Category Archives: Fiction

Honor off

Good news. I’ve got a real renter. The guy who came to look at the place a while back called and said he wants to take it. So if my questionable e-mail renter happens to be legitimate, I’m treating him badly. But I don’t think the odds are very high for that.

I’m blogging about Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God again tonight, because the only subject I can think of for a post is a comment I wanted to make about that book in my review, and which I forgot to include.

I don’t mean to beat on Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles again and again, because that suggests I hate the books more than I do. If I really hated them, I’d have stopped reading them. I long ago gave up the compulsive idea that I had to finish every book I started (even—horrors—books I’d paid good money for). Cornwell is one of the solid professionals in the field of historical fiction, and he always gives excellent value for money. He’s too good to give up on, even when he irritates me.

He’s great at the details. He knows how linen was processed in the Dark Ages, and how the process smelled. He knows what plants grew in what region, when they blossomed and what the blossoms looked like (you’ve probably noticed, if you’ve read my novels, that “the flowers were yellow” is about as detailed as I ever get in matters botanical). He knows (or convinces you that he knows) how mounted cavalry fastened their horseshoes in Arthur’s time. Details like that are the result of careful and exhaustive research, and they make all the difference in bringing the past to life for the reader.

But I caught Cornwell in a big error. It’s the kind of error all historical novelists (me probably more than most) make, and make on purpose. But it’s more objectionable in some cases than others.

All historical novelists that I know of alter their characters a bit, giving them attitudes that didn’t actually exist in their periods. The further back in history the story is set, the more attitude adjustment the novelist has to do. Trust me. If you were to spend just a few minutes inside the head of a real warrior of Arthur’s time, the sheer mass of ignorance, superstition, prejudice, hate and tribalism would send you running for an exorcist.

But there are limits, especially in books as well researched as Cornwell’s. There’s a scene in Enemy of God where Arthur and Derfel, the narrator, meet again after a long period of alienation. Arthur apologizes and asks Derfel’s forgiveness. Derfel gives it.

If I’ve learned anything in my historical research, it’s that nothing like that would have happened among Dark Age heathens (which Arthur and Derfel are in the book). Such men lived in an honor-based culture, in which “face” was the only thing that mattered for a man. Such men never, ever apologized, even to their closest friends. The best such men would have been able to do would be to take up as friends again, silently agreeing to say nothing about what had passed between them.

The only thing that made such an act (an apology and forgiveness between warriors) possible (if rare) was the coming of Christianity with its radical new ethic.

This scene is dishonest. Cornwell is trying to picture a “merry olde Britain” going along just fine before the Christians came along to mess things up. And to show us how admirable his heathen heroes are, he depicts them performing an act that they would never have performed, and that they would have despised if done by Christians, the only people who actually might have done such a thing.

Cornwell should know better than that.

Karen Kingsbury’s Stories Sell

Karen Kingsbury tops the list of the twenty bestselling novels in the most recent figures from The Association of Christian Retail. Her book, Forever, also tops the list of 50 bestsellers of all books sold in the Christian stores. Lori Wick manages to squeeze between Kingsbury’s books for second place on the fiction list with White Chocolate Moments.

No, I don’t think these books having vikings in them, but feel free to find out for yourself.

Maybe Genres Should be Good, Better, Best?

Plenty of literary books are unreadable. Plenty of genre books are unthoughtful. So how do you distinguish the pearls of any theme from the hack work? You argue.

My fear – no, make that prediction – is that literary fiction will be increasingly marginalized as general interest publications focus on “books people actually read.”

J. Peder Zane is exaggerating on what people read, but it does hit close to the mark, doesn’t it? If few people want to read what we call literary fiction, why shouldn’t it be marginalized? If all the really good writing is actually in literary fiction, then it won’t suffer in the long-run and may suffer in the short-run if we continue teach our children not to value good writing.

Scary Compass of Gold

I was aware that Philip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials was anti-Christian, if not broadly anti-religious, fantasy, but I having just seen some of the subject matter on the movie site for the first book, The Golden Compass, I’m scratching my head a bit.

People in this new world have their souls outside their bodies–an interesting idea–in the form of animals called “daemons.” That’s another word for demon. I can handle noble witches far better than I can handle the idea that everyone has a personal demon. And the Alethiometer, a truth-telling device, looks like a Ouija board, especially after I read the instructions for how to use it. Perhaps I’m silly, but I hate Ouija boards, and after being told that the soul is a demon in this fantasy, I won’t stand for it.

What do you think? Am I projecting onto someone else’s imagination? Have you read The Golden Compass or the other books in His Dark Materials?

All Ten Best as Chosen by Writers

I’m late to point out another of Frank’s interesting reviews (Books, Inq. is a top ten litblog anyway, so you probably should read him first and scan this one when you have the time.) He reviews J. Peder Zane’s The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, in which the ten favorite books taken from the submissions of 125 writers are revealed. Anna Karenina tops them all.

Strange also, to me at least, is the omission of Austen. I think the inclusion of Lolita and Gatsby is odd, too. Nothing wrong with either, mind you. Both are bona-fide masterpieces. . . . Paging through the 125 individual lists, what proves interesting is how many of the books chosen were written in the 20th century, and often pretty late in the century – which only reinforces the impression that these are books the writers have learned from.

Frank offers his own list here and links to a great list from a Master of Arts program. Further, J. Peder Zane has a book site with reader contributions.

That hideous Hannibal

I took a little vacation time this afternoon. I spent this narrow slice of heaven sitting around the house, waiting for a technician to come and do the periodic inspection on my furnace. As it turned out, he arrived after the four-hour window had closed. I nearly could have worked my usual time and met him when I got back.

Michael Medved was on the radio as I waited, and this was one of those rare Medved shows where the arguing level was low enough so that I could listen in relative comfort.

Medved panned the new movie, “Hannibal Rising,” the prequel telling about Dr. Lector’s early years. After all, aren’t we all yearning to get a good close look at the dynamics that combine to produce cannibalistic psychopaths, especially when we can make it a Valentine’s date?

I used to be a big fan of Thomas Harris, the creator of Hannibal Lector. His books were harrowing, but he treated his characters with compassion and understanding. The villain in Red Dragon, for instance (not Hannibal; he was a secondary character in that one) was horrible and despicable, and you wanted him dead, but you also pitied him. This was (in my opinion) as it should be.

But then came the movie of The Silence of the Lambs, and Anthony Hopkins’ disturbing performance, and suddenly Hannibal became the star.

Then I read the book Harris called Hannibal, and suddenly everything was wrong.

Harris had (it seemed to me) succumbed to the magnetism of Hannibal as incarnated in Hopkins. He may not even realize it, but Harris seems to have started rooting for the cannibal.

So I gave up on him.

Unfortunately, Hollywood hasn’t yet.

The best portrayal of evil I’ve ever seen in fiction remains (for me) C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. It’s certainly one of Lewis’ least popular works, and I have no doubt that many readers have plunged into it, intoxicated with Perelandra, only to find themselves bogged down in the tedium of Edgestow and the Orwellian bureaucracy of N.I.C.E.

But it’s my view that if you slog through those parts, you’ll not only be rewarded, but you’ll finally understand (as in real life) that the hard parts were useful lessons.

Lewis took on the challenge of presenting evil characters without romanticizing them—and any author will tell you that’s one of the great challenges. Villains tend to grow in the telling, and to become lots of fun. Heroes have a way of getting dull and predictable. I think that’s because most of us know a lot more about evil than we do about good, and we tend to equate virtue with passivity.

But Lewis’ villains in T.H.S. are like scoundrels in the real world. They’re not brilliant and charming. They’re not lively and funny. They’re self-absorbed, humorless and devoid of empathy. The reader who works his way through the tough parts of the book will (or at least may) realize that he has spent time in an annex of Hell, and it’s no party down there.

But the community at St. Anne’s—ah, that’s another matter. There we find Lewis’ vision of a Christian fellowship operating as God intended. There we find relationships and laughter and compassion. There we have a glimpse of Heaven, bright as Narnia.

I consider it a tremendous artistic achievement. One that’s never been properly recognized.

Who’s got the Remote?

The snow started last night and left about three inches behind. Nothing to compare to the kind of weather they’ve been getting further south and west, of course, but enough to turn the landscape into the sort of scene Walt Kelly said cartoonists loved—all that snow makes it very easy to draw. And, in classic fashion, the clouds rolled out to make way for clear skies and rapidly dropping temperatures. The high today was about 10 above, and tomorrow should be cut from the same climate.

I drove to work cautiously, tense with the secret fear that haunts my winter commute—that I’ll stop at a red light on an uphill grade and not be able to get traction to move again, listening to the horns of equally frustrated drivers behind me. All of them would be saying to themselves, “That idiot’s in an SUV! Why doesn’t he switch it into four wheel drive?” And I’d have no way of explaining that my 4WD doesn’t work, and it’s too expensive to fix.

But I made it in OK. I even got up the driveway at work, a stretch that’s stymied me more than once in the past. Fortunately our crack maintenance team had risen with the roosters and plowed it out.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d gotten stuck there, though. The head maintenance guy is the one who discovered my drive deficiency in the first place. It’s nice to work somewhere where they know your failings and accept you anyway.

By way of Mirabilis, here’s a story on how scientists have reconstructed the poet Dante’s face. He turns out to have been a little less formidable looking than we’d all thought.

I finished Stephen White’s mystery Remote Control last night. This isn’t a review, though I might mention that I found it kind of hard to follow, and thought the ending seemed a little contrived. I have a question about White’s books.

I’m quite sure (though I’m beginning to doubt myself) that I first heard of White in a column at National Review Online. Somebody wrote about mystery writers conservatives could enjoy, and I’m sure I wrote down the names of Jonathan Kellerman and Stephen White.

Kellerman didn’t disappoint. In spite of having a continuing homosexual character, the Alex Delaware mysteries have become steadily more anti-PC as time has gone by.

But I’ve read three White books so far, and I fail to discern any evidence of conservative views, either political or social.

Remote Control begins with the murder of a saintly abortionist by a fanatical pro-lifer. In the course of the book, association with Operation Rescue is just assumed to be a sign of utter moral turpitude.

Did I write down the wrong author name? Do the books get better later on?

Give me the benefit of your experience.

Book on Troubled Dog Unwelcome

[first posted on January 30, 2004] A book published in November 2001 has sold close to 400,000 copies. It’s made a few bestseller lists. One copy was placed in a West Salem, Wisconsin elementary school library and checked out by the grandson of a former school board member, according to the Coulee News. Now, the book may make the ALA’s misguided banned books list, because Walter the Farting Dog didn’t go over well with grandpa.

The story is as common as dirt. It’s about a dog who—well—needs digestive therapy. He’s adopted at the pound by two kids who discover the problem too late to save their family from air pollution. Enter family strife until burglars are warded off by Walter’s “condition,” and Dad decides to keep the dog after all. Sickeningly heart-warming, isn’t it?

“[The publisher] said the book’s depiction in words and colorful drawings of a dog farting didn’t strike him as being a problem. ‘I don’t think it’s obscene in any sense, not in today’s world.” In fact, it’s vulgar enough to generate interest. Walter is the second best seller this publisher has ever had.

Perhaps the worst part of this article is the publisher’s statement, “It’s a work of art. And many works of art are of questionable social value.” I’ll grant that the illustrator has skill and that her work on this book has merit; but the book as a whole is ‘art’? Sit down, Mr. Publisher. Let’s not abuse our terms. You’ve got a vulgar novelty book which you’re marketing as a children’s book. Let’s leave it there. In my opinion, vulgarity counteracts art; the more of the one, the less of the other. The more vulgar, the more likely you will drag the artistic merit into the gutter, making it worthless. The more artistic, the more you must focus on praiseworthy things, leaving vulgarity beneath you.

Next in the Continuing Saga of Mr. Darcy

Do you remember that bit of news on publishers seeking out fan-fic writers and a particular trilogy based on Pride and Prejudice? Will Duquette has read the first in that trilogy, An Assembly Such As This by Pamela Aidan. He says it isn’t all that bad. “Aidan’s Darcy is nevertheless an intriguing character, consistent with Austen’s Darcy.”

Speaking of fan-fic, November is National Novel Writing Month. I want to type out some fiction this month as well, not for a novel, but for sketches and stories. I may shove some of it to the blog so you have the “opportunity” to read or ignore it.