I know that in some circles, Christians look down on fiction the way they look down on the prospect of singleness: it’s not a bad thing in itself, but it’s not nearly as good as your other options, so why waste time on it? This has always bothered me, since I’ve been reading more fiction than anything else from the age of four onward. But this morning I came across a list of ten books people should read, by a girl with distant connexions to my sister, and nine of them were nonfiction. The very last one was fiction, and she prefaced it by saying she wasn’t sure she should put fiction on this list (of books she’s recommending to people, remember), but she prayed about it and felt it was all right.
In the words of the Bulldog in the Magician’s Nephew, “I object to that remark very strongly.”
Fiction is not somehow less valuable than nonfiction. Fiction is the truth of beauty, if not facts; the orthopathy to a nonfiction book’s orthodoxy.
(If it’s a good book. I keep trying to think of good nonfiction books, and all that’s coming to mind, if it isn’t Scripture or Chesterton, is history books. At some point in my life I must have read another nonfiction book that was good. I know I have, I just can’t seem to think of them, which doesn’t much help my case.)
I shall assume for the sake of brevity that we all agree, now that we’ve been told, that the opposite of truth is lies, not fiction, and that the opposite of fiction is fact, not truth. Secondly, I don’t see why it’s better to learn things by reading just the facts than it is to learn by reading beautiful things. My analytical mind agrees that tracking down academic articles on seax length in early-period has its enjoyable side. But I would not love the Anglo-Saxon era if I had come to know it only through reading academic articles. I love it because I first knew of it in stories. On an even higher level, then, is it not true that though we may have any amount of orthodoxy crammed into our heads by means of sermons and theological tomes (enjoyable as they often are, if you have a mind for it), we don’t come to love Truth unless we first see its beauty? And how easily a mere presentation of the facts sucks the beauty out of anything.
Tolkien, of course, says it much better than I can. This is an except from Mythopoeia, which is available online, and everyone ought to read it.
The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.
Yes! `wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, not in vain
fulfilment we devise – for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is dreadly certain: Evil is.
Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
through small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.
So many people are writing bad books and writing them well. We start to wonder if any wholeheartedly good books exist, and maybe we just have to settle for the popular ones and remind ourselves to be careful how we read them. . . or maybe take the option of only ever reading “Christian Fiction” until we die, even though it’s mediocre at best and really really poorly done at worst.
As a reader, I know some of this struggle. Not as much as some people, because I did have the unusual (and probably expensive) advantage of growing up in a house with around 6,000 books, most of whom aren’t popular and not a single one of whom is “Christian Fiction”. But once in a while when I try to find new things to read I despair at the moral lows to which modern fiction seems to have sunk. We found a series of children’s books which are well-written and funny and, for the most part, tell a good story. But I can’t recommend them to children of the age they’re written for, because they say the end justifies the means. Now, as the sign of a good children’s book is whether older people can enjoy it too, and as it fits that, I can recommend it to people old enough to catch that sort of thing, and not worry about it. But that kind of book is, sadly, far more common than something like Pendragon’s Heir, whose praises I’ve cried here often enough.
What are writers to do? Do we follow the trends and write like the popular people, with blood and guts and gore and first-person-present-tense narration and love triangles, only with crumbs of Christianity sprinkled on top to make our poor imitations okay for our circles? Do we imitate Janette Oke and all the other sentimental Christian Historical Romance (a bloated genre indeed) writers out there, making stories where nothing ever really goes wrong for our perfect Christian heroine, with tidy and predictable endings where everyone gets saved? Or do we give up fiction altogether, and instead write devotionals?
Either way, we’ll get someone upset with us. Either we’re debasing our God-given talents to imitate the heathen, or we’re debasing our craft to write an inaccurate portrayal of reality (unrealistic in more ways than one), or we’re debasing our natural talent for world-making in order to write miniature sermons. I’d much rather other Christians told me I’m wasting my time and talent in “making things up”, than write sugar-sweet romances, thank you.
Writers! All wishes are not idle, nor in vain. The world has enough writers of bad morals who write bad things well and thus work the worst deception of all, making us love evil without our knowing it. The world has enough writers of good morals who believe that as long as your heart is in the right place, how well you do a thing doesn’t matter, and who would prefer a badly-rendered “Amazing Grace” to a good performance of something out of the Matthaus-Passion. We aren’t obligated to follow either of them.
Let us write well. Let us take the laws, customs, and traditions of our craft seriously. Let us pay close attention to our worldviews and how they sneak into our work. Let us be careful to portray good as good, evil as evil, but not to be afraid to show how sometimes in the short run the truth can be painful, and how often in the short run evil can appear beautiful. Let us be honest about how dark the world can get, the better to show the power of the light when it inevitably triumphs. (Writers of “Christian Fiction” often seem to forget just how black Good Friday was, and overlook the violence of Easter morning.) Let us not slip into either ditch. The world needs good books, and with time and work we can provide them. Let’s go out and show all the doubters that fiction doesn’t have to be Christian Historical Romance to be acceptable. Or maybe we need a minor uprising that smashes the current common Christian view of fiction’s supposedly lower value. Let’s take the literary world by storm with good books written well.
‘Cos until we do, I’m probably going to keep complaining.