RE-POSTED FOR THOSE WHO DON’T LIKE TO CLICK THROUGH:
JUNK FOOD AND COWARDICE
I was told the other day my fiction was the literary equivalent of fast food: cheap, suspect, and eminently forgettable. In this person’s mind, too much fiction – especially genre fiction – is impractical. Unhealthy.
Fact is, it’s true in many ways: my novels won’t ever make the “Great Books of the Western World” list. (http://thegreatestbooks.org/lists/40) I’m not in a snit over it. Espionage thrillers about futuristic mercenaries, clones and killer drones aren’t going to change the world. I’m OK with that. As a writer, I’m pecking at the keyboard to exercise my imagination, to spin a yarn, hopefully entertain someone. Maybe even make a couple extra bucks before my time is up. I just hope I’m more like Panera than Mcdonalds.
I’m aiming for that lofty goal because as a writer and artist who is also a Christian, I’d like to inject some substance, trace-elements of spiritual qualities in my work. After all, it is a product of my time and labor, an extension of my person, if you will, and I’d hate to think my soul is vapid and shallow. But that’s the fear, the accusation, isn’t it?
Which is what brought me to the charge of cowardice.
I finished Flannery O’Connor’s “The Violent Bear it Away” recently. (http://www.amazon.com/The-Violent-Bear-Away-ebook/dp/B009LRWWN6/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1375299985&sr=1-1) I read it decades ago for some Eng Lit course, and didn’t get it at all. I was stunned this time around though. The following passage in particular hit me.
“Tarwater clenched his fists. He stood like one condemned, waiting at the spot of execution. Then the revelation came, silent, implacable, direct as a bullet. He did not look into the eyes of any fiery beast or see a burning bush. He only knew, with a certainty sunk in despair, that he was expected to baptize the child he saw and begin the life his great-uncle had prepared him for. He knew that he was called to be a prophet and that the ways of his prophecy would not be remarkable. His black pupils, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, until at last he received his reward, a broken fish, a multiplied loaf. The Lord out of dust had created him, had made him blood and nerve and mind, had made him to bleed and weep and think, and set him in a world of loss and fire all to baptize one idiot child that He need not have created in the first place and to cry out a gospel just as foolish. He tried to shout, “NO!” but it was like trying to shout in his sleep. The sound was saturated in silence, lost.”
Excerpt From: O’Connor, Flannery. “The Violent Bear It Away.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Your mileage may vary, but what stunned me wasn’t merely the prose, the theme, the characters; it’s classic American literature for a reason. But I had the sudden intimate realization I lacked both the skill and the courage to write something that messy, that audacious. There’s an anger, a certain mad daring, not to mention profound bravery needed to grapple with the enormity of free will, Man’s primal defiance and the mystery of God’s grace without imposing clichéd answers. I was numbed, humbled.
I confess that with rare exception, I find most of the contemporary Christian artistic offerings as insipid as they are sincere. My opinion is that as flawed as we believers are and will be down here, the reality of God deserves better than the modern evangelical status quo. The Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters and brought the entire universe into being at the divine fiat. That is the spirit reportedly indwelling us.
As an artist, a writer, I agree with Akira Kurosawa that “The role of the artist is to not look away.” I understand what Steven Pressfield means when he says “The artist is seeking the real by means of the artificial.” It’s just that I flatter myself if I think that simply waving around the live-wire of some controversy, spilling some fictitious blood or allowing my non-Christian characters to drop an F-bomb or three, I’ve struck a blow against saccharine mediocrity. It might be bold to some, blasphemy to others. It might make me a shark in the koi pond, a vandal in the Precious Moments Temple, but sizzle ain’t steak. None of that is inherently more gritty or authentic. Like the song says, ‘It ain’t necessarily so.’
O’Connor’s novel reminded me once again true skill doesn’t rely on gimmicks, that gratuitous detail isn’t realism, and that my work will never really ring true unless I’m willing to leave the cloistered certainty of comfortable answers. As a Christian, an artist, a writer, as a human being, I have to venture out into the mystery that is God, the madness that is love, and the scandal that is grace, then have the courage, the humility to get out of the way and let them be what they are.