Thursday, September 17, 2009

A follow-up to "a couple reviews"

Michael Snyder showed up and said hello in the comments below my last post. Very graciously, I might add.

That's always the harsh side of reviews; you're not just talking about a product, but a person who spent a lot of time creating that project, a person who invested a lot of love and passion into the product. And then in 15 minutes I come along and rip it up one side and down the other.

The old adage "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" might seem appropriate here. So why do it? Why take the time to be so overly critical of another's work (especially when, one might point out, it's not like I've ever actually written anything close to a novel. . .)?

I think in the end it's because I care what other people think about us. What "those people over there" think about the rest of us "in here."

A while back I made a choice to spend more time outside the Christian camp. Some of that was intentional from a missional perspective: I wanted to understand how non-Christians think, what they dream about, what they hope for, in order to be better equipped to share the gospel in their context. But some of it was intentional from an artistic context: too many times, the world does better than the Church. There's an awful lot of really great music produced by 'the world,' and not so much great music over here. I just really like Counting Crows and REM and The Infamous Stringdusters. . .and grow tired so quickly of the blandness that is CCM. And as to literature. . .the world has spellbinding novelists like John Irving, Tom Wolfe, Ian MacEwan. . .and the church has Jerry Jenkins.

Over the last few years I've also spent a lot of time with people of an artistic bent, both non-Believers and, unfortunately, a lot of I-used-to-believe-but-now-I'm-really-cynical folks. And I find myself wishing to put something in their hand to draw them back, something to prove that, in fact, Christians are capable of fine art, of good writing, of inspiring composing, of challenging painting. I wish to say "For your Twilight we have a _____." But all we have to offer is the dreadful Left Behind series and a host of Christian Romance Novels.

Whatever happened to C.S. Lewis? To Tolstoy? To John Updike? To Christians who understood the craft of Important Literature? That's what I want the church to produce - stories that move and inspire, that shine with the Light of their Creator.

And that's what's so frustrating about "the norm" of Christian lit. It settles for too little.

If I could talk to Michael Snyder again (and, who knows - he was here already today, so maybe he'll come back (if you do, Michael, thank you for your graciousness and strength of fortitude to say hello, even after I wrote some less-than-happy things about your book)), I'd say that this book really does have the potential to be really good; in fact, the plotline is intriguing, and the characters do reflect much in the way of modern angst. I'd say it already rises above the level of the afore-mentioned Jenkins and Christian Romance Novels. You do tell a good tale; it was just frustrating to me to see that tale sunk down under all the details I chose to criticize.

And, I would say, keep at it. We need good writers to write good stories, stories that are real and stories that tell the gospel without telling the gospel, if you know what I mean. But to get there takes an awful lot of work - I don't know if you read Annie Dillard's "The Writing Life," but it would scare off any but the most dedicated to this craft. And yet it's where we must go if we're going to be able to stand up in the world of literature, push back against the tide of less-than-stellar lit we've become known for, and capture the world's imagination once again.


michael snyder said...

Dan, I do appreciate your follow-up comments here. However, taking a cue from your wise reminder of the "if you can't say something nice" adage, I think it best that I simply reiterate my heartfelt thanks for reading my work and posting your thoughtful review. Otherwise, I fear my comments could devolve into a “review of the review.”

Obviously, I have my own thoughts about a lot of the literary issues you raised in your review. But there’s no point rehashing them all here. I did not write a perfect novel, far from it. But I'm pretty darn fond of it, as well as the characters. For the record, my bigger issues were with the tone, tenor, and the discrepancy between the two posted reviews…then, later, with the twinge of unintended condescension in your follow-up post. (Here’s where I’d put a little smiley face or a cutesy acronym for feigned, audible laughter. But I just hate those things!)

The job of the novelist is to write the best story he knows how, striving for truth and beauty in every syllable. The role of reviewer is to offer thoughtful criticism. I’m convinced we’ve both done our very best.

So now it’s probably best to shake hands and talk about the weather, our kids, or the upcoming NFL season. (Speaking of which, maybe a brisk pat on the butt would be more appropriate than a clich├ęd handshake?)

Oh, and I almost forgot…I appreciated your nod to Tom Wolfe as well (his name doesn’t come up nearly often enough!). He, along with Richard Russo, Nick Hornby, Chaim Potok, Flannery O’Connor, Anne Tyler, and John Irving, have provided immeasurable inspiration.

Again, your time and attention to my work means more than you know.


Lori said...

Hi Dan, I agree with you about the lack of literary talent for Christian novelists. Sbout all it is is bad romance novels or stuff about light and evil. Some of it is good, but I am leaning toward non Christian fiction myself.However, I have read just about all the books from Brock and Bodie Thoene, a jewish husband and wife who write series after series that keep me rapt with attention. They did a great series on Israel just prior to the holocaust in the thirties. They also did a wonderful series during WW11 in Europe. I learned to much history (and all of their series are historical novels)in all that I have read of theirs.In the last two years they have been writing a series called the AD Chronicles, which takes place during the life of Christ, from Childhood to adulthoon and ministry. It is rich with characters who were recipients of his ministry and from acutal biblical accounts. The books may end up not being your cup of tea, but I love them and think it is the best fiction in the Judeo/Christian literary world.