Friday, January 7, 2011

On the Christian's Literary Frequency

Someone once wrote Roger Ebert and asked him why critics loved Sofia Coppola's film Lost in Translation so much while audiences in general didn't even appreciate it. Ebert responded that the film transmitted on a different frequency than audiences are accustomed to receiving. (I was reminded of this tidbit from Ebert's "Movie Answer Man" column only a couple days later while overhearing a conversation in a restaurant in which two men discussing of the movie revealed no hints of even knowing what it was about.)

It works the same way with books, I think, particularly as it relates to the dulling of the evangelical artistic palate. Is it too much to say that Christian readers have a distinct taste for mediocrity? I know evangelicals take a lot of hits for poor artistic sensibilities, but maybe the critique is a cliche for a reason?

Is it a supply problem or a demand problem? I think it's both, which means the Christian publishing industry (and Christian retail in general, really) is in a vicious cycle of sorts. Publishers print what sells and until readers start buying substantive literature, publishers won't produce it. But if publishers aren't producing it in the first place, then readers don't even have the opportunity to buy it. So basically, Christian readers are consuming what's available because they don't perceive any other option (in the Christian bookstore, that is).

The unfortunate side effect of that, though, is that we are producing generations of Christians whose literary appetites are for junk food.

Quickly and surely, Christians have developed a different literary frequency. It's part of the larger culture, to be sure. It's certainly not limited to Christians. Our country has set its dial to King, Clancy, and Grisham. Not that there's anything really wrong (or even dumb) about those authors or others who fall into the wide swath of pop fiction. But folks programmed to receive only on those frequencies will likely miss the deeper, more insightful, more poetic messages of the classics. Or even contemporary literary novelists. Ever read a book by Don DeLillo? How about J.K. Rowling? I'd be willing to bet more of you have read authors like the latter than authors like the former.

Which is not to say anything negative about J.K. Rowling, or about pop fiction in general. I'm a fan of Stephen King myself. But when intelligent friends of mine say, for instance, that they have no taste for poetry, I get a little concerned. Not only does it mean we are lessening the chances of publication for future writers of intelligent and substantive literary Christian fiction, but it also means that we are losing touch with those who have gone before us. Because our senses have been dulled, we are unable to appreciate (and sometimes to even understand) what is written in the classics, including the classics of Christian fiction. (Yes, there are some.)

C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy was published only about sixty years ago. At the time, it was considered unabashed genre fiction -- science fiction, to be specific. These days, I'm afraid Lewis's Trilogy is felt by many too difficult, too thick, too confusing for modern readers.

Here's an excerpt from his That Hideous Strength, the passage that inspired this rant of mine:
But it did not matter: for all the fragments -- needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts -- went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves. It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry. The doubling, splitting, and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unendurable for one whom that art had not already instructed in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision. For Ransom, whose study had been for many years in the realm of words, it was heavenly pleasure. He found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning. For the lord of Meaning himself, the herald, the messenger, the slayer of Argus, was with them . . .
Besides the sheer beauty of the composition here, I see also a peculiar prescience in these words. For most readers weaned today on what most genre fiction has to offer (which is usually what sells best), this passage (not to mention the entire book) would be completely confounding. You won't find "the very heart of language, the white-hot furnace of essential speech" in Left Behind; some clunky and cliched phrasing propped around cardboard characters, maybe, but certainly nothing that would benefit those with "some knowledge of poetry."

There is some hope, though. Browse through the featured fiction section of your local Target sometime and notice that it primarily consists of what one could consider literary works -- literary novels, historical mysteries, memoirs, essay collections, etc. And for all that the idolatrous therapeutic cult of Oprah has wrought, her book club selections were always well chosen. Her latest selection is Dickens. No chick lit or fiction lite for Oprah's readers. That's encouraging, I think.

If only these trends would carry over into Christian readership. If only these trends were pioneered by Christian readers!


Tyler Nicholas Andersen said...

Thanks for this. Its something I have been thinking about and trying to communicate to others for a few years and I appreciate that you've done it so well here.
Its a very encouraging thought that there are other Christians who are uncomfortable with the state of Christians and art and is speaking about it.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Since not all my friends and relatives are evangelical the most common explanation I have heard about the mediocrity of evangelical taste in art is that they have no use for sacraments. This seems both absurd and ahistorical since Lutherans have created so much amazing music just in the Bach family alone that disproves the canard.

I have been tempted to propose that the problem may not be evangelicalism so much as American evangelicalism. We have been tempted to have what might be called a cartoonish lens and praxis in story-telling. I don't mean the great cartoons like Pixar movies or The Simpsons but the 1980s G. I. Joe cartoons where bad is bad and good is good and anyone can see the two are clear. Eliminating any shred of moral ambiguity in favor of elucidating propositional truths, demonstrating the inevitable outcomes of worldviews, and probing people to show what their presuppositions are seems to veer away from what a lot of evangelicals want their stories to do.

I have slowly come to the conclusion that the problem isn't evangelicals as such but American evangelicals. Up and coming evangelicals are almost invariably preachers, teachers, and theologians. The sermon is the vehicle. We are so committed to that that if someone were to make a public profession of faith and link that to his storytelling (as Andrew Stanton did after WALL-E got released) there'd still be Christians who felt the movie was too environmentalist or not like the idea that there are robots that fall in love. As Mike Gunn put it a few years ago, evangelical Christians are so often uptight about what the arts get wrong that they don't seem that interested in encouraging or promoting when people actually get some things right. If Christians are uptight that a director at Pixar seems too "green" without recognizing a brother in the Lord that might be "part" of the symptoms of this problem you've described.

Bill said...

The thought that occurs to me often when thinking about this is that I'm not sure if this is a Christian problem or just a problem with our pop culture.

Doubtless, most Christian fiction probably isn't all that great. But I have never met a Christian (that I know of) who only read Christian books. The Christians I know who read a lot read everything. In general you couldn't tell their libraries apart (on the fiction side, at least) from anyone else's library.

Christian fiction probably isn't that great because it's competing with a much larger market of regular, non-Christian writing. And it, frankly, has limits put on it. We may, for instance, decry sex, salty language and violence, but - if we're honest - those are hooks we'll find in most works of fiction and, I believe, most of us like them in there. I'm assuming most Christian fiction can't throw in a good steamy sex scene, and thus starts out behind the curve. A Tolkien or a Lewis or (insert other good authors) who can write a great tale without those elements are rare indeed, both in Christian fiction and non-Christian fiction.

I could be wrong (I often am) but I get some cognitive-dissonance in these conversations when the forgone conclusion seems to be that Christians just don't have much of a taste for art. At least in my experience, I haven't seen any discernable difference between Christian friends and non-Christian friends when it comes to both aptitude and appreciation for art, and consumption of it.

Do you really see Christians who only consume Christian literature, at least when it comes to fiction?

(I reserve the right to be dead wrong, on this, by the way :-) - I often am!!)

Jared said...

Do you really see Christians who only consume Christian literature, at least when it comes to fiction?

Yes. Quite often, actually. Many in my church.

I think the phenomenon is illustrated by the fact that "secular" fiction runs the spectrum from pop candy to literary novels b/c there's a market for all of that in the general reading populace, but there's apparently not much of a market for Christian literary novels, which is why Christian bookstores' fiction sections are full of mostly "genre fiction."

Bill said...

Well, I can't argue with your experience. Mine is different. Most Christians I know who talk about literature at all tend to read pretty much everything.

Here's where I find the assertion that Christians have less taste for art than the regular populace confusing. I assume, for instance, that C.S. Lewis is not considered lowbrow fiction. I know many Christians who voraciously consume everything he's written, and can speak intelligently about it.

Now, the issue may be that, as has been noted, there doesn't appear to be a new C.S. Lewis, or Chesterton, or Tolkien these days. I don't have an answer for that.

We've had this conversation before, of course :-) - I may just be defending the indefensible.

Jared said...

Most Christians I know who talk about literature

Isn't this a subset, though?
I don't think readers of exclusively genre fiction talk much about literature.
But I wouldn't be surprised that literary-minded Christians like smart stuff.

Is there a lot of literature talk at your church in general?

Bill said...

I work with College and Young Singles, and can find someone to talk about literature pretty easily, generally.

Keep in mind - you know me. I'm not exactly the most literary-minded person in the world anyway. My idea of "talking about literature" is probably a bit more low-brow than yours :-)

I guess, to sum up - I can't tell the difference between Christians and non-Christians in this area. I realize there's strong evidence when you look at Christian publishing against what gets sold at, say, Barnes and Noble, at least in the fiction department. I don't have an answer for that. I just haven't observed people as divided in their literary tastes based on their faith as you have.

Bob said...

There's another factor at work here. In my experience, Christians who may not be particularly literary often feel that they really ought to be reading (they're pastors read, after all). They may have a very hard time working through a book, but they think it a matter of self-improvement to try to do, that is if the book is an uplifting "Christian" one. (To insure that it is, they will choose only from the bestsellers in the CBD catalog.) So they're using a different criteria for deciding what to read than the wider reading public. I have heard many times from my Christian friends that any other sort of reading--reading an entertaining scifi novel, for example--is just wasting time and, by implication, "fleshly." The point is, we apply a highly moralistic/religious standard to reading, possibly justifying the anti-literary bias we carried with us out of high school. If we're not getting a moral lesson, we're mistrustful.

Alternative: read for the pleasure of listening to a fine story teller, read for (yes) escape, for entertainment, for brilliant insight into the nature of things, or even for the joy of experiencing sheer literary artistry. When Christians start reading and writing (!) out of such motivations as these (rather than sermon-like moral uplift), well, that will be progress. Christian readers will then happily browse beyond the "Christian" section at the bookstore, and writers may even seek to get out from under the absurd label, "Christian fiction."

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

The didactic/edifying purpose of reading probably does explain a lot. There's a certain high-profile pastor in the town where I live who resolved to read a book a day and has read a lot. But to go by how rarely he ever mentions fiction my suspicion is that he reads for knowledge-acquisition-as-enjoyment rather than reading any fiction. And that's fair in as much as I myself tend to read to learn rather than amuse myself. But that CAN reinforce a weakness for appreciating fiction and poetry and lead to a dearth of interpretive ability when you encounter that literature. If the only poetry you ever read in your life is the poetry in the Bible then your appreciation of poetry (as an English speaker and reader) is probably woefully poor). Hebrew poetics are radically different than English poetics. For my part this last year I've decided to lay off just reading theology books and read some Dashiel Hammett novels.

One of my friends over at Mars Hill, James Harleman, encourages Christians to cultivate both the learning approach and the entertainment approach. He's pretty good at it. Watch the popcorn movie but be open to the reality that even that escapist entertainment can lead you to think about things that are important. Read that theology book but realize that it can also be fun.