Fiction is …

C. S. LewisDuring the just completed blog tour for Cyndere’s Midnight by Jeffrey Overstreet, I read two notable statements that spurred my thinking about fiction. One was Jeffrey’s comment to yesterday’s post about themes. The other was a Quote of the Day in the sidebar of one of our blog participants (I neglected to note who). The quote was attributed to C. S. Lewis, so I did a little research to verify that he actually said this. Apparently it is a line from one of his lesser known works. Which is fine. The key is, he said about poetry what I believe about fiction:

Every poem can be considered in two ways–as what the poet has to say, and as a thing which he makes.

– C.S. Lewis in A Preface to Paradise Lost

Through the discussions I’ve had in the on-line Christian writing communtiy and the articles I’ve written and the comments I’ve received, through personal conversations and emails and blog posts by other writers, I’ve come to the conclusion that most Christian fiction writers see fiction as either a means to say something or as something the author makes.

The first group generally has overt Christian messages and may be accused of being too preachy. Authors in the latter group stress their creation of a story as art and are often accused of being too secular.

As I see it, the problem is that today’s Christian writers—and today’s Christian writing conference instructors—apparently see fiction in only one way, not the two C. S. Lewis said are present in poetry.

For some of us, writing is a means to declare the truth about God to a lost and dying world. We see the power of story and believe it is a way to connect with people in our culture who may never consider the claims of Christ through any other avenue.

For others of us, writing is a form of art. It is something we can do only because we have been made in God’s image and the very act of creating is an act of glorifying Him. Consequently we want to make the best possible piece of art we are capable of, and “preachiness” doesn’t fit into the paradigm of excellence.

But couldn’t C. S. Lewis’s statement about poetry also be true about fiction?

I understand that “commercial fiction” isn’t looking to write timeless stories, but why not? We have a timeless message. Isn’t it possible to write a rip-roaring tale that will be around a hundred years from now and still be enjoyed as a rip-roaring tale, one that said something universally meaningful? Look at Gone with the Wind or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

My contention is, the best art always says something meaningful. That it doesn’t convey an overt message shouldn’t be misconstrued: despite the bill of goods Modern Philosophy tried to sell us, the purpose of art, especially written art, is still communication. Why else would an author want others to read what he puts out there? (And anyone who said, For the money, hasn’t been around the publishing industry very much. 😉 )

Of course, there really is “commercial fiction” that isn’t aiming to tell or to create. It exists to entertain, nothing more. It’s the “pulp fiction” of old, but evidently Christians want a clean version of it. I suggest we stop calling these stories “Christian.” They aren’t. They are clean stories. I think there might be a big market for them, beyond the Christian audience. But that’s another subject for another day.

How “Christian” Is Auralia’s Thread?—CSFF Tour, Day 3

In my review yesterday, I considered bringing up the topic of the Christian content in Jeffrey Overstreet’s enticing novel Cyndere’s Midnight (WaterBrook Press), second in the Auralia’s Thread series. As it was, my review turned into a much longer post than normal, so I opted not to bring up the subject. Besides, it’s not like I’ve been shy about my opinions about Christian fiction.

However, the topic came up in Steve Rice’s third Cyndere’s Midnight tour post in which he examines the perceived weaknesses of the book. Here’s a flavor of his position:

The second feature is secularism. This is related to the first. If you won’t submit your imagination to God, you will inevitably conform to the world. That’s why these stories are so reliably secular and politically correct. It’s also why they can be mistaken for the work of the unsaved.

I wrote a long comment in response, then decided to post it here instead of rewriting it in the form of a normal article. I hope you read Steve’s entire post first, then my response which follows:

Steve, I mostly agree with you. Mostly. If you read Robert Treskillard’s interview with Mr. Overstreet, you read his ideas about theme. He compared his stories to sermons in this way: a preacher has something he wants to say so thinks up an illustration, but Jeffrey envisions a scene, then sees where that takes him.

It is this backwards writing that I rail against. It’s like Christian writers have been brainwashed into thinking that the inclusion of an intentional theme automatically makes a work preachy. It doesn’t! Poor execution may make it preachy, not the mere presence of a theme.

One reason I like the recent Christianity Today article, “Sci-Fi’s Brave New World,” was that it unmasked the truth that those writing from worldviews contrary to Scripture do, in fact, have clearly identifiable themes—ones inconsistent with Christianity.

But at the same time, those themes are woven into the story in such a way that readers “get them” without having been told them.

Is this subterfuge? I don’t see it as such because good literature requires themes to be woven into the story seamlessly, not announced. Consequently, I think it is entirely possible for a story to be a light that not all readers will see.

Some readers, for example, didn’t realize Aslan was a type of Christ until the movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out and others started talking about the Christian symbolism.

Some stories may present Christ in such a clear way that people will come to Him simply by the reading, but other stories may attract readers to Him by causing them to ask questions they in turn search to have answered.

That being said, I thought there was some strong, unmistakably Christian imagery in Cyndere’s Midnight, but then I was wrong about the Keeper [being an intentional type of God the Father] in Auralia’s Colors, so what I saw may not have been intentional.

I started asking myself what the book was actually saying. Was it that art could free a person from his debase self? But what changed Jordam? Yes, his encounter with Auralia affected him and that’s what drew him to her colors and eventually to the well where Cyndere was. But it was the water of the well that healed his wounds.

Is this intentional symbolism? Is that too subtle to mark the book as Christian?

Well, I’d like to see where the next couple books take us, then we might have a clearer picture.

Oh, and the religion that Cyndere hates, as near as I can figure, is false religion. (But who knows, there is a vocal group that decries all religion. Is Cyndere’s Midnight one more Christian voice lashing out at Christianity? I don’t see it. Nothing in the story resembles Christianity and I have no problem with a story that exposes false religion as … false.)

Please take time to look at the other Cyndere’s Midnight tour posts because next week we’ll once again be voting for the Top Blogger Award. Click on the check marks before the participants’ names in my Day 1 post to access specific articles.

In particular, I recommend you read Jason Joyner’s interview with Mr. Overstreet in which they also discuss Christian fiction.

Cyndere’s Midnight—A Review: CSFF Tour Day 2

cyndere-coverCyndere’s Midnight (WaterBrook Press), the blue strand in Auralia’s thread, is the second in a four-book adult fantasy series by Jeffrey Overstreet. While this story is definitely a continuation of events that took place in the first book, Auralia’s Colors, more than one person has said that reading the first of the series is not necessary to appreciate the second.

The Setting. The story takes place in a land known as the Expanse. Four distinct houses (or is it three?) formed from one family, as I recall, but one, the Cent Regus, fell into ruin when their people devolved into beastmen.

The Story. Cyndere, heir of the throne of House Bel Amica, is depressed because all those she is close to—her father, her brother, and now her husband—have died. In her despair she returns to the outpost where she had shared happy days and dreams with her soon-to-be husband. There she plans to honor his memory and end her life.

Her plans change, however, because she encounters a beastman, but not one like the others. He is Jordam, and he revives in her the dream she shared with her husband to reach out and restore the beastmen of House Cent Regis. For various reasons, Cyndere and Jordam flee and go into hiding. But in taking this step, Jordam has had to break from the life he has known. As part of this change, he determines he must warn Cal-raven, king of the surviving members of House Abascar (who fled from the ruins of their city because of a cataclysmic event), that beastmen led by his brother are planning an attack.

Because Jordam is a beastman, Cal-raven doesn’t believe him and tries to kill him. Injured, Jordam makes his way back to Cyndere. She tells him it is time for her to return to House Bel Amica. As they near the outpost, they face conflict from both sides … and that’s where I’ll stop.

There’s actually a lot, lot more—many side turns and suggestions of story to come. There’s the fact that Cyndere’s brother apparently is still alive and the suggestion that the queen of Abascar is too. That the savagery of the beastmen comes from an elixir called Essence. That a priest of the moon spirits seems to be the force behind the beastmen organizing to attack the House Abascar survivors. And of course there is Auralia, the young girl who started the whole thing by defying the House Abascar’s prohibition of owning colors to create and give color wherever she went, only to die in the devastation of Abascar. There is also the mysterious ale boy and the Keeper who protects him as it did Auralia. So the thumbnail sketch I’ve given of the plot is not much more than the obvious ingredients, like saying pizza is made of cheese and tomato sauce on a flour-based crust. Yes, it is, but there’s more.

Strengths. I went into more detail about the story so that my comments in this section and the next would make sense for those who have yet to read the book. Cyndere’s Midnight is not “just” a fanciful adventure. There’s more going on under the surface. One key is the power of color to salve the beastman’s heart. And to help Cyndere heal, though her midnight comes by confronting the dark colors and dealing with her pain.

But another, easily overlooked, is the water from the well outside the outpost that has the power to heal.

On the other side, there is deception, a thirst for power, and betrayal.

All these intricacies keep this story from being predictable and create suspense built on the intrigue. And depth. There’s a lot to think about in this story.

Weaknesses. My biggest concern is a common one, something I’m beginning to think is endemic to Christian fiction. I didn’t care about the characters. Not deeply, anyway. In this book, I think there are several reasons. One is that I expected the story to be mostly about Cyndere, but it really is mostly abut Jordam. An alternative title might have been Jordam’s Dawn. But I know why it wasn’t. The encounter Cyndere has in Auralia’s caves with the dark colors the girl painted is a key to the theme of the story. But the fact remains, I expected Cyndere to be a bigger part in the story.

Another reason I didn’t connect with the characters, especially early, was the numerous points of view. Cyndere’s; even her dead husband, Deuneroi’s, in a flashback; the ale boy; Jordam; Jordam’s Same Brother; his Older Brother; Cal-raven; the wizened gatherer who raised Auralia; Ryllion, a Bel Amican officer; Emeriene, Cyndere’s lady-in-waiting and friend; and more. Others may not feel the disconnect like I do when there are so many characters through whose perspectives the reader sees the story. For me, it creates a problem in identifying with the central character.

I also think the story loses a lot of excitement, tension, and suspense because it isn’t consistently told in a linear way. There are places a chapter ends with a suspenseful event, but the next chapter opens after the event has been resolved and the reader learns how in the form of the character’s thoughts. Would some of the artistic quality be lost from the book if the story were told in a more linear manner? Perhaps, but I think holding onto the suspense and creating more tension is vastly superior in storytelling, so in my way of thinking, it would actually make it more artistic, though less artsy.

Recommendation. I think Cyndere’s Midnight is an important contribution to the Christian fantasy genre. It is obvious the “Christian” part isn’t allegorical or overt. Frankly, that’s something I’ve longed to see. I’m waiting to see just how Jeffrey proceeds in the next strand. I highly recommend this book to readers who lean toward literary fantasy or epic fantasy.

Be sure to visit the other blogs participating in this tour. See Day 1 for the list and links to the posts. For an excellent discussion of Jeffrey’s writing be sure to read Brandon Barr’s post “Examining an excerpt from Cyndere’s Midnight.” For a review that takes a closer look at characterization, see John Ottinger’s excellent post which includes this line about Cyndere: “She manages to be both female and a hero, without having to become just like a man to do it.”

Published in: on February 17, 2009 at 11:30 am  Comments (6)  
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Jeffrey Overstreet—CSFF Tour Day 1

jeffrey-overstreet3 Who, you might ask, is Jeffrey Overstreet? A city boy lost in tall grass? 😉 A distracted farmer on his way to church? Or an artist enjoying Art? If you opted for the last statement, I think you’re closer to the truth, though Jeffrey himself will have to say for sure.

If we define a person by what he does, then we could add that Jeffrey is a novelist, having written Cyndere’s Midnight (WaterBrook Press), the CSFF February feature; a film critic for Christianity Today; a columnist for Christianity Today Movies; a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine; a freelance writer for such publications as Image, Books & Culture, and Relevant; and a speaker at “film festivals, universities, churches, teachers’ conferences, and on radio programs around the U.S.”

Even from that list it seems apparent to me that Jeffrey cares a great deal for art and for its affect on culture. Is it any surprise, then, that his fantasy series, Auralia’s Thread, of which Cyndere’s Midnight is the second book, deals with just this subject—art and its influence, its power in the hearts of people to change the actions of people.

But let’s add in another piece of the Who-is-Jeffrey-Overstreet puzzle. Jeffrey is also a Christian, or so I surmise, though he doesn’t come right out and say so. (I don’t think I’ve come right out and declared on this blog that I’m a Christian either, but I think someone who came to that conclusion would have ample evidence for arriving there. So with Jeffrey.)

In fact, one of the publications for which he writes regularly, Image, among other things, describes itself as a community at the intersection of art, faith, and mystery.

I have to wonder if Jeffrey doesn’t see himself in that intersection, at least between art and faith.

The curious thing is that Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, has been hammered as anti-art. Anti-science on one hand. Anti-art on the other. Makes me wonder if people think Christians are for anything.

Mayhap Jeffrey can play a significant role in helping Christians clarify our beliefs about art, or even make us think more seriously about art. Mayhap he can help us set our sights higher when it comes to creating art.

Along that line, I’ll end with one of the quotes, he’s included on his Web site:

Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself.

-Henry Miller

Please take some time this week to read what other bloggers have to say about Jeffrey’s most recent release, Cyndere’s Midnight.

Published in: on February 16, 2009 at 2:37 pm  Comments (8)  
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