Monday, May 21, 2007

Right Faith, Wrong Trimmings

Rant Warning: the following has some of the characteristics of a diatribe. Discussion, sharing of ideas, or conflict may ensue. You have been warned.

Recently on a lively writing loop, a topic arose about historical fiction. Now, just so we're all on the same page: much of CBA historical fiction consists of the Sweet Prairie Romance with the Bonneted Woman on the Cover. This is a known genre. Do not attempt to argue: it just IS.

Why do all CBA historicals have a woman wearing a bonnet (often a transparent bonnet, so you sort of wonder-what was the point?) on the cover, you ask? Very well, I will attempt to answer this burning question. They are there so innocent readers will know this is fiction set in an Acceptable Era: the 1800s.

The nineteenth century is the only acceptable time for stories to be set because it meets the criteria for acceptable fiction: the characters must be Protestant. Fiction dealing with Puritans, the Revolutionary War period, etc., should not be written. Worse, we should not write about pre-Reformation Christians: these would of necessity be Catholic.

Now, before you run screaming for the door: if you write or read historical fiction, you must to some extent abandon your current-day prejudices. People in the pre-Reformation centuries did not think of themselves as idolators, Papists, hidebound or any other stereotype we sneer at today. They called themselves CHRISTENDOM, and the reason they referred to themselves this way is that they kept Christian writings, Christian learning, Christian tradition alive during centuries when my ancestors were worshiping Odin and eating foul-tasting lutefisk...

Ahem. I digress.

We authors must not attempt to write stories set in these benighted times. Do you ask why? Because we'd be writing about Catholics.

I say no. We'd be writing about Christians. People of their time, like us. Many, many of them loved their Savior and served Him in the way the current day permitted. So do we. Some of them were "surface" believers. Some of us are. Some of them abandoned family, friends, and a normal medieval life in order to spend 100% of their time in prayer and learning. Some of us are blessed to do that, in this age.

Do not tell me not to write of these people because they were not Christians. You're wrong. If you don't want to read my work, that's fine, and your privilege. But don't use this most specious of reasoning to say that historical fiction must deal only with people who think like we Protestants do. Don't you dare forbid me to write of people in earlier eras and shed some light on their most-interesting lives and times.

Who knows, maybe we'll all learn something.


Janny said...

You'll no doubt get lots of people who will tell you you're free to write about any faith you's the medieval period that's to blame, because no one wants to read about that anymore. Or the pre-Reformation that's to blame, because no one's interested in that anymore.

But the fact is, that's not true, and it's time someone said it out loud. And kept saying it.

It's ironic that the very people who won't write about Catholics--who look upon us with, if not hostility, at least suspicion, doubt, or worse yet, pity--are many times in churches being led by men who've studied the Church Fathers...who love Augustine, or Jerome, or even Teresa of Avila...yet reject the Church those very intelligent people loved so much.

Or who pride themselves on being "Bible based," while bashing the Church that GAVE them that Bible.

Or who come right out and slam Catholicism in their books, not realizing that that if it weren't for the Catholic Church, they wouldn't be Christians today.

But what I as a Catholic find most hurtful and frustrating is that, in most cases, that rejection comes not from a well-researched, thought-out position. These are not people who have investigated the Catholic faith. These are not people who have read even so much as a Catholic book, people who have no Catholic friends. They just "know" my Church is unbiblical because their pastor says so. Or their founder says so. Or they've been raised to believe so.

Under any other circumstances, we writers would call that what it is: laziness and ignorance. Under any other circumstances, we as writers would query the "facts" or the framework for presenting--or refusing to present!--such important things as stories set againsst a faith backdrop of what Christians believed for 1500 years, and what the Church still believes.

But in the current CBA climate, we don't challenge any of that. In fact, in some instances, that very lack of fairness is considered "doctrinal purity."

It's more than ignorance, more than neglecting hundreds of years of possible story characters and ideas.

It's an insult. And a hypocrisy.
And it needs to change.

Thank you, T2, for bringing it out. But be prepared to be patted on the head, sent to your corner and told "There, there," by people who think they know better.

I oughta know. Happens to me all the time.


Donna Alice said...

Amen! I am so happy I wandered into your blog tonight. Most of my characters in the 1880's or beyond are CATHOLIC. I've been told I should make them more generic, more accepteable and I could get them published in a CBA world.

I refuse. I refuse to be ashamed of my faith or my character's religion. And someday I'm going to be published with them being Catholic--even it's in the secular world, via secular publishers.

Imagine what we could do if we could make a CATHOLIC CBA world???

Deb said...

Some of us are working on exactly that. If there is CBA fiction (Prod-friendly), why is there no corresponding body of Catholic-friendly fiction? Are Catholics supposed to turn off their desire for a good read and scurry for the latest book on recent Pope or long-dead saint?

I think not. I think this is a market waiting to be discovered, stories to tell, books to be sold, and maybe, with God's blessings, money to be made.

Donna Alice said...

Any ideas on how we can do this? I just started a writing group at my church and have seven other people who agree!

Deb said...

Well, yanno what they say--where two or three are gathered...

What it would take, in my view and that of other industry-savvy writers, is for one of several things to happen: 1) for current CBA, Prod-friendly publishers to open up to Christian fiction with Catholic characters and themes; or 2) for Catholic publishers themselves to realize there is a market out there for quality stories, and begin acquiring it; or 3) one of us loses his/her mind and starts a Catholic-friendly small press ourselves.

No, do not look at me, I've got no clue as to how #3 would be accomplished and God hasn't called me to do it. If He does, I'll probably swallow hard, say, "Oh, okay, Master--but You're gonna have to do some very fast and thorough education here!" and pursue it.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I am so glad to know that there are some clear thinkers amongst the christian writing set.

Janny said...

The only thing I get a little nervous tic about on this one is the "wrong trimmings" wording, only because I believe it can give the "wrong" idea--that our only differences are "trimmings." Differences between Catholics and Protestants, of whatever ilk, are way more than just "externals," "trimmings," or "extras." And it doesn't hurt to remember that. In fact, it would be a great service to Catholics--and in fact to readers--everywhere if Prods would remember to check their facts about Catholic beliefs, practices, or characters before blindly sailing off on what they think they "know" and writing accordingly. (!)

But the flip side of that integrity, indeed, is writing Christians the way they truly are, wherever and whenever we're finding them. I have a bunch of good churchgoing evangelical Prods in my Grinnell, Montana, books--people I encountered quite readily in that geographic area of the country. When I actually lived out there and was on that side of the fence, we all had a ball together at the Harvest All-Church Song Service in October--something I would love to start here in Indiana, and have at the Catholic church. What a hoot that would be!

But the point is...write the people you'd be likely to actually encounter in whatever time, place, and setting you're writing your story about, and you won't go too far wrong. It's only when we start messing with, in effect, trying to "rewrite history" so medieval Catholics will be more palatable to a modern Prod sensitivity that we get into both nonsense, and big-time well we should.

My take,

Deb said...

"Wrong Trimmings" was entered with tongue firmly in cheek. I don't feel the trimmings are wrong, nor do I feel the core of my Prod differentiation from Catholicism should be seen as trivial. It wasn't trivial to my ancestors and it isn't to me. However, some of my CBA-published and published-wannabe sisters seem to see it that way.

My comment stands as written. I don't think there's anything defensible about the stance that we Christian writers "must" write about Christians in a certain era so they and their beliefs will become "acceptable" to a narrow-minded, historically-myopic minority.

End of rant.