Sunday Salon: It Takes Darkness and Light to Make a Good Book

The Sunday

I’ve read several rather interesting blog posts and articles this week about the quality and the breadth of selection of books in the young adult section and in the Christian fiction genre. I’ll give you some links, and then invite you to come back here to see how I masterfully tie all this opinion and controversy together.

First, Meg Fox Gurdon wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about a mom who was having trouble finding an appropriately bright or upbeat book as a gift for her thirteen year old daughter. The piece was called Darkness Too Visible.

(ADDED: Lenore Skenazy: Is This What Your Kid’s Reading? “I am SURE this author thinks he’s cutting-edge — so to speak — by showing us what teens are “really” like, without the sugarcoating of well-adjustment. But there is such a thing as being trite in the other direction, too. The triteness of teen despair.”)

The kidlitosphere exploded in response to Ms. Gurdon, attacking not the bookstore’s selection policies or the publishers’ choices of what to emphasize in their publishing lists, but the poor mom and the author who was pointing out her dilemma. Here are a couple of responses:
There’s Dark Things in Them There Books by Liz B. at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy.
Salon: Has young adult fiction become too dark? by Mary Elizabeth Williams

Janie B. Cheaney, one of my favorite writers of children’s fiction and of opinion for World Magazine, wrote a post on her blog called Turn On the Light in support of Ms. Gurdon’s original concerns. I’m obviously a lot closer to Ms. Cheaney’s opinion than I am to others who have written responding to Ms. Gurdon.

Then, Gene Veith linked to a seemingly unrelated piece in Image journal by Tony Woodlief entitled Bad Christian Art. Mr. Woodlief gives examples of what he calls common sins of the Christian writer: neat resolution, one-dimensional characters, sentimentality, and cleanliness (the purging of bad language and sensuality and critical questioning).

So how does all this discussion about the “darkness”, or lack thereof, the language, the explicit sexual perversion, or lack of it, and above all the critical questioning going on in both young adult literature and in so-called “Christian” fiction come together in my mind? Glad you asked.

I don’t think it’s as simple as the anti-book-banning crowd or the hyper-cleanliness squad or anyone else has tried to make it.

The lady in the WSJ article just wanted a book for her thirteen year old daughter. And she wanted a book that wouldn’t feature vampirism or rape or incest or (probably) profanity or other nasty stuff that she judged either her daughter wouldn’t want to read about or that the mom wouldn’t want her to be spending her reading time on. This request is not unreasonable, and a book, YA or adult, does not have to feature dark and corrupt themes and characters in order to be a good piece of literature or to be worth reading. If some people want to write about those things and if other people want to read their books, that’s their choice. But if someone, particularly a mom, comes along and says he or she wants something different, lighter, more hopeful, they are not censoring, banning or infringing upon anyone else’s freedom. They are simply saying that they prefer to have choices, too, and it seems to some of us that the darkness is overwhelming the light in Young Adult literature.

Yes, resolutions in novels can be “too neat” and unearned. But just because a novel resolves at the end, ends with a wedding rather than a death scene, doesn’t mean that the novel is unworthy or superficial. Comedies are just as literary as tragedies. And the unearned resolution happens in both stories written by Christians and stories by non-Christians. In the non-Christian variety, characters make all sorts of sinful and destructive choices, often described in gruesome detail, but they are rewarded with life, health, and happiness because underneath they’re really good people who mean well.

One-dimensional characters and sentimentality are both examples of poor storytelling techniques that are again found in all sorts of books from all sorts of publishers for every age group.

As for cleanliness, I believe that it is possible, and even advisable, to tell stories without an over-abundance of profanity and sensuality, but never without critical questioning. If YA authors or authors in the Christian publishing realm are putting gratuitous violence, sex, and language into their novels simply to titillate and thrill readers and sell books, then those writers are bad writers, no matter how many books they sell or how many accolades they receive. And if YA authors or Christian fiction writers take the sin and questioning and controversy out of their novels in favor of a sanitized version of reality, they are also poor writers who may have an audience but who have lost their message and their integrity.

Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Tolkien–all of these men wrote novels without the kinds of gratuitous depiction of intimate sexuality and sin that is thought to be necessary for good literature these days. (Although Hugo did descend into the sewers for a good while in Les Miserables.:)) Yes, the books of all three of those authors contain all sorts of darkness: prostitution, violence, adultery, lies, and deception. But there is also goodness and joy and, dare I say it, a grace-filled resolution. Part of the problem is that when a book does not come with a “Christian” label or doesn’t have an explicitly evangelical Christian conversion scene, we cease to describe it as a Christian novel (or movie). So then the really good “Christian” movies or books never get factored into the discussions about bad Christian art. There are good movies and books out there, made by Christians and others with grace-filled themes and characters and ideas, but they may not fit the template of a Christian movie or book marketed to Christians. And there are good Young Adult fiction books, tastefully and honestly dealing with the messiness of life in the twenty-first century, either from a Christian or a non-religious point of view. But there aren’t enough of either, and sometimes you have to look really hard to find the good books, the ones that satisfy our need for a candid portrayal of truth without pandering to our sinful and fallen nature.

Writen by Sherry

I'm a Christian, the homeschooling mom of eight (yes, all mine) children, married to a NASA engineer, and a confirmed bookaholic. I like old books, conservative politics, and new and interesting ideas. My hair is grey, my favorite clothes are red, and I love purple. Come on in and enjoy the blog. Be sure to tell me what you think before you leave.

8 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: It Takes Darkness and Light to Make a Good Book

  1. love this article, Sherry… excellent! One reason Dostoyevsky (to mention another Russian great) is one of my favorite Christian writers is that he so fearlessly explored the psychological and spiritual consequences of sin, revealing them to be hopelessly intertwined. I first read him in my teens and although he is gritty beyond compare, I don’t think it hurt me in the least.

  2. I appreciate and agree with your thoughts. I’m always a little amused when people call Christian lit predictable. In a sense many genres are predictable to some degree: any romance is a little predictable because usually the couple in questions gets together in the end, a western is predictable because the good guys win, a detective story is predictable because most of the time the detective gets the perpetrator (if he consistently didn’t get his target, nobody would read about him). It’s how they get there that is so fascinating.

    I had a review up a while ago of a book called A Novel Idea: Everything You Need to Know about Writing Inspirational Fiction. One of the best chapters was one about handling evil — portraying it as real and yet not dragging readers down.

  3. Thank you for this article. I’ve always thought that any subject can be written about well, and any subject can be written about poorly. So it’s not a question of what the book is about, but of how the author handles it. Your examples of Tolstoy and Hugo really underline that point.

  4. I really appreciate this post, Sherry. I haven’t checked out the links yet, but I wanted to let you know I’m glad you wrote this. Thank you.

  5. As I just finished my first novel’s manuscript, I’ve been thinking a lot about the dark/light balance, predictability, and other issues that tend to plague Christian fiction…it’s nice to hear somebody else say the things I’ve been thinking; let’s me know I’m not the only one.

    As a reader, I’m starting to branch out from Christian fiction that follows the very light path to books with a bit more “stuff” to them; my first foray, Abomination by Colleen Coble, was mostly a success, as I found the light/dark balance was just right, though some editing issues threw me off entirely. Still, it’s a start.

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