Tuesday, December 4, 2007

So, anyone care to explain this to us?

Christine MacLean and I are confused about something. I bet you can figure out what. Here's how the story begins, with Christine's initial manuscript query to me more than two years ago:
"PULLING OUT [original title for How It's Done. Catchy, eh?] is a contemporary coming of age story about Grace, a high school senior from a fundamentalist Christian home who gets swept off her feet by a visiting professor who is teaching a term at the local college. Before long, she's in love, engaged, and in way over her head. It's a story about power and love, and the power of many different kinds of love. Ultimately, it's a story about how a young woman stops letting others define her and learns to define herself--just in time. NOTE: This book does not fall into the category of 'Christian fiction.'"
Easy enough. I didn't really need her "note," but it was good to know and I agreed after reading the manuscript that it was not "Christian fiction." So, fast forward nine months and the manuscript for PULLING OUT is a book called How It's Done and reviews are coming in. SLJ weighs in with a nice review, closing with:
"MacLean delivers a gently redemptive, compelling story of a young woman who wants to grow up too fast."
Good start, but it places the book under the heading "Fresh Christian Fiction." Hmm. I'm not sure what's up with that. But there's more. Soon after, the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books also writes a positive review but says:

"Numerous Biblical references are presented familiarly, as if readers will know chapter and verse . . ."
Wait, huh? And then there's a very positive review in Publishers Weekly, but with this qualifier:

"A couple of scenes that feel like 'battle of the scripture quotes' as well as an occasional curse word and sexual situations help make this a fully rounded tale. "
Bah! Finally, the coup de grĂ¢ce, from a teacher on her unsuccessful attempt to get the book approved for curricular use:
"The district thought it was a bit racy and could put some parents on edge. They also worried about the Bible verses."
Mercy! "Worried about the Bible verses"!?! WTF!

By now, if you haven't read the book, you might think it's wall-to-wall scriptural references, appropriate mainly for divinity school students. Nothing could be less true. I haven't counted but I bet there aren't more than a dozen quotes, none of them particularly challenging and prior knowledge of any of them isn't at all necessary to comprehension. So why do they get mentioned in the majority of reviews by adults, even more often than the on-page sex (which is what Christine and I worried about about prior to release)?

Don't misunderstand, I have no problem with reviews that raise issues. I welcome any aesthetic judgment, like "the Bible quotes felt forced coming from Grace and were badly integrated into the story." I'd disagree, but that's how reviews work. But there seems to be more than that at work here. These reviewers seem to feel readers need to be aware of the very existence of a few Bible quotes, just as they feel readers need to be aware of the existence of explicit sex or particularly strong language (in PW's case, they point out Bible quotes, profanity, sex in that order and in the same sentence--an odd trio, don't you think?).

So, here's are question--or questions? First, am I overreacting (entirely possible)? Or is the children's book establishment have a rather . . . unusual relationship with the portrayal of religion in children's books? And isn't this a bit odd, considering where we are as a culture?


Brian said...


Have you been READING all the GOLDEN COMPASS hullabaloo?

Zee said...

I find this very interesting. In order to answer your question, I need a little clarification. Where do think we are as a culture?

Yes, it does sound like they are equating Bible verses with swearing and sex, but that seems right on the money to me. Having the Bible in a teen book is a very risky move for author who doesn't want to write Christian fiction. I think it's great personally, but some publishers may worry about this, afraid their book will be portrayed as the next Mandie series or too Pollyanna for this day and age.

In case you haven't noticed, the Bible isn't "cool" today. Anytime you mention it, you get typified as a Bible beater.

I think it's great that this new book and other works like Evolution , Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande are integrating the Bible into secular fiction.

As far why it's causing a hullabaloo, who knows?

Christine MacLean said...

I do think it's odd, but as the author, I'm hardly objective!

It was a gut instinct that made me include that phrase in my cover letter about it not being Christian fiction. I must have worried that you'd see scripture and jump to conclusions. In most cases, I think that would have been true. (This is one of the things I love about Flux--you're willing to go down an unusual path and see where it leads.)

SLJ's inclusion of How It's Done in their piece on fresh Christian fiction made me uncomfortable because anyone who reads my book expecting traditional Christian fiction will be disappointed--and probably apppalled. The label is misleading, in this case. I wonder: Are there any YA books that quote the Qur'an or Talmud, for example? If so, do reviewers feel compelled to point it out? I don't read enough reviews to know. Andrew?

Terie Garrison said...

(spoiler warning...do not read on if you haven't read the book but intend to.)

I can see why some would consider HID a Christian book. Although it does include racy scenes, in the end, Grace gets hurt (pays the consequences of sin) and dumps the badness (redemption). Those are important Christian values, and I think more-liberal Christians would find the book to fit their views more than your average secular book. IOW, Grace paid a price for her sin and renounced it.

I certainly think the sex would put off a lot of fundies, but overall, the book still delivers a message in keeping with the tenants of Christianity...just in a more graphic way than typical 'Christian' literature would do.

Hope Vestergaard said...

(Ugh, I just composed a thoughtful response and blogger gobbled it up!)

I have this impression that many book reviews are more about the reviewer than about the book. So, yeah, I'd agree they can/do reflect something about the direction our culture's heading in. I call it Short Attention Span Theater. Everything worth discussing becomes a boiled down, abbreviated soundbyte. Reviewers who are egocentric want to be perceived as clever so they use hot buttons and buzzwords to cover all the bases. It's lazy. The beauty of HID is that the characters are complicated and realistic. That's a little harder to encapsulate.

Christine MacLean said...

Hi, Terie. I think the distinction I'm trying to draw is between books that offer up a Christian world view (Katherine Paterson's books) and Christian Fiction, as a genre (e.g., the Holly's Heart series, by Beverly Lewis?). I agree with you that HID fits into the former, but don't believe it does in the latter.

Hope, thanks for your kind words. I guess, like Andrew, I'm puzzled about why quoting scripture (when it's in keeping with the character and setting) makes people squeamish. Whether a reader believes in the bible or not, it is part of the canon of literature, I think. So when it seems that a few passages I included for the purposes of character development are an obstacle to potential readers--I don't understand it. That's all. Not that I have to. I'm just curious.

Hope Vestergaard said...

Zee said the Bible isn't cool anymore, but I don't remember it ever being cool, not even when I was in Catholic school...I do feel like religious rigidity is trendy at the moment. So non-religious people want to make sure no religion besmirches their reading and religious people want to make sure that any religion being represented is in line with their own beliefs (hence the notation that your book includes both scripture and sex & cursing, because heaven knows those things are mutually exclusive).

Although we're talking about your book and the Christian angle, I've heard similar complaints from/about Muslim and Jewish literature. Every day the news reports stories of people suing because their religion has been disrepected or because religion is being imposed on them. This isn't to say that all religious or spiritual people are rigid or judgmental or whatever, but that's what the mainstream news outlets portray. It's lowest common denominator reporting and, in a trickle-down effect, reviewing. This is what I meant by the earlier soundbyte comment: producers assume a really short attention span on the part of the consumer. It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg question.

Also, while the Bible may be a part of the canon of literature from a Western perspective, the range of modern American literature is evolving quite rapidly, wouldn't you say? And teen readers are usually not aware of/considering the canon of literature when they select books. I'd better buy your bewilderment that scripture gets flagged if we were talking about adult literature. Still, I'm not sure people are as widely read as you're assuming or as religious.

Brian Mandabach said...

What a great bunch of comments, beginning with the ever-pithy Brian.

When I consider the reviews of OR NOT, I have to agree that a great deal of the review is about the reviewer. Nothing unexpected there.

I tell my students that reading is a meeting of the reader and the text. I urge them to read closely (or at least accurately), but personal perspective intrudes nonetheless. Add to this that reviewers have an audience for their reading of a story, and perhaps these reviews are not so extraordinary.

Is it a truism that where "we" are as a culture is increasingly fragmented? Even the most obvious Biblical allusion escapes all but a few of my most attentive and well-read students, Christian or not. This may indicate a decline in general literacy more than cultural literacy.

Seems to me that the Bible is a part of the canon as surely as the word (from Greek, then Latin canonicus: according to rule) comes to us through Catholicism. Instead of an evolving canon, it looks to me as if we're developing an anticanon mentality in which no single body of works informs readers and all works are potentially offensive to some groups.

Everything is suspect, then, and worthy of caution. Double the caution when you add Bible verses to sex, I suppose, and when bookshelves are closed to books on such specious grounds, we step into the realm of the absurd, and it's time to empty the library, make a pile outside, and call the firemen.

Christine MacLean said...

Brian, I suspect you're right about the problem being a decline in general literacy. I'm reading Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River right now for book club and last night I came across a passage in which he quotes the Bible--and doesn't even attribute the quote. This, to me, assumes his reader will know the source. Incidentally, I used the same verse in How it's Done to show how much Michael had gotten under Grace's skin--and hard it would be for her to let him go.

Christine MacLean said...

Hope, I agree that the range of American literature is evolving rapidly, but there are so many classic works that reflect or echo Biblical themes (man as falling from grace, redemption, the parable of the prodigal son etc.) that I feel my reading experience is richer for having some familiarity with the Bible. (And actually, I didn't even have enough familiarity with it to write the book without help from Bible.com.) I took a great course in college called "The Bible as Literature" and I have a friend who started reading the Bible to her kids not for religious reasons but as part of their cultural education. Doubtless my reading experience would also be enhanced if I read other religious texts.

I don't think teen readers care about the canon when they select books. I know I didn't! What I was surprised by was that the adult gatekeepers in this case were uncomfortable with the Biblical references. But maybe, as you say, it was more that if religion was going to be portrayed in the book, they wanted in portrayed in a way that was in keeping with their beliefs and/or not offensive to anyone--which is impossible.

Still, I have no regrets about including it in the book. Grace is part of a family where they *do* quote scripture, twisting it to fit their own purposes. They have not been the first, nor, unfortunately, will they be the last.

Christine MacLean said...

And speaking of scripture, I just heard on NPR that all the have sold out at Walmarts across America!

Christine MacLean said...

Sorry about that! Somehow I deleted part of that post. I meant to say that have sold out at Walmarts across America.

Christine MacLean said...

Why does Blogger keep eating the words "talking Jesus doll"? This is how conspiracy theories start!

Brian Mandabach said...

Your use of the word "theory" (my quotes) seems to cast conspiracy in the same light as evolution, ie: "just a theory". It's not just a theory. Blogger has been proven to delete words systematically. It wants to drive you crazy and make you seem silly. Which in your case is quite difficult to do, since you are making so much sense.