Saturday, June 3, 2017


I have a confession. I like to read terrible reviews of other people's books.

Only books that genuinely deserve them. (Twilight, anyone?) But I don't know that that makes it any better. I could try to spin it, but the fact is that this is a trait of mine that is genuinely not very nice. I can tell, when I do it, that I am satisfying a low impulse in myself by reading: even if I'm feeling low, I can feel a little better by telling myself at least I do it better than that person.

Another version of this that many people go for (and, again, so do I) is stories of people behaving badly. Some people watch daytime talk shows and reality TV. I read Not Always Right. We come out feeling better: I would never act like that.

(I still do it. I try--keyword: try--to do it only as a stress valve. That might be the one redeeming part: if I can bleed off some irritation and be calmer for the people around me.)

Over the years as I've written and read fiction, I've come to understand better some of the ways in which fiction can cater to low impulses in us as well.

After writing that sentence, I realized sex might come to mind, but it's not actually what I'm thinking of. I'm thinking of books that pander to our pride.

For an example I'll pick an author famous enough not to suffer from anything I might say: Anne McCaffrey. I've enjoyed her Dragonriders of Pern series very much, read almost all of them and many of her other works. After awhile, though, I started to notice a pattern that grew more pronounced with time: Our Heroes had their flaws, sure, they weren't always nice, but there was one thing they always were--they were Right. And the people who opposed them were Wrong--and selfish and jealous and had no actual good reasons for opposing them, nary a one. This is an exaggeration, most likely, but read it all and you'll start to notice it too.

There are many other writers who do this, to different degrees. Very many. And it isn't exactly a writing flaw, even though it does sometimes annoy us as readers if we pick up on it. I feel pretty sure that it's sometimes, as programmers say, a feature rather than a bug. Deliberate pandering rather than a mistake. Because, when we don't notice it consciously, we tend to like it.

We like it because it gives us a similar feeling to the things I started this post with. Vindication. A sense that we aren't so bad, that we are better than other people, or other people are worse than us. Fiction is even more powerful at giving us this sense of vindication, because it doesn't just give us Bad People to look down on, but also Good People to identify with.

In any fictional story, except for the most detached literary fiction, we're given a character that we don't just watch from the outside--someone into whose skin we can slip, someone we can identify with. Sometimes it's a hero, sometimes it's an anti-hero, sometimes it's an "Everyman," but whoever it is, whether we admire him or not, this is the person we suffer and rejoice with; what happens to him happens to us. (I'm going to go with a "him" on this for now. It's more often a "him," even nowadays--and almost always a "him" the color of the majority. I almost opened that can of worms here, but it's too big; I'll have to do a separate post.) We hope that he finds what he is seeking. If he does, we feel deeply gratified.

And if the author overinflates this hero's ego--makes him Right, shows him off to the world vindicated beyond his real deserving--we walk away inflated too. Either that or we see through it, and detach, and walk away unsatisfied.

It's not just a matter of the hero doing no wrong. Almost every hero makes mistakes, even bad choices; otherwise there's very little story. But when the hero goes up against other people, is he ever wrong? Does he ever have to admit that someone else saw the situation more clearly than him, that he should have listened? Does he ever have to admit that someone he dismissed or looked down on or even hated had a point? If the answer is no, never, no hint of any such thing, I think there's something wrong.

This definitely happens in Christian fiction. (I won't name names--none come to mind, it's probably been years since I read the books that started this impression forming. And indeed that may be an indication that it's getting better. I have hope that it is.) It's particularly insidious in Christian fiction, at least in the form it often takes: you see, the Christian is right. The non-Christians are wrong. Why? Is it because we believe that our beliefs are right? Or is it because we like to see someone like us vindicated?

What I know is, I am always and will always be refreshed when I see an author do, even briefly, the opposite: the Christian sees the non-Christian's point. Says I'm sorry. You're right. I've been a jerk. When the character we identify with is forced to swallow his pride, to widen his view of the world through the eyes of the other.

So, there they are, my thoughts on pandering. I've been thinking them a long time, telling myself Don't do this, never do this. (And on occasion the voice in my ear, my own voice: You could sell more books! Of course there's always the other voice saying drily: Sure you could.) There isn't a bright line that you cross or don't cross--it's one long, smooth continuum from Give them everything they want to Give them nothing they want. Where do you draw that line? How do you judge? So murky.

Until you step away from playing some cynical version of God, from thinking you know "what the reader wants"--from thinking you know everything about people just because you know something bad that they want. Until you choose to trust the reader, and say: The reader wants the truth. The truth of the love and the selfishness inside each person, the high courage, hungry need and angry pride, the yearning for the good and true; the journey through the tangled wood after the light. It's been my principle, my bright light to follow in all my writing: Tell the truth. And there are readers who want it. I'd rather sell a thousand books to them, friends--to you--than fifty thousand to people who want pandering.

Let me trust that. Let me trust you.

And if I ever start pandering--please let me know.

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