Tuesday, November 08, 2005

BJH: Accepting Responsibility As a Writer ... And As a Reader: Part One

Most of us who write fiction have heard, at times to the point of weariness, the "responsibilities" of the novelist: To study and learn well our craft. Aspire to excellence in everything we write. Fulfill the "contract" made with the reader at the beginning of a book. Avoid misleading the reader. Do as much research as necessary, and do it as thoroughly as possible. Always meet our deadlines. Do everything we can to help promote our work. And on and on and on ....

A less often discussed but equally important list would include the following (caveat-- this is by no means a comprehensive list, but just a sampling):

Create a realistic, authentic setting that allows the reader to step into the time and place of the novel and be at ease, at home, there. Tolkien said that the story-maker "makes a Secondary World [for the reader] which your mind can enter." This requires more than research, although that's a part of it. It also demands a huge involvement of all the senses, the emotions, and at times the unmasking of our own secret fears and failures.

Be willing to confront all of human life, not merely the pure and noble elements. For the one who writes from a Christian worldview, this need not be the problem we might first believe it to be. In fact, whether the writer is Christian or not, to show what is sordid and low and depraved doesn't require that we exploit it or force the reader to wade through it. In fact, exploitive, explicit fiction is often lazy fiction. A character doesn't need to let loose a stream of profanity to let the reader glimpse his tendency toward the profane. The violence of a rape doesn't need to be played out in detail. Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner created a chilling horror of the deed more through the terror and sickness of the observer and the threatening mood of the scene, than through the violence inflicted upon the victim. Then, too, the carnage of war can be grasped by the reader if the writer creates a kind of still-life, a tableau in which the horror is more sensed than graphically depicted.

What the careful writer intent on creating a "world" can not afford to do is avoid reality. Flannery O'Connor said that "The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality." By pretending evil doesn't exist, or evading confrontation with evil by masking it in superficial stereotypes, we take the lazy writer's easy way out. To confront the reality and truth of life, the novelist will at times be called upon to bleed from deep within–to hurt.

Attempting to slap a Band-Aid on the ugly wounds, the malignancies and horrors of the world destroys the integrity of a work of fiction ... and the author's integrity as a writer. I can think of no other novelist working today who more deeply explores her characters and life itself, psychologically, and theologically, yet still manages to give her readers a suspenseful, intellectually and emotionally satisfying read, than Susan Howatch. Every novel she writes grapples with the ageless battle between good and evil, and she manages it all without the gore and explicit ugliness too often seen in the work of some other contemporary novelists. The deep spiritual dimensions and grace that permeate Howatch's novels take nothing away from–but rather add to--her brilliant storytelling.

Write in a way that invites the reader to search, to explore, to think. Don't underestimate your readers. You don't have to fill in all the blanks or paint by number to tell a worthwhile story or provide a satisfying read. Not all readers want to be spoon-fed. Some want to investigate a story, its world, and its characters for themselves. Don't be afraid to be subtle on occasion. Far too often, the Christian writer, especially, tries to give answers–when what we need to do more of is ask questions, to write in a way that provokes questions from our readers.

John Gardner said: "The temptation to explain should almost always be resisted." It's not our responsibility to instruct, but merely to tell a story. In that regard, we need to learn to subdue the teacher (or the preacher) in ourselves so that the storyteller may more fully emerge.

Respect the language. If the writer's attitude toward language is careless or indifferent, his fiction will reflect it. His work will be mundane and weak, since he's neglected the primary quality that will give his writing grace and lavishness and rhythm–and power. The storyteller needs more than a functional command of language. It's not that the novelist should be a slave to language: to the contrary, he should be its master. We need to grasp the truth early in our writing life that the greater our command of language, the greater our potential to write with authority and even elegance.

Don't feel that, as a Christian writer, every work you develop needs to be religious. Look around you. The beauties in nature were created by God, yes. But do you really feel that in writing about those beauties you need to imbue them with a "religiosity?" Music is another gift stamped with God's handprint. But for music to be beautiful, must it also be "pious?" And when you stand transfixed before a painting of evident genius and universal appeal, must it be "religious art" in order to move you?

Sometimes I think we Christians in the arts need to loosen our halos a little. As followers of Christ, yes, we're to live Christian lives, paying heed to His example, with God's Word as our handbook. We're called to be thankful, to be humble, to be reverent, to pray, to praise, and to please Him. But we're not called to impose upon every act of our own creation a religious overtone.

And by the same token, if an artist who isn't a Christian is responsible for a monumental work of art–be it a novel, a painting, a sculpture, a symphony–should we judge it as inferior simply because the artist doesn't share our faith? More than likely, all of us have read numerous excellent novels over the years that would be considered "moral," but that weren't necessarily written by Christians. Naturally, we need to be discerning. "Great art" can, and often does, express immorality, deception, and even depravity. (By "great art" I mean art conceived and executed by an artist of great ability.) The Christian is obligated to choose the objects of his recreation and entertainment and interest with wisdom and sensitivity to the Spirit's guidance. But so long as art isn't immoral or irreverent or depraved, don't we have the freedom to enjoy it for the sake of its artistic value–without feeling guilty?

There's more to this issue of the writer's responsibilities, obviously, than can be explored in a blog entry. We can't possibly look at them all, because some of us may have defined responsibilities for ourselves that don't necessarily apply to every writer. Besides, readers have responsibilities, too.

That's for next time.

BJ Hoff is the author of The American Anthem and An Emerald Ballad


At 10:51 AM, Blogger Patricia Hickman said...

I pray every new writer wo also professes Christ finds this post, BJ, prints it off, frames it, and studies it until they are quoting it in their sleep.

At 4:05 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Wow. That's one to keep. Really made me think and loosen my halo just enough to breath easier. Thanks for that.

At 6:41 PM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Thank you for that post. It really ministered to me. These were some of the questions I've explored lately.

At 11:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments--for those posted here and those of you who e-mailed me privately. I appreciate your input. God bless.



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