Well, I let a week of things that pay the bills get in the way of writing my fourth and final installment on this topic, and I think I’ve lost my steam. Or maybe there’s just nothing left to say, other than that good writing flows from good reading, both at the level of the individual, and at the level of society. We are inundated with unimaginative books because too many of us have become unimaginative readers. I came across this from Ortega y Gasett, which captures the notion:
“So many things fail to interest us, simply because they don’t find in us enough surfaces on which to live, and what we have to do then is to increase the number of planes in our mind, so that a much larger number of themes can find a place in it at the same time.”
I wish I could tell you where the Gasett quote comes from — it’s quoted without source by Robert Bly in his Leaping Poetry. I searched for it on the Internet, and found the quote several other places, but nobody else bothered to source it either. For all I know, it might actually be something profound from Beyonce’s autobiography, which has been wrongly attributed to Gasett. On the other hand, had it come from Beyonce, I’m sure it would have been referenced in more places on the Internet. That’s precisely the point, of course; we have habituated our palates to bubblegum.
Rather than bad writing producing bad reading, then, one might be justified in arguing that bad reading yields bad writing, both by creating a market for shlock and by stultifying the minds of successive generations of writers. Horace Gregory, in his introduction to William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain put it this way:
“It is sometimes futile to reply that the unintelligent, the insensible, the undiscerning, the unimaginative (if they are writers) are incapable of sincerity in what they write; their relationship to what they say is already compromised before they start; at best they are merely writing with half a voice and half an ear and their beliefs rest upon such shallow ground that they are meaningless almost before we discover what they are.”
But perhaps all this handwringing over the quality of Christian bookstore offerings is misguided. Perhaps good writers who happen to be Christians simply don’t need a CBA to sell their work. Leif Enger’s book, for example, was a New York Times bestseller. Maybe this debate is completely backwards; instead of asking why Christian publishers don’t produce more high-quality work, we ought to ask why Christians choose to buy their fiction from such limited venues.
And the very fact that one can ask that question, that one can walk into a Borders and find Peace Like a River, may well be the CBA’s biggest accomplishment. Perhaps we can credit the CBA, and the dreadful Left Behind series, for making it okay to talk about Jesus in a book. It would be ironic and somehow delightful, I think, if the CBA’s greatest contribution to Christian fiction proves to be that it opened the door for self-consciously secular publishing houses to realize that there’s gold in them thar hillbillies.
At the same time, someone like W. Dale Cramer — not high literature, by any means, but a thoughtful, entertaining writer — probably wouldn’t be published by a mainstream press. His fine books exist because of the CBA. No matter that you have to wade through shelf after shelf of bodice stretcher and thin literary recreations of Christy to find Cramer, the fact is that you can find him, if you’re willing to look, and this is thanks to a Christian publishing house, Bethany (not coincidentally, one of Bethany’s publishers has a blog, Faith in Fiction that focuses on the theme I’ve tried to tackle in these essays). A defense of all these poor CBA offerings, as a publisher from another Christian publishing house noted in his comment on one of my previous essays, is that it subsidizes the good writing. With that in mind, it’s probably fair to say that Christian publishing houses on balance do more good than harm, in the world of fiction. And they would do far more good if we readers could wean ourselves from the bubblegum.
And with that in mind, I promised in an earlier post to give you some ideas on good reading. Fortunately (or providentially, for my Presbyterian and Lutheran friends), the very fine faith-oriented literary journal, Image, has assembled both a study guide and an editor’s list of the top 100 books from the past century. If you care at all about the intersection of good writing and faith, you should subscribe to Image, and I’m not just saying that because they’re publishing one of my short stories later this year.
Remember, by reading better, we all encourage better writing. So consider your sampling from these lists a small but important part of the effort to change the world, and not just a high-brow attempt to avoid housework.