I keep thinking about the whole art-and-faith conundrum. Maybe it’s not really a conundrum. I have a feeling Christians, at least, lost some of our artistic prowess when we started making art into billboards. In the Middle Ages, most art was “Christian,” but it was designed to tell stories (albeit Christian stories), not specifically to convert anyone. I’m an evangelical. I used to be a missionary. I believe in sharing my faith. What’s more, my Messiah told lots of stories with underlying meanings. I give children’s sermons. I just don’t think every single expression of art or of faith needs to be a sermon. The book I consider authoritative for life and meaning is full of stories and they don’t all have point by point, easily-delineated-on-an-easel, applications, though I believe they do have some application. I believe that ideally, the truer and more genuine both things (art and faith) are, the more winsome they will be.
I’m not the world’s most rapid fiction writer. I want to be a fiction writer. I like writing fiction. But due to some combination of laziness, insecurity, and busy-ness–and the fact that I usually go through at least one really bored phase with whatever it is I’m writing, which probably doesn’t speak very well for any of it–it just takes me a really long time to get from start to finish. In my life, I have written a beginning, middle and end to three novels. One of them I started in high school, finished in London, showed to a friend of a friend who was “in writing,” and learned that it really was as dreadful as I feared. (My “critiquer” didn’t put it that way; she was actually very tactful. But it really was.)
The second one was Trees in the Pavement. I started that one in London, worked on it for about six months and decided it was rubbish. Fortunately I didn’t put it in the rubbish. When I moved back to the US, I dug it out, reread what I had written and decided that it wasn’t rubbish at all, but then I just didn’t know what to do with it.
It turns out my skills at researching and reaching out to publishers and agents is about as speedy and motivated as my fiction writing, but fortunately I had a slight connexion to a lovely editor at a small Christian publishing company in Scotland, and they decided to publish it.
Before that, though, I did send it to a couple of other publishing houses, including Carus Publishing, the publishing arm of Cricket Magazine, a children’s literary mag to which I received a couple of gift subscriptions as a child. I loved that magazine. I ate it up. I discovered Trina Schart Hyman illustrations and The Ordinary Princess through that magazine, and I didn’t find out until his memorial celebration, but Lloyd Alexander often wrote the “Old Cricket” column. I would love to have been published by Carus.
As it happened, my query/proposal was kept for a long time before I heard anything back. About four months after I sent it, I got a really nice letter back from one of the editors, that went a little something like this:
Dear Ms. Grosser:
Thank you for sending Trees in the Pavement for consideration for Cricket Book. Your manuscript received several reads in-house, and although there was much we liked about it, I regret that we decided the manuscript is not right for our small list.
It’s obvious that you understand human psychology. Eight-year-old Zari is an observant child, and we enjoyed watching events unfold through her eyes. The family’s nighttime flight from Kosovo is dramatic and unsettling, and after a period of childhood domestic drama in London, the plot takes an arresting twist when Mrs Jamaica comes to visit. Because of the heavy Christian focus, however, it’s our feeling that your book would do better with a religious publisher . . . [Here, one was suggested.]
We appreciate your interest in Cricket Books, Ms. Grosser, and hope you will be successful in placing Trees in the Pavement for publication.
(Yes. I kept the letter. What’s your point?)
It took two more years for a “religious publisher” to snap it up, and I’m certainly grateful they did, but I kind of feel like that wasn’t a foregone conclusion either. I mean, last year (or the year before?) I spoke at a Christian school about writing. The 5th and 6th grade class then ended up reading my book and their teachers (okay, one of them was a friend already) had each one write me a letter afterwards. This was pretty great–my first fanmail! But almost all of them asked me if I weren’t please going to write a sequel where Zari “becomes a Christian, too.” (Sorry–spoilers . . . of what doesn’t happen in my book.)
So here’s the deal. One of the main characters in my book is a Christian (fairly outspoken) and another becomes a Christian, but the primary character isn’t and doesn’t, and I like to think that, while the book may be sort of about crises of faith and culture, it’s a story. An exploration, not a diatribe, nor an attempt to foist my views on someone else–except to the extent that all writing is that, in a way. I find it frustrating that exploring that as honestly as I could at the time, even in the context of a children’s book, needs necessarily to be relegated to “religious” literature. If kids can read books about gossip girls and witches and zombies and vampires–well, let them, I guess, but are we trying to censor their exposure to more “traditional” (as pertains to Western culture historically) religious ideas until, say, they’re old enough to scorn it? It seems like a double standard.
Let me say here that I really appreciated the letter from Cricket. I think it’s very honest, not only in its rejection but in its highlighting what they liked about my book and their well-wishes. But I also feel it highlights quite well the divide between general literature and religious writing, and the sort of bemusement that goes with trying to either combine or separate the two.
We shall discuss this more in relation to the third novel I’ve written, sometime soon. In the meantime, what do you think? Is there a place for frank religious dialogue within even fiction? Is it possible to include it without its being preachy or cheesy? Will the general public ever be open-minded enough to feel that it is? (I include myself in “general public,” since my evaluation of the Blue Like Jazz movie wasn’t probably as shining as they would have liked.) I’d really love to get some feedback on this. I know some of you are atheists, so I’d be as curious about your take as I am about fellow Christians’. Thanks, The Readership. You’re the best!