Good Literature?

Well, school is out and this teacher is ready for a break, but my breaks usually include a time of evaluation and redesign of my courses. While I do know of instructors who are still reading the same notes they had when they started teaching in the 1960's, I try to come at the subject matter new each year.

While revising my Oral Interpretation of Literature course, I ran across an interesting paradigm for evaluating literature. This model says that literature can be evaluated by three basic criteria (of course, there are many more, but these are pretty good ones): Universality, Suggestiveness and Individuality.

I am somewhat disturbed by how many speculative fiction writers approach the discussion of literature. You only talk for a little while before the examples cease to be print and become movie or TV examples. Okay, I watch a lot of TV. I possibly watch more than I should, but living alone, it's nice to have some noise in the house. However, the visual dynamic of movies and TV does not always translate well into print. So, it may be good to get back to how literature works and what makes for a quality reading experience. Therefore let's look at each of these components of good literature


By universality, we do not mean that everyone will like the story or poem. Personal tastes vary and even the best writers won't appeal to everyone. For instance, I know Stephen King is a great writer. His technique is great and he has some interesting plots and the ability to extract terror from the most mundane events. However, I just can't seem to make it through one of his books. They just aren't to my taste.

No, universality does not refer to appeal, but rather to the themes of the literature. Sometimes speculative fiction is unfairly criticized by the mainstream critics as being light weight and only appealing to geeks and nerds. But if they really read the best of our genre, they would see that good speculative fiction deals with eternal themes such as the nature of courage, the search for love, racism, war and peace, honor and dishonor.

Now, some science fiction and fantasy can become so narrow that it loses that universal understanding. Okay, to use a TV example, the last of the Star Trek series , Enterprise, suffered from this "insider" syndrome. So much of the enjoyment of that series depended on people being familiar with the other series in the Star Trek franchise. Trekkers loved it, but not very many other people did. It didn't really have that sense of universality. Most consider it a major failure and possibly sounding the death knell for one of the most successful TV and movie franchises.


One place where writing departs from the more visual media is in the area of suggestiveness. Reading, more than watching a TV show or a movie, is a partnership between the author and the reader. It is not only the author's vision, but also the reader's which matters.

Unlike the "unblinking eye" of the camera the written word doesn't spoon feed the reader everything. Instead, the effective writer gives the reader enough information so that she or he can create the scene in his or her own mind.

Christian writers in particular struggle with the "show vs. tell" dichotomy when it comes to explicit sex, violence or profanity in their writings. Some claim that they need to be as explicit as an R rated movie to be taken seriously others opt for avoiding such issues entirely. There is a third option which is to neither show nor tell, but to suggest.

I was reading "The Callistan Menace" a short story by Isaac Asimov and ran across a delightful passage. A boy has stowed away on a space ship and the captain has discovered it.

"It wasn't to be endured! For half an hour, the Captain shot off salvo after salvo of the worst sort of profanity. He started with the sun and ran down the list of planets, satellites, asteroids, comet, to the very meteors themselves. He was starting on the nearer fixed stars, when he collapsed from sheer nervous exhaustion."

Now, there is no doubt about the profanity here. The captain is acting like a space hardened rascal, but we read not a word of actual profanity. Indeed, we are left to guess at what he said, which actually involves the reader more than if Asimov had just let the captain "let loose" with a string of dirty words.

I'm not saying that the Christian writer should never allow blue language into their writing. That is a discussion for another time and place. However, I do think that sometimes laziness leads us to believe that ONLY a direct quote will make the point.

The same goes for explicit sexual activity. It may be important from time to time that your characters be sexually intimate. However, one can suggest that intimacy without giving a "moan by moan" description. For instance, one can simply take the couple to the bedroom door and leave them there. It is hardly ever necessary to the story or character development to explain in minute detail what each part of each body is doing.

If you are trying to convey that your character suffers trauma from her experience of being raped and that is going to affect the intimacy with her husband on their wedding night, you can say something as simple as, "Carolyn approached the bed with her heart pounding. She knew this should be the most wonderful night of her life, but for all that, for all the love she felt for Henry, the only man in that room, that night was Jason. She didn't even remember her wedding night the next morning."

The audience is left to imagine what may have happened that night and her conflicted feelings without us ever being explicit.


Perhaps the most significant aspect of good literature is that it reflects the unique voice of the author. Most of us learn to write by imitating others to a certain extent. I know my early writing looks like poor copies of Ray Bradbury and C.S. Lewis. Over time, though, those influences become part of who we are as writers and we transform those influences into a new voice.

Second grade literature, or any art form really, is derivative. By "derivative" I don't mean that it is influenced by another's writing or even that it shares some plot elements. There are only a few basic plots to be found in any genre of literature. No, derivative means that the writing shares so many elements that a critic can clearly see the roots of the story.

I've said in the past, that the problem with a lot of Christian Fantasy is that too many writers are trying to rewrite Tolkien. The plots are so similar to the Ring Trilogy with the archetypal characters such as the dispossessed king running from his true position, the wise wizard, the unsophisticated, unlikely heroes pulled out of everyday life, the ugly creatures and the threat to the known universe from an evil force, and of course, the powerful talisman which must be mastered, stolen or destroyed.

Of course, that doesn't apply to all Christian Fantasy, but rather it is tempting to follow the formula that worked for someone else. How many times after a blockbuster movie appears that a bunch of TV shows pop up as obvious knock offs. And, of course, they are rarely as good as the original.

Each individual writer must walk the tightrope between rejecting out of hand the traditions of the genre just because they are traditions on the one hand and being bound to those traditions on the other.

It's one thing to be compared to Tolkien, Lewis, Card or Asimov. It's quite another to simply be poor copies of them.

I don't know if any of us will write "great" literature of the type that future generations will read in school or collect into anthologies. However, if we strive for that greatness, then we should be writing some pretty good stories.


Andrea Graham said...

I have to say I agreed with what you said about the power of suggestion one hundred percent, especially in regards to bedroom activities. You can convey more than some might imagine with this technique, and without putting stumbling blocks before our brothers and sisters as the Bible tells us to avoid doing. Personally, I can't think of a biblical reason to include a "groan by groan" description in anything intended for an audience larger than your spouse.

Terri said...

Yes, I agree. There is an unfortunate quote from some CBA house that says something like "This is one place where you should tell not show." Too many have taken that to mean that it isn't to be addressed at all and others have reacted against it with derision feeling that the only way is to give minute details.

Showing can be done by suggestion as effectively (sometimes more effectively) as by detailed description. It's a third alternative that is often the best.


Headless Unicorn Guy said...

I've said in the past, that the problem with a lot of Christian Fantasy is that too many writers are trying to rewrite Tolkien.

That's a problem with a lot of fantasy in general; I call it "Elves, Dwarves, etc" and one NaNoWriMan called it "Tolkien in a Blender".

The whole idea of bandwagon knockoffs is "Just like (that hit), except...". When this hits the CBA set, you get "Just like Tolkien, except CHRISTIAN!" (Actual quote, but I don't remember the source.)