So Are There Actually Standards in Literature?

Yesterday I wrote about my preferences in literature, being careful to note how these were my preferences and not some sort of objective standard for what is good and what is bad literature.

Amongst other things I said this:

That means that there’s no objective “good book” and “bad book” for the most part. There are books that will entertain nobody, inform nobody, and challenge nobody. But there are also books that don’t entertain me, but are just the thing for somebody else. . . .

So this morning I’m reading a couple of my favorite blogs, evangelical outpost and Locusts and Honey, and between them I find a set of articles that are trying to argue against my point. They want to say that there are some very objective and important standards.

Now if I were paranoid or megalomaniacal I might think that these posts came as a result of my off the cuff remarks, but being mentally balanced, I’m aware that my remarks had nothing to do with it. I’m used to an occasional exchange from my Threads blog, but never expected to do one from this “fun” blog where I let down my hair. But here goes . . .

Joe Carter in his nifty weekly 33 things post links to this post which claims that changing good creatures into bad fosters bad morals. Here’s the quote:

It’s as if the authors of such fiction want to numb their readers to the idea that real evil exists and is consistently recognizable. If you’re convinced a dragon, or vampire, can only be deemed bad after you’ve gotten to know him, you’re more likely to give all the dragons and vampires a chance to prove their character before making a judgment. Sadly, the time that passes between meeting a new and as yet unjudged dragon/vampire and deciding whether he’s of the good sort, or bad, is a time of extreme vulnerability.

Apparently the author expects people to respond with “lighten up, it’s just a story.” But that isn’t my response. I actually find a good deal of moral good in making the moral character of a creature separate from its form. Having good dragons and bad dragons makes them much like people–form doesn’t determine moral quality. Just because a symbol has been used for something evil doesn’t mean that is the only way it can be used.

Frankly I think that stories that make the assumption that traditional good and evil roles always fit with the expected people teach a very bad lesson. They teach that one can use stereotypes to make moral decisions. Now I don’t mind a few stereotyped stories; just don’t overdo it. But don’t get over the top if I put a nice dragon in a story either.

The other article that related was this one (Locusts and Honey comment here) which I actually could use as exhibit A for elitist views of literature and music.

The key quote comes here:

My relativist undergraduates feel empowered by a leveling theory that puts their favorite rock band on equal footing with Bach and Mozart; but watch how quickly a qualitative hierarchy races back when, in the interests of consistency, you suggest that their favorite band must be no better than the Backstreet Boys (or that their favorite bohemian film is no better than, only different from, Police Academy 5). . . .

And I could simply ask on just what basis you do say that one is objectively better than the other. Philosophers regularly argue that their thoughts are better than those of common people, and of course than those of certain other philosophers. But the question is just how one tells which is which? A popular presentation will have a much greater impact on the public in general. Which is better, an obscure philosophical article that is read by 20 or 30 people or a popular article read, and perhaps understood by millions? Either may be right or wrong. Either may be dangerous or of positive value to society.

My point is that while there are some objective characteristics both of literature and of thought, there are also abundant subjective factors. Elitists like to list boring and obscure literature and call it great. But what made it great, other than that people who write obscure prose happen to agree that it is? In the meantime, millions who just enjoy literature, or film, or other forms of entertainment simply go out and, well, enjoy it.

I’m often in the minority. In this case I’m with the millions.

And if you ask me why my favorite literature is better than your choice, my answer is this: “Because I like it!”

On Harry Potter

I’m not a reader of the Harry Potter series, but I really like this note from Laura of Pursuing Holiness. (I worked together with Laura in forming the Philophronos Blogroll which can be seen on my threads blog. This is my “fun” blog.)

To a large extent I think the difference in people’s reactions to books like these is one of perspective. There’s an old saying: Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw mud, the other saw stars. Similarly with literature you can either see the wonderful themes of the Lord of the Rings, or you can get hung up on the fact that wizards and magic are involved in the story.

There are types of literature and entertainment that we should avoid as Christians. Often, however, we avoid things out of hysteria and ignorance rather than because of considered judgment.

DVD: The Fountainhead

I have always appreciated The Fountainhead both for its literature and philosophy. As a Christian Bible teacher, there are obviously some differences between my philosophy and that of Ayn Rand, to put it mildly. I have always wondered why her philosophy had to be so strongly opposed to theism. Obviously it was opposed in many ways to Christian theism, but theism, or perhaps deism, can be nothing more than an assertion of ultimate order in the universe in different language.

I recently discussed some of the particulars of the character of Howard Roark that I like and dislike in my post Can one Like both George Bailey and Howard Roark? I think there is a mistake made both by supporters and opponents of Ayn Rand, and that is that to have absolute and true values one must be on one extreme or the other, that one is either totally selfish or totally unselfish, independent or dependent, has integrity or completely falls apart. Of course, that is part of Rand’s message. She doesn’t believe that “middles” are possible.

I believe in balance and integrity at the same time, meaning that one finds the correct point, which may or may not be one of the extremes, and then stands for that point. There are things which society may ask of me, and which I should choose to give, but society as such doesn’t own me. I have rights to my creations, but at the same time I may recognize that no matter what I construct I have learned some things from other people.

In The Fountainhead, Rand has Roark appear almost as if from nowhere. Family doesn’t exist. Early education and nurture doesn’t exist. Roark just appears. This picture is much better in the book than in the movie, in my view. It is something that attracted me to the book in the first place. There is an annoying tendency of families and friends to claim every accomplishment of their relations as their own, to point to every talent and ability as coming from somewhere on the family tree, and giving no individual credit to a child and his or her creativity. That combines with the expectation that the family owns part of that creative product, that the child who succeeds should help the large number of relatives who have failed. The Fountainhead goes to the opposite extreme. Roark comes from nowhere, stands alone, owns everything.

But are the extremes the only option? I would suggest that some of what I am has come from my parents. Some has come from teachers and friends who have guided me along the way. But some of what I am, and all of what I have made of that comes from me, me in relationship to God, and belongs to me and not to anyone else. Where I lean in Rand’s direction is that I need to be the one to make that choice. That is sometimes going to involve me handing off some of the glory of achievements, or even the ignominy of defeats to others when they are truly responsible. But at the same time it will involve me taking responsibility for both to the extent that is really true.

Contrary to Howard Roark, I see a positive value in teamwork. This is not the teamwork that wrecked Cortlandt before Roark blew it up. Rather it is teamwork where each makes a known contribution and is acknowledged for that. That is the type of balance that I would look for, and that is the reason that I can appreciate The Fountainhead, while disagreeing in substantial ways with its author.

After many, many years, and several readings of the book, I finally brought myself to see the movie yesterday. The movie is well done in that it keeps the theme of the book intact, as one might expect of a script written by the book author. Some of the events are changed in order to make it a reasonable length movie. Gary Cooper is wonderful in displaying Roark, and the remainder of the casting is good. I personally still prefer book form for presenting material of this nature. I like time to think about scenes and using my imagination on them. But if one is to present such a book in movie form, this is a good way to do it. If, like me, you’ve resisted getting the movie because you normally don’t like such things, go ahead and get this one and watch it. I found it immediately available via Netflix, and it was a pleasure to watch.

If you haven’t read the book, consider doing so before you watch the movie. The Fountainhead is a book that should provoke thought, and you should have time to think as you go through it.

Old Mystery Still Fascinates

Analysts try to put a face on Jack the Ripper proclaims a story on MSNBC. It’s interesting, though not surprising, to see how much attention this mystery gets 118 years after the murders took place.

One wonders whether the ripper would have been quickly caught with modern crime fighting techniques, given the amount of information that is available even now. Nonetheless I doubt we’ll have a solution that everyone can agree on, so authors should have plenty of opportunity for fun for many more years to come.

Fiction at Charisma Book Expo

Well, I’m back from the Charisma Book Expo, a conference/expo sponsored by Charisma Magazine to be both a spiritual experience and highlight books and resources for the charismatic Christian market. What’s of potential interest to readers of this blog is that two of the major speakers at the conference have turned to fiction writing for one reason or another.

Tommy Tenney has written a book titled Hadassah: One Night with the King, which has now been made into a movie titled just One Night with the King. I haven’t seen the movie as it has not been released yet, and in fact, I haven’t read the book. I just heard Tommy Tenney discuss them at the conference.

The final night speaker was John Bevere, and while I’ve read some of his non-fiction books, I have been enough out of touch that I did not realize he has written and is about to release a novel of suspense, Rescued. He has also produced an allegory in audio theater format titled Affabel: Window of Eternity.

I’ve talked a good deal about the value of fiction, though one of my major points is that fiction is valuable as recreation. My tendency is to recommend less explicitly theological fiction. Tommy Tenney’s book is primarily intended as a good, enjoyable story, though it is based on a Bible story and certainly has spiritual implications. Both of John Bevere’s fiction offerings are definitely in the form of explicitly Christian literature.

I’m planning to look at all of these. This is not a review, but merely my impression after listening to the authors talk about their work.

Patience of a Saint: God with a Cosmic Baseball Bat

I love books by Andrew Greeley, and this one is no exception. It’s way out of date, copyright in 1983, and in fact can only be found used on Amazon.com, but I generally write on this blog about what I’m reading right now, and this is one book. In the scattered way in which I have read Andrew Greeley’s books, this is not too surprising.

Normally I’m a strong advocate of enjoyment in literature–read what you enjoy reading. I’m not much for standards of literary value, though there are things I would regard as destructive. But in the case of Andrew Greeley, there is a bit of an ulterior motive in my enjoyment. I believe Greeley presents the gospel in fictional form as no author author does. Now he tells a very good tale while doing so, but the gospel message–God’s implacable love–runs through these books from start to finish.

In this book, Red Cain, the central character encounters God who is swinging a cosmic baseball bat. Having had a few similar encounters with God myself, I sympathize with the lead character in practically all ways. I can tell you what such an encounter with God feels like, and I can tell you that Greeley is accurate in presenting it. He’s also accurate in presenting other people’s reactions. I personally had a larger number of supportive people and a smaller number of people who were negative, but the whole range were there.

Do I mean that this is some sort of theological work? No, though it has both a theological note and a sociological note at the end. It’s good Greeley style entertainment, with the descriptions of sexual encounters that have made people question how a priest could write them, action, suspense, superb characterization. It’s not really deep stuff as in hard to read, but I’m not one of those who favor literature that’s obscure. I like it pretty straightforward. If I didn’t like the story and characters so much, I might find a bit too much human interest rather than movement of the story for my taste, but as it is, it’s all quite manageable.

With Amazon offering copies for as little as $0.01 (plus their shipping and handling) and copies in libraries around the country, you can afford to take the time to read this. It may help you renew your commitment to God. It might even help you with the more difficult task of renewing your commitment to your family and your community, both physical and spiritual.

The War on Fun and Imagination

It seems as though practically every day I hear complaints about people having fun. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s how they talk or live, or the type of entertainment they watch or read, or the sports they play, some humorless wet blanket is going to try to smother their enjoyment.

I’ve personally encountered this a few times with reference to role-playing games. Now it so happens I’m not active with role-playing any more, and haven’t been for a few years. But that’s not because I decided they were a bad thing, or that people shouldn’t get involved in them and enjoy them. It’s just about this time of my life and my priorities. As one can tell from this blog, I still put my imagination to work from time to time working out stories in imaginary worlds. With a nifty little blog like this I can post my stories to be ignored, enjoyed, criticized, or whatever else, and it’s just plain fun.

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