Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Corny With a Capital C

Some people say that Christian fiction is much better than it used to be. I suppose that might be true, if you’re comparing the current state of affairs to the prairie romances of the past, but when I think of Christian fiction of the past, I think of titles like Pilgram’s Progress, Not My Will and In His Steps. The fact is that most of the current Christian fiction doesn’t measure up to the quality of writing we find in Pilgram’s Progress and Not My Will.

One of the big problems I’ve seen in contemporary Christian writing is what I will call corny writing. We see it often and I fear we all have a tendency to do it. I’m not excluding myself from this by any means. It usually shows up in the form of Christianese that should have more significant meaning than what it does. To provide an example, I’m going to pick on For Whom the Wedding Bells Toll by Nancy Mehl. In part, I’m choosing this book as an example because it is on of the winners at the most recent ACFW conference in the category of Mystery. Based on that, we should assume that this book is representative of the best that contemporary Christian fiction has to offer. Moreover, since the award came from a Christian writers’ organization, we should assume that this book is representative of what Christian writers believe is good writing. With that in mind, lets look at what we find.

Throughout the book, we find several references to prayer. This person prayed; that person prayed; you get the idea. On page 165, we find an example. The protagonist has taken some food out to a dog that has been sleeping in a shed. After that, the narrator tells us that the dog has become a symbol to her that God can do the impossible. She then says:

I went upstairs and collapsed on my bed. As I lay there, staring up at the ceiling, I realized that a lot of people were in the same condition as the abandoned collie…. As I fell asleep, I prayed for the collie and for all the people in the world who had never felt the kind of love that God has for anyone who will simply accept it.

Keep in mind that this is only a quote from a much larger work. It doesn’t seem quite as corny as I look at it as a separate paragraph, but in the context of the book, it seems extremely corny. The book is about finding out who killed the wedding planner, but then we have these flare prayers that keep popping up that have nothing to do with the theme. And the prayer doesn’t seem to have much power. I think what strikes me as particularly corny in this example is that prayers for an abandoned collie are given the same importance as prayers for the salvation of the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I think prayer is an important topic to cover in Christian fiction. The problem is that we risk creating corny fiction when we don't focus that prayer on the theme of the book and we insert it at every turn without clear results. I think this is an example of the author trying to use this dog to make a point in the story, rather than keeping the focus on the theme. If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I’m not a fan of authors making points in novels.

Corny writing happens, but we should try to avoid it. If we’re going to throw Christianese into our writing, we should elevate it to the level of the theme. At the very least, we should write in such a way that it is clear that the characters believe in the power of things like prayer and aren’t just doing it as a religious obligation. Don’t just have throw in a prayer who can, but when the characters pray, spend several paragraphs on it. If prayer is important, then surely it is important enough to have the characters discuss it. If it isn’t, then mention it once and only once. That should be enough to show us that the character prays. But we must find a way to avoid this corny writing that exists in Christian fiction.


NancyMehl said...

Hmmm. Christian fiction has Christian characters. And Christians pray. It's a natural part of who we are. I'm married and speak to my husband several times a day. I say things to him that I would never say to anyone else because of the relationship we have. It's the same with God. Praying is nothing more than talking to Him because of the unique relationship we share. Spending several paragraphs explaining about WHY I talk to my husband would be silly. Explaining in a novel why I talk to God would be unnatural and would venture into inappropriate exposition. It is assumed that as a Christian, an individual WILL pray quite a bit.

Don't know if this helps to explain why I wrote "For Whom the Wedding Bell Tolls" the way I did, but I hope it will make my choices clearer.

Thank you for your interest and comments.


Timothy Fish said...

What can I say other than “Tag, you’re it.” I didn’t mean anything personal, though I can see how you might take it that way. It is difficult to point out a problem without pointing to a specific example. Your book just happened to be in the crosshairs at the time.

As for my original comments, I stick by them. To use your example of you and your husband, the fact is that if we were looking at two characters who happened to be married, we would explain why they are talking. Imagine a scene in which two women get back from shopping and there is a bicycle in the driveway.

“Why is there always something blocking the driveway?” the first woman asks.

“I used to have that problem,” the second woman says, “but then I talked to my husband.”

“I ought to try that,” the first woman says.

If we were to leave the scene like that, it would come off as incomplete. We don’t know what the woman said to her husband or how he responded. We need at least one more paragraph.

“Yeah,” the second woman said. “After I talked to him, he said he’d start putting his stuff away like we make the kids.”

Now we fully understand the action on the husband’s part. For us to say someone prayed without talking about God’s response or apparent lack of response is just as incomplete. We’re sitting there waiting for the other shoe to drop. Maybe God answers the prayer like the character wanted; that is worth mentioning. Maybe God answered in a different way; that is worth mentioning. Maybe the character is the type to use God’s name in vain with no real expectation that God will take action; that too seems like something that would have a major impact on our story. While you are correct that prayer is simply talking to God, we must not forget the power of the person to whom our characters are speaking. While in real life we may wait many years for God to answer and even our characters may wait years, in our books, God’s answer must come within the pages of our books and be clearly a result of the prayer or the prayer will come across as shallow and corny.