Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bucking the Fiction Template

On a fiction writers’ discussion group I belong to, one author recently wrote, “It seems that when telling was more acceptable, the reader had the opportunity to ‘see’ the story in their own minds better, and now, we spell it ‘all’ out in the showing. Since most of us struggle with this, I was just curious. I know the hurried pace has changed a lot in movies and theatre . . .”

That’s part of the story, of course. When I was a child — and that goes back to the 1940s, before TV — I loved to listen to radio programs such as Jack Benny, The Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee, Mr. Keen ‘Tracer of Lost Persons’, etc. I could visualize the scenes in my head; I didn’t need to have the script “show” everything to me. (Later, of course, when I saw some of these actors or characters in movies, I had to revise my mental image somewhat.) It was the same with reading; as the reader, I took part in the creative process by forming the visual impressions in my own mind even if the author didn’t “show” everything to me. But today everything is laid out for us visually on the screen, and writers feel they have to follow suit.

But that is only one factor motivating the “show, not tell” mantra. The other factor, and I think it’s the main one, is the dumbing down of public education, and culture in general, so that students are no longer stimulated to think or be creative. A hundred years ago people went to Chautauquas to hear lectures, or took part on choral contests, or went to orchestral concerts and other events that required a personal intellectual investment in appreciation and interpretation of creative efforts. Today teens, and adults, walk around with earphones absorbed in whatever trivia is coming through their iPods.

Our grandson was helping us move recently and we could hardly get him to pay attention to our instructions about what to carry, because his earphones were filling his head with “music.” Another grandson who was helping us had constantly to be diverted from texting his girl friend. Popularly available technology has resulted in a situation in which many people never have to think or be creative for themselves; what they think of as art or talent is simply imitating what they experience through media. Every teen guy who doesn’t want to be in the NFL or NBA seems to want to be a “rock” (or “rap,” or whatever) star, or possibly a computer tech or auto mechanic. Rare is the young person with the ambition to compose a symphony, write a novel or make some important scientific discovery. Public education (with some exceptions, of course) and our media culture are not challenging young people to become participants in an intellectual process, and have not been doing so for several decades.

For me, as a fiction writer, the answer is not to reduce my narrative to the fifth-grade level in the vain hope that some publisher will take a chance that America’s dumbed-down readers will actually buy it. As Christian artists we are to participate in the work of the Creator, and His Son who upholds the universe by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:3). The adversary cannot create, he can only imitate and pervert what God has created. We have a higher calling, to be co-creators with the Father and Son with whom is our fellowship (1 John 1:3).

Consequently, in my writing I will seek to elevate the literary standard of my readers rather than conform to their supposedly low level. In my observation, actual readers have a much wider tolerance for “traditional” writing once they are exposed to it — even if it involves “telling” as well as “showing” — than do some editors and publishers. I believe the bottleneck for good Christian fiction is not at the reader level but at the level of the gatekeepers who operate out of the fear that what they publish will not be accepted because it does not conform to the template created by electronic and other media.

Therefore I will not write according to the current template for Christian fiction, but will attempt to follow a style established by older writers in the hope that my output will contribute to the restoration of a higher literary standard. (I do not claim to be successful in this effort, only that I view it as a goal.) Probably the most successful Christian fiction writers — successful in working out their God-given creative vocation — will be those who can make it appear that their work conforms to the current template, while in reality they are writing to a higher standard and so raising the reader’s level of appreciation. I am not certain I have the talent to fool the gatekeepers in this way, but I am sure there are some Christian fiction writers clever enough to do it.