Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Startlighter, by Bryan Davis - Day Three of the July 2010 CSFF Blog Tour

Starlighter, book 1 of the Dragons of Starlight series
by Bryan Davis
Published by Zondervan, 2010

Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing a copy of Starlighter for review on the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

In my preceding posts, I have been rather blunt in saying that the writing in current-day Christian fantasy for the young (13 - 16 year olds) is quite poor and that Starlighter is no different.

My goal has not been to put a bulls-eye on Bryan Davis. I’m not only trying to review a book - and I think have done that, more or less - but I’m also trying to bring attention to the sad state of writing in the current-day genre. Bryan Davis happened to be on the chopping block. In my mind, others could have been there and the critique would have been just as harsh; in some cases, harsher.

This is my concern. A chief motive behind the CSFF blog tour is to raise awareness of Christian fantasy so that editors and publishers would not shy away from it. The purported reason is that Christian fantasy is a small market. No doubt, that is part of it. But I think an unspoken, underlying reason is because the quality of the writing itself is simply poor.

A thought experiment might give credence to this assessment.

Let us envision one named Joe (the name is fictional and any similarity of persons in real life is not entirely coincidental - Joe might be any one of us). Joe has written several Christian fantasy novels for YA, which have been published by Christian publishers and have been fairly well received by a substantial contingent of Christian readers. The reception has been so positive that he receives the acclaim of not only other well-known (to the Christian community, that is) authors of his genre, but even by some Christians who write outside of it. Joe does admit, however, that since the latter generally write for a Christian audience, the common goal of writing for the Christian reader may have something to do with their praise.

After such laud and honor, Joe begins to think he should be able to get published by one of the major mainstream ‘secular’ publishing houses. He’s not arrogant; he simply sees a viable opportunity to raise the respect of Christian fantasy up a notch or two in the eyes of the secular world - reader and publisher alike.

‘But how would Christian fantasy be received by these publishers?’ Joe wonders. Joe gets on Amazon and takes a look at the (few) bad reviews of his own novels. He discovers that the primary reason for the bad rating is because of the Christian element. It was too preachy, too much pushing a religious agenda. “Ah ha!” Joe cries, “I’ve got it! I’ll write a fantasy novel but without the religious slant to it. And then I’ll get it published by one of those big houses, like the one that did J K Rowling’s. Brilliant!”

Joe has to admit he’s feeling a little guilty over this - it has the smell of compromising his Christian principles, watering down the story just to make it palpable. He thinks about it a bit and decides, ‘No! If I can get my work published by the biggies, I will have proven that Christians can write fantasy with the best of them. And then... then I’ll be able to work in Christian themes bit by bit.’

So, Joe gets to work and produces his first novel of a new series, taking more care with it than he has ever done before. To his surprise and delight, he finds that he is able to work in some symbolism and imagery that definitely has some moral value to it; granted it is, as he feared it would be, watered down, but it’s there and no more religiously blatant than what one would find in any other popular non-Christian work (he spent a good deal of time making sure of this, even asking some of his most trusted endorsers to make an assessment, and they agree with him - it’s neutrally safe).

Joe feels really good about his prospects now and through a respected agent who already has a successful track record, submits his work to the top-notch, big time publishers.

But to Joe’s dismay he receives rejection... after rejection... after rejection. Years later, the manuscript sits in a dusty desk drawer, forgotten, and with it most of the embarrassing memories.

Why was Joe rejected? If you are honest, the moment this imaginary scenario contemplated the mainstream publication of one of ‘us,’ you thought or suppressed the temptation to think, ‘No way. There’s too much competition out there, so many elite names, so many unbelievably good works...’

That’s the problem. We aren’t writing stuff that comes even close to what our successful secular peers are writing.

And it does matter. A Christian writer ought to strive to be among the best of writers. We are redeemed image-bearers of God, part of which entails our imaging his creation-work in our writing. The creation of a fictional world (Randy Ingermanson calls it ‘story-world’) is akin to the creation-work of God, and just as God spoke into being a cosmos with exquisite design, order, and beauty, so should our words create an imaginary world of fine craftsmanship.

We’re not doing that. For whatever reason, we are failing, and until we honestly face up to it, Christian fantasy for the young is not going to change; it will remain second- and third-rate pablum. Let’s take a hard critical look at what we’re producing. It’s not good. By the God-given talent each one of us has, we can change that. But it will take work. God created by simply speaking. We image his speech by writing, speaking the words onto paper, but our speech does not come easy. Regardless, we must write with great care and attention, laboring over syntax, phrasing, vocabulary, rhythm, voice (ours as well as our characters'), esthetics. The first paragraph of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has all this, and it is sustained to the last page. It crushes me; to hope I could ever write that well is glaringly ludicrous. But that is precisely what each of us should endeavor to do. Let’s be done with our mediocrity. Let’s roll up our sleeves, and put our nose to the grind. Much could be done for the promotion of the Kingdom through fantasy, but it has to be good - really good - writing. Let’s make it that good.

See a list of the participants for this month's blog tour.
See Starlighter on amazon.
See Bryan Davis's website and blog.

1 comment:

  1. Thomas, I agree with your goals, I really do. This is actually an ongoing discussion involving Christian fiction, not just Christian speculative fiction.

    The thing is, I've been at this for eight years now and have seen how far the genre has come. I believe writers are doing what you say. But part of the problem is what we're teaching each other.

    For how many years did I hear at writers' conferences, editors (EDITORS!) tout one book as the "bible" of writing fiction. While I certainly think it's a fine beginners instruction book, I don't think it's the end all.

    I went to one writers' conference that had craft sessions for beginners and for intermediates. Not for professionals.

    And here's the problem. How does a Ted Dekker or a Karen Kingsbury, both regularly on the Christian book best seller lists, come to the conclusion that he or she needs to improve their writing? I mean really, people are buying their books as fast as they can come out.

    My point is, the current quality of Christian writing isn't a simple issue (writers, get with it and get better). There's the whole promotion and platform building aspect and more that drains their time and creative energy. (And the ones who don't do it, a la George Bryan Polivka, end up not selling well, a sure way to become no longer published).

    All that to say, what will encourage publishers most to expand (and let other writers into the mix--hopefully writers who are even now learning the craft) is if the books they do publish sell well.

    So the blog tour is designed to be one cog in that wheel of cranking up the level of writing (because we try to feature the better books) and excitement for the stories produced by Christian speculative authors.