Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Recently a review of the Broadway play Blackbird ran in The Wall Street Journal. Blackbird, by David Horrower, is a two-actor show that runs in a straight 90 minutes of real time, starring Alison Pill and Jeff Daniels. The story is about Una, age 27, showing up unexpectedly in an office to confront Ray, 55, about his molestation of her when he was 40 and she was 12. At first she’s furious at him, and he’s terrified to be found these 15 years later. But as the play moves on, as the reviewer puts it, we “learn that Ray and Una are still obsessed with one another” and soon start reminiscing in explicit language exactly what happened between them.
The reviewer, Terry Teachout, quotes Harrower as saying he wanted “people shaken up.” But Teachout wonders—to what end? He says that Harrower “suspended his characters in a moral and factual vacuum.” As a result of the “absence of any moral frame for the events,” the play offers nothing more than “shock for its own sake.”
Teachout was not calling for “stopping the action” to “insert an audience-comforting sermon.” But, he says, “moral points can be made in vastly more artful ways.”
That last paragraph sound familiar?
I keep coming up against a truth as I read about Story in its various forms in the general market. Those authors/screenwriters/playwrights face the same issues we do. Previously I posted about the issue of reviews. Now it's how to make moral points in an “artful way.” How to present real, sometimes raw life without doing it for mere shock value. It's good for us to realize that the issues and challenges we face aren't just in our industry. Too often we can talk about them and bemoan them as if the issues are only found within CBA. In fact, they are found within the world of creating Story.
As for making a moral point, the very raison d’etre of Christian fiction is to depict Christian truth, whether obviously or subliminally. So I don’t see that any of our novels as a total package would fall into the “mere shock value” category. But this point is something to remember as we struggle with how much reality to use, what scenes to include, how much graphic detail to include. Scene to scene, paragraph to paragraph, we can ask the same question: is there a moral value to this part of the story, or is it here for “mere shock value?”
I find Harrower's quote about shaking up people interesting. Almost as if he started with a result in mind, then set out to create a shocking story to achieve that result. We face that temptation in CBA, too, whether it's to push the envelope as far as possible just for the sake of pushing, or whether it's to hammer home a Christian theme, thereby ending up with a didactic-sounding story.
Either way, the danger seems to lie in focusing too much on what we as writers want to achieve and forgetting how our readers may respond to the resulting story. Both sides of that equation are important, and one side may need to temper the other.