This morning I read a review of Robert Olen Butler’s “Tabloid Dreams” on Goodreads, and I got very excited to read this story collection. Butler, my favorite short fiction writer, is an artist with words, and the review expressed the same sentiments I have for his work. Maybe it caught me at just the right moment, or maybe it’s the Percocet I’m taking for the surgery I had on Friday, but I again became enthralled with the idea of the art of fiction.
I have not read this particular collection, but in it Butler takes preposterous tabloid headlines and turns them into something of beauty, giving life and grace to characters going through emotional or surreal circumstances. Think of the crazy articles found in The National Enquirer. The only story I’ve read is Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot. Butler writes of a reincarnated husband and elicits our compassion for a jealous husband who finds himself the pet of his adulterous widow. We would scoff at the tabloid, but the story draws us closer and turns something ridiculous into something artful.
A central goal for all literary fiction, irrespective of length, is the creation of beauty. Fiction exists primarily to tell a story, but this genre in particular strives to present its story and characters in an artful way. It’s in this sense of the word that I refer to authors such as Butler as artists.
There is another side of fiction though that I feel is overlooked, or maybe just taken for granted, and that is the aspect of truth. Literary writers are indeed writing in a way that is true to their perspective or worldview. If a writer is a feminist, say, and creates a character that acts according to feminist ideology, then that author is writing according to his or her own sense of truth. They write in line with their understanding and concepts of the universe and how it operates (or should operate), and they may make a statement without intending to at the beginning. All fiction, in fact, will make a statement regardless of authorial intention.
From my vista as a Christian writer, I cannot always agree with the foundational ideas upon which many stories are built. While I strive to appreciate a work of art, there are times where I have to dismiss it completely because it goes against a higher Truth. For example, many popular fiction writers have no problem putting sexual immorality on full display because they want to be true to their story and characters, and perhaps because they think that writers like myself who would hold back on graphic displays of sex or foul language are simply too timid or prudish. From their perspective, there is no reason not to write graphically–the art object, or their sense of truth, is at stake if they as the writer hold back. In a way I tip my hat to them because they are staying consistent and true to form.
Christian writers tend to take the opposite tack. They create a story with a particular truth they want to display, say for example, a character who hates God but will come to a place of faith later in the story. This plot is central to the work and characters might end up flat. Less focus is given to artful writing than to driving home that character’s journey to salvation.
Honestly, Christian fiction writers need to give up on this type of storytelling. They’ve beaten it so long that the dead horse is no longer recognizable.
To be fair, we are talking about two completely different genres within fiction. The first difference to note is that literary writers are striving to create a holistic work. In other words they are not constrained to the plot which Christian writers tend to constrain themselves. They want to create a fictional universe, or even just a flash fiction scene, where every element of the writing supports character, plot, setting, dialogue. The intention is for everything to work together, building up a beautiful and powerful story which will leave a lasting impression on readers.
Another difference between literary and Christian fiction is that literature often lets the story lead the writer wherever it wishes. This is true with Robert Olen Butler as he tries to allow the story to come from what he calls “the compost of the mind,” or the unconscious. He teaches his students to not force a story, but to let it come on its own. Christian fiction often seems to force its way to an end point where happy endings can happen and things tend to always work out well. Granted, all good literature will offer some hope readers, otherwise why would we read? The difference is that the best fiction works with the greatest of subtlety.
This isn’t to say that Christian writers are incapable of producing good literary fiction. I just don’t see much of it since Amish/Christian Romance and supernatural story lines seem to dominate the Christian market.
A third difference which I think goes largely unnoticed is that Christians are writing truth in the highest sense. Fiction which aligns itself with the ultimate truths of God’s universe is the only type capable of reaching the level of True Art. I say this out of the conviction that the Bible is God’s revealed word and as such gives us the ability to understand life from God’s perspective. In the discussion of worldviews and ultimate truth, biblical Christianity has the upper hand when it comes to writing fiction that is both beautiful and true.
To clarify, we are still talking about fiction–stories that are not true. Characters can still be deceived. They are just as capable of committing evil deeds as we are in the real world. But I believe that Christian fiction has the opportunity and the responsibility to do more than just tell a story or prove a point. Christian fiction writers should observe non-Christian artists like Butler and learn well. We should avoid preaching in fiction, unless of course a character has a tendency to do so. We should become masters of language. Learn the art of character, voice, narration–become the best we possibly can.
So what’s your preference–literary fiction or Christian fiction? My preference would be a melding of the two, where the two become one flesh. And I think it can be done. I just hope more believers will stand up to the challenge. I’d like to see a Christian fiction writer win the Pulitzer as Butler did. But even if no Christian ever attains the favor of the contemporary literary world in this way, let’s at least give them a run for their money.