The Lost Genre Guild on Tour, Day 3


As the third part of the CSFF Blog Tour featuring the Lost Genre Guild, I decided to continue the discussion of terms, specifically Biblical or Christian speculative fiction—with an emphasis on the speculative side of things—which makes up the lost genre at the center of the Guild.

For one thing, on a page defining terms LGG includes a list of subgenres I found interesting:

    Alternative History
    Apocalypse or Holocaust
    Coming of Age
    Contemporary Fantasy
    Cyberpunk
    Dark Fantasy or Horror
    Dystopia
    First Contact
    Genetic Engineering
    Hard Science Fiction
    Light Fantasy
    Light Science Fiction
    Military Science Fiction
    Post-Apocalyptic or Post-Holocaust
    Social Science Fiction
    Space Opera
    Traditional Fantasy

As noted below the list, the source for this information is one D. D. Shades who wrote an extensive article entitled “What Is Speculative Fiction?” Relying on material from an Orson Scott Card’s book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, (Writer’s Digest Books, 1990), Shade defines the term as “all stories that take place in a setting contrary to known reality.”

My first thought as I looked over the list was, Where is the supernatural suspense? These are books that would include works by Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti. There is nothing of the intent to frighten as the core purpose, so books like House and The Oath don’t seem to fit the traditional definition of horror. Works like Tosca Lee’s Demon: A Memoir and Miles Owens’ Daughter of Prophecy also have supernatural elements that put these books in a category other than those listed. Some would add in Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind books, for certainly they speculate about the fulfillment of prophecy but don’t quite fit with Post-Apocalyptic or Post-Holocaust novels.

The second thing I noticed was that allegory isn’t on the list. True, there are few actual allegories, and most today can be categorized in one of the other sub-genres, so perhaps that isn’t a significant omission.

Next I noted “Coming of Age” as a speculative category. That’s one I would leave off, for certainly many contemporary and historical novels are coming of age stories. It could be that this coming of age has a different meaning, as in the coming of age of a planet or a world or a species rather than of a single character. Still, it surprised me that it merited a category all its own.

While all this naming is interesting (at least to me 😉 ), I think it probably doesn’t play a big role in anything but marketing. The thing is, some of these categories are highly specialized, and it would seem to me that books in those areas would then have a slim niche readership they are aiming for. This seems to me to be both a strength and a weakness of “speculative fiction.”

The strength would seem to be that those readers and writers of speculative fiction have a place to go where their work is accepted and made available. The weakness seems to me to be that an impression is formed in the minds of general readers that only the niche readers will find anything to their liking in the speculative category.

Tolkien and Lewis faced some disdain for their “fairy stories,” for example. How sad if those classic works had been left to languish in a section of the bookstore reserved for “books like that” (of which none existed).

It’s a dilemma, I think. Can speculative fiction break out and become widely popular? Well, silly me, I forgot for the briefest moment a children’s series that recently seemed to do quite well—some stories by a J. K. Rowling!

Take some time to see what others on the tour have to say about the Lost Genre Guild and its many services. I especially recommend Tim Hicks’ Monday post in which he asked Frank Creed some thought-provoking questions.

Published in: on December 31, 2008 at 12:12 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Lost Genre Guild on Tour, Day 2


lggbuttonYesterday I mentioned that I would be addressing “issues that the Guild raises” during this month’s CSFF Blog Tour featuring the Lost Genre Guild. The first of these is terminology. Interestingly, a number of other bloggers on the tour have mentioned definitions as well, largely because the Guild addresses the issue as part of their explanation about the organization then again as part of the Guild Review.

On the latter page, a new direction surfaces in the last paragraph:

Christian and Biblical Spec-Fic then can be defined as speculative fiction that is written from a Christian world view: entertainment + scriptural framework. It
can be overt in its message as exemplified in Biblical spec-fiction; or the
message can be subtle as in Christian spec-fiction.

The thing that first caught my eye was the idea that Christian and Biblical speculative fiction are two different things. From my point of view, anything claiming to be Christian without being Biblical is simply misusing the word.

The second thing was the idea that Biblical speculative fiction is overt whereas Christian is subtle, referring to worldview more than to clear Christian content. In many regards, I think that would be a handy notation, but unfortunately, I don’t find this to be widely accepted as true. For the most part, the term “Christian” is used, and it refers to works with a wide range of content, from sermonizing to head-scratching (Huh? Even the author says it isn’t Christian.)

As I’ve recently commented here, I do think some change in categorizing Christian fiction, and by extension, Christian speculative fiction, would be helpful. But I have to say, I still don’t see what I write in any of these categories.

I’ll be plain. I write the gospel, but I do it subtly. It isn’t “Christian worldview” in the sense that I am showing characters who struggle through this world but do so the way Christians do. Nor do I write stories with allegorical religions that mirror Christianity. It’s more the “Moby Dick” way of writing, with the white whale symbolizing God, but no one in the story ever stops and says anything to that effect. Readers come to that conclusion by thinking about the story.

So is that Biblical? or Christian? or Christian worldview?

Tomorrow, thoughts on the speculative side of the term.

For more comments about the Lost Genre Guild, check out the posts by these bloggers. If you have some familiarity with the organization, you’ll especially appreciate the humor in Steve Rice’s Monday post, and Phyllis Wheeler at Christian Fantasy Book Reviews has some great ideas for improving the Web site.

Published in: on December 30, 2008 at 1:50 pm  Comments (6)  
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The Lost Genre Guild on Tour, Day 1


First, I want to apologize for my unannounced absence. It was unintentional, believe me. I’ve been battling the flu this past week, so blogging took a back seat, as I’m sure you understand.

I’m happy to come back this week to put a spotlight on the Lost Genre Guild as part of the CSFF Blog Tour. As you know, the tour usually features a fairly recent Christian speculative release by a traditional publisher, but from time to time we shift the focus to online endeavors that also promote the genre. Among others, we have featured Christian Fandom, The Sword Review, Mindflights, Wayfarer’s Journal, WhereTheMapEnds, and most recently, Marcher Lord Press. What these diverse sites have in common is Christian speculative fiction.

So, too, the Lost Genre Guild, the conception of Frank Creed and Daniel Weaver. Here is a mission statement:

The Lost Genre Guild’s mission is to promote quality works of Biblical Speculative Fiction (spec-fic) through its authors, fans; to endorse new releases that fit this criteria; and of course, to glorify Him.

As near as I can piece the development of the Guild, Frank started the group as an online place for writers who shared a similar passion for the genre to converse. The original members all belonged to Daniel’s critique group and from those members came the idea to publish an anthology of short stories. This endeavor became Light at the Edge of Darkness, edited by Cynthia MacKinnon and published by The Writers’ Cafe Press.

Since then, the Guild has taken off as an online gathering place for writers and fans of Biblical speculative fiction, with a forum, a blog, and any number of affiliated groups.

So for the next couple days, I’ll be exploring some issues that the Guild raises. Of course, we have a good number of participants on this tour, so I recommend you take some of your down time, now that the Christmas rush has slowed to the New Years steady stream, and stop by to read what these bloggers are saying:

Published in: on December 29, 2008 at 1:57 pm  Comments (9)  
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The Son, the Child


I confess that there have been years when I feel a little jaded about Christmas. No, not because of the commercialization of it all, though I’ve had years like that, too. More it has to do with hearing Christmas sermons that seem … less than enlightening.

I suppose some pastors do struggle with what to say five or ten years into their ministry when they’ve already delivered messages about the shepherds, the angels, the wisemen, the innkeeper, Joseph, Mary. What’s left?

Well, the Son is, and it seems to me there is limitless material for sermons. I have to say, my pastor has hit a homerun with his special Christmas series this past month. It has been timely, Christ centered, enlightening, Biblical. Good, good stuff.

But one of the new insights I gained this year came from a sermon I heard on the radio, delivered by Alister Begg (Truth for Life). The series is from Isaiah 9:

The people who walk in darkness
Will see a great light …
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

A familiar passage, to be sure, not unusual for a Christmas time sermon or series. So what new thing did I learn? Not a new thing, really, but something I didn’t realize this passage upholds.

It has to do with the line, For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us. I’ve always looked at that as an example of Jewish poetic redundancy (I think there’s a real name for it), something you often see in the Psalms and in Proverbs (ie, Do not let kindness and truth leave you/Bind them around your neck”).

But here’s the point I was reminded of: When God inspired the writers of Scripture, He delivered exactly the words He wanted that would communicate truth, nuanced truth that allows us to uncover layers and layers and layers throughout our whole lives.

Pastor Begg pointed out in the verse above that Scripture does not say, for a Son will be born to us, a child will be given. The Son is preexistent. He was with the Father in the beginning. He was not born that first Christmas day. But a Child was—God incarnate, the Son come down.

A small word order, but it carries a wonderful truth!

Published in: on December 23, 2008 at 11:28 am  Comments (5)  
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Angst and Good Fiction


Is angst a requisite element in good fiction—the award-winning kind? If so, perhaps that fact alone explains why “good fiction” doesn’t sell.

Let me ask: are you drawn to a book that contains in its descriptive blurb such words or phrases as lives out of control, guilt, blame, plagued, shattered pieces, family in crisis, sickening secret, pain, rebellion, anger, human depravity?

To be fair, I took out words like beauty, hope, and love that are also in the description, but in all honesty, when I first read the paragraph, I didn’t see them. This is an author I’ve wanted to read, so I was looking at this paragraph with the intent of learning whether or not this book was one I wanted to read. I decided no, because of all the angst.

Yet upon thinking about Katie Popa‘s comment regarding angst, I realize that I very much want a story in which a character examines life. In fact on Wednesday, I said:

My working hypothesis is that readers come to stories to get lost in another person’s world—to experience the joys, the challenges, the soul searching (emphasis added today).

Is that not angst?

Maybe not. I started this post thinking to delineate between a story that contains angst and one driven by angst, but then I looked the word up in the dictionary to be sure I understood its nuances. I didn’t. Here is how my computer dictionary defines it:

a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general

I’ll be frank. I don’t want to read about characters dealing with deep, unfocused anxiety or dread due to the human condition or state of the world. Not only do I not think those stories are entertaining, I don’t think they’re true, at least not if the character persists in his or her angst.

If the story is about a non-Christian, by a non-Christian, I don’t expect a true resolution, for apart from Christ, there is no answer for the human condition or hope for the state of the world. If the story is about a Christian or non-Christian by a Christian, there may be hope, and in the end, truth, but there are minefields along the way. Is the character whinny? Is the resolution simplistic? Is the story preachy? Is the climax predictable? In other words, I think it is much harder to write a Christian story dealing with angst.

Can it be done? I’ve read several books that I would say have done so. As yet they aren’t award winners … or best sellers.

Published in: on December 19, 2008 at 10:44 am  Comments (4)  
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Good and Popular—Are We Looking for Two Different Things?


A couple weeks or so ago, I entered a contest conducted by agent Nathan Bransford. Over 1300 of us posted the first paragraph of our novel, and he selected six finalists, then had us vote for a winner. What jumped out at me were remarks he made in the post naming the winner. From the comments we made when voting, he could surmise what it was that we—readers/writers—were looking for, and he realized he was looking for something different:

I think a lot of people read these paragraphs thinking, “Which book would I want to read?” and then gravitate to the ones that begin with intriguing plots, voices or situations that speak to them. Which is fine! Nothing wrong with that at all. But that’s not necessarily how I read these — I don’t need to know everything right away. When I’m reading a paragraph (or a partial), I’m looking mainly at the quality of the writing. Is it of publishable quality? Is it seamless, are the word choices strong, is the grammar proper, am I being enveloped in this world? If the writing isn’t publishable it really doesn’t matter how much I like the underlying idea.

Plots are subjective — people have different tastes and interests. Good writing is less subjective. It’s sometimes hard to describe, pinpoint, and define, but good writing is good writing.
(emphasis mine)

I suspect that Agent Bransford is voicing what those choosing award winning fiction believe. My view is that there’s something seriously wrong with this perspective. Repeating an analogy from nature that I’ve used before, no great debate rages concerning what makes a beautiful sunset. It is self-evident. But apparently beautiful writing isn’t. Or should I say, good fiction isn’t self-evident.

I’m not taking anything away from the award winners. Everyone who has read these books says the prose is masterful, and since I haven’t read them, I’ll happily take the word of those who have.

But when I want to be entertained, I don’t pick up poetry. I pick up a story, and not what I call an angst-driven story, though there undoubtedly is an element of angst in it, given that the stories I like have less of helicopters blowing up and more of characters wrestling to do the right thing.

Which brings me to characters and voice. Is writing really publishable if the story doesn’t open with an engaging character who has a unique voice? For that matter, is the writing publishable if the story premise is convoluted or cliche?

Here’s what I’m thinking. On one hand, you have a story, with all the necessary elements—plot, characters, setting, theme—and on the other hand you have the way the story is communicated, that is, the writing. Can’t you have quality in both arenas? And if so, why wouldn’t such books reach the top of the NY Times Bestselling list and also be nominated for a Pulitzer?

What am I missing?

Published in: on December 18, 2008 at 12:14 pm  Comments (9)  
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Are the Good Really Good?


What do the following people have in common?

  • Michael Cunningham
  • Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Michael Chabon
  • Richard Russo
  • Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Edward P. Jones
  • Marilynne Robinson
  • Geraldine Brooks
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • Junot Diaz

If you said they all won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction within the last ten years, you’d be right. But I’ll be honest with you—I’ve only heard of two of them and haven’t read any of their books.

Am I the exception? Maybe. But here’s the thing. I’m a college graduate, an educator for years, more recently a writer (with vested interest in all things fiction). On top of this, I’ve had a number of highly respected “book people” (professionals in the book business) recommend a couple of these authors (which is why I’ve heard of them), I even have a copy of one of the books, and have started it at least twice. And still, I haven’t read a single one of these authors.

So maybe most other authors have. But what about my teacher friends, all college graduates, as well. Or my family? Co-workers in the church library? Never mind my neighbors and other friends.

But Harry Potter? Left Behind? The Shack? My guess is, nearly everyone I know has heard of these books and their authors, and a good number have read at least some of them.

This divide between what people are reading and what books are winning awards mystifies me. Not because none of the Left Behind books won a Pulitzer but because few of us are reading the winners.

Of course, I could be completely off on this. Maybe these authors have been sitting on top of the New York Times best seller list, and I just missed them. Maybe their books are at the top of the Amazon ratings, and I didn’t see them (I did just check, and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is currently ranked number 55, which lends credence to the idea that I just missed out!)

But here’s a quote from a CNN article on the Pulitzers, “Pulitzer Prizes set the standard of excellence“:

Many of the past winners in the area of literature have not been best sellers, and many of the winning plays have been off-Broadway.

So I’m wondering, are the publishers trying to sell these award winners to the public? (Hence the problem is marketing.) Or is the public giving a pass to many of the award winners? (Hence the problem is that good writing generally isn’t selling well).

If the latter is even part of the problem, I want to figure out why. My working hypothesis is that readers come to stories to get lost in another person’s world—to experience the joys, the challenges, the soul searching—and if the writing is beautiful, all the better; whereas the board of professionals responsible for nominating and selecting award winners looks primarily for creativity, with little concern for communication.

It’s a hypothesis, but if it is even close to true, I think it has something to say to writers which I’ll address in another post.

Published in: on December 17, 2008 at 12:57 pm  Comments (10)  
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Good Fiction vs. Popular Fiction


Are good fiction and popular fiction mutually exclusive? It seems those in the movie business are coming to that conclusion when it comes to nominating films for the Oscars. Though I didn’t see the movie, I’ve heard the Dark Knight succeeded on many levels, not the least being artistic achievement, yet it was clearly a popular film. So how did the movie industry treat it when they put together the Oscar nominations? One mention. One.

Understand, I am not advocating for the Dark Knight. Rather, I am making an observation which may or may not be true. It seems to me that fewer and fewer Big Box Office successes earn awards. Years ago, this was not the case. My Fair Lady was a financial success while at the same time receiving recognition from the movie industry as one of the best. So too, The Sound of Music, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and a host of other earlier-era films.

Interestingly, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King also fell into that both-and category, but that seems more like the exception that proves the point, because the trend appears to be toward creating vapid blockbusters that come out in the summer and artsy (and ofter R-rated) movies that come out in December and win Oscar nominations.

Why?

Some might argue that the public wants it so. The common man is too devoid of artistic sensitivity to appreciate quality.

But what about Lord of the Rings?

Personally I think the public is much more astute than film makers give us credit for. Unfortunately I think publishers might think the film makers have it right.

Sure, sometimes it’s nice to enjoy an easy read, but do the serious books always have to be inaccessible to the person who wants an entertaining story? The best books, to me, are the ones I came to for entertainment and found something thought-provoking as well.

But of late, it appears the Serious Book must be about angst or despair or doubt, which seems to automatically chase away the reader who wants to sit down on a Sunday afternoon with an enjoyable story—except, of course, those who like to wade through angst, despair, and doubt! 😮

Published in: on December 15, 2008 at 5:20 pm  Comments (8)  
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Fantasy Friday – Of Hobbits and Heroes


I don’t know what it is about December, but the last few years, when the days shorten and Christmas lights dot most city blocks, I’ve had this strong desire to read Tolkien. What is it about the Shire, what do those self-absorbed, greedy little hobbits have, other than hairy feet?

It struck me as I was answering a comment Mark left to the Macho Men and Kindness post, that heroism is not necessarily the Great Thing, such as Superman turning back the world to prevent widespread calamity. More often it seems that a hero becomes a true hero when he intervenes on the everyday level.

Readers fell in love with Bilbo Baggins long before he entered the dragon’s lair. And readers loved him as much for his hesitancy to go on a journey and his love for second breakfast, for a good pipe, for a comfortable spot in front of his own hearth as for his quick wit and commitment to his fellow travelers.

So here’s what I’m thinking. Heroes who are ordinary, at least on the outside, might be the most engaging. Would Superman be someone we would love if he didn’t present to the rest of the world as Clark Kent?

Let me turn a corner and extrapolate from some thoughts posted by blogger Khanya in Hobbits, Heroes, and Jesus – TGIF . First she brought up somehing G.K. Chesterton said:

fairy stories are not about extraordinary people, they are about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people.

This coincides with the concept she refers to earlier, that “most myths have a big story and a little story.”

The big story is Frodo saving Middle Earth by destroying (with Gollum’s help) The Ring. The little story within the big story is Sam choosing to go with Frodo instead of staying with the others in the fellowship. Or the little story is Frodo offering grace to Gollum—saving grace, as it turns out. The little story is Merry and Pippin escaping captivity and stirring up the Ents.

But the little stories and the big are so much more heroic because Hobbits performed the deeds. Hobbits, who might define ordinary. These were not folk who love adventure, but they took it on because they were needed.

And isn’t that one thing, at least, that makes readers connect with a story or love a character? An ordinary person doing an everyday heroic act on the way to saving the world. Sounds like a book I’d like to read. 😉

Published in: on December 12, 2008 at 12:32 pm  Comments (3)  
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Living in Laodicea—The Church, Part 7b


A couple things stand out in the verses John wrote about the church in Laodicea. One is that he didn’t commend them about anything. In contrast, he commended the church in Ephesus because they could not endure evil men, uncovered false teachers, had perseverance, endured, did not grow weary.

Believers in Pergamum were recognized as those who hold fast to Christ’s name and did not deny their faith.

The Thyatiran church was praised for their love and faith and service and perseverance and that their deeds of late were greater than at first.

You get the drift. But when he comes to Laodicea, much as he did when he addressed Sardis, he gets right to the problems.

Which brings a second observation. The real problem of the Laodicean church was a lack of spiritual discernment. They thought they were rich, wealthy, in need of nothing. Why? Because their focus was on the externals. They didn’t know they were actually miserable.

How can someone not know when they’re miserable? When they live in denial or in a state of medicated insulation from reality. Or when they haven’t got a clue what Not Miserable felt like.

Niggling at the back of my mind has been the idea that the current economic downturn might actually be an answer to prayer for revival in our land. In tough economic times, it seems like more people are willing to face the fact that they are, in truth, miserable.

Of course, the next step needs to be the realization that misery doesn’t come because of economic troubles.

Which reminds me of an interesting program I saw for the first time last night. It’s called something like Secret Millionaire. The premise is that a true moneyed person or couple moves into a poor community, with only the funds equivalent to what someone on welfare would have. They spend the time getting to know people, then at the end of the designated time, they go back and give generously to those they wish to encourage.

The thing is, the husband in last night’s show was in tears at the end as he admitted that he thought he would change the lives of the people he could give money to, but instead their love and commitment to helping others, with no remuneration, changed him.

In essence, he realized that, despite his wealth, he was miserable, and they, despite their poverty, were rich.

I have no way of knowing if those loving people were Christians or not. I hope so, or their good deeds will be just another layer hiding misery. And one day, one day, all those layers come off.

God said to the Laodiceans that He disciplines those He loves. It could be the church in America has been taken out to the woodshed. May we get on our knees and repent, first of lacking discernment that we didn’t even know we were miserable, then, of being lukewarm when we could be on fire for our great and glorious God.

Published in: on December 11, 2008 at 3:31 pm  Comments Off on Living in Laodicea—The Church, Part 7b  
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