Thursday, July 30, 2009

Telling the Truth


The truth is incontrovertible;
malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.
--Winston Churchill

Yesterday, while I was off having fun in an internet-free zone, agent Rachelle Gardener wrote a blog post about finding truth in unlikely places. Her post was primarily focused on a Christian perspective: if you are faithful, how do you decide what secular influences you should expose yourself to? Are the secular/religious divisions real or artificial? When does discernment turn into a needless insularity?

I am not faithful. I sometimes feel awkward saying this, for fear that people will think I am criticizing their belief systems, or for fear that people will decide they are no longer interested in what I have to say, because our underlying philosophies are too different. But, I'm an atheist. There it is.

So what about the other side of the argument? I recently turned down an offer of a free book from an internet friend, because it was an overtly Christian inspirational tale, and I figured I wasn't exactly the target demographic, and that one of her other friends would appreciate it more. Was this inappropriate self-censorship? Should I have taken the book (free, after all!) and taken a look, if only to see if there was a writing lesson to be learned within its pages? I checked out the book on Amazon.com before saying "no thank you" and I do think someone with a Christian perspective will appreciate the book more than I would, because that person would be receptive to any spiritual teachings as well as craft-of-writing teachings that the novel has to offer... but even if I think I made the right call about this one book in particular, Rachelle's post has given me something to consider.

We say that good writing is good writing, no matter what the subject or genre. And I think writers would generally agree that "good writing is about telling the truth." (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird). But what about when our value systems lead to a great conflict in what we see as truth?

I think Rachelle is an awesome agent. Her blog is helpful beyond measure for aspiring and new writers, and I think that the vast majority of her advice is broadly applicable across genres. But I did not query her, because she only accepts projects that "do not contradict a Christian world view." My book does.

I don't want to post a spoiler here, but let's say that at least one hot button issue (if not more) is treated as value-neutral. To the best of my knowledge, a Christian book would have to treat these issues as moral wrongs: either my characters couldn't do these things at all, or there would have to be serious consequences if they did do them. I think I told the truth, because I don't think these things are moral wrongs at all. But I imagine certain readers would disagree.

So, what about the truth? Are the remaining issues and emotions and character elements in the book true enough that someone could get past this conflict of philosophy? Does the whole narrative become invalidated in someone's eyes because certain choices are in disagreement with their faith? Is it, to those people who disagree with my views, still good writing?

I hereby open up the comments to believers and non. Ever read a book that moved you despite being in conflict with your ideals? What made it so good that you were able to look beyond that conflict to the other qualities of the story? Go wild here. I'm still sort of hashing all this out myself, and I'd love to get a range of perspectives.


22 comments:

  1. I think good writing is good writing and I believe, whatever the genre, one can still inspire others in a variety of ways. Whether it's writing about characters who struggle with issues but come out stronger in the end or writing about someone questioning his faith and reaffirming it, the ability to connect with readers and inspire them is what's important.

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  2. I think writing needs to be great, not just good to transcend belief systems. One good example of this is "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov. It is a book told from the POV of a pedophile - which I hope is outside of everyone’s belief system. But it is still a very good book.

    Chiam Potok is a religious writer that does a good job of transcending the belief systems of his readers. He writes about orthodox Judaism, but in a way that people of other faiths can feel like they are learning about a different belief system, not simply being preached at.

    I think that is the real trick. If you preach at your readers, you are going to alienate everyone that doesn't agree with you. But if you have characters with firm beliefs and present them in a way that shows their motivations, then people with other belief systems can enjoy the story and learn something about a different culture without feeling threatened or attacked.

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  3. at least one hot button issue (if not more) is treated as value-neutral. To the best of my knowledge, a Christian book would have to treat these issues as moral wrongs

    If the hot-button issue is what I think it is then it depends what you mean by "Christian," I think.

    Also:

    as moral wrongs: either my characters couldn't do these things at all, or there would have to be serious consequences if they did do them

    Does a Christian worldview require a belief that bad acts are punished in this world? Surely not.

    a book told from the POV of a pedophile

    It's a book told from the POV of a pedophile, but it's hardly a brief in support of pedophilia; Humbert Humbert isn't and isn't intended to be a sympathetic character.

    I say this only so that I have an excuse to link to my favourite bit of writing on Lolita, which I only just discovered is online! Richard Rorty's "The Barber of Kasbeam," from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, in which Rorty reads Lolita for its hidden moral, as a warning against cruelty as a result of incuriosity about others' suffering:

    http://web.princeton.edu/sites/english/NEH/RORTY.HTM

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  4. I am sometimes moved by explicitly Christian writing, even though I regard the underlying belief system as basically nonsense. I like CS Lewis a lot, and I like Chesterton enormously, and I'm sure I could try to think of something more recent -- Gene Wolfe, I suppose. David Foster Wallace, maybe? I remember large chunks of Infinite Jest as having a strongly religious subtext if not occasionally text. I actually don't mind being preached at; I rather like a good sermon. I rather enjoy being attacked if it's well-done. It seems to me that what the-rare-kind-of-Christian-writing-I-like has that the-kind-I-can't-stand doesn't is a sense of struggle, and of faith as something difficult, not easy or obvious, uncertain, and therefore at least a bit terrifying and tragic.

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  5. I'm really trying to think of a book that I like that is explicitly and significantly about a political (as opposed to religious) position that I dislike, and I'm finding it very hard.

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  6. Responding to some of Felix's points:

    To my knowledge, a Christian worldview certainly does not require a belief that all bad acts are punished in this world (because... DUH), but in order to have a book published with a "Christian publisher" (which I mention specifically because that is the specialty of the agent whose blog post inspired my train of thought here), you can't just have characters doing "immoral" things without some kind of signal to the reader that it's just not okay. So, maybe there's no need for explicit "comeuppance" for the characters in question, but the book has to make it clear that there's no implicit approval of the behavior, either. This does limit certain story lines. Hence, the agent's original discussion of where one may find truth in writing.

    It seems to me that what the rare-kind-of-Christian-writing-I-like has... is a sense of struggle, and of faith as something difficult, not easy or obvious, uncertain, and therefore at least a bit terrifying and tragic.

    I would agree. Indeed, I think that's the kind of story line that makes a book more "universal," because everyone struggles with right and wrong, who to trust, what to believe in, etc.

    I think Ayn Rand qualifies an author who wrote books that have some good entertainment value even if you think she's a wackadoo about politics/economic policies. She's like John Grisham: very heavy-handed, even wooden at times, but darned if you don't want to find out what happens next, and how the hero will win in the end.

    But I'm not going to read Bill O'Reilly's fiction any time soon.

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  7. I agree with Stephanie on this one; transcending a belief system is doable...it's just very difficult. Personally I don't go in for Christian fiction for the most part, but I won;t put down a book I'm enjoying just because it contains Christian elements.

    I think that the most important thing is to write the book that appeals to you. If that means it's unsuitable for certain agents or publishers then that's still better than re-writing something you love to match their expectations.

    I want to read your book now...

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  8. I agree with ... well everyone else. Good books - books with character, plot and style - can still be thoroughly enjoyable even when you disagree with the author. Or at least they can if you don't mind disagreeing with an author.

    I have a friend who read the first two books in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" but refused to read the third because she was concerned she'd be upset by the anti-church sentiment. It was just so sad, because she really enjoyed the first two and she was genuinely sorry to be missing the finale. To this day I don't really understand her decision. After all, I'm an atheist who enjoyed "The Lion the Witch and Wardrobe" despite its obvious pro-church sentiment.

    Andrew, its a good book. You'll like it when it comes out.

    Felix, no one but you likes being preached at or argued with. You are a freak. That's probably why I married you...

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  9. PS - I feel compelled to plug "Roots Schmoots" by Howard Jacobson. He's a Jewish non-believer from England on a world tour trying to understand the religion he's not exactly part of. Its smart, funny and touching. (But be warned, his faith is secure - he's still a non-believer in the end.)

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  10. And I feel compelled to un-recommend Girl Meets God. She supposedly tries to find the religion that is right for her, but I felt that, instead of being on a true spiritual journey, she was on a self-indulgent journey to find the religion that she could embrace most obsessively in order to be able to preach at everyone else in a holier-than-thou manner. I really just hated everything about that book.

    I loved the entire Narnia series as a kid, and I still have to finish the Dark Materials books...

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  11. I think Ayn Rand qualifies an author who wrote books that have some good entertainment value even if you think she's a wackadoo about politics/economic policies.

    Oh, I can think of books with awful politics that are good enough in other respects that I can hold my nose and put up with the awful politics. But I still regard the politics as a flaw. What I can't think of are any books where I actively like the awful politics for themselves.

    E.g. I like the god-bothering bits in CS Lewis, and was annoyed when I heard that they were going to downplay them in the movies. I would like Lewis less if you cut those bits out; they are good bits. On the other hand I would enjoy Lewis's That Hideous Strength much more if he'd cut all the bits about how women shouldn't have jobs or their wombs will stop working; those are bad bits.

    I assume that w/r/t Ayn Rand, your (baffling) enjoyment of Atlas Shrugged would not be reduced if she cut the ranting about parasites and looters.

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  12. I can't think of a book that moved me despite being against my ideals...but I'm not that clever.

    I didn't finish Lolita because I couldn't stand its subject matter, all the while agreeing it was well-written. I DID finish Irvine Welsh's Filth, and I'm not sure why--I guess because it was so atrocious it made me want to find out what happened. I tried hard to forget it but snippets of it remain with me.

    I guess being surprised, delighted, and sometimes horrified by other points of view/beliefs is what makes most of us read, and also what makes people who ban books, ban books.

    I guess I don't understand that Anne Lamotte line very well. Is she saying we're telling our OWN truths when we write? I must admit I thought a lot about where Nabakov was coming from when he wrote Lolita. Considering how much of a soul goes into a story, how could he not put himself into it? In which case, gross. Same for Filth.

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  13. I love this post. I have been wanting to write on this issue for some time and maybe now that you have opened up the debate, I will. I think it is soooo important for books to be written well. I don't care who you are or what you believe good writing is good writing and bad writing is, well, bad. I get sick and tired of reading books by Christian authors (especially self-help books) that may or may not have something valid to say- I wouldn't know because the writing SUCKS! Sometimes I think some Christian authors get published and find audiences for their work simply because they are Christian and have a platform (pastor, preacher etc) I am very passionate about valuing the craft of writing. I think it should be the best it can, regardless. AND I will go one step further and say that I think it does one good to read something right outside their comfort zone. I love reading books from people with very different belief systems and view points. It broadens my world view and helps me see things through new eyes. I will always be a Christian, but I an open to reading far and wide. I happen to love the 'Twilight series' and no, I don't support blood suckers and werewolves.
    Thanks so much for this post. Can I link to it if I do post on this topic?

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  14. I so want to read your work now. Like I said, I LOVE feather ruffling!

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  15. Felix, I would definitely enjoy Atlas Shrugged w/o the ranting. That endless speech by Galt? Bleargh. My favorite part of the story involves relatively minor characters, actually...

    Sierra, I suspect that Lamott was talking about a kind of universal emotional truth... you don't need to be a murderer to write about one, but you do need to have the character have flaws and honest human relationships just like everyone else, or s/he will never be real on the page.

    As for Nabokov, here is an insightful little article based on the new novel of his that will be released shortly: Lolita's ancestor. Short version: he had a teenage crush on a girl, but as the author grew older, his dream girl was forever frozen in memory at a preteen age. Perhaps being unflinchingly honest about his own "disgust and desire" was indeed part of his key to great writing.

    I haven't read Filth, but now I'm curious... I think American Psycho is an good example of brilliant writing and an irredeemable main character. Although again I don't think the author is by any means advocating torture and violence, there's a whole social commentary thing going on beneath, and the main character even tries to turn himself in but fails... it's a very strange and very good read, but I firmly believe it must be read in installments. I think reading it straight through would have messed me up. (Shudder.)

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  16. Felix, that article/link you posted to looks really good, but WAY too deep for me to handle at 9am. Will have to check it out again after I'm properly fed, showered, and AWAKE.

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  17. Thanks for your comments on my blog!

    I've put a lot of thought into this kind of thing over the last few months. I'm a Christian, and I used to write what I thought I should as a believer. And then I realized I was holding back; I wasn't being true to my writer's voice. I want to be honest, to get to the heart of emotion and life and circumstance, and sometimes it takes scenes or words or behaviors that you wouldn't find in an inspirational novel. Don't get me wrong, there are some themes or activities for which you won't see me crossing the line, but I have to be true to my voice. You know?

    I think that kinda goes along with what you posted, though I did ramble a bit. ;)

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  18. Even moreso (sorry, afterthought), I have to be true to the story.

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  19. Life is chaotic, and my personal reading time is strictly for my enjoyment. That being said, I read anything that I enjoy, and nothing that I don't.

    I used to read books because they were acclaimed works or something I should read. Now, I'll give it 50 pages if a friend lends it to me and insists "just try it". If I'm not hooked by that point, I close the cover and return it, something I would never have done in the past.

    Personally, I sit on the religious fence. I wouldn't buy a "Christian" book and it would take a lot of persuasion to get me to try it. Regardless of how well it was written, if the characters, action, and plot didn't appeal to me by the fiftieth page, I'd say thanks, but I pass.

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  20. Hm, maybe I should reconsider the book my mom pushed at me years ago. It was a christian woman's memoir and dealt with the disease that killed my dad (sorry to bring down the discussion). I passed because of the word "christian" but you are right that there can be other redeeming points to it, and the relevance to my own life, in this particular case, should be weighed as well.

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  21. Melody, when you add the personal-experience aspect of things, it definitely changes the equation.

    When I was pregnant, I read a book called Expecting Adam. The author writes about the miracles she believes she experienced while pregnant with her son, who has Down's syndrome. She also writes about her husband and herself as an overeducated couple coming to terms with a baby who isn't "perfect." It was ultimately a joyous story, and I liked reading it during a time when I was thinking about my child's many potential futures, some bright and some not-so-bright. Someone might read the book and believe in miracles. I read the book and thought, "so, yeah, I'll be able to cope if my kid doesn't grow up to be a Rhodes Scholar." (Insert self-directed-eye-roll here.)

    You never know what's going to have value as it related to your own personal experiences. I'd say flip through the book, and dump it if it doesn't speak to you in a positive way.

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  22. I am a newcomer to your blog. Whew! This is quite a discussion. I guess I believe we can all only write our own truths. If I try to write someone else's, I'm not being true to me. I can't really worry about how my truth is going to be received. Some will be okay with it. Some won't. My memoir touched on subjects some would find difficult. It certainly won't speak to everyone. My advice is to write what you want, need, feel compelled to write and you'll be fine.
    I refuse to label myself as any one particular thing and read from all sorts of philosophies and genres. I just take what I like and leave the rest. I am very curious about your book now...
    Karen Walker

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