Are These Eggs Rotten? Personal vs. Critical Perspective

This may not seem directly related to science fiction, but a fair number of us are involved in review blogs of one sort of another, and there are always critique opportunities through the list. While I've been working my way through books for upcoming book tours, a question has bounced around in my mind.

What Makes An Egg Rotten?

Or, what makes a story good or bad? I have very definite opinions on that, but they are my opinions, reflective of my personal philosophies, my background, and my reading tastes. Given those subjective factors, do I really have the right to assert that a particular story is good or bad simply by whether it aligns with my preference?

Unlike the current post-modernist theories of literature, I don't believe that fiction is entirely subjective, or in the eye of the beholder. You'll never convince me that a Harlequin romance on sale at the grocery store can match the literary quality of Jane Eyre. Great books in any genre or time period, whether we're talking the Aenid, Dickens, Hemingway, or Lewis, have a quality about them that other books, even merely good books, lack.

Defining that quality is a bit stickier. Things are even more complicated given the shifting definitions of a "good" book; Moby Dick or a Tale of Two Cities would have difficulty making it out of the slush pile in most modern publishing houses.

When you start to distinguish the good eggs from the rotten, the first level of criteria seems straightforward. Generally recognized principles of character, plot, style, and theme set the standard to a degree, and when a story fails in one of these areas, it's obvious. The gray area begins once you've gone past the mere components of the story to the story as a whole. Many books, in both the Christian and the secular markets, may have a technical grasp of each aspect of a story but something else is lacking. They've fleshed out their characters, paid attention to plot logic and narrative arc, developed a smooth writing style, and even pointed to an overall theme.....but they're bland and generic. What's missing?

To me, the crucial ingredient is resonance.
Resonance in fiction isn't just a mastery of the mechanics or the components of a novel, but the way these components are woven together. If one area of the novel is out of sync, then every other area is jarred. If all areas are correctly done but lack a central harmony, the story still comes across as lacking. The best stories, in my mind, are those that not only excel in writing character, or plot, or theme, or language, but that build these areas like notes in a musical chord. When the right literary "chord" is struck, we feel it in our very bones like we feel a beautiful piece of music, and the impression lingers long after we close the book. I seek out works with that resonance and I get a little frustrated when most of Christian fiction is content just to produce mass-market entertain-lit.

That's what makes it difficult for me at times to write a review that can deal with a work critically and not personally. It's the equivalent of going to McDonald's after you've had a lobster and steak dinner.

So my question to you all is-- how much should we expect from the fiction we review? How much do we allow what we believe personally, even passionately, to influence our evaluation of another's work? What, in your opinions, separates the bad from the good, the good from the great? Are these eggs rotten?


Catholicism, Progress and Science

Just a few weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI issued a motu proprio making it easier for Catholic parishioners and priests who prefer the Latin Mass to request that this style of Mass be celebrated more regularly in their parishes. Many have held this up as "yet another example" that the Church is stalling progress and in fact, stepping back to the Medieval Ages.

As a writer of science fiction and a Catholic, I find the assertion that the Catholic Church is moving backward amusing. It's always been my impression that, while conservative and at times, slow to change, the Catholic Church is nonetheless forward-thinking. My research for the introductions to Infinite Space, Infinite God affirmed that impression with fact.

Infinite Space, Infinite God contains 15 thought-provoking stories about Catholics and the Catholic Church meeting the challenges of the future: determining the soul-status of genetically engineered humans and human hybrids, developing orders of nuns and monks to serve the needs of those in space as well as on Earth, and exploring how technology will create new situations that both challenge faith and can be resolved by faith.

Catholicism has always affirmed man's great imagination and creativity as a result of the divine nature God has graced us with. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church held onto what wisdom it could, preserving it for centuries until society was ready to build upon it again in the Renaissance. Many of the great early scientists--Mendel, the father of genetics, and Copernicus, who proposed heliocentric theory--were Catholic monks. Even today, the Church supports scientific study with its Vatican Observatory, the Pontifical Academy and symposiums involving scientists of all religious beliefs. Catholicism has always affirmed man's great imagination and creativity as a result of the divine nature God has graced us with.

However, the Church also advocates caution and conservatism with new discoveries. For example, it wasn't heliocentric theory itself that the Church objected to with Galileo, but Galileo's assertion that his then-unproven theory was fact and that anyone disagreeing (like the Pope) should be disregarded.

Many of the stories in Infinite Space, Infinite God deal with the tension between rushing to the new and moving slowly into the unknown. My husband Rob and I compiled these stories with the goal of doing something unique in the sci fi world--examining the future of faith. However, this book is not just for Catholics alone. The questions raised are questions we should all be asking: how far do we go in our science? How fast? Is exploration for exploration's sake justified? How do we preserve the past without moving back to it?

Just as the Catholic Church endeavors to steer a careful course, preserving the best of the past while moving into the future, so should humankind in matters outside of religion.

After all, a step forward is not progress unless you've pointed in the right direction.

Infinite Space, Infinite God by Karina and Robert Fabian, will be available August 15 in bookstores, Amazon.com or online at www.twilighttimesbooks.com.