Friday, August 26, 2011

"To Be Read?" Or "To Have Said?"

Here's a question for thought. On Oscar night, 1982, who would you rather be? David Putnam, the producer who walked up to the stage to receive the Best Picture trophy for “Chariots of Fire?” Or fellow producer George Lucas whose “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was the big money maker for the same year?

1981 movies too long ago for you to remember? All right, let's set the chronometer forward a quarter of the century and look at two other movies: “The Illusionist” and “The Prestige”. I find it fun looking at the Amazon reviewers argue about which was better. My opinion? “The Prestige” was the better movie but “The Illusionist” was the one I enjoyed watching better.

While both movies dealt with turn-of-the-century illusionists and released the same year, comparing them is like the cliché of apples and oranges. “The Illusionist” was an old fashioned movie, with a clear cut hero, a clear cut heroine, a clear cut villain, and a likeable antagonist. “The Prestige” had two leads that did not fit the nice neat molds. On the other hand, it made you think more. It strove to be a higher form of art.

Yes, you can say I'm dealing with the philosophical debate of making great art or good money. Should we aim to please the people even if we're being imitative rather than innovative? Or should we seek to make the critics notice, doing something that is more creative but may not have mass appeal?

Let's get real for a moment. Any true artist has enough pride in their work to do their best and not produce garbage, but also knows they need to reach enough people for their project to be profitable. However, there will be times when we debate on whether to take a risk that may lessen our audience or not. There's no right across-the-board answer.

But is it really money vs. art? No question about the money side, but let me propose that there is either a conscious or an unconscious message to the art. I recently read Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey which looks at how worldview affects art. She mentions that Gian Carlo Menotti was criticized for his one act opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” because the music was too beautiful.

As Christian novelists, is our goal “To be read” (i.e. getting books off the shelves and into hands) or “To have said” (i.e. having a clear message)? As I said, most of us would answer this question “Yes.” We want both. But, as I also said, we will lean one way or another as we write.

I have written two complete novels, over 20 years apart. The first one was basically written to become a popular adventure movie. I had no real message in the story. What's funny is that while I wrote it as popular fiction, it was probably too Christian for the secular market and too secular for the Christian market.

The reason I wrote the more recent novel was because I had a purpose for it. I thought I could get more people interested in apologetics by writing a novel about a murder mystery at an apologetics conference than I could writing a non-fiction tome. As I wrote it, I had no plans to write a second novel unless I felt led to. And you guessed it: my hunch is that the message novel is more marketable.

This question will affect certain aspects of your story, though. Some of you may have seen a question on the ACFW loop about whether it's appropriate to use a phrase that was considered vulgar when I was younger but has become more common place. Using it would be more realistic, but it might also be offensive to some readers (as well as making agents or editors nervous). On the other hand, I read a novel where the author made some very strong points that represent a theology that not all Christians share.

Let me get practical. In a couple of my works in progress, I've debated dealing with homosexuality and the tension between that lifestyle and conservative Christianity. I came to the conclusion it is not necessary in the story I'm working on now. I'm not as sure about the third installment. I know that this is a risk, but what is more important? To deal with the story and offend some people? Or keep everybody comfortable?

I'd love to get your feedback. This is a great philosophical question, and I don't believe there's a wrong answer.

1 comment:

  1. As I sit back and consider my own work, I don't think I'm consciously trying to choose between creating art or making money. I do consider my ability to write for publication to be a talent from the the Lord (and some friends have received a larger dose of that talent from His hand!), so my main consideration is this: am I pleasing Him with the way I'm using His gift? Am I sure He is not offended with my scenes and my choice of words? Am I staying true to a Christian worldview, or am I allowing today's political correctness (and who gets to decide what's politically acceptable anyway?) influence what I place on the page? If someday I make a ton of money at writing but have to sacrifice any of the above to do it, then I'll be pretty disappointed in me, and so will many who know me.