Sunday, December 11, 2005

What If I'm Paranoid and Right?

Meghan O'Rourke at Slate Magazine makes a great point in her article on C.S. Lewis. Speaking that despite the differences among critics pro and con of Lewis, "all essentially agree that Christianity must be at the heart of of any serious analysis" of his work. Here's what caught my eye:

It's easy to see why this is so, since Lewis is a famous proselytizer, and adults reading The Chronicles will find it impossible to miss the Christian overtones. But it is nonetheless unfortunate: Judging the Narnia books solely by their Christianity is an impoverished way of reading them. It is a reflection more of our polarized moment—in which a perceived cultural divide has alienated Christians from secular culture and secular readers from anything that smacks of religious leanings—than of the relative aesthetic merits and weaknesses of Lewis' books.

I may be wrong here to some extent, but more so than secular readers being outraged by works that may have some Christian element to them, my perception is that it is the decision-makers in publishing houses who more often than not are the ones offended. When I was researching the market for our (Pearce & Story) most recently completed novel, which features an eighth grade protagonist in a middle school environment, it interested me that in none of the similar books through which I read did any of the characters attend church, much less were any of them Christians. Really, I'm fine with the notion that other talented authors/writers have worlds or settings where nothing religious exists so long as their works merit being published. However, I have a real problem, and it's just that unfortunately: my problem, where similarly talented pieces of literature are dismissed out of hand because either church, Christian principles, or the word Jesus, if it's not used in some profane manner, is mentioned.

I mean, after going through over twenty juvenile fiction books that are supposed to mirror real life in some way, shouldn't you find at least one character that goes to church? Is it even sensible that not one book I read had even that? Maybe I'm insulated living here in the Bible Belt, but I find it hard to imagine that life in the United States other than in the South is devoid of any religious characterization at all.

Certainly, if editors review manuscripts where writers can't pull off subtle religious innuendo or where moral lessons are pounding readers over their respective heads, those stories ought to be tossed out with most of the slush that the houses receive. But Ms. O'Rourke has an excellent point regarding the cultural polarization of the moment. In writing groups and on blogs, I hear the question so many times: Would C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia see light of day in today's publishing atmosphere? The point of those questions is undoutedly that the work would not, and that would indeed be a tragedy.

But the real travesty is that there are most likely many talented Christian writers today seeking to be published and marketed by the mainstream industry, and the world is a lesser place for missing some of their works. In no way do I intend to demean editors (acquisition editors or otherwise) for the work they do - especially in those (dwindling) houses still receiving unsolicited manuscripts. Obviously, they have a difficult job where they are inundated with mostly junk, and they have to filter through stacks of chaff to find any diamond in the rough. However, it would truly be devastating if the mere mention of something "Christian" was used in weeding out the good from the bad works and the great from the good.

I'm no fan of most of the Christian fiction I peruse in Christian bookstores - especially the middle reader through young adult fiction that we write. Precious little aside from C.S. Lewis deserves much attention. However, I'm betting most of the best manuscripts written by Christians are sent not to Christian publishers but to mainstream ones. Or mainsteam agents. I certainly hope I'm wrong, and nothing is being weeded out by virtue of the hint of Christianity alone. As Ms. O'Rourke states and I can't put it any better: Judging the Narnia books (or any quality book/manuscript written by a Christian writer) solely by their Christianity is an impoverished way of reading them. Instead, judge them on their merits or failures; as writers, that's all that any of us are asking for.

Plus, I, for one, would hate to be deprived of the next Chronicles of Narnia... or Lord of the Rings for that matter. All the more if I was the one writing.

2 comments:

Wanda V. said...

Hey.

Just wanted to know what it was about the mid-grade and YA stuff in the Christian bookstores you didn't like.

I confess that I haven't read anything there in years.

Wanda V.

Rich said...

Wanda,

Obviously, I'm only looking at certain types of books - i.e. I'm not looking at romance for teens, etc. - that pertain to what Ken and I write, and in those kinds of books in which I've read chapters or portions thereof, they're either banging you over the head with moral lessons, having a conversion story, and/or (mostly "and") just haven't been written well or been exciting to read, which are both subjective qualities, I suppose.

Honestly, I'm no expert on Christian fiction, so the possibility exists that there might be something good out there. However, none of it has slipped into my hands whenever I look through the one shelf of kid's fiction they have at Lifeway. Almost always, when I go to Lifeway and research the Christian Kid's Fiction, I walk away depressed. Two reasons: one, nothing I've read is appealing to me; and two, although Ken and I are Christians and our writings almost always have Christian elements to them, there is no place for them (or books similar in vein) in a Christian bookstore. The worlds in Christian books don't read like the world I live in (which obviously could be my problem rather than theirs but somehow I doubt it), and the few (very few) fantasy worlds I've read in the books at the stores haven't drawn me in at all. I'm not sure if it's world building or perhaps I need to read a book all the way through instead of in parts, but still... you'd hope to be engrossed pretty quickly, wouldn't you?

Hopefully, that answers your question, but I can expound on it if you want me to.

RP