Because all books are either dreams or swords

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.

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About Nolie Alcarturiel

Christian, student of Philosophy, writer, SCAdian. Crazy cat lady who likes to keep cats and birds at the same time, and who's too young to be called an old cat lady. Medievalist. Creative Writing major, Philosophy minor.
This entry was posted in Fiction, Non-fiction, Reading, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Because all books are either dreams or swords

  1. thegermangolux says:

    No non-fiction comes to mind? Really? What about Scruton’s ‘Beauty’, Boethius, Plato, ‘Poetic Diction’, ‘Abolition of Man’, ‘Mere Christianity’, Aristotle, ‘Ideas Have Consequences’, ‘The Conservative Mind’, Samuel Johnson’s ‘Dictionary’, ‘Democracy In America’ by de Tocqueville, and Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’? Doubtless I only mention a small sample. Not to mention poetry, the majority of which walks somewhere between fiction and non-fiction.

    Otherwise – yes. It is a good and a timely post. Thank you, and well said.

    Like

    • thegermangolux says:

      I retract Boethius, because ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’ is half poetry, half fiction, and half non-fiction, and I don’t know how to count. But I would add Augustine and Plutarch to the list.

      Like

      • Okay, okay. Of that list I have read “Beauty”, read “Ideas Have Consequences” once seven years ago and didn’t understand it, “Abolition of Man”, parts of Johnson’s Dictionary, and large parts of Webster’s. I haven’t really read much Augustine, though JP recommends his writings on Communion.

        Don’t worry about not being able to say the same thing in verse. Just write good poetry.

        Edited to add: I have also read some of Plato and Aristotle.

        Like

  2. Katherine says:

    Oh my goodness, yes. So true. This is something that bothers me no end, and you articulated it perfectly. Thank you!

    Like

  3. Hope Ann says:

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yessssssss. All of this. Have you read The Christian Imagination? It lays out the philosophy of Christian fiction and why it not only is ‘not bad’ but is also very good and very important. I’m only a little ways in and have fallen in love with the book already.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Christine says:

    THIS POST. ❤ I just want to hug it and put it in my pocket and carry it around forever and ever. THANK YOU for saying this!

    My biggest argument is JESUS USED STORIES. He told parables all the time! And they're some of the most memorable parts of the Bible. Because, guess what? Fiction mirrors truth! It's a way of understanding truth BETTER. When I was young, I learned waaaay more about history from reading the American Girl books than from my history text books. xD Fiction is a powerful thing. It's such an important aspect of life. And, again, Jesus used stories! He knew the importance of them.

    I'm also soooo sick and tired of the Christian Historical Romance genre. Ugh. Life is dark and gritty and HARD, and reading some fluffy romance isn't going to help me grow stronger in this dark and difficult world. We as writers, and Christians especially, NEED to write about the hard truths, need to portray good AND evil, and show them for what they are. Why are we letting the secular writers take on the hard subjects while we hide behind our "perfect" little historical romances? Sure, if you like writing fluffy fiction that is FINE. But if you want to write about hard subjects, PLEASE DO. I mean, the Bible doesn't steer clear of violence and hard subjects. Why do we Christian writers think we supposed to?

    I could go on and on about this, but I'm sick and my brain capacity is super low. Besides, you said it all! I mean, that last paragraph of yours. Perfection. Once again, THANK YOU FOR THIS POST. It's amazing!

    Like

    • Thank you for taking time out of your hiatus to leave such a nice long comment!

      I could go on and on for ages, except I’m sick now, and taking an enforced rest. (Perfect timing for the beginning of a holiday, so it didn’t affect my school too much.) It’s one of those things that annoys me a little bit all the time, and after enough things happen it builds and builds until I have to say something; oh, and look, I have a place to say it. And it’s always nice when people actually agree.

      Like

  5. The Anonymouse says:

    This is absolutely capital.
    And that poem is one of my favorites.

    Like

    • You’re Kate and Emma’s sister, right? Nice username, by the way.
      Compliments are always welcome, but compliments in British English are even better.
      The whole poem is great, but I can’t very well have quoted the entire thing. I had parts of it memorized, once.

      Like

      • The Anonymouse says:

        Actually this is Emma. Using Elizabeth’s account, again. I’ve been stalking your blog from time to time, and this post was too good to not comment on. Since I don’t have my own e-mail address I can’t go sign up for things and all that without using other accounts or e-mails. I could just make my own e-mail address, but that seems like too much trouble and I’d rather not when I don’t get just tons of mail. So it’s good to have a generous sister.
        Thanks. 🙂 Your cats don’t need to eat me, ’cause I’m a good mouse.
        I love British English.
        I know, it’s rather long. So good though. I’d like to have it memorized, but I probably wouldn’t get around to taking the trouble. I memorized something pretty long before though— the Declaration of Independence, and I was quite proud of myself. But I don’t have it completely on hand anymore since I learned Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, and kind of lost interest in anything written by him. 😛 Sad, too, because he was my favorite Founding Father.

        Like

      • Deist or no, Thomas Jefferson did write some good things (when he wasn’t editing his own version of the Bible), especially about government and things. He was my favourite president when I was about six and not yet disillusioned about politics. I forget why.
        Do you find it easier or harder to memorize poetry? Most of the time it’s easier for me, because you have rhymes and rhythm to help you remember what comes next.

        Like

      • The Anonymouse says:

        No, you’re right. I know; and that’s part of what makes me so mad. He wrote so many wise things, and yet…grrr. He was my favorite too, though later than when I was just six. He was my hero for quite awhile; for his philosophical wisdom as well as other things I read about him. He was kind, cheerful, a family man; he played the violin; but then I read about the deism, and the Jefferson Bible, and claims that he had children with one of his slaves…I could never respect him after that. But regardless, you’re right, he did write a lot of very good stuff. So many of the Founders were like that…they wrote amazing things, and yet were not exactly high on the moral scale. It really annoys me. 😛

        I don’t do a whole lot of memorizing nowadays, but I find poetry easier I think. Rhymes and cadence help a lot. And it’s even better if it’s set to a tune. Do you have any long poems memorized?

        Like

      • And how exactly people manage to have bad worldviews and write good things is a bit of a mystery. It’s awkward, too, if you want to recommend their work, but have to add “Don’t look too closely at the autobiography” or whatever. It’s like a parent saying “Do what I say, but not what I do”, only in this case the authour might want you to do what he does too. It’s frustrating.

        Depends on how you define “long”, I guess. I have Alfred’s song from The Ballad of the White Horse (which was briefly discussed on KP a while ago), some SCA songs, and various hymns, some more random than others. Oh, and lots and lots of Dr Seuss. I don’t usually sit down and memorize something deliberately, so I tend to have bits and pieces stuck in my head. It’s not quite the recommended way if you’re going to be reciting, but I’ve only had to do that once.

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      • The Anonymouse says:

        I know, exactly.

        Oh, Dr. Seuss! He’s just awesome. 😀 Fox in Socks is my favorite book to read to my siblings.
        Yeah, lots of times just constant hearing of something will stick it in your mind…I like when it does that. Saves you the trouble of having to do it on purpose, even though it may be better if you did it on purpose.

        Like

      • thegermangolux says:

        As long as we’re talking about disappointing Founding Fathers, John Adams was less so than Franklin, Washington and Jefferson. He was more orthodox religiously than many of the first Congress, conservative, well-read, a careful farmer, and a good family man.

        Like

      • The Anonymouse says:

        Whoo-hoo! That makes me happy. I think I knew he was one of the more decent guys. Very good. Patrick Henry was too, wasn’t he? I haven’t read a whole lot about him, but I think I read enough to guess he was actually good morally.

        Like

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