When I was younger, I read a lot of Christian books. In high school, I wrote a paper on Christian literature, specifically, what it is about Christian literature that makes it often flatter and less compelling than other genres. I’m not saying it all sucks, but I am saying that somehow, I’ve noticed through my life that Christian books suck more than their secular counterparts on average. I found them to often be juvenile, one-dimensional and derivative, and I didn’t think it had to be that way. I didn’t think that being Christian made a book bad, but I observed that the genre was stuffed with a lot of bad books, and the bad books were far worse than bad books outside the category.
I’m not intending to start a discussion about Christian literature; I’m not alone in feeling this way or noticing this phenomenon if you believe it’s a thing. Online, you can read a lot of articles discussing the same thing: that Christian lit tends to be lower quality. So I wanted to know why.
To answer the question, I looked at interviews of Christian authors and submission guidelines for Christian publishers. I wished to understand the intent behind writings in the genre and what might lead to the difference in quality. And what I found was very illuminating.
Essentially, many Christian authors and publishers feel that:
1. their books have a responsibility to promote morality in their readers, and authors are somewhat responsible for the moral fiber of their readers
2. there has to be a strong delineation between “moral” and “immoral” behavior in books
3. many topics either can’t be addressed at all or must be very clearly pointed out as “bad” if they are
4. certain topics and ideas ought to be brought up in a book and pointed out as good as part of the purpose or meaning of the book
The conclusion I came to was that these ideas were resulting in flat, one-dimensional characters and dull plots. The responsibility of promoting moral integrity, and having to make absolutely sure that nothing you write could condone or promote immoral behavior, was of paramount importance.
And what that caused was preachiness, one-dimensionality, a lack of compelling moral conflict, flat characters, and intellectually numbing stories.
Why am I talking about this?
Because a lot of the ideas I’ve been seeing spread around in writeblr and in the online writing and reading communities as a whole are identical.
A lot of the posts I see online now about writing are almost exact echoes of the ideas I wrote about in my paper.
Nowadays, I see posts constantly urging people to think about why they want to write their stories, and whether they are good or helpful or edifying. I see authors being slammed for not condemning characters with disgusting beliefs hard enough. I see people being dragged for liking characters that are not morally and ideologically pure. I see posts telling people to approach any difficult topic with extreme caution and crisp, unmistakable condemnation. Media is widely vilified when its fandom becomes toxic or nasty, assumed to be at fault for the moral fiber of its fans.
I see authors and publishers advertising their books as “feminist”, as if that makes any sense at all (is the author feminist? Does it just handle female characters well? Are the characters feminist? Is it focused on women’s issues?). I open a book and see poorly-integrated lines of dialogue dropping ideas about prejudice or gender that seem like a Tumblr post or part from a nonfiction book on racism inserted directly into a character’s mouth. I don’t think feminism is bad. I think feminism is great. And I don’t think talking about prejudice or gender is bad. I think these things need to be talked about. I definitely don’t think these ideas can’t be expressed in fiction. On the contrary; I think fiction is one of the best ways of expressing important ideas.
But, I see some kind of preoccupation with the ideas your writing promotes, prominently including the idea that you must promote and you must condemn certain ideas, and that everything you write makes a statement about morality, and you’re responsible for edifying your audience and making them better people. And it’s really, really familiar.
The conclusion that my paper came to is that you can’t clean up the reality of humanity. You can’t make the messiness of existence crisp and clear so you can feed your readers the ideas you want them to absorb bite by bite. You can’t have light without darkness, and you can’t have either without shades of gray.
In life, racist people will not always be obviously horrible. (Even though sometimes they are…) Sometimes they will be people who love their spouses and kids and are generally “nice” and adopt dogs and love kittens, and they will still be racist. Sometimes even “good” people will say or do racist things and have to realize their mistakes and then make mistakes again and have to realize THOSE mistakes. Sometimes getting out of ideas you grew up hearing is long and difficult and you have to catch your brain repeating them even years after you tried to change. Racism can be passive, subtle, it can exist in people who are “good” in some ways. Sometimes people make progress toward changing but still have problems. How do we show this in books? Is it an author’s responsibility to solve all this and sort out everything?
Is it racist for a racist character who is seeking redemption to not have entirely overcome their prejudices by the end of a book? Is it the author’s responsibility to make sure racist behavior in the book is clearly labeled? Is it a reflection of the author’s views if a character says something racist?
Note that I’m asking these questions. I’m definitely open to and would like perspectives from other people on this, people of color foremost and especially. The idea I am exploring is, does giving an author the responsibility of making sure their book clearly and unequivocally promotes certain ideas and condemns others impair them? Could it make it more difficult to address the ideas they want to?
When I analyzed Christian literature, the conclusion I had to reach was that it does. I found christian lit as a whole to be excessively black-and-white, simplistic, shy of tackling anything with complexity, and almost dishonest about human nature. Is there an analogy in this situation?
In life, relationships aren’t always pure and unproblematic. People don’t fall neatly into “people who have never done anything to hurt their partner” and abusers. People can sometimes have problems in their relationships and have to change their behaviors to preserve their relationships. Relationships have difficulties and arguments. Sometimes a person needs to change or become better in order to have a healthy relationship. Sometimes a relationship can be unhealthy without being abusive, and sometimes relationships are abusive. Must the author draw lines about “toxicity” and “problematicness” in super clear neon spray paint so people know the difference?
These arguments come up about all sorts of morality-related things in books. And on some level I agree, you shouldn’t promote racism, and you should be careful and sensitive about portraying some things, but I am also extremely apprehensive about certain aspects of this culture that has sprung up.
It’s really almost totally identical to what I noticed about Christian literature, and imo there it has done a lot of damage. I don’t really believe that authors are totally past being responsible for damage their ideas do, quite the opposite. But there is this expectation of dictating what’s bad and what’s good on a very clear level.
That was part of the problem i noticed in Christian literature, the teaching of ideas rather than forcing readers to consider them.
I’m not trying to talk over anybody at all, esp with things about racism, I’m white after all. And I really urge and ask my white followers and people-who-see-this-post to listen to the opinions, ideas and feelings of people of color who reply on the topic of racism. What I really want is everybody to consider this: is it an author’s job to make sure all “bad” and “good” things in their book are clearly delineated? If not, what is the best practice for an author? If not, might this cause problems? The culture I am seeing in the writeblr community seems to hold that it is, and rejection of redemption for villains, morally ambiguous situations and characters, addressing of complicated topics, and portraying anything “bad” without making absolutely certain that it’s clearly wrong is growing.
Personally, I have a bad feeling about it.
Still formulating them.
But this is a good start.
Mar 14, 2019 16:54
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