My mother is proud of not reading much fiction. She taught literature in High School for decades, along with History and Economics so she’s clearly no slouch mentally. She just reads in a completely different fashion than I. Whereas I will read anything, anywhere any time, slouched or draped in whatever position suits me, she treats most of her reading like a task, sitting at a table with her highlighter and pen. I sometimes think the idea of relaxing while reading is foreign enough to her that it keeps her from enjoying the escapism of novels.
In the last few years, however, she’s begun participating in some reading groups at her church and is being slowly dragged into the mire of leisure reading; as long as she can treat it like a class, the make-believe seems to go down fairly easy. Unfortunately for me, though, one of the books she read on her early forays into the book club world was Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love. When I came out of the closet as a writer she immediately pounced on me with “I bet you’re meant to write books like this!” and excitedly insisted that I read it at once.
It took me six further months of being cajolled before I broke down and got a copy from the library. I nearly broke down again after reading the first three pages. “If Mom thinks I can’t write any better than this, I better find a new calling.” It was a combination of three of my least favourite types of book: Post-civil war western bodice-ripper, angsty abuse bildungsroman and overtly religiously themed. The only thing missing to make me pull my hair out were elves on a quest. Ever the almost-dutiful daughter (I’m often too strongwilled) I slogged through the Yo-Yo relationship between the beautiful hooker and her nearly-psychotic, domineering “husband”, trying not to cut myself on the overly pointed analogies between this maudlin pap and the Biblical account of the prophet Hosea’s God-directed marriage to the former-prostitute Gomer.
That was almost 7 years ago. In those seven years I have lost count of the number of times people–okay, women at church–have gushed effusively over Redeeming Love and how much it means to them. I mostly hold my tongue. Other than being true to myself enough to say that I don’t care for it I just smile politely and ask them what they enjoyed about it. Not in a snarky way at all. I truly do want to know how the book spoke to them. In every case I’ve been told that that it’s the overall story and the idea of the man’s persistence which they find compelling. No one ever raves about the prose. I’ve begun to think that this is a book most enjoyed by people who don’t also write.
My theory seems to be gaining traction as I read the comments on this post. A male author of horror books with Christian themes made the pact to step out of his comfort zone and try a Christian themed* romance. Since it’s almost universally considered the gold-standard of such books, Redeeming Love was the natural choice. And as I suspected he might, Duran liked it no better than I did.
And here’s the part that makes me sit up and write a blog post about the whole farkakte mess. Even there, in a company of writers and voracious readers, any criticism of the book’s style or content is being derided as arrogant.
Yes. I have spent seven years with people telling me this book is quite simple nothing less than the paragon of all literature everywhere. “Best book I’ve ever read.” One woman even equated it with Scripture, telling me she was sure it was God-breathed. Of course not one word of that is arrogant, right? It’s only arrogant to say “hold on a minute. This empress is dressed in what looks like rags to me.”
I think anyone can be reached and touched by any book. As I’ve said many times over there is no way to discern the essence of the alchemy between reader and novel. Time, place, development and health all play a factor in any reader’s relationship to fiction. In that way fiction is much more fluid a writing form than biography or history. It is much more transmutable. If you are touched or moved by a book that’s not unlike falling in love with someone. It often may seem irrational to outsiders, but that doesn’t make the love less real.
It is not wrong for a craftsperson to analyze a product of that craft. To take it apart and see how it is put together. A man who makes a chair can say that the chair of pressboard held together by epoxy is not as well-crafted as the chair carved of oak and joined by nails or carved wooden pins. It isn’t arrogant to say “that is not as well-made a chair.” Even if some people think the pressboard chair looks great in their living rooms.