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Archive for July, 2010

This is apparently unofficially Books For And By Christians Week at Farceland. I suppose anyone reading this blog has pretty much gathered where my head is at.

I grew up in Christianity. I made a profession of Faith at 4 years of age. (I was a precocious child and it was a well-informed and reasoned decision.) I was baptised at 10. I went to a Christian school for 11 of my 13 years of school and to a Christian University for a year and a half of my almost 3 years (off and on) of college. Sundays and Wednesdays were church days. 95% of my friends were Christians. I know whereof I speak when I talk about the insularity of the Christian experience in America.

Naturally I can only have first-hand knowledge of one life. I will never know first-hand what it is like to have a different kind of life, as much as I read about and enquire of others. This means that I’m perhaps prejudiced to my own life pattern and perhaps why I thought for years that my way of being a Christian was the better way. Now as I grow older and less doctrinaire I’m fully able to accept that there are different ways to carry out the will of God; as many different ways as there are people.

Yet I seem to frequently find myself defending my particular way, which I would sum up as this: Train yourself in the faith. Study and learn and grow and develop a relationship with God. Then when you’ve got that shelter built within yourself, do what Christians have been told to do from the very beginning by Jesus himself. “Go Ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature“.

I have interpreted that to mean that we are to, you know, go places. Foreign places. Unfamiliar places. Strange places. We are to leave our comfort zone and interact with ALL types of people.

That’s why I have issues with a pattern of Christian living whereby believers hermetically seal their worlds and try their level best to live every day inside a bubble of social “church”, sanitised fiction from CBA publishers and TV programs with all the cursing bleeped out by a special machine you can buy for that.

Don’t get me wrong; every Christian needs to check back in on a daily basis with the Word and to be in contact with God through a dialogue of prayer. Those are the things that make living in a foreign world bearable on the days it would otherwise not be. And the occasional Christian-themed fiction or TV show is a nice break, provided you enjoy that sort of entertainment.

But a life lived entirely in that context is a waste of resources. I’m even prepared to go so far as to say it is sinful in that it is a form of gluttony. It is gorging yourself on the sweetness of Christian things, leaving yourself weak and unprepared to do as the Saviour commanded.

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The can of worms Eric Wilson opened last week are writhing their way across the blogosphere as though they’ve been greased and teased. A week after Eric’s opening salvo there are still bitter arguments everywhere. As much as I go out of my way to avoid arguing these days, this is one that I think has to be had. Because I think (if you hadn’t guessed by the post title) that there is room for the Christian Booksellers’ Association to depart a bit from its dull homogeneity. I initially wrote this as a comment on another blog but felt strongly enough about what I had to say that I’ve imported my thoughts over here.

I’m a disabled woman author who, before her disability prohibited work outside the home, worked in a support role for a company who does a LOT of business in the CBA.

My frustration–and I think perhaps Eric’s as well–is the Same Old Thing. It’s the Same Old Thing that Christians have been fighting over since the morning of Pentecost. But it’s still worthy of discussion, I think.

The issues for me are:
1. The CBA’s Business Model
I find much of the CBA publishing tricks to be dirty pool. As a reader, that is. Because I cannot stand when a book that would be one large paperback in the ABA meets a CBA publisher it invariably becomes diluted into a series of mediocre, filler-stuffed, large-print trade paperbacks that together cost 15 times the price of the same story in the ABA. I have nothing against someone making a decent profit. I do have a big issue with a barkeep watering down the wine as it were. And the CBA over the last 30 years has made a big habit of that. It’s a form of price gouging and I don’t believe it to be an honest business practice. If Pillars Of The Earth had been published by the CBA it would be a 5 book series that costs a total of $75 to own.

2. The CBA’s Unwritten Codes Of Homogeneity
Thanks to the glut of free CBA loss-leader backlist titles on my Kindle last year I’ve read a lot of newer CBA fiction I would have avoided otherwise. So I’m well aware that we’re now writing a bunch of oh-so-fun (?!?) stories about alcoholism, abuse, adultery, serial killers, etc. But like it or not, there’s still a huge dividing line between the types of books that are okay and the types that are not. Even the Edgier stuff deals with it behind the CBA’s Scrim Of Safety. In other words, all the edgy stories must resemble a Lifetime Movie of the week (Miniseries, once CBA Issue #1 comes into play) where Jesus makes everything okay.

Anything dealing with mysticism of any kind is strictly verboten. Even though we are practitioners of one of the most mystic faiths in history. If your story has vampires (eric’s issue), witches–as opposed to Wiccans who find Jesus–werewolves or any other sort of magical element it will.not.find.a.well.accepting.home.in.CBA. Period.

Unfortunately one glance at the New In Fiction section in any bookstore will tell you that’s what people are buying now.

A lot of Christians want to write for the CBA and have their books be marketed as Outreach. I personally think that CBA publishing houses should develop mainstream imprints which release the types of work Eric and others write into the ABA as general fiction. As it stands now you cannot write general market work and be published by a CBA house.

That strikes a lot of us writers as a bit backward. It would be like if the Church in general decided it would fully support missions–as long as all the missionaries only went to Utah.

Some folks like me are just content to write for the ABA and not bother with the CBA at all. Other folks would like to continue having a publishing home within the CBA while still writing for the non-Christian market.

Given the fact that most ABA publishers have Inspirational imprints it doesn’t seem like the stupidest idea ever for us to indulge in a bit of turnabout.

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First off let me say that everything is now fine. More or less.

But my puppy Gob got out the front door this morning when I was going to the mailbox. So, naked except for a nightgown and furry socks, fresh from taking my nasty meds and with a migraine stabbing my right eye I tore down Hallcrest Court after eight pounds of black lightning.

It was one of the most purely horrible moments of my life. I think I died eighteen times in the space of ten minutes.

If you don’t believe in Angels or Fate or any of those things and are just content to believe in coincidence I suppose that’s your prerogative and all fine. But what were the odds that the one day my dog broke loose was the day that my trucker neighbour who himself is a dog veteran (he has had 2 bichon Frisés in the time we’ve lived here) was not only home but in his front yard and able to help me? Of course the fact that he’s seen me nearly naked with vomit staining my nightgown is probably good enough reason for him to never stand in his front yard again.

I guess you could say that Angels or God or Fate would not have had me be enough of an idiot to open the front door when my wits weren’t entirely about it. But still, I guess God protected this fool and that child of a dog.

Still, I’m still horribly rattled by the whole thing, almost 4 hours later. The adrenaline started to wear off an hour ago. That reminds me…why don’t they just make adrenaline as a drug? I mean, I know they do…but why don’t we use it more often? Because in those long few minutes of running (boobs flapping in opposite directions…) I felt no pain or nausea or anything other than the cold hand of horror choking my heart and the endless visions of my dog dead on New Hope Road.

Oh well. I’m just sitting here blaring Zevon over the migraine–a weird experience that matches the weirdness of this day.

We all got home safely in the end but I hope to never repeat that experience.

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So help me…we’re about to see the end of my year-long love affair with Kindle.

They’ve started doing this thing (or at least I’ve only recently become aware) where they show you the highlighted passages in the book you’re currently reading. That is, they show you, by way of light grey dots, the parts in your book that OTHER readers have highlighted. If you press the “enter” button, you can see exactly how many of those other readers marked the passage for posterity.

It was fine back in college when I bought used textbooks. Then when you saw someone else’s highlighting you felt it was a kiss of luck from those who came before. Pay particular attention to this, the yellow glow would gently whisper.

But now? It seems to be an intrusion on the relationship I’m having with the story. I don’t need to know that 131 people really liked the way Asimov expressed that thought or that 56 people liked the description of grief that crept up in my latest romance read.

So I’m doing what I do best. I’m being snarkily subversive. Thus everyone who reads a book after me will see that one idiot highlighted every instance of the word “penis” in The Crossroads Cafe and they will also see that another (the same) has highlighted STOP…READ…ING…MY…HIGH…LIGHTS in a couple of other popular Science Fiction works. If they happen to read a certain philosophical tome they will find that a mysterious person has highlighted LETS…MAKE…BA..BI..E..S…

It’s juvenile. It’s ludicrous. I know this. But there is a part of me who feels like I need to push back. If technology has to gather all of our thoughts into one vast hive mind, surely some of those thoughts should be a little obnoxious, a little funny, a little subversive.

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This is one of those blog entries that couldn’t wait until full morning, instead dragged me from my bed at 1:00am to get the thoughts in print as fast as I could. It starts as a book review but is really me setting some parts of the record straight as best I can..

Back at Christmas one of my longtime friends, the woman who is most directly responsible for me meeting my husband, urged me to read Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. I waited until now for the mood to strike me, and have swallowed it in great gulps over the last 48 hours.

I both love and hate this book. It’s very hard to explain. But I’m going to do my best; unfortunately my best will necessarily involve major spoilers. I can’t discuss my reaction to the book without letting go of some of the key incidents of Russell’s story.

The basic premise is that a Jesuit and his motley crew of pals discover life in the Alpha Centauri system and jet off there on a repurposed asteroid (it works in the book…) and have about as much luck as 90% of the 15th & 16th century explorers had in coming here for the first time. There is pestilence, misunderstanding and–eventually–tragedy.

The Jesuit at the center of the story is also the center of my problems. I had to sort of chuckle to myself because when we meet him at the beginning of the book he is visibly crippled by some sort of maiming to his hands. If you make it to the end of the book you discover what that grisly disfigurement was for and how it was done. You also discover that the problem with his hands was, perhaps, the least of the violations he suffered.

We are then treated to the usual question that arises when people are dipping their toes into the waters of philosophy; specifically–why does God allow evil to exist? If there is a God, that is. Much of The Sparrow deals with this question in the most inelegant of ways as we are treated to watching Father Emilio Sandoz, S.J. vomit and cry and bleed and whimper “Why Me?”

That’s where I come in. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t even have complete recollection of my multiplication tables for crying out loud. 9×7=? This I can only figure out by using the Finger Method that Edward James Olmos taught me in Stand & Deliver. Which figures neatly into my little parable.

When you first look at your hands you see things that belong to you. They are tools fundamental to your existence. They feed you, clean you, allow you to express yourself in gesticulation and shows of force. As you grow they become rudimentary mathematical aides, your first paint brushes and your first writing implements. Two hands together have 10 smaller appendages. In that way they are very much a reminder of God, of the mystical perfection of the Number 10. Hands are far more important that we often give them credit for because we’re generally used to them by the time we’re two and a half. The hand is sadly overlooked.

My hands first started tingling seven years ago. They did that for awhile. Then they ached. Then they started to twist and bend and gnarl and clench and would send me into screaming fits. Visually they aren’t as bad as the poor fictional priests’, but I venture to say I know a thing or two about the loss of use and the gain of excruciation in hands.

I also know a thing or two about the business of Why Me? And I’m here to say this unequivocally.

You are not the whole story. The world is not a movie about you, starring you, directed by you. You are a tiny piece in a long chain of things. You are the sum of that which came before you and a tool to effect those who live around you, to instruct those who come after. You are not all there is to be done and seen. The world goes on after you leave it.

And that’s why bad things happen to good-ish people. Because those bad things–miscarriages, lost jobs, invalidism–help you to leave better evidence about living behind you. They pull you into a dialog with God or about God. They remind you of the insignificance of timebound creation and the majesty against which that creation pales.

Right now as I type this I’m up to 745 words, each letter of which causes an impact to my fingers that feels somewhat like what a normal person would experience if they got their finger pinched in a household door. But I’m grateful for the fact that I can at least still type. And grateful for all the days that I’m reminded of my insignificance, then further reminded of the usefulness of seemingly insignificant things like hands.

Would I recommend the Sparrow as good reading? I don’t honestly know. It was a good story for most of it but then it tried to become something more than story and lost me when it sent me off on those larger tangents.

But I do SO enjoy tangents!

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I’m deep in conversation over on Facebook with various of my coreligionist book lovers. The question of the moment is whether or not it is time for Christian Fiction to die.

I’m politely trying to retain friendships and acquaintanceships–how unlike me–so i’m not saying what I am most burning to say, which is “you mean it’s not dead already?!”

As we’ve been through time and again in this little corner of the world, I have a deep antipathy for “Christian Fiction”. That antipathy has not lessened with the advent of my Kindle.

Last year somebody within the CBA (Christian Booksellers’ Association) got wise to the fact that free books on the Kindle stay at the top of the “bestsellers” list, and are eagerly downloaded. Even though something which is given away is not technically “sold” and to my mind does not even BELONG on a list of things which have sold well. Nevertheless it was de rigueur last summer and fall to put backlist Christian Fiction titles on the Kindle for free in hopes that newcomers would be lulled into continuing the series for cash money.

I read about a dozen of those books. In no case did I have the remotest of desires to pay for continued play. In many cases I didn’t even make it past page 89–my cutoff for a book I’m not enjoying. I have to be honest and say that in some the writing was no worse than in the various Mass Market paperbacks you can get in the mainstream world. Pretty standard light-reading fare.

But those Christian Books cost at least double–sometimes triple–because of the Jesus factor.

Since when is Christianity about spending more to get less? About being lesser copies of what the world has to offer? Aren’t we supposed to shine and add savour?

I still cling to C.S. Lewis’ train of thought about needing fewer Christian books and more Christian authors of mainstream books. Everything I write is mainstream. My theory is that by enjoying my work and spending time in my worlds the readers will see Christianity as a thing that changes your inner life, gives you hope.

One of the greatest Christian characters in any work of fiction that I’ve ever read was actually created by an atheist. Father Philip in The Pillars of The Earth is Ken Follet’s picture of the type of Christian who lives by the book. Philip has one or two blind spots–as all humans must–but he strives to live a Christ-centered life. Readers come away from that book with a positive picture of what Christianity can accomplish.

Why can’t Christians write books like that? Oh, right. We can.

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Y Ever Not

Argh.

As much as I love Safehold–and I do–I’m realising yet again why it is I read so few Sci Fi books, Harlequin Romances and boinkbusters.

I’m a character-name snob. Big time. While I truly enjoy fictional escapism, I like the feeling of possibility. I like to feel that the characters I’m reading about might just be real people with mothers and fathers who birthed them when those mothers and fathers were in their 20s and 30s and more likely to come up with sensible, functional names. Names like Elizabeth or Nina or Scott. Even names with a whiff of the exotic can be fun in that they remind you of the more daring parts of society. Ethan, Lupe, Temperence. Those are all the sort of names you can picture a co-worker or Life Drawing professor having in a reasonable world.

But so many fiction writers, especially those who tend to clot in the arteries of Sci Fi and Romance exult in the sort of names that make me put a book back on the shelf immediately upon reading the jacket blurb. The sort of names a thirteen year old girl would doodle in a spiral notebook or call the teddy bear her first boyfriend gave her. You know the names I mean–Ravenne, Renesmee, Brock. Those are the names that come mentally embroidered and sequinned. And those are the types of names that more often than not warn you about the type of story you might be in for. With sequinned names come throbbing penises. There’s no two ways around it, and I can promise you this as an avid reader with decades of experience. Now the penises might be actual, attached to Brock and Thunder and their ilk, all just itching to plumb the depths of Enjoli or Brianna. Then again they may be figurative, in the form of super rocket ships or giant dragons.

I’m very particular about my character’s names. One of the things I do so love about the Harry Potter series is the utter perfectness of every name. Rowling names the way I like–a bit clever but not preciously so. Deloris Umbridge is of course a villain.

And this brings us to Safehold and the hideous Conundrum Of Y. I understand that Weber is trying to demonstrate the evolution of language on a startover world. He’s decided to use names to do that. And he’s decided to use Welsh vowel conventions–clearly he’s in love with Wales, something I can appreciate having spent so much of my mental time there this decade. But every character? It’s exhausting. Steven & Stephen are now Styvyn. Jason is Zhaysyn. Caleb is Cayleb. In a twist of cuteness one of the presumably bad guys is called Naahrmahn. Of the House of Baytz. A–hahaha!

Names do evolve; that much is obvious. But this story takes place 900 years after the first colonists landed on Safehold. And my name is Katherine. My sister’s name is Elizabeth. My brothers are David and Thomas. All of those names have existed for more than twice as long as 900 years and with very little change in conventional spelling. Sure you’ve got your Catherines, Kathryns, Elisabeths and Tomases. But no one spelling of those names has supplanted the others. And we do not as yet have an affliction of Khythyryns, Ylysahbyths and Taahmasses.

I’m not writing this to be nitpicky, although I realise it probably does seem so. I just wish authors realised how important names are to the reading experience and how much of a barrier it throws up for some readers (I know I can’t be alone) to stumble over the obvious artifice.

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