The Perfect Book Tag

I was tagged for this by my favorite literate primate. How could I let her down?

n.b. “Perfect,” as I will use it below, doesn’t always mean perfect but rather perfect in its context or else merely “really terrific.” Especially when used of actual, historical people. As we all know, perfection isn’t perfect, right?

The Perfect Genre

“Pick a book that perfectly represents its genre.”

The Rise and Fall of Ben Gizzard is the perfect Western.

“Ben Gizzard would die on the day he saw a white mountain upside down and a black bird talked to him, but not before. An old Indian he cheated out of some furs told him this.

“This was good news to a man as mean and crafty as Ben Gizzard. He settled in treeless, birdless Depression Gulch and cheated, robbed, and killed his way to riches. How his life seemed charmed in that place where there were neither mountains nor birds!

“But one day a young artist arrived in town with a large black bird sitting on his shoulder. Oh, Ben Gizzard!

“Our slithering villain comes to his end when he least expects it, and the world is a better place without him, and a better place for the telling of his story, which is both funny and awesome.”

The Perfect Setting

“Pick a book that takes place in a perfect place.”

Gosh, there are so many books that I love for their setting. There is Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women (an aristocratic household in pre-Mao China), Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (Wales, with magic), and Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (modern-day Botswana).

But my top pick would have to be Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John. It takes place in a beautiful, sensuously described version of Switzerland (example: the children picking fresh strawberries and eating them with cream for lunch) and, of course, the fact that everything is so mountainous is crucial to the plot.

The Perfect Main Character

“Pick the perfect main character.”

I’m gonna have to go with Bilbo Baggins here. His combination of humility and spunk cannot be beat.

The Perfect Best Friend

“Loyal and supportive, pick a character that you think is the best friend ever.”

Sam Gamgee would be an obvious choice, but there are class issues there, so instead, let me name Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Reason: Tumnus just met Lucy an hour or two ago and she has not done anything special for him … and yet he’s ready to put his own life on the line to protect her from the Witch’s secret police. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”

The Perfect Love Interest

“Pick a character you think would be an amazing romantic partner.”

Playing “mad dog” with his children.

Charles Ingalls from the Little House series.

On the down side, he will drag you and your children across the American frontier, where you will almost lose your lives in every. single. chapter.

But on the plus side! The man can build a livable house, single-handed, in a few weeks. He can dig a well, provide food, and make friends with the Indians. He’s never met a stranger. He is gentle and kind with Caroline and his daughters, and he is unflaggingly cheerful, even when starving. (Read The Long Winter and watch him effusively praise the dehydrated cod gravy that Caroline breaks out to put some variety in the family’s totally inadequate diet.) And he can fiddle, sing, and dance! What more could you ask for?

This guy is a ball of energy and good cheer. There would be no better person to have by your side in the hairy situations that he will surely get you into.

The Perfect Villain

“Pick a character with the most sinister mind.”

“Amazing Amy” from Gone Girl. I don’t think it will be too much of a spoiler, by now, to tell you that she fakes her own death and frames her husband for it, then fantasizes about “him getting butt-raped in jail.” It’s never clear what Nick did to deserve such a fate, other than fail to think she is sufficiently amazing. And that trick she pulls at the end of the book … well …!

The Perfect Family

“Pick a perfect bookish family.”

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Since I was a little hard on the Dutch on Friday, let me rehabilitate them a bit. My “perfect bookish family” is a Dutch family, and they actually lived: the ten Boom family of Haarlem, circa 1935.

Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place describes how the family took in Jews during the occupation until they were turned in and went to concentration camps themselves. Even though the book is about the Holocaust, it is heartwarming and includes many laugh-out-loud moments. The heartwarming part is Corrie’s description of the family’s life in their tiny, ramshackle house/watch shop. The laughing out loud comes mostly from the personality of her father, Casper ten Boom, a true character and an amazing man of God whom I look forward to meeting some day. Corrie’s mom was also amazing, and I think it was her warm personality (and Casper’s) that offset the natural sternness of the Dutch of that time, making the ten Booms … the perfect bookish family.

The Perfect Animal or Pet

“Pick a pet or fantastic animal that you need to see on a book.”

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The humble chicken.

There are a few books with a chicken protagonist. The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr., is one. There is also a Russian fairy tale where a rooster saves two poor children:

“I, the cock, have a crimson comb / And the wicked czar has nothing like it! / He took away their fortune / from two poor little orphans / And he dines in style / while they go hungry!”

The Perfect Plot Twist

“Pick a book with the best plot twist.”

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Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert.

(Yes … it’s about lobstermen.)

Though it takes place on a tiny island in Maine, this book features a Jane Austen-worthy plot twist near the end.

The Perfect Trope

“Pick a trope that you would add to your own book without thinking.”

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Spiritual transformation of a main character.

Not only would I add this without thinking, I actually wouldn’t think of writing a novel where it did not happen. To me, spiritual transformation is a critical part of a novel.

(Not that I don’t enjoy books where this trope doesn’t take place. Mystery series, particularly, do well if the detective MCs are fairly static.)

There are a few novels where the transformation is almost the only thing that happens. I give you The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, and all the Church of England novels by Susan Howatch. But much more commonly, the MC’s spiritual transformation happens as a result of a lot of other action in the plot, as in The Hobbit (fantasy), Identity Man by Andrew Klavan (crime thriller), and many, many others.

The Perfect Cover

“Pick the cover that you would easily put on your own book.”

My book is not St. George and the Dragon, but this is the artist I would have wanted to do my covers: Trina Schart Hyman. She’s gone now, but her art lives on. I have been trying my whole life to draw and paint like she did. I’ll bet she would have made the ruined Tower of Babel look amazing.

The Perfect Ending

“Pick a book that has the perfect ending.”

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A Christmas Carol.

It’s the ultimate happy ending. We feel Scrooge’s childlike joy when he realizes he is being given another chance at life. Also, Tiny Tim is not dead after all and Scrooge has a chance to save him. “The spirits did it all in one night!” There is a strong sense of death and re-birth, not just of Scrooge but of his entire world.

I realize that everyone knows how the book ends and you might think of it as a cliche at this point, but really, if you read the entire book, hanging in there through Scrooge’s sad childhood, slow hardening, the horrific descriptions of poverty, etc., and then you get to the end and it doesn’t move you, well, I don’t know what to do for you, really.

Ladies, It’s Sort of Our Fault when Male Writers are Alcoholics

Today we have a YouTube podcast by one of my favorite living writers, Andrew Klavan. Skip all the political stuff at the beginning (unless you need a laugh, cause Klavan is funny).  For this post, we are going straight to the Mailbag segment at the end of the show.

At 34:10, Klavan reads a question from a listener who says that he is writing a screenplay.  The writing process has required him to open up some bad memories of his own, which though it resulted in good writing, has been hard on him and has slowed his progress.  “How do you deal with this, Mr. Klavan?”

At 34:58, Klavan agrees that this is a problem.  “Writing can really rip you to pieces, especially if you are an unsteady personality.”  Later, he will end the segment by saying, “Especially if you’re a really good writer, you’re really gonna hurt yourself sometimes, and you have to take care of yourself and heal.”

So far so good, if so obvious.  This is something that all writers know, even if we try not to talk about it a lot because it makes us sound like overly fragile artiste types.  Still, it’s good to hear this confirmed by a professional who has written hard-boiled crime novels and screenplays and has even gotten paid for them.

But things are going to get wilder. Klavan starts elaborating on why writing can mess you up.  He mentions that if you write a villain, you have to tap in to that evil place in yourself.  Then, at 35:40, he adds, “When you create female characters, you have to go into feminine parts of yourself, which for men can be very upsetting.  I think that’s why a lot of male writers are alcoholics, because they don’t like to face that part of themselves because it makes them feel that they’re not manly.”

Whoa! Wait! Stop, Mr. Klavan. Back up. This is fascinating, and I have so many questions.

First of all, do you think that female writers have a corresponding problem? And if not, why not?

Secondly. Klavan has just said that writing female characters can be so depressing that it drives men to alcoholism. Wow. Now my question is, are they depressed just because they are dismayed to find they are capable of thinking in a feminine way? In other words, are they upset only by the implied insult to their manliness?  Or … is there something inherently upsetting and/or depressing about being a woman, and these male writers are experiencing that directly?  My money’s on the second one. I can see that it would be a lot to handle for them, poor lambs.  Being relatively unprepared for it and all.

In other words, it just more fun to be the average man than to be the average woman?

And I’m not blaming anyone for this. If there is some truth in it, I think it has a physical cause (female hormones).  Dennis Prager has said that if the average man could suddenly be given a woman’s brain for a day, he’d be totally overwhelmed by everything that’s going on in there.  Whereas if the average woman could be given a man’s brain, she would go, “This is terrific! I’m free!”

Anyway. If there is any truth in my theory, it would follow that it is less emotionally taxing for female writers to write male characters than the reverse.

Based on my limited experience, I think this is true. Perhaps it’s because, to a greater degree than men, women are already in the habit of putting ourselves in another person’s shoes.  We have been given a natural tendency to do this.  We need to do it, as mothers, so as to intuit the needs of our children, whether they are boys or girls. So, we get a head start on that being-depressed-by-other-people’s-emotions thing.

A couple of caveats.  No, I am not saying that women make better writers than men, nor that women are automatically good at creating male characters (there are plenty of counter-examples to that idea).  Just that women already tend to do, in our daily lives, a perhaps slightly less intense version of that part of the writing process that some male writers find so depressing.

What do you guys think of all this?

Why Religion in Fiction is So Hard to Handle

A fellow blogger, Never Not Reading, made this delightful post: More Religious Characters Please.  She points out that devout religious characters, particularly Christians, are extremely rare in fiction compared to their distribution in the general population. 

I Have my Doubts about the Concept of Representation

She comes at this from the “representation” point of view, which is predicated on the idea that every kind of person ought to be able to find someone like them in fiction, and that if they can’t, this is somehow unfair or discriminatory.  I don’t actually buy in to the assumptions behind this view. There are philosophical problems with the concept of “someone who is like me” that, if we parsed them, I suspect we would never get to the bottom of.  I also think there are some other faulty assumptions packed in to the idea of representation: assumptions about what fiction means to the author and what fiction is meant to do for the reader.  So, I find the whole idea of representation suspect. 

Is This Persecution?

However, Never Not Reading is right about one thing.  Religion plays a large role in life for very many – perhaps the majority – of people.  It does not play any role in the characters’ lives in much of the fiction that is out there.  This is even true of fiction set in historical periods such as the Middle Ages. 

When religion does play a major role in a story, it is often portrayed as a force for evil.  That goes double for Christianity.

What is the reason for this?

Never Not Reading goes out of her way to emphasize that she is not saying this lack of religious characters is a form of persecution.  I agree.  I think there are many complex reasons for it, which we will explore below. 

Possible Reasons Non-Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters

They don’t know any Christians in real life.  Although polls will tell you that the majority of U.S. citizens identify as Christian, there are large pockets of society that are very secular.  One of these is New York City, home to the publishing industry in America.  Another is L.A., home to Hollywood.  If you are an artist or writer, you are likely to move to one of these places to launch your career.  There, it is easy to live your life without ever interacting with anyone who is openly Christian.  It’s easy to get the impression that most people are secular, at least most normal people.  And if your mental image of Christians is some variety of kook, it’s possible that some of your acquaintances are believers and you don’t realize it because they seem so normal.

It’s easier to portray madness than sanity, evil than good.  Most people are bored by portrayals of virtue.  A story with no evil in it is going to come grinding quickly to a halt.  So if you are going to put religion into your story, it is easier to make the religious person the villain.   The villain in Stephen King’s Misery, Annie, is a beautifully drawn portrayal of a crazy person who at first seems normal.  Nothing beats the creepiness of the moment when, after torturing the hero, she starts to tell him that she has been talking to God.

Religion is also a great way to add punch, depth, and believability to your villain/cult leader.  Christian-type religions, when they go bad, go really terrifyingly bad.  This is easier to portray than the comparatively sane boring version, especially if you don’t actually know any sane and boring Christian groups.

They may actually hate them. Writing fiction is unavoidably a spiritual practice. Fiction is about how we see the world, people, the problem of evil, the cosmos … in short, about how we see reality.  The only instruments we have with which to perceive and portray these things are our own eyes, ears, mind, and heart.  These are the tools with which we write fiction.  

Fiction will therefore reflect the author’s personal spiritual state as well as his or her unique personality.  If a person has rejected God, their heart may actually be at war with God and with His people.  This may come out in their writing, particularly if their writing is deep and heartfelt. 

Stephen King, again, is a great example of this.  He is a brilliant writer.  I love his work.  I tried to read Insomnia, and I couldn’t get through it because the pro-life character was also a despicable wife-beater (and was showing signs, when I stopped reading, of maybe being possessed by something or other.  After all, it’s a Stephen King novel.)   

Again, I am not saying this phenomenon is persecution.  It is a natural consequence of the nature of fiction.  It is always possible, when reading an author, to tell what he or she loves and hates.  And some authors do hate Christians.

Possible Reasons Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters

They wish to have wide appeal.   Christian authors are aware that religion of any kind, but particularly Christianity, is Kryptonite to many people.  It is enough to make people put down a book.  That’s a shame, particularly if the story we are telling can be told without overt Christianity.  After all, our first duty is to entertain the reader.  We are not preachers, we are storytellers, so the story itself is supposed to be what we bring to the reader.

They fear being defensive.  If we do put Christianity in to our book, aware that some readers will be skeptical or hostile, we could fall into making the book an apology or defense of our religion.  Good authors don’t want to write a thinly veiled philosophical or political rant. (Hi there, Ayn Rand! Hello, Dan Brown!).  They just want to tell a story.  This is really, really tricky to do if we are feeling defensive, on account of the whole author’s-spiritual-state-comes-out-in-the-writing thing.  So to avoid preachiness, it can be easier simply to avoid the whole topic.

They fear being unoriginal.  As an author who grew up in the church, when I first started writing I wanted my writing to be interesting and new.  Anything drawing on the Bible would be, I felt, tame and derivative.  (Of course, that didn’t stop 12-year-old me from shamelessly ripping off Tolkien.) 

Unfortunately, if you want to be wise it does not do to turn away from the font of all wisdom.  In the years since, I have discovered that the Old and New Testaments are an incredibly rich source of story, history, myth, emotion, insight and symbolism that literally never runs dry.  Some of my favorite pieces of art draw openly from the Bible.  But surprisingly, instead of making them tired and derivative, this gives them their power.  An example is Johnny Cash’s When the Man Comes Around.  The lyrics are literally just a series of random quotes from the Old Testament prophets (plus a few quotes from Jesus), and the song still gives me goose bumps every time.

Religion is just too big to control in our writing. 

This, I think, is the #1 problem for both Christian and non-Christian writers.  If we are going to write about true religion (as opposed to the fake and hypocritical kind), then we are writing about God.  We have just unleashed God into our book.  This is sort of like blithely grabbing on to a blasting fire hose.  It immediately introduces all these deep, destructive, hard-to-portray realities that are just too much for most writers to corral. 

What kind of book we are capable of writing depends on our wisdom and maturity as a writer and as a person.  I have made the mistake of trying to write about God when I was an immature writer, and I was not. Ready. For it.  Trying to “include” God threw off all the dynamics of the book and basically destroyed it.  My writing about the other characters wasn’t deep or wise enough to keep up.  I wasn’t yet good enough at writing about the human heart, about suffering, about betrayal.  My characters were paper dolls and God was a firehose.

Dostoevsky can do it.  Mary Doria Russell did a great job in The Sparrow.  But for us ordinary writers, if we choose to stay away from making religion a serious part of our plot, I think it might just be a sign of knowing our limits.

“The Same” is a Lousy Definition of “Equal” … Especially Between the Sexes

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The following heartbreaking article

A Nordic paradox: higher gender equality, more partner violence

presents statistics that women are much more likely to be abused by their husbands or boyfriends in countries such as Sweden where there is more gender “equality,” with “equality” being defined as more women in the workforce full-time.

The article speculates on causes. One is that men are dissatisfied with their partners’ earnings. (Ouch.)

These findings might seem counter-intuitive to many. How could abuse rates be so high – possibly as high as almost 50% – in a feminist paradise like Sweden? In a country with such strong social pressure on both men and women to behave in an androgynous manner?

I think the problem is with our definition of “equality.” Actually, the Nordic countries are not places of high gender equality. They are instead places where women are strongly pressured to behave as much like men as humanly possible.

Women don’t make good men. There. I said it.

We are not equipped for it. We tend to choose careers that make less money. We don’t have the upper-body strength to be good soldiers or firemen or sailors. We are more likely to get sick. We have hormones and a stronger tendency toward negative emotion, which cause predictable cycles in our productivity. We might, with little warning, have a baby, which takes us out of the work force for months at a time, causing our bosses to feel (rightly) that they can’t rely as well on a woman employee. Even when we do come back to work, we are likely to need more time off because of the needs of our children. Some of us leave “the workforce” for years.

All of this baffling behavior flows out of one very important fact that highly efficient, industrialized, egalitarian societies find most annoying: women are able to become mothers. All the traits mentioned above, which look like flaws in a factory or law firm, turn out to be effects cascading from design features that equip us for something very unique. We can make new people.

However, our society does not value motherhood nearly as much as it values the ability to be a good, man-style worker (whether “good worker” means a bold innovator or a reliable cog in the machine). So these characteristic womanly traits continue to be seen as flaws that need to be minimized if we are to achieve equality.

Or, as Andrew Klavan put it in a recent podcast, “A society that denigrates motherhood will be a society that does not respect women. And feminism has made this possible.”

Here is my story about this.

I was verbally attacked in my college cafeteria by a cute, grey-haired man who looked like an aging hippie. (It’s a type that I usually find endearing … at least, until they open their mouths.)

He was very friendly at first. He asked my major, and I said English. Then he spoke a few encouraging words along the lines of “You go, girl!” “Someday,” he said, “You’ll be in Tibet reporting for NPR.”

OK, great.

Then he sat down behind me, turned around, and added, “Too bad, that probably won’t happen. You’ll probably marry some dumb guy and get stuck at home. You’ll never end up doing anything with your life after the kids ruin you.”

I wish I had asked him if he really thought I had “ruined” my mother … or if he had “ruined” his.

Instead, I said, “Why are you insulting me?”

He got excited and said with a little smile, “Have I made you angry? I hope I’ve made you angry.”

The answer, of course, was Yes, a little … but not as much as you hoped, and not in the way that you hoped.

Not as much as he hoped because I’d heard this line of reasoning before. It was America in the 1990s and I wasn’t living under a rock.

Not in the way that he’d hoped because instead of becoming angry with the patriarchy, his speech only caused me to become annoyed with him for being such an idiot. He thought he was striking a blow for feminism, but instead he was just disrespecting me and every woman out there. In order to encourage me to “do something with my life,” he had to run down one truly amazing, uniquely feminine role that I would be really good at.

So I think that we have to give up our idea that men and women aren’t “equal” unless and until they do everything exactly the same. The concept of “equal” loses all of its positive value when it means asking people to deny, devalue, or skip over a huge part of their nature. (And, by the way, it’s not the subject of this article but there are also ways in which we ask men to deny their nature in the service of “equality” — read, sameness.)

I think it would be much more “equal” if we let both men and women do what they are naturally good at.

“Please God, Don’t Let Me Become a Christian Novelist!”

He doesn’t know it, but crime novelist Andrew Klavan is a mentor of mine.

Klavan grew up as a secular Jew on Long Island. After his bar mitzvah, he threw away hundreds of dollars of expensive gifts because he realized that neither he nor his parents believed the Hebrew Scriptures that he had just professed. He proceeded to do some time as a journalist and to write a bunch of hard-boiled crime novels. He liked noir because it takes an unflinching look at life in all its grittiness … a perspective that he thought was the opposite of that taken by religion.

As he got older, Klavan’s love for reality led him to become a Christian in his late 40s. It’s a transformation that he chronicles in his memoir, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ.

Becoming a Christian always solves some problems but causes others. As he realized that he was about to become a Christian, one of Klavan’s fears was that he would no longer be able to write hard-boiled fiction. He remembers pleading, “Please, God, don’t let me become a ‘Christian novelist’!”
Of course, by ‘Christian novelist’ he did not mean the likes of G.K. Chesterton, George McDonald, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Flannery O’Connor. He meant someone who writes novels (or movies) in which nothing seriously bad ever happens.

Klavan does a great job of articulating a philosophy of fiction that has also become my own. No, the sex and violence in my novels isn’t as explicit as in his. (We all have to find our own ‘ew’ threshold.) But I do believe that, if you are going to have real characters, they should be flawed. And if you are going to have a real plot, then – you can’t get away from it – at some point ‘the worst’ has to happen.

Klavan explains how a Christian can even dream of writing about sex, violence, and cussing in the five-minute video below.

Pantsing Endorsed by Another Great Author

OK, that might be an exaggeration. The “endorsed” part, I mean. Not the “great.”

Andrew Klavan writes hard-boiled crime novels. Sometimes they have supernatural elements in them too. I recently discovered Klavan and have started reading through his work. Within the last week, I read Damnation Street. And it is pretty hard-boiled, let me tell you. Lots of violence, lots of language. A keen sense of human sin nature and human limitations.

The hero detective in Damnation Street, however, has a deeply buried romantic heart. And he is very intuitive in his approach to detective work. Here is a passage that describes how he operates:

[The detective, Weiss] wasn’t even sure he was trailing the right guy. It was just one of his Weissian hunches that had brought him here. And while his hunches were almost always right, he almost never trusted them. They were too vague, too unscientific. He wished he could write out the facts on a whiteboard or something and look them over and tap the pen against his chin and reach his conclusions through logic and deduction. But he never could. He just knew what he knew, so he never felt certain he knew it. (pp 77 – 78)

In fact, Weiss is trailing the right guy. And later, on page 91, we get this line:

The truth came to him in that flashing way the truth had.

That’s when he realizes he’s been wrong in certain of his assumptions about the man he was trailing.

OK, so maybe this is not endorsement of pantsing, but it’s certainly a great description of it.

Damnation Street, by Andrew Klavan, published 2006. Harcourt, Inc.