Friday, November 17, 2006

DR: Friendly Fire

It’s a chilly, windy day here in Kansas and I have a nasty cold, so if I sound a bit testy in this post, I apologize in advance. I didn’t much feel like writing, so after logging about 600 of the1500 words per day I need to make my deadline, I took my laptop and a cup of chai to the cozy chair in front of the fireplace and allowed myself a few hours to mindlessly surf the net.

I caught up on the blogs I normally read, explored a few new ones, and somewhere along the way, I ventured onto a thread about Christian fiction. I was immediately interested, since that’s what I write. But the deeper I dug, the more my discoveries irritated me, then made me fume, and finally, left me deeply disturbed and saddened.

I’m accustomed to hearing criticism from the secular world. I—along with many fellow Christian novelists—have had more than one review from secular sources that include variations on the “compelling story, marred by a poignant, but all-too-expected conversion scene” theme. I learned several books ago to let that roll off my back. The mail I get from readers whose hearts were touched or whose lives were set on a different course by the very scene a reviewer mentioned with derision is enough to keep me writing with confidence.

I’ve been in on discussions with aspiring writers who want to “push the envelope,” or “write edgy,” and usually it’s been a case of them being unaware of how far that envelope has already been pushed. Or they have a difference of opinion about the definition of “edgy” or about whether Christian fiction is best served by becoming more edgy.

I’ve seen portents here and there, passing complaints about the dearth of quality in Christian fiction. Usually those naysayers read one of Janette Oke’s prairie romances back in the seventies, maybe a Frank Peretti or two in the eighties and nineties, and the first Left Behind book, and forever after judge all of Christian fiction by those titles. (For the record, I’ve read at least four titles each from those authors, and found entertainment and spiritual value in each one.) A Publishers Weekly writer in an article announcing the National Book Awards, spoke of “the trend of paying homage to the old writing that makes new writing possible.” Whatever one thinks of early Christian fiction, these writers (and the brave editors who acquired them) forged new territory and made my job viable, and I honor them for that.

But—and forgive me if I’m coming late to the party—I had not realized how much criticism of Christian fiction is being leveled from within our own ranks. Constructive dialogue about how we can improve our craft is always healthy, but what I read on post after post, comment after comment, left me feeling as if I’d been gunned down by friendly fire. And sadly, most of it seemed to come from a root of arrogance, a belief that for the sake of Christianity’s reputation, only highly intelligent people should be writing, and that they should be writing only for other highly intelligent people. And maybe, just maybe, their erudite offerings will manage to pull a few of the masses of stupid, lazy readers up a bit closer to their level.

Well, I’m no dummy, but neither do I have any illusions about belonging to the intelligentsia. In spite of the fact that I’ve slogged my way through dozens of books on the craft of writing and have made an attempt (not very successful, I’m afraid) to read Pulitzer and National Book Award writers in an effort to understand and maybe emulate what the literary world deems excellent, I always come back to the truth that the voice God has given me (dare I say gifted me with?) is not a literary voice. It is a very common and simple voice. And I’m honored that it has struck a chord with a few readers—common and simple though they must be to have found value in my bourgeois offerings. (I’m kidding, of course! I love my readers!)

It’s become a clichéd comparison, but truth—however oft repeated, does not change—and I can’t help but think of Jesus’ parables. Some were metaphorical and deeply symbolic, told with a let-him-who-has-ears-hear attitude. Others, the Savior saw fit to tell in simple, everyday terms, and then retell, explaining the meaning to his listeners. Is it possible that he’s called storytellers of this century to likewise reach out to people across spectrums of intellect, lifestyle, spiritual maturity, socio-economic status and a host of other attributes that make us uniquely different from one another? After all, it is God who bestows the talent. Could it be that He has distributed to each author the style and voice that will reach the particular audience He has in mind?

1 Corinthians 1: 19-21, 25-31 For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

Deborah Raney is the author of A Vow to Cherish (Steeple Hill). Coming in February: Remember to Forget for Howard Books/Simon & Schuster.


At 8:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Deb has highlighted an important topic. We are each called to write what God has given us to write. If mine is not the same as yours, is that bad?

This whole "literary" vs. "popular" discussion is so much wind blowing -- and destructive. It matters not in the cause of Christ. All of these designations come from the world.

God says, to each of those He calls to write, "Write my story. Use the words I give you and the talents, style, and voice that I gave you. Invest everything you have, everything you are, in what I'm asking you to do, your emotion, your intellect, your 'you.' Just write my story, and I will do the rest."

And, incidentally, He says the same thing to His children who are not called to write, but instead are called to doctor, to police, to parent, to farm, etc.

At 8:12 AM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8:47 AM, Blogger Ann Tatlock said...

Well said, Deb.

While there is certainly a place for constructive criticism, there is simply no room in the body of Christ for destructive attacks. Whatever it is we do, whether we write or whether we critique another's writing, it must all be done for the glory of God.

Divisive and arrogant bickering within the church will hurt the cause of Christ far more than will any conceivable lack of literary expertise on the part of Christian writers.

Words, once said (or witten), can't be taken back and don't simply disappear. As we all seek to serve Christ, I think we'd do well to remember his words about words: "And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned" (Maatt. 12: 36-37).

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Cara Putman said...

Amen -- to everything already said. Praying you'll feel better soon, Deb!

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Brenda said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even with a head cold, Deb (!), you've managed to isolate the crux of why this whole criticism debate is so destructive. It's all about motivation. Among all the Christian authors I know and count as friends, I can't think of one of them who isn't open to *constructive* criticism.

That's the key: constructive. Tossing bitter words and personal resentments--and name-calling--around the blogosphere or elsewhere has absolutely nothing to do with "constructive criticism." Its only effect is to wound and divide the Body.

Surely we all know...but obviously sometimes forget...that in the long run, God doesn't judge the value of our work by its "literary merit," but by our obedience to the gift, the "voice" He's given us. Do we seriously believe that He finds more worth in a "literary voice" than in another? Does He actually care if one writes for the smaller, literary circle, while another speaks to a more general market?

Or does He care about the condition of the heart, the motivation behind what we do, and how we serve Him in the process?

Thanks, Deb, for your wise...but always kind...insight. And be well! Soon.


At 10:19 AM, Blogger Brenda said...

Deb, thanks for this much needed perspective. As a fledgling writer, I have more recently become intimidated by the persistent emphasis among Christian authors to become more "literary", and have often felt like, well, I just don't belong in that camp. Maybe I should just toss in the towel and realize I don't have what it takes. I'm no dummy, either (ok, now I'm the one sounding arrogant) - have a double degree in elem./special ed., homeschooled my children for 20 yrs., and am fairly well-versed in the classics. However, my writing style would by no means fit into the literary mold. It's just not who I am. So thanks for reminding us, that while we should strive for excellence, depth, and truth, our primary goal should be to glorify God with the unique voice & story He has given us. There's freedom in that pursuit.

At 11:22 AM, Blogger Tamera Alexander said...


Excellent post! Something I always encourage aspiring writers to remain is..."teachable," because NO writer ever "arrives." Writing is an ongoing growth process, and we need to remain open to constructive criticism, and be willing to learn from anyone.

That said some of the jargon that's being tossed around on the internet about Christian Fiction these days sure doesn't feel as though it's being said (or written) in love. And this from within our on ranks. I'm all for raising the bar, for pushing each other to give God our best. But like you said so eloquently, God gifts each writer just as he desires they be gifted. And yes, we need to take those varying talents and increase them, hone them for His glory. But who am I to judge or to disparage the gift God has given another writer? Am I not to encourage?

And by encourage, I don't just mean rah-rah. There's a way to offer criticism that is edifying. And there's a way to offer criticism that tears down.

This whole scenario strikes of an elitism that existed in the early church. Verses from I Cor. 1 come to mind where Paul is encouraging the Corinthian church to be perfectly united in mind and thought, and that there be no divisions among them. Some were saying, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ." And Paul comes to the crux of the matter when he questions, “Is Christ divided?”

Paul’s answer is obviously no. And neither should we be divided. Attacks are plentiful in the world. They ought not to come from within the body of Christ as well.


At 11:57 AM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Thank you for all the thoughtful replies this morning. Much food for thought, and hopefully we can all grow from such dialogue.

Dan, may I suggest some CBA authors that I believe write with beautiful, literary voices - and I hesitate to post this list for fear of missing some I have not read myself, but have you tried: Athol Dickson, Lisa Samson, Patricia Hickman, Dale Cramer, Ann Tatlock, Vinita Hampton Wright? All talented authors whose writing not only measures up artistically, but who offer hope and redemption that so much ABA literary fiction misses.

At 11:58 AM, Blogger Joanna B. said...

Great thoughts Deb...thanks for expressing them so eloquently, and for the reminder to "encourage one another and build each other up."

Feel better soon--it's cold and windy in Chicago today too and I thought I left the wind in KS.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Great post, Deb! Thanks for sharing.

At 3:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel as if we're missing something about this issue of criticism, since we can't seem to get past the idea of "accepting" it.

Deb's point--unless I've misread this badly--and the point of some other discussion regarding this same subject isn't...or shouldn't to how to *accept* criticism. We're preaching to the choir on that one. Most of us are mature and intelligent enough to reaize that *constructive* criticism can be beneficial, and few of us have difficulty accepting well-intentioned criticism offered in the right spirit.

It's the criticism leveled with no obvious intention other than to wound others or elevate oneself that's not eagerly accepted. And even if it were, what possible benefits would be derived from it?

It's not all that difficult to detect that kind of criticism. It's often colored with words that denigrate, even insult and carry no modicum of respect. It has nothing to do with intelligent and critical but kind observations, and is often employed in blanket statements that take in an entire group, industry, or genre. It makes no pretense of honoring God or restraining the temptation to wound.

This is all about motivation and the spirit in which we offer criticism. I think the Scripture references that accompanied Deb's entry made that unmistakably clear.


At 10:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BJ: I was just thinking what you put in to words.

As important as Dan's words are about accepting criticism, I agree with you. This string is not about that issue.

At 11:46 PM, Blogger Rachelle said...

Oh Deb, I felt like I could just kiss you after reading your post. (But we don't even know each other, so I'll refrain.)

Like you, I allowed myself some web-surfing and blog-reading time this afternoon. And like you, I came across some of those same posts and comments you did. I became first incensed, then frustrated, then depressed. Over the last few hours I've tried to compose, in my mind, a worthy response, something that would say, well, what you said. Thank you for saying it.

Sometimes I wonder... exactly where in the Bible does it say that "literary" is better than "simple." That "intelligentsia" trumps the "regular folk." Now I could be reading scripture wrong, but I think maybe, just maybe, Jesus's words attempt to steer us in exactly the opposite direction.

The fact is, God made lots of people with deep literary or philosophical minds. But he made a lot more (A LOT more) people who do not live the "life of the mind" in the same way. There's a firehouse down the street from me... from you... from all of us... filled with a bunch of people who would look at these arguments, shake their heads and wonder why we waste our time... because there are people to help, lives to save. Who cares about literary vs. popular fiction, and who cares if those "simple" guys read Left Behind on their days off... there are more important things to worry about!

And most importantly, there are many kinds of people, many kinds of Christians, and we really need authors to write for all of them. All of US, I should say.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

In trying to correct an error in my original post, I deleted the whole thing. It's not good for a writer to be so techno-challenged. But now I can repost, and maybe say things more clearly.

I've come late to Christian writing, but have been reading both "secular" and "Christian" fiction for decades. In both genres, I've found some novels that hold my interest and others that don't. I don't look for "cutting edge" or "great literary quality." Reader appeal is sort of like a giraffe: I can't describe it, but I know it when I see it.

I was unaware of the firestorm that this post addresses, and I'm sorry to learn of it. My simplistic take is that if we are to write effectively from a Christian worldview, we should present the message God gives us in the best way we can, not worrying about what our colleagues and contemporaries are doing. The "rules" seem to vary from publisher to publisher, and I'm naive enough to believe that God can hook us up with the right one for our message.

Like you, I'd heard (and found) that CBA authors were helpful to each other, without the envy, backbiting, and scrapping that marks the secular market. I still think that goes for the majority of our colleagues, certainly for those whom I consider friends and mentors.

Thanks to you and the many others who write Christian fiction and write it well. Blessings.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger Angela said...

Thank you for saying, Deb--and saying well--what I've felt for months. I've had to stop reading those other blogs for several reasons. First, they were a distraction that took time from the work God has called me to do. Second, most of those people aren't published in novel form, so they have no real experience in the marketplace. They've never written a book and seen it cast to the wolves . . . or seen it change lives, which is the absolute best validation. And third, any critic who routinely bashes an entire genre or spectrum of authors is no different than a person who labels an entire race with a blanket assumption. I don't listen to people who say, "Asians are smart" or "Hispanics like spicy food" any more than I listen to folks who say "Christian fiction stinks." (Or, in a more elevated tone, "Christian fiction needs more critical anaysis and deeper characterization.") Bah! Both comments are presumptious and unfair unless you've read a VERY broad selection of books in several genres and by several different authors.

I've read NYT best-selling fiction that needed a major edit, and I've read Pulitizer Prize-winning tomes that put me to sleep. Quality is subjective, and what matters is how the Spirit of God uses a book in the heart of the reader. That's a sacred space (as Mr. Rogers called it), in which we shouldn't intrude.

Charis Connection began as a place to offer encouraging words to Christians who are interested in writing fiction. From the beginning, we've prayed that we would offer edification and help, positive challenges and useful instruction. We believe this is the best way, the Christ-honoring way, to improve standards and raise the bar.

I don't know a single Christian novelist who is not striving to reach higher and write better. So won't you join me in my quest to not only do the same in my writing, but to urge others to do so in theirs?

--Angie Hunt

At 11:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen and amen.

At 12:37 PM, Blogger Tamara Butler said...

I have read this thread with great interest and thought I would try to give my perspective as a book critic. I have reviewed many Christian fiction titles over the past 3 1/2 years for Library Journal. As this is a secular publication, I try to write reviews with that in mind. I take my responibility as a critic very seriously since I know that someone may or may not purchase a book based on the review. I feel that I have to be honest, though, when pointing out the strengths or weaknesses of a novel. As far as whether the novel is a literary work or what would be termed "pop fiction," what I look for is whether or not it is a good story with characters who become real. It doesn't matter if it is highbrow fiction, romance novel, suspense title or any other type. The key is whether or not the author has succeeded in getting my interest as a reader and kept me glued until the end of the story. I agree with what some have posted that there is a place for both literary and popular fiction in the market. Don't worry about where your writing fits in. Just keep doing your best to use the writing voice that God gave you and tell the stories He wants you to tell. The truth is that more people will read a romance or mystery novel than a high literary work. In conclusion, I just want to say that not all reviewers are biased and this book critic wants to be able to say every time that a book is terrific. I get excited when I discover a fantastic book or new author and hope that you all continue to write without getting hung up on worrying about what book critics will say. Take our criticism to heart if it helps make you a better writer. Otherwise, you just have to let it go.


At 1:10 PM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Thank you, Tamara. I think I speak for the majority of Christian novelists when I say that we desire honest reviews and standards like those you listed. Reviews cease to have meaning if they are all glowing. As I said in a Charis Connection post back in Sept. 2005: ...whether I’ve agreed with the reviewer or not, I have to admit that my writing has probably improved far more as a result of what I took to heart from bad reviews than what I took to heart from rave reviews. ...I’m far better off taking the glowing reviews with a grain of salt, and paying sharp attention to the reviews that remind me there’s room for improvement and I have not arrived...will someone please remind me of that next time I’m pouting about a bad review? (The link is here if anyone wants to read the whole post:

There is, however, a vast difference between professional reviews (and the mutual critiquing and input from editors that precede a book's publication) and the disrespect and bitter criticism that inspired my post yesterday.

This has been a good discussion with much food for thought. And I'm going to keep saying that, with few exceptions, the CBA is a wonderful, supportive, encouraging place to be.

At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read through all these comments with interest. I am not a writer--I'm just a reader. I love many genres of writing. I came into Christian fiction years ago through those prairie romances of Jeanette Oke. I wouldn't be the fan I am now were it not for her.

Deb, I so agree with you. And I am so weary of reading these things about how poor Christian fiction is compared to the world.

Dan, while I respect your right to your point of view, may I say I think you need to lighten up. When I read any book--Christian or secular--I don't worry about how "literary" it is. My interest is in how the characters and the story draw me in. How I am affected by what is written.

When it comes to Christian fiction, our authors have nothing to apologize for! I have read most everyone on the charis list, and many others. I am continually amazed at the talent of these people and how they allow God to speak through them. There have been countless books that have impacted my life and brought me great enjoyment.

I certainly don't speak for all readers out here, but I expect many would agree that we love our Christian fiction--and our writers--just the way they are! Please quit harping on this point. Read the ones you like. Don't read the others. And leave the rest of us in peace.

Charis authors--don't get discouraged! Keep on writing those stories God is giving you. There are multitudes of us readers out here who wait with great anticipation on your next book!

At 1:23 AM, Blogger Kelli Standish said...

I believe the greatest gift you can give anyone-- your readers, your peers, your God-- is first and foremost to stay true to the Coach in your heart. This is also the only way to keep your joy as you continue in your calling.

Forget the blogs. Instead, focus on those moments when God pulls His chair up beside the bed of your slumbering imagination, and whispers His tales to you.

I cannot imagine a more fearsome responsibility than finding the best way to communicate those whispers. But the Christian authors I know (including you) treat that responsibility like a sacred quest.

They study to improve their methods, they seek editing advice from people who are safe and wise, they pray for their readers, and they show up to work every day, doing the very best they can with every talent they've been given.

God Himself does not ask for more than that.

Yes, mockery of today's Christian novelists is rife in some blog circles. I've seen it. I've confronted it. I've experienced a few piercing, irrational rounds of friendly fire.

And I've moved on from it. Because really, life is so much bigger than the tiny, bitter, micro-universes these bloggers have created.

These minute enclaves are only powerful when you allow yourself to be sucked into their smallness.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your permission." So I appeal to every single one of you: DON'T. Don't give them your permission.

Avoid cyber-slime like you would avoid a polluted water hole.

Walk on. Listen to the coach in your heart. Stay teachable, but responsibly, to safe people.

And remember, your audience--the one He's specifically picked to be moved, challenged, and changed by your story, and your delivery--is waiting.

At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps an important point is being ignored. People who complain about the lack of good writing in Christian fiction do so because they care about good writing and want to read good Christian fiction, but have trouble finding it. Note that I am not referring to literary fiction, but to good writing.

"Simple" writing is not a bad thing - Jesus' parables appears simple until studied. Hemingway's writing appears simple. However, neither one is simplistic, which is the case for too much Christian fiction. When a reader wants to read about complex, believable characters they should not be dismissed as "snobbish." It is a valid desire and a reasonable request of all writers, Christian or otherwise.

Writing for God is wonderful. Do so to your heart's content, but remember, if you are published, you're writing for human readers, too. Some people are quite happy with poor writing. Others aren't, and they have a valid complaint if they aren't finding good writing on their book seller's shelves. When publishers don't respond to consumers' desire for high-quality Christian fiction they send a negative message about what kind of person you must be to be a Christian.

At 6:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Anonymous, WHO are you reading? Have you read widely in all the genres of Christian fiction? Or are you basing your opinion on a few books? The latter is what so often happens, I think. People read a few things and generalize. There's a lot of well written fiction in the CBA world. I read a lot of Christian fiction and secular fiction. I find it's about equal as to the percentage of books I'll like from each market. I'm not very easy to please, either, as you apparently are not. But I do think there are some great writers out there in CBA. And--even if YOU don't like a certain author, many people do--or that author wouldn't have readers buying his/her books. So remember your opinion is only your opinion.


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