A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out, by Sally Franson, 2018. I read the Center Point Large Print version.
From the jacket:
Casey Pendergast is losing her way. Once a book-loving English major, Casey lands a job at a top ad agency that highly values her ability to tell a good story. Her best friend thinks she’s a sellout, but Casey tells herself she’s just paying the bills – and she can’t help that she has champagne taste.
When her hard-to-please boss assigns her to a top-secret campaign that pairs literary authors with corporations hungry for upmarket cachet, Casey is both excited and skeptical. But as she crisscrosses America, wooing her former idols, she’s shocked at how quickly they compromise their integrity …
When she falls in love with one of her authors, Casey can no longer ignore her own nagging doubts about the human cost of her success. By the time the year’s biggest book festival rolls around in Las Vegas, it will take every ounce of Casey’s moxie to undo the damage – and, hopefully, save her own soul.
How could I not pick up a book that has the former English major main character falling in love with an author? And since Casey was going to “the year’s biggest book festival,” I also hoped this book might teach me something about the industry.
I enjoyed it, it was a page turner, but in retrospect, most of the colorful characters – including the evil corporations, the evil advertising exec, and even the quirky authors – were kind of … stereotype-y? Also, the book kept smacking me in the face with its politics. It was pretty subtly done, but I guess, as author and an avid reader, I could see the strings moving.
First, the good part. Casey herself is not stereotype-y. The author had to write a character who was sympathetic, but unaware enough to participate, for most of the book, in activities that – in the world of the book – are considered “selling out.” So Casey is complex. She’s smart and analytical, has mommy and daddy issues (the mommy issues drive her career path), and does a great job documenting her own self-deception.
She is also, though socially vivacious, an empath and an introvert:
Before I met [my writer friend Susan], I’d spent my whole life feeling a few clicks on the dial away from everyone I knew. Not that you could tell necessarily – I was popular and all that growing up, lots of friends, guys buzzing around like big horseflies – but there was this static in the air when I was around other people. Sometimes I’d even cancel plans, feigning illness, in order to stay home and read novels and fiddle with the antenna in my brain, trying to get a clear signal. Sometimes I’d go days, weeks, without it, the dull hissing unceasing. The static only seemed to stop, or my brain could only tune in to the world properly, when I was taking walks or reading novels. In other words, when I was alone.
Oh well, I’d thought then, sucks for me I only get clarity by myself, everyone else seems to be getting on fine. Weirdo. Probably best to pretend the static doesn’t exist.pp 14 – 15
The “static” is the way Casey can sense other people’s thoughts and emotions.
This is a terrific description of the inner life of an introvert/empath.
It’s also a good example of how, contrary to what you might expect, feeling other people’s feelings does not necessarily endow a person with good social skills. Quite the opposite. Sometimes it can be quite overwhelming, and the empath will withdraw, or will wildly act out the emotion that’s already flying around the room.
A number of things bothered me about this novel. Let’s start with the reverse sexism:
In the aftermath of our efforts to hold these men responsible, we realized we didn’t possess the power to do that. We were just a couple of nobodies, a couple of ladies. Men were innocent until proven guilty. Women were crazy until they were believed.page 352
Yeah, I don’t know any men who have been publicly shamed on the Internet … who have lost their jobs, been called names, received death threats, been unable to get their side of the story out there, or been unable to recover their reputation.
Sure, powerful people exploit less powerful people all the time. People unfairly get their reputations ruined all the time too. But this does not divide neatly along the lines of sex. Social power is so much more complex than that. Interestingly, the book seems to recognize this sometimes, except when it forgets itself and wants to beat us on the head with its Message.
Then there is the book’s incoherent attitude towards money. In trying to convince Casey to get authors to rep dying companies, her boss tells her cynically, “You’d be surprised what people are willing to do when you put enough money on the table.” And, for most of the authors, they agree to the deal realizing that they are being used, but wanting the money for a noble cause (taking care of an ailing mother, opening an animal shelter, etc.).
But then Casey goes to meet her literary hero, also the book’s villain, and hears him speak at a book festival:
Beyond the obvious problems of his sick wife’s medical bills, Julian didn’t appear to be motivated by money — a sure sign that he’d grown up with a fair amount of it.page 310
So, we are selling out if we need some money and are willing to work for it … but not wanting to make money is also, it’s implied, a sign of culpable privilege. It sounds like we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Reminds me of that scene in Time Bandits where Robin Hood and his men are giving bags of gold to a line of poor people. As soon as anyone receives his gold, he takes a few steps crying out, “I’m rich!” … until the next Merry Man punches him in the face and takes the bag away again because, after all, he is now rich, and must be punished.
Speaking of the book festival, when Casey first arrives there,
The crowd at the fair was mixed in the way of gender, and about as mixed in skin color as, say, a gallon drum of vanilla ice cream.page 294
Now, I have never been to the country’s biggest annual book fair (because it’s for actual, published authors). So maybe this racial critique is true. But it feels made-up.
At the one writer’s convention I attended, we had a mix of races, ages, both sexes. The keynote speaker was a woman of color. She got up and told us that when she got to grad school, she found out that all her favorite books from childhood (which included some of my favorites, such as the Chronicles of Narnia), “were racist.” She then showed us this hurtful graphic:
The stats themselves are disturbing, but so is the presentation. In this picture, the kid that looks most like one of my kids (the kid on right) is a horrible little narcissist, reading books for the sole purpose of seeing himself reflected in them. It’s assumed he identifies with any white character in any book, regardless of whether that character is, say, out in space or living 1000 years ago, as long as the character is white … but he can’t identify with a main character of color. Apparently this kid doesn’t want to read about anyone who isn’t racially like himself. Sounds exciting. I guess he is not making the literary choices that I made as a kid, which was to seek out books about Native American kids and passionately wish I could be one.
Meanwhile, the bunny rabbit is joyfully reading a book about himself. I can’t believe that I have to point this out, but … animals don’t read? So, obviously, animal characters are intended to be relatable all children? So, even if we are going to make a chart showing which races are represented in a given year in children’s books, animals should not be on there? Because they are not an interest group in competition with kids of color? But our keynote speaker thought they were. She noted with an eye roll that there were even “more animals” than black children in 2015 children’s books.
I don’t think the most important thing about a book is the color of its characters, readers, or author. Even so, I can understand why we might want more different colors and cultures in children’s books. A book is more than a mirror, but not less than one.
That said, this information could have been presented in a form that didn’t demonize the white kid or imply that kids only want to read about themselves. It could have been presented as a pie chart. Or the graphic could have had a variety of different children, gathered around, reading all the books that are there. That would have been more like real life. The animal books, if they were included at all, should have gone into each category. Also, there are tons of books with a multiracial cast. I’m not sure how this chart handled those, but I can guess.
As it is, the message I got from the keynote speech (not, thankfully, from the whole conference) was this:
“So that readers of color don’t feel left out, we need more books starring characters of color. [So far so good.] But it’s stupid when we have white writers writing about characters of color. [OK, possibly.] Wouldn’t it make more sense to have people write about their own culture?”
Yes, perhaps, with the caveat that writers usually write far beyond their own experience, and that this is in fact a critical part of the writing process and the reading adventure. Also, it’s a fallacy that no writer can really identify with any person who is not of their own tribe. Taking this logic to its conclusion, the only thing anyone can really write with honesty is autobiography. Say goodbye to fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction.
It was a weird feeling being walked through this logic. While I didn’t disagree with the intermediate steps, after doing the math, the unavoidable conclusion is that I am not allowed to write anything any more because I am the wrong color. There are already way too many characters “like me” out there, and I am not allowed to write about anyone who’s not “like me.” (Bwa ha ha … of course, little do they know how weird I am! There is no one like me in the world!)
So, yeah, my experience of a writer’s conference was emphatically not a tub of vanilla ice cream. More like a “Stop writing, white author.”
Ahem. Back to A Lady’s Guide.
Susan says forgiveness is just a philosophical construction anyway, a con put in place by those in power against those who have no power, so that the responsibility of coming to terms with bad shit keeps falling to the latter.
So instead I believe in forgiverness, which to me means waiting for these a**holes who f*cked me up to take some responsibility for their actions. And I, in order to make this practice copacetic, will have to in turn approach those with whom I grievously f*cked, bowing my head and admitting that I, too must take responsibility, and no, I don’t want their forgiveness; I’m just coming around to own up to what I did. If they forgive me, great. But that’s not the point.page 406
What a strange mixture of insight and incoherence.
First, note the assumption that there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who “have power,” and those who don’t. That these categories never shift. That sin is never committed by those who have less power.
But the really odd thing is that this book, and even this passage, does seem to understand the need for forgiveness. Casey realizes that she has wronged other people. There are several relationships in the book where, indeed, she does need to be forgiven in order for the relationship to proceed.
I think at the bottom of this passage is a misunderstanding of what forgiveness means. Susan (and Casey) seem to think it means passing over wrongdoing, doing nothing about it, not calling the person to account. Offering forgiveness to those who have not repented. That is not what it means, at least not in Biblical categories.
Casey realizes that forgiveness without repentance won’t do, because in the very next paragraph she describes her own need to repent to those she has wronged (she calls it “taking responsibility.”) But then she adds, “I don’t want their forgiveness.” This might be true in the case of some people, who are enemies, whom, after repenting, she might have no desire to see again. But I can’t believe it’s true about her best friend, or about her love interest. The whole point of forgiveness is so that the relationship can continue. This is why it’s not just about power. Every person, powerful or not, has intimate relationships that they need to continue long-term. Every person wrongs people within those intimate relationships. Therefore, every relationship has to proceed on forgiveness if it’s not going to stall out.
And In Conclusion
So, I’m not quite sure how to land this plane. Lady’s Guide was a fine book, well-written, lots of insight about the little things plus some big lies about the bigger ones. I went back and forth between feeling that the book loved me (I’m a woman, an author, an introvert) and that it hated me (I’m white though not wealthy, a Christian, and a social conservative).
I guess the best way to sum it is up is that my reaction, on nearly every page, was,
“I see what you’re doing there.”
The first time we meet the romantic lead in my second novel, he is described thus (he’s the older brother):
Both boys were built along round, compact lines. Sha was still rather skinny, but Ikash was beginning to fill out with a little muscle, taking on a sleek, powerful shape reminiscent of a dolphin … They had brown skin; sweet, round faces like their mother; and straight black hair, Sha’s floppy, Ikash’s hugging his head like a seal’s pelt.The Strange Land, chapter 1
Later, we are told that Ikash has “a tendency to appear squat.”
This is a look that might be called not conventionally handsome (i.e., not looking like the prince in Snow White or something). By the end of the book, believe me, Ikash is what Michael Knowles would call “a hulking Adonis.”
I didn’t write this intentionally to boost this particular style of male beauty. That’s just the way it worked out. Coincidentally, around the same time I was writing, Disney’s Maui gave us another spectacular example of this style of male beauty:
Though Maui is even more of a tank than Ikash.
Almost all [of my writing students] have been writing for at least a little while, some of them all their lives. Many of them have been told over the years that they are quite good, and they want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work, why they have these wonderful ideas and then they sit down and write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every major form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout — the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion, even the hand-washing fixation. And especially, the paranoia.
You can be defeated and disoriented by all these feelings, I tell them, or you can see the paranoia, for instance, as wonderful material. Surely one of your characters is riddled with it …Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, pp 10 – 11
I went through a very bad bout of jealousy last year, when someone with whom I am (or rather was) friendly did extremely well. It felt like every few days she’d have more good news about how well her book was doing. It threw me for a loop. I am a better writer than she is. Sometimes I would get off the phone and cry. I felt like the wicked stepsister in a fairy tale. I told another friend, and she read me some lines by a Lakota Sioux: ‘Sometimes I go about pitying myself. And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky.’ That is so beautiful, I said; and I am so mentally ill.Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, which was referenced by Andrew Peterson in his interview yesterday
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?
And you are mine.
So, the Sunshine Blogger award is given to bloggers by other bloggers who believe that the recipients spread sunshine. Imagine how surprised and thrilled I was to be given this award by Rachael Corbin at The Crooked Pen. Thanks, Rachael!
The Sunshine Blogger award is also a tag. If you get tagged, you must …
- Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link back to their blogging site.
- Answer the questions.
- Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
- Notify the nominees about it by commenting on one of their blog posts.
- List the rules and display the sunshine blogger award logo on your site or on your post.
So, Numbers 1 and 5 down, 2 through 4 to go.
Here were Rachael’s questions:
- What was the most transformative reading experience you have ever had?
I am going to leave out those times when I’m reading some passage in the Bible and all of a sudden something jumps out and punches me in the gut. Or when it crawls into my head and becomes lembas that I feed on throughout the day. Some of you readers will know what I mean.
Other than that, my most transformative reading experience has been ‘Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. I read it in college. The tortured friendship between Orual and Psyche in the book closely mirrored a relationship that had been toturing me through the previous several years … though of course with a much more tragic yet satisfying ending. Anway, it helped me see that some of the problems we were having were not purely my fault nor purely hers, but built into the nature of reality. Also, Faces is just packed with insights and it’s set in an ancient pagan culture, which I love. C.S. Lewis is under-appreciated for his ability to write horror, and there is plenty of that in this book.
2. What is a book you wish someone would write?
To be honest, it’s probably already been written.
I’m a sucker for well-researched fiction set in ancient cultures. So I would love to read a book set in the heyday of the Anasazi … or Carthage during the Punic Wars … or a Noble Savage book where the noble savage is one of the Gauls during Caesar’s Gallic Wars … or What Was Really Going with Stonehenge.
I have seen people take a stab at some of these, but never as thoroughly as I’d like. But, again, they are probably out there. I just haven’t discovered them yet.
For example, Bjorn Andreas-Bull Hansen has written some novels about Vikings. I think these are exactly the Viking novels I’ve always wanted to read … but they don’t exist in a language that I know! Aargh! (By the way, go to his site. Sign the petition to get his books translated into English.)
But I have, in my possession, waiting to be read, Pompeii by Robert Harris and People of the Silence (about the Anasazi) by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and Michael W. Gear. I have high hopes for both these books.
3. Where is somewhere you really want to go, but have only read about in a book?
It would be shorter to list places that don’t match that description.
I guess my current #1 place would be Mongolia. I had to research it for my first book, and it looks so beautiful. It also resembles my home state a bit in the sense of being vast, treeless, high-altitude, and far inland. And I love the herding culture. The food is gross though. (Follow that link and scroll down to the heading “Exotic Nomad Foods.”) Also, my kids are extremely interested in the Mongolian Death Worm.
4. If you could have a book re-written, which book would it be?
1984. I know, I know, the ending is integral to the book itself, but … still. I would like to see Winston hold firm at the end. Or find out that Julia had.
5. What is a book you dislike that everyone else loves?
1984 and The Great Gatsby. (Or, I guess people love these?)
6. If you had the power to bring any mythical creature to life, which creature would it be?
The Mongolian Death Worm.
Just kidding. I don’t know. Maybe Grendel so I could find out whether he was really a T-Rex.
7. Where is your ideal reading spot?
When I am reading, any spot becomes ideal. (Car, bus seat, middle of a party …) But I prefer to be comfy (plushy chair or sofa) with a view of the outdoors and some place to set my coffee.
8. What is the most disappointing book you have ever read and why?
OK, I am going to pick on one particular book here, but it’s representative of a whole category of disappointing books.
The Sign by Raymond Khoury, 2009. This book was disappointing for many different reasons (see my full review of it here). But the main reason was this: it promised mystical adventures but delivered only international intrigue.
It is not the only book that has this problem. It’s just the only one that I happen to be able to remember the title of.
9. What is your favorite genre of book and why?
Ancient mysteries/historical fiction set in ancient cultures. But I don’t read a lot of this genre for two reasons. Firstly, it’s kind of hard to find. Too often, purported “ancient mysteries” books end up being modern thrillers. (See above.) And when I do find a book that scratches this itch, I have to be careful. If I’m writing my own version of this genre at the time, I don’t necessarily want to be pulled into another world until my own has gelled.
So what I end up reading a lot is mysteries, especially mysteries with an anthropological bent like those by the wonderful Tony Hillerman.
As for why the “ancient mysteries” genre is my favorite (also why I like my mysteries to be anthropological), I can do no better than to quote the following poem from C.S. Lewis, titled, “To Certain Writers of Science Fiction”:
Why did you lead us on like this
Light-year on light-year, through the abyss,
Building, as if we cared for size,
Empires that covered galaxies,
If at the journey’s end we find
The same old stuff we left behind …
Well-worth Tellurian stories of
Crooks, spies, conspirators, or love,
Whose setting might as well have been
The Bronx, Montmarte, or Bethnal Green?
Why should I leave this green-floored cell,
Roofed with blue air, in which we dwell,
Unless, beyond its guarded gates,
Long, long desired, the unearthly waits:
Strangeness that moves us more than fear,
Beauty that stabs with tingling spear,
Or wonder, laying on the heart
That fingertip at which we start
As if some thought too swift and shy
For reason’s grasp had just gone by?
10. If you could make one book required reading, which book would it be and why?
The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton. I almost listed this one as my transformative book because it set me free to love paganism while still remaining a Christian. I think everyone should read it because there is a ton of misunderstanding out there about the pagan roots of all cultures, and this book clears that up in such a beautiful, lyrically written way even though it’s nonfiction.
One major qualifier. Chesterton frequently lapses into anti-Semitism and it’s really jarring, not to mention inconsistent with his usual generous way of viewing the world. (TEM was published in 1925, before the Holocaust.) Also, as this book was written almost 100 years ago, Chesterton can come off as overly focused on the West and a bit insensitive and ignorant about non-Western cultures. Nevertheless, his insights about paganism can be fruitfully applied to any traditional culture, and I think they ought to be.
Other than that, I heartily recommend this book. I am thinking about doing a Hallowe’en post that relies heavily upon it.
11. What is your favorite bookish ship? (noncanonical and crack-ships are acceptable answers)
Haha, so at first I was going to name the Dawn Treader from Voyage of the Dawn Treader because I don’t read a lot of sea stories …
For those who aren’t up on fan fiction terminology (as I barely am), a ship is when you imagine two characters from a book or books getting together as couple. (Short for “relationship.”) Non-canonical ships are pairings that didn’t happen in the original book or series. “Crack” ships are pairings that you would have to be on crack to even think of.
I am not a big noncanonical shipper. I just enjoy the ships as they show up in the books. But, I did always think that rather than going off to live with the dwarfs and eventually get kissed by the Prince, Snow White ought to have run off with the huntsman.
Now, here are my questions for you …
- What kinds of non-fiction are you most likely to read?
- What is your culture crush? If you are a book blogger, you must have at least one. But please feel free to list more than one.
- What one currently living writer would you most like to have lunch, a beer, or coffee with? (Pastors count if they have written a good book or two. Bonus points if it’s a pastor you could have a beer with.)
- What genre do you think is not your favorite, but find yourself picking up again and again?
- Sex scenes: poetic, explicit, or none at all?
- Favorite animal protagonist from a book or series?
- Have you ever stopped identifying with the point-of-view character in a novel, and what caused it?
- Did you then finish the book, or put it down?
- Dream vehicle from real life or fiction.
- If you currently have a Work in Progress (or are pitching a recently finished one out), give us your one-sentence hook for it.
- Post a favorite poem or fragment of poetry. If you don’t read poetry, then song lyrics count.
By the way. Commenters, if one of these questions really pulls your chain, feel free to answer it in the comments.
The following bloggers are my sunshine:
Kathleen Rollins of Misfits and Heroes
R.S. Rook of The Rookery
David of The Warden’s Walk
Black Sheep of Not Sheep Minded
Ed Mooney of Ruinhunter
Jaclyn of Tiny Ticky Tacky
Colin of ColinD.Smith.com
Sad topic today.
An abusive marriage is a major part of the plot in my second novel, The Strange Land.
I first introduced this problem with a very minor mention in The Long Guest. Wife abuse of some kind (not always the violent physical kind) could occur in a quarter to a half of all relationships, depending on the culture. In The Long Guest I portray a small founding group of not quite 100 people, which means fifteen or twenty families. Given that human nature has not changed throughout the ages, to have a group of this size with no abusive families in it would have been grossly unrealistic.
The Limits of the Options
Abuse within a family is always very difficult to respond to. This is true in every age, but in our modern age there are at least a few options that those who care about the victim can offer. As a last resort, breaking up the family in order to stop the abuse might not be ideal, but it’s at least possible. It is possible for a single mom in our society to survive economically. As for the abuser, it is possible to put him in jail, or failing that to put hundreds of miles between him and his victims.
There are fewer options available to a community when it’s tiny, isolated out in the wilderness, and consisting basically of one big extended family. In this situation, there is no jail, there is no other place to live and it’s much less possible for a woman, especially if she has young children, to physically survive without a man.
So, how can the community handle this? A case of abuse is essentially a case of a stubborn, very hard heart. Rebukes don’t work on such a heart. Threats or pressure might work for a while, but ultimately tend to make the abuse worse. In a small, isolated community with no police force and nowhere else to go, the community has very few options unless they are willing to kill the abuser. They are unlikely to be willing to do this, especially if he is related to them by blood. If they do choose to put him to death, in the best case they must now support his widow and children. In the worst case, it could tear the community apart, resulting in anything from more deaths to the complete end of the tribe.
When I included an abusive marriage purely for realism, I had little idea that I would be handing my community of characters a truly insoluble puzzle.
The Limits of the Law
These very questions, and others like them, are explored in the video below by the always articulate Alistair Roberts. Roberts is answering a question from a viewer about why consent (in cases of arranged marriage, concubinage, etc.) does not seem to feature as a concept in Old Testament law. How can we square this with the idea that the Law is in any sense good?
Roberts talks about the limits of any law to change the society it governs, and about the extremely limited reach of national-level laws to govern what goes on within a household. He mentions cases like that of Hagar, Abraham and Sarah’s Egyptian slave woman, whom Sarah “gives” to Abraham so that Hagar can have a son who will be considered his heir. The way the founding couple treated Hagar was normal in their society at the time, but was certainly exploitative and was arguably rape. Though Hagar’s case was not covered by the law, it is obvious from the story that God noticed the injustice and avenged it. I never noticed that God avenged what happened to Hagar and her son Ishmael until I heard Roberts point it out in other videos, and then it became blindingly obvious. He recaps that here, as well as giving proof that God took seriously King David’s treatment not only of Uriah, but of Bath-Sheba as well (another case that today would be considered at least sexual harassment and probably rape).
The bottom line is that we do what we can to right wrongs, but our varying circumstances constrain what are able to do. These topics, sadly, are relevant to everyone. If you spend long enough in a community of any kind (church, school, team, family) you will eventually be forced to deal with the question of how to confront abuse. This video isn’t going to to give you all the answers (because they don’t exist), but it could help clarify your thinking. If you have time, give it a listen.
Another excellent resource on this topic is the book Why Does He DO That? by Lundy Bancroft.
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.