Tony Woodlief | Author

Christian Fiction, Part III: Bad Writing Is Evil

After I discovered Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, I breathlessly recommended it to my friends. I could barely disguise my disappointment when some said it was “too slow,” or “hard to get into.” I love them all the same, but I couldn’t help but view them as slightly handicapped, like someone who is colorblind, or can’t taste anything sweet. That doesn’t state it strongly enough; imagine someone who can’t see sunsets, or hear music. You’d love this friend nonetheless, but between the two of you there would forever be a gulf, an inability to share something lovely. This is what comes to mind when I learn that a Christian friend’s literary tastes run to the spiritual equivalent of Who Moved My Cheese?.

There is a sweet side to this reality; when I discover that someone I know was also moved by James Agee’s A Death in the Family, or thinks Frederick Buechner is a modern-day prophet, I can’t help but feel a closer bond with him. There’s an almost subversive quality to it, though we aren’t subverting anyone, except perhaps by slipping a lovely book to a promising recruit and whispering “Here, read this.” And when the recruit shyly returns it a month later, and confesses that it was a little slow, we love him nonetheless; we just stop pointing out the sunsets to him.

I think there’s something running deeper here, however, than individual tastes, or communities of shared affinity. Cliché-ridden, unimaginative prose is not only less lovely than good writing, it is less true. Consider the cliché, which defines as:

“a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse.”

Now, we all use clichés in everyday speech, because they save time. Those common phrases are right there in the front of our brains (and see how the cliché, and the practice of reading poorly, can perpetuate itself?). In a conversation, especially where there’s work to be done, one doesn’t have time to compose melodic prose. So one resorts to ready-made phrases. Clichés are very helpful in that regard. But keep in mind what we sacrifice by using the cliché. In effect, we trust the listener to substitute his own experience in order to understand ours. If you tell me:

I’m feeling under the weather today.

I don’t really know how you feel; instead I think back on my own experiences of feeling bad, and transfer them to you. To be sure, the cliché is based on a commonality of human experience, but it is by necessity a common denominator. That’s fine for conversation where approximation of truth is sufficient to the work at hand, but when it dominates conversations that are supposed to be about connection, and discernment of truth (and if writing is not supposed to be about these things, then we may as well burn all our books straightaway) then it destroys the very purpose of those conversations.

The cliché moves us away from the truth, the precise truth of an individual human being in a particular moment in history, and instead substitutes the thin gruel of simple words uttered so many times before that neither the speaker nor the listener has to think much about them at all. The cliché is not only less than truth, its very blandness and unoriginality paints the colorful world a uniform gray.

The spectacle, then, of Christian writers layering cliché after cliché into their prose is especially disheartening, because they claim to espouse a worldview founded on truth and miracles. Neither are gray, are they? Wander over to the fiction section the next time you’re in a “Christian Lifestyle” store (and don’t even get me started on all the ways that conceptualization is an absolute abomination), or to the “faith” section the next time you’re in an actual bookstore, and randomly select a book. Open it to a random page, and count the number of clichés, the sheer weight of “trite, stereotyped expression.” And let’s be clear, the cliché is not the extent of the problem, the root cause of bad writing; it is a symptom of the lazy, unoriginal, irreverent treatment of creation that underlies such writing.

And if this rote treatment is the extent of our storytelling, why not do the reader a favor, and just summarize?

Beth was heartbroken and questioning her walk with Jesus, but then brooding Glenn came along, and together they rediscovered their faith, all while fighting off the godless land developers who wanted to ruin their bucolic town.

What’s that, dear reader? You want more to the story? Just fill in the blanks. You’ve heard all the phrases I was going to use anyway, and you know exactly how the story is going to end — which is probably half the reason you picked up the book in the first place. So just stare at the wall, and tell yourself the story.

Think of the paper we’d save.

To relate stories in drab, unoriginal language, then, is to deny truth. The world is filled with exquisite joy and pain, and if a writer (or reader) can’t lift himself out of commonplace phrasings to tell the stories of this joy and pain, then he ought to busy himself with some other endeavor, because the alternative is to lie (or to entertain the lie) about creation, and about the author of that creation. This is what we are engaged in, those of us who make a steady diet of sugarless gum — a perpetual lie, because bad writing is always lying. This is why I say that a steady practice of bad writing (and bad reading) is a sin. It’s not going to the movies for a couple of hours of release, it is a continual dwelling in a fantasy space. I don’t think that comports with the calling of a thinking Christian, do you?

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