Monday, May 24, 2010

"If You Want to Preach, Hire a Hall."

Recently on an author's e-mail loop the discussion about "preachiness" in Christian fiction came up. I particularly liked the response from top-notch editor Dave Lambert, who used to edit me at Zondervan and then went on to work for Howard. (Dave is now on his own and working on a "new venture" that I hope to tell you more about in the future.) I always like to see Dave's name pop up on the loop, because I know his response will be insightful. Here's what he had to say on the subject (run on F&F with his permission):


I submitted a story years ago to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. She rejected it personally, in her own handwriting, which I found exciting. Her rejection note was just one sentence: "If you want to preach, you should hire a hall." Well, OK, she had me. It was a little message-driven. She was right.

I think what's at issue here is how we view our readers. William Sloane (I think) said "Great writers assume greatness in their readers." Bernard DeVoto said it differently: Fiction is "children talking to children in the dark." Either of those statements precludes preaching to our readers. When we preach in our stories, it's as if we're saying to our readers, "I have the truth. You don't. Sit down now and listen to me, and I'll tell you what it is. Don't forget it." That attitude might work well for a preacher on Sunday morning; that's what he's paid for. But in fiction, it's arrogant. A better attitude would be to say, "In this story, I'm going to explore these characters and their conflicts and issues, and I hope to learn something. Come along on this journey with me, and maybe we'll both learn something." That's humility. And it assumes greatness in your reader.

Yes, I know--we as Christians like to think that we already know the truth, and that our job is to communicate it to the masses. And fiction is all about truth. But do we really have the truth already? What are we going to be doing, then, for the rest of our lives, if we already know it all? If we've already been perfected, we should ascend bodily to heaven right now. The truth is, we're just at the beginning of our journey toward truth, and we grasp only a tiny part of it so far--there is so much of God we don't yet know, so much of the Bible we don't yet understand. Every novel is an opportunity to learn more, and if we're humble, we'll invite our readers along for the lesson, instead of lecturing them about what we already think we know.

What's your response to Dave?

Check out Dave's latest suspense release, The Missionary, co-authored with William Carmichael. Amazon has it at a great price of $5.60. 
Also available on the Kindle.


Annette said...

Thought provoking post!
My feelings are:
Less about what I think I know and more about what He reveals to me.
Less about me, more about Him.
I will never know it all, at least not in this earthly life.
People want to read and hear about what God has done in my life, they eagerly listen to my testimony.
They want to be able to feel they are not alone in their particular journey in life. They want intimacy, a relationship. Less being talked at--less preachiness--more lifestyle, more example, more vision. They want to take away from the conversation something they can apply to their own life, and to feel uplifted.
In my opinion it is the Holy Spirit's work in the writer that can reach reader's through just the right telling of a story.
Thank you.

Timothy Fish said...

Okay, I can see where writing can be a way to explore various things, but if we as writers ever sit down at our computer and attempt to communicate without having some answers then we’re wasting our time and our readers’ time. I believe that preachy isn’t from a writer providing the solution so much as it is from the writer not addressing the problem.

The passages from a book that come across as preachy are those passages where a character makes some statement like “everyone ought to go to church” without providing the supporting evidence. Even a preacher can’t get by with that. We look at a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and we clearly see that it was intended to make the claim that slavery should be eliminated. But it doesn’t come across as preachy because it lays the problem out very effectively.

I don’t see it so much as we are trying to learn something alongside our readers as much as we are trying to take our readers from being where we once were to a place of understanding things the way we now do.

Janet Macor said...

Secular writers preach too - but in such a well written way that you can't tell.

I think of the Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (quite preachy), The Deptford (Fifth Business is brillant) Trilogy by Robertson Davies, the Jungle by Upton Sinclair or The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The message is there but it is built into the story so well, you have to think about it.

I believe that if we hold our readers in high esteem, we will make them think about it too, to be real about it - the way people really talk about spiritual issues.

Perhaps this is the key, for we really do have the Truth- the Truth the world needs to hear. But we also need to be the best writers, story tellers also - we must be, because of the Truth.

Emily Mitten said...

Am I missing something here or is Christian writing becoming so watered down that it is very like the secular?
I now understand my friend's question when I was writing my first novel. She asked me if it would really be a Christian book and if it would have scripture in it. I was taken aback by those questions since she has known me for twenty years and had to ask if my book would be Christian.
I never thought of it as a preachy book, but it definitely has a clear presentation of the gospel of salvation and is filled with principles of Christian living. People who read it find it refreshing, delightful, and meaningful with interesting characters and lively events. Look up Finding Herself Blessed and find out more information about this novel at

Annette said...

Emily, it may be the same old thinking and statements that has been said since the beginning of time. "Don't tell me what to do, I will make my own choices, I am my own boss."

Sheila Deeth said...

I think my response it to thank him for giving words and explanation to my gut feeling.

Bonnie Toews said...

I say Hallelujah to Dave Lambert's comments. Writers "show" while preachers "tell." Every time we enter into writing it's a humbling experience, but as we work through our characters' struggles with life and faith, we gain God-driven insights that move us one foot closer to the larger Truth. Readers are human and sometimes they can only handle baby steps in their personal journey to have a closer relationship with God, so "preachiness" in a Christian story or what seems to be an unrealistic dependency on God or Jesus turns them away when they are the very ones hungry to know God. God molds each writer to reach the readers He wants us to embrace, from the most mature in their faith to the fence riders. We are all part of that testimony.

Edwina said...

To me, preachiness is continually hammering home the same point - whether it is the message of salvation or a stand against abortion or "we need to help the homeless." Any of these messages can be made without driving the message into the ground and driving the reader away from your story.

I've been told that my first MS is very preachy - and I agree. I plan to rewrite it - but I will not water the message down - I just won't hammer it into the ground!

Great post!!

Southern-fried Fiction said...

I say Amen! People read fiction to be entertained. If we want the message to come through, do it subtly, showing not telling them. That way, they don't put up a barrier against the message or worse, toss the book.

When I was the creative arts director for my church, we learned that when people think they are being entertained they will let down those barriers. Then without them realizing it, we've reached out and touched hearts, changing lives.

Cheryl Klarich said...

Great writers create authentic characters that live out their stories on the page. Readers are smart and can tell when the author butts in with something that doesn't feel genuine and we get that cringe feeling that causes rebellion against the story, more accurately, the author. Don't lead me, lure me with great storytelling. If I'm blessed, I'll be back for more.