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.


Slow It Down

By Stoney M. Setzer

Here we go again. The merry-go-round on rocket fuel that is the Christmas season is spinning at top speed.
If you’re anything like me, your schedule is full to the gills. Last Saturday, my dad and stepmom had their Christmas celebration, which wound up being an all-day event. The weekend before, my church had its Christmas presentation, and as the director I was enmeshed with it. Next weekend my stepmom’s family has their annual get-together, and of course Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are booked solid. As for this week, don’t even get me started on the last week of school before Christmas in a middle school!
Am I complaining? No; I love spending time with the family, and I enjoy directing the Christmas play—stress and all—every bit as much as I enjoy my writing. All of those are definitely good things (well, with the exception of the middle school students’ behavior, of course).
My point is this: With all of the good stuff that goes with Christmas, it is very easy to forget the best part of Christmas. We can get so distracted with parties, plays, and events that we can easily lose sight of the true cause for celebration, the birth of our Savior. And if the good stuff can distract us, then you can imagine what the negative aspects (expenses, last-minute shopping, etc.) can do to our frame of mind.
How do we address this problem of distraction? Slow down for a minute this Christmas season. Either as an individual or with your family (or both), carve out some time to spend in worship and praise of our Lord. We have already received the ultimate Christmas gift. Make sure you find time to probably express your love and appreciation to the Giver.


Lesson Learned

posted for Frank Creed

There is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it. —C.S. Lewis

I'd always heard the holes in peoples' lives ring emptiest during the holidays. The world around me is having a party. All these lights, and trees, and presents. The manger has gone Hollywood and I don't have the energy to care.

What must it be like for those who feel this way every Christmas? Those who are alone, or grieve the passing of a loved one, or are out of work? Some of us just want the holidays to be over.

My odometer reads a little over 40k, and I've had some heavy issues crash down hard in recent days. The little bout of depression I'm battling could be nothing like what these holiday blues folks go through. When I compared my little issues to those of the brokenhearted, the homeless, and Christians in the Sudan, I realize my problem is that I'm not thankful enough for what God's given me. How can the cue-ball of health and job have all my life's spheres smackin' around, when I consider a city like Bombay, or the world's orphans living in garbage dumps?

I've been running so hard in this hamster-wheel, I've missed Indiana's autumn leaves turning in recent years. I love to watch the leaves turn. That's sold-out-to-the-rat-race. When God rattled my billiards, it was His subtle way of saying you need more patience.

Well, can't I please please please learn that lesson faster?

Still waiting to hear back on that one.

Whatever's got you down, let Him forge you in the fire. I learned I had to slow down and enjoy His gifts. I've got to look around me and be very thankful for what I do have.

What's He teaching you this season?

Now you go out and pay-that-forward this holiday. Then, during the winter, next spring, next summer, etc.

This is no chain letter, this is real life.

Don't miss it.