated with filthy genitals before it gets worshiped to death.

Yet mediocre novels persist.

Why are these stories mediocre, especially ones by Christians? Athol Dickson wisely spies the main fault line as not in marketing, publishers, or writing skills, but in sin itself:

As creatures made in the Creator’s image, we were designed to use our gifts to their utmost, and to savor excellence in our neighbor’s use of their gifts. It’s impossible to imagine the words “good enough” being spoken in the Garden before the Fall. But we did fall, and one of the things we lost was our ability to throw ourselves into living with complete abandon. “Good is the enemy of great,” as Jim Collins wrote (paraphrasing Voltaire). Thus, in settling for good enough, we have rampant mediocrity in the world.

Another thing we abandoned in the Fall was our ability to perceive the true extent of what we’ve lost. So when expediency and ego dilute the full potential of even our best writers and artists, the audience, being also lost, doesn’t know enough to care. Therefore they applaud what little they can get, and their applause rewards mediocrity. This in turn inspires the production of more mediocrity, and the cycle builds more and more support for itself until mediocrity seems normal, or even (God forbid) good, and because that lie has become pervasive, the truth is difficult for even Christians to remember. Thus we have rampant mediocrity even in the church.

This sinful decline from God-created potential to mediocre expectations in turn makes Christian novels mediocre in many ways. Here I am limiting my observations to Christian fiction, and also flagrantly generalizing beyond the particular book I have been reading:

  • Emotional over-analyzing. Especially within point-of-view style, no one pauses and thinks to himself about the two different emotions colliding within. Authors should speak that way to describe machinery cogs meshing together, not feelings.
  • A “what if” question too far. Asking, What if God created another world, and it looked like this is a standard what-if question, yet with endless exploration potential. But asking, What if God really did create that rock that’s too big for Him to lift — and it’s been secretly hidden in Forest City, Arkansas! comes off as just plain strange.
  • Christians From Another Planet! Why don’t Christian characters act like real Christians? One could think an author must downplay the Bible-quoting, church-attendance, and even sinful behaviors of actual Christians, and add alternative sentiments to appeal to non-Christian readers. But then those actual readers write reviews and say this (actual sentence): “The constant ‘God loves you so much’, and ‘God believes in you’ [slogans] began turning me off early on.” Ah. So it wasn’t just me worsening the problem by also making up Theoretical Non-Christian Readers.

I’m still pondering this alternate-universe “Christianity,” but I believe I can safely say this: It’s not as much a fruit of bad writing but of shallow internalized beliefs.

Here’s an example, paraphrasing a novel’s non-Christian character’s line of thought:

He wondered if it could be true. If there really could be a God who loved him.

Authors: non-Christians don’t think this way as often as Christians would wish. Rather, such responses usually come from “seeker-sensitive” “nonfiction” and anecdotes.

I suggest that if we pay more attention to God’s Story, which reminds us that people do benefit from “common grace” and want God but are also spiritually dead, then our stories and authenticity will improve. Moreover, we’ll truly reach out better to all kinds of readers.

For you, what pushes books into the realm of can’t-read-much-longer mediocre?

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Kessie Carroll
Member

Now I’m wondering what in the world you’ve been reading. In light of the anonymous-bad-review debate, do you think you’ll write a bad review? 😀
 
I think your three points up there (Emotional over-analyzing, what if too far, and Space Christians) are both symptoms of Christian fiction as well as just plain bad writing. Other signs of mediocrity that turn me off:
 
Meh characters. I’ve gone fifty pages and I don’t care about any of these guys. Or worse, I despise the hero because he’s whiny. Thomas Hunter was one of those whiny, angsty heroes, but I put up with him because I wanted to see where Dekker’s Circle concept was going. (And wow, what a disappointment it was.)
 
Predictable plot. When I can point at the bad guy’s secret identity three chapters early, predict exactly what the hero will do in the climax, and yawn my way through all the fight scenes–yeah. I’ll be hard pressed to finish it and even harder pressed to recommend it, let alone write a good review.
 
Embarrassing Bible treatment. I squirm when I watch Veggietales retellings of Bible stories. I find them borderline blasphemous. It’s even worse to see Bible stories re-cast in a fantasy universe, where they don’t fit. If I want to read Bible fanfiction, I’ll go read something like the Bronze Bow. Don’t retell Jacob and Esau with dragons. Just. Don’t.
 
John Grisham wrote a GREAT character conversion in Testament. I always go back to that, because the hero’s conversion is so quiet, you’ll almost miss it. But it helps him start to slowly conquer his alcoholism. He presented the Gospel in such a plain, no-frills way, and then showed its effects on peoples’ lives. That’s one of the things that made Testament such a good book. (That and the adventures on a riverboat in a swamp in Brazil, as well as the wranglings of the psychopaths back in the States.)

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Now I’m wondering what in the world you’ve been reading. In light of the anonymous-bad-review debate, do you think you’ll write a bad review? :-D

Hmm, I might, thought it may be a while, to throw folks off the trail.

I think your three points up there (Emotional over-analyzing, what if too far, and Space Christians) are both symptoms of Christian fiction as well as just plain bad writing.

“Space Christians.” Ha ha! I do foresee a future column or series titled Christians From Another Planet! I must say, however, I don’t see those kinds of “folk theology”-repeating Christians in secular fiction. If you see a Christian at all, he’s usually Catholic or Catholic-ish. I used to wonder about that, until I realized secular storytellers either want to villainize the Christian character, or want to respect him but have no clue how. So they throw in a Catholic. It’s those photogenic collars.

(Ergo: Shepherd Book from Firefly, the priest guy from the short-lived V remake.)

Thomas Hunter was one of those whiny, angsty heroes, but I put up with him because I wanted to see where Dekker’s Circle concept was going. (And wow, what a disappointment it was.)

I must admit, I favored Black over Red, and Red over White. Green was just odd.

A whole series could be written about the successes and not-so-much of the Circle Trilogy. One setback was the lead character, I agree, though I don’t recall him being whiny as much as being a Super-Fit Professional. He knows karate, mixes it up with bad guys, also has a hot sister. And he’s been around. You know? He’s been around.

Much as I dislike the overdone orphan-becomes-king conceit, a story works better when you go from rags to riches rather than from moderate riches to more riches. Seems the more affluent a character at the beginning (affluent referring to skills and appearance, not only monetary wealth), the pulpier the novel is. Da Vinci Code was notorious for this — everyone is rich, professorial, professional, skilled in personal politics, intellectual (or so they thought), and so on. This doesn’t reflect reality well; it’s immediate, unearned wish-fulfillment for readers, and perhaps also for the author — who fakes it until he makes it by instructing about the Beautiful People.

Predictable plot. When I can point at the bad guy’s secret identity three chapters early

Now that is just strange. Here’s my Kindle note for the book I just finished:

It’s the _____ guy.

This is about halfway through the book, during a mysterious scene describing the real Boss’s nefarious scheming, without naming him. And of course, I was right.

And of course, this is no great testament to my detective skills.

predict exactly what the hero will do in the climax

Invariably a variation of, If you kill him, you’ll be just like him! We have to be better than this. For years I’d grown a bit tired of that trope, even though it’s based on truth (“Vengeance is Mine,” and so on). And I’d hoped someone would turn it on its head and show another side of that truth. Finally, this summer, someone did:

John Grisham […] presented the Gospel in such a plain, no-frills way, and then showed its effects on peoples’ lives. That’s one of the things that made Testament such a good book.

When I read that book I had much shallower ideas about fiction. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t enjoy it as much, though I knew it was good writing. The Gospel echoes seemed a bit too vague to me. I figured, if you’re going to dare to have a conversion scene, be overt about it, and don’t tiptoe out of the room and shut the door softly as if tastefully withdrawing from a honeymoon suite.

You remind me that I need to read it again and see what I think now.

I do recall being pleasantly surprised by Grisham’s portrayal of the rich man’s relatives, and all their greed and dysfunctions. It’s a not-so-subtle twist on the “you want to live vicariously through the fictionalized lives of these supposedly fit, rich, attractive, and successful people, yes?” pulp-fiction trope. He exposed that nicely.

Marion
Guest

“John Grisham […] presented the Gospel in such a plain, no-frills way, and then showed its effects on peoples’ lives. That’s one of the things that made Testament such a good book.

When I read that book I had much shallower ideas about fiction. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t enjoy it as much, though I knew it was good writing. The Gospel echoes seemed a bit too vague to me. I figured, if you’re going to dare to have a conversion scene, be overt about it, and don’t tiptoe out of the room and shut the door softly as if tastefully withdrawing from a honeymoon suite.
You remind me that I need to read it again and see what I think now.
I do recall being pleasantly surprised by Grisham’s portrayal of the rich man’s relatives, and all their greed and dysfunctions. It’s a not-so-subtle twist on the “you want to live vicariously through the fictionalized lives of these supposedly fit, rich, attractive, and successful people, yes?” pulp-fiction trope. He exposed that nicely.”
I was going to ask you what did you mean about shallow?  I’m curious to see how you feel when you re-read The Testament.
Here’s my review:  http://kammbia1.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/book-review-4-the-testament-by-john-grisham/
Marion

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I was going to ask you what did you mean about shallow?  I’m curious to see how you feel when you re-read The Testament.

In short: I don’t recall the Name of Jesus Christ being mentioned, to say nothing of His death to make atonement for personal sin and reconcile rebels to God.

Understand, I’m not requiring this of a novel with a character experiencing a Life Change. However, to call it a “Christian conversion” would require something about actual Christian conversion being included. Otherwise it’s only a Life Change.

Marion
Guest

Kessie,
Thanks for mentioning The Testament by Grisham.  It is one of my favorite novels and an excellent example of how redemption and conversion can happen in fiction.
Marion

Galadriel
Guest

One book that I thought had bad writing…or at least bad concept… Maximum Ride series. The characters keep gaining new powers with little or no explanation and kids are more rational than adults…

Kessie Carroll
Member

My hubby and I read the first three Max books, put them down and went, “Eh.” So much preaching, so little logic. How did their wings fit under their windbreakers, anyway?
 

D. M. Dutcher
Member

Yeah, don’t get me started about Patterson. Someone else mentioned John Grisham, and while he’s probably not the best author out there, people like him, Scott Turow and others at least tried to stock the shelves of CVS, Walgreens, and airports across the land with some decent, well-crafted thrillers. Patterson is just cranking books out now, and for some odd reason people lap them up like sweet milk.

Kristen G. Johnson
Guest

Fantastic post! I’m printing this off and putting it above my desk. Thanks so much.

Austin Gunderson
Member

It’s my suspicion that a good many writers of speculative fiction targeted at Christians think the mere fact that they write from a Christian worldview ought to suffice for their credentials.  That’s certainly the case in the emergent Christian film industry (which I studiously avoid, even though I’m a Christian who produces videos for a living).  Unfortunately, good intentions do not good art make.

I’ll be brutally honest: there’s a sense of entitlement out there in the Christian media world – the kind which says, “You should see Film A or read Book B because it’ll be good for you!”  (As though that’s a typical justification for media consumption!)  When Facing the Giants or Fireproof or Courageous debuted, did we the target audience hear about how artistically excellent they were or how deeply moving were their featured performances?  Of course not.  Instead, we were subjected to revival-style exhortations toward cinemaplex sanctification, complete with study guides.  (If you can’t tell, I’m not a huge fan of the Kendrick Brothers’ work.  I anticipate that many of you are.  My point here is not to deride their storytelling per se, but to call attention to the way their films are marketed.)  I understand that the motive there was to make a difference, and I’m sure those movies did make a difference in many people’s lives.  But what suffered as a result was the actual quality of the art itself.  When an author or filmmaker is so confident that his didactic message will meet with audience approval that his story climaxes with an alter call, any real understanding of how the human heart assimilates meaning has fallen victim to pious complacency.  The Kendrick Brothers assumed that their target audience already subscribed to the beliefs espoused by their films.  That’s why they didn’t bother to present those beliefs in a compelling or realistic fashion: they knew they didn’t have to.

This is part of why I grow uneasy whenever I read – here or elsewhere – that writers of Christian spec-fic should abandon the ‘secular’ (read: ‘normal’) marketplace and target their books exclusively toward their fellow Christians (or, worse yet, their fellow Christian spec-fic fans).  The danger that an author will develop an entitlement mentality is strongest when he knows his audience already agrees with his worldview.  In that case, the bar he must clear in a bid for adulation is low, indeed.

Familiarity breeds complacency, and complacency breeds mediocrity.  Want to up your storytelling game?  Try writing for someone you know disagrees with your worldview.  Easy answers won’t cut it anymore.  You’ll be forced to dig deep – past those “shallow internalized beliefs,” past those straw-man non-Christian counterarguments – down into the well of God’s Word, through which He speaks to everyone in the way they’ll best understand Him – even if they think Him “Unknown.”

I think we as Christian spec-fic writers need to lift up our eyes to the sun-bleached fields beyond our streamside copse.  The nonbelievers won’t be the only ones who’ll benefit from our branching-out.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Some more interactions, wishing we could have the conversation more personally:

From Austin:

It’s my suspicion that a good many writers of speculative fiction targeted at Christians think the mere fact that they write from a Christian worldview ought to suffice for their credentials.

Or: Hey, I’ve written a fantasy novel! Only it’s a Christian one! Just like C.S. Lewis! … As if there aren’t already hundreds of those (nearly 500 in the Speculative Faith Library alone). They may not match the number of Amish/end times/cozy romance novels rotating on Lifeway shelves in a single year, but they’re still significant.

I’ll be brutally honest: there’s a sense of entitlement out there in the Christian media world – the kind which says, “You should see Film A or read Book B because it’ll be good for you!

Yep. Just like peas.

A related appeal: “You should see Film A or read Book B because that will prove to the culture that you exist and then we’ll get more stories like that.” (Which begs the question: what reason will we have for stories if we do take over Hollywood?)

Or, “You should see Film A or read Book B to be a part of the Movement.”

I do read a lot of speculative story fans (not anyone here!), in response, saying that “it’s good for you” isn’t a good reason to enjoy a story. With respect I suggest that’s the wrong way to go about it. Rather, we have the wrong definition of good. “Good for you” doesn’t mean “you will learn Morals; you will be a better family man; you will seek God’s best for your life,” and so on. “Good for you” means “you’ll get more of God’s truths and beauties and be moved, consciously and otherwise, to worship.”

When Facing the Giants or Fireproof or Courageous debuted, did we the target audience hear about how artistically excellent they were or how deeply moving were their featured performances?  Of course not.

What I mostly heard were:

  • “You should see it because that will prove to the culture that you exist,” etc.
  • And, “You should see it to be a part of the Movement,” etc.

Only second to those did I hear better reasons, paraphrased like this: “I laughed, I cried; it moved me, Bob!” Hey, I’ll admit the film yanked on my heartstrings a little, though sometimes too insistently.

Instead, we were subjected to revival-style exhortations toward cinemaplex sanctification, complete with study guides.

Recently commentator Kessie broached the common misconception that we need to turn every story into an evangelical-style “devotional” or else it’s not worshipful enough. I heartily disagree. And that’s what’s frustrating about many Christian movies: they have that altar-call complex. Not only is this cheesy, it’s unhelpful to the very thing they want! Imagine if Captain America: The First Avenger ended with, “How about you, kids? Do you want to be a hero like Captain America? Go buy some patriotic shield toys!” It’s not needed. If the story is great, they already will.

This is another example of how “folk theology” weakens stories. It’s not because there’s “too much” Christianity in the story, it’s because there’s not enough. Christ never taught we must end every story with an “altar call” to salvation or to better living; He certainly didn’t in His stories. He didn’t even teach this about churches.

Still the “make everything a devotional” impulse persists. Imagine my annoyance — that is the only word for it — when I finished a Christian book and am greeted with rather presumptuous “study notes” for the story. Here’s my Kindle note in reply:

Don’t do this at the end of a book. For God’s sake, just don’t.

And that is not blasphemous.

If you can’t tell, I’m not a huge fan of the Kendrick Brothers’ work.  I anticipate that many of you are.  My point here is not to deride their storytelling per se, but to call attention to the way their films are marketed.

Actually, you might be surprised. This time last year, we had quite the discussion:

And then more thoughts just this past May, interacting with others’ critiques:

My main thought on Christian movies in particular: better understanding of the Story of Scripture will go a long way toward fixing those wrongful “pragmatic” marketing ploys, and the quality of the story’s craft itself. Realizing you don’t need to end every story with a How About You? Moment would alone be revolutionary.

“Alter call.” I think I see what you did there. Come to the altar and get altered.

The Kendrick Brothers assumed that their target audience already subscribed to the beliefs espoused by their films.  That’s why they didn’t bother to present those beliefs in a compelling or realistic fashion: they knew they didn’t have to.

Here’s where it gets odd, though. In one sense some Christian movies assume their audience members are all Christians. But then they have salvation “altar call” moments that assume the audience members are nonbelievers. Which is it?

I first began asking this question at a megachurch’s evening service for my younger brother’s basketball team “awards ceremony.” It wasn’t that at all. “It’s a trap!” Yes, a trap to get their presumably unsaved parents into the building and then to have a come-to-Jesus altar call. I don’t necessarily object to this; what was bizarre, though, was the otherwise worship-service nature of the event. One moment people are standing to sing praises to Jesus, like Christians, and then next moment are expected to listen to an altar call as if they’re not Christians? Well, which part of the event can they safely ignore because it doesn’t apply?

What happens is a bit of pandering, perhaps well-meant but so not necessary (God in His Story didn’t do this). The thought behind it goes: Christians believe a story or other thing is no good unless somebody, somewhere, may obviously be getting saved because of it. If they’re assured of this, they can relax and laugh and learn.

I don’t agree with this view, because a) God, not manmade methods, is ultimately responsible for the act of saving people, and sometimes (annoyingly) He likes to take His time, over years; b) salvation is itself a means to worship, not vice-versa.

Want to up your storytelling game?  Try writing for someone you know disagrees with your worldview.  Easy answers won’t cut it anymore.  You’ll be forced to dig deep – past those “shallow internalized beliefs,” past those straw-man non-Christian counterarguments – down into the well of God’s Word, through which He speaks to everyone in the way they’ll best understand Him – even if they think Him “Unknown.”

I heartily agree. At the very least, it forces us to look behind the default notions we have of nonbelievers, as if they are the outer-space aliens who don’t even share a common world, a God-given common-grace moral sense, and the image of God. It forces us to ignore the silly things we’ve been taught about nonbelievers, such as that they will nearly go into weeping faints simply upon being assured that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives. Rather the default response is, something like, Well of course God loves me, being such a decent chap and all.

Getting these Scriptural Story-given truths right will help believers and otherwise.

Austin Gunderson
Member

“Salvation is a means to worship, not vice-versa.”

That’s a profound statement requiring digestion.  I think we should all contemplate it for a while.

… *pauses to transition* …

Frighteningly, I find that the “well of course God loves me” response is quickly being supplanted in ubiquity by “God?  Oh, you mean that invisible being who’s supposed to be all-powerful and all-loving, yet looked the other way for the Holocaust?  That god?”  Perhaps it’s just that I live in the most unchurched region of America, but, based on the apparent effectiveness of the God-can’t-be-both-all-powerful-and-all-loving-if-there’s-evil argument, I don’t think we Christians of the West can afford to assume any longer that the average amorphous theist has even the slightest conception of Who God is.  If they did, then they wouldn’t be threatened or swayed by a line of attack which attempts to dismiss God by judging Him according to universal standards which, by definition, could only have originated from Him in the first place.

What I’m saying is this: it’s not enough anymore to tell people that their relationship with God is broken unless He’s covered them with His blood.  We can’t assume our (non-Christian) readers even believe there is a God.  And this is one of the reasons that films like Courageous are generally DOA with non-believers: they skip the foundation of faith.  One can’t begin a marathon at mile-marker 13 and expect onlookers to cheer when one crosses the finish line.  In that movie’s requisite conversion scene, the new convert already believed in God prior to hearing the gospel.  God’s existence was an unspoken assumption so obvious as to be unworthy of comment. How convenient.  Unfortunately, convenience is hardly ever convincing.

It’s my belief that we as Christian writers need to challenge ourselves by writing characters who express their unbelief with passion, intelligence, and eloquence.  And then we need to convert those characters.

Talk about inconvenient. 

Teddi Deppner
Guest

LOL! Love that last bit. “Inconvenient”! *grin*

 I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been pursuing this exact idea in my own storytelling. What a massive insult to the precious, intelligent and totally atheist or agnostic friends whom I love if I were to do anything less!

Yet it is so different than most of what we see out there on the shelves. There is (almost?) always this subtle note of superiority that comes across in the story… “The Christians know best” and “the lost people are deceived” and “they are in darkness” and “they love their sin so they don’t want to face the truth”. While these things may be true as we see it, we aren’t putting ourselves enough into the shoes of that person.

Are they not made of the same human stuff we are?

Aren’t they just as smart? Just as capable of making their own choices? Just as passionate in their beliefs? Drawing conclusions using the same five physical senses and intangible other senses that we have?

We ought to give them the same respect we’d like to get.

It’s worth studying and pondering how people come to believe in God and then consider how to walk our non-believing characters through that process.

However, one thought I have yet to answer to my satisfaction: It is well known that “truth is stranger than fiction” and that even if unlikely coincidences happen to rescue people (or bring them to believe in Jesus) in real life, your reader will not accept it if you do the same in your fiction.

No matter how many real life people accept Jesus under certain circumstances, some readers will reject the conversion experience (and your story) as unbelievable anyway. I think that’s one of the knee-jerk responses, one of the hot-buttons of our day. It might just be that many in today’s culture simply don’t want to read a story where someone comes to believe in Jesus. They have too many mental objections to the things that go along with “Christianity” as they’ve seen it practiced.

And if that is true, and your target audience is non-Christians… that should factor into your plotting and character construction. A lot can be said to nudge someone towards God without actually having someone “come to Jesus” in our stories.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I don’t agree with Athol at all. That’s pop success talk masquerading as theology. Writers vary in talent, dedication, and accessibility to the public. Sometimes writers only speak to a limited number of people, or aren’t a good fit for the age or genre they are in, or are overshadowed by others. Some will only speak to a few fans, but they will speak deeply. Some just aren’t skilled enough to be more than average, and even despite this they will succeed often beyond their wildest dreams. Horatio Alger Jr. is about as bare-bones a writer as you can get, for example. One of my favorite writers is Robert F. Young, who wrote the short story “The Dandelion Girl.” He’s a good writer but not a great one. But he managed to reach some people, and you can find his influence sometimes where you least expect it.

There’s also business considerations, and the influence of the editor and others on the writer. There’s also some measure of taste and genre savvy, as well as nostalgia-Star Trek as a series is a shining example of mediocre SF, but so many people like it that it keeps rolling on like a perpetual motion machine. Same with many of the Star Wars expanded universe books, or books based on Marvel heroes or video games. 

To be honest there are so many factors influencing the success or mediocrity of a book that it’s hard to single out universal themes. I think though you have to be careful in spiritualizing this because its art. If you go to Chik Fil-A, and you don’t like their chicken and find it mediocre, you are not going to start spinning theories about the inner spiritual life of its founder, nor chide the line workers and blaming sin for their inability to fry nuggets properly and clean the tables. There might be spiritual causes, such as greed or sloth, but most suggestions would be more mundane and concerned with the work first. Stephen’s suggestions are on target, and I’m sure plenty more can be added, depending on the book.

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