There’s a character in my novel, The Vestibule of Heaven,* whose name is Mrs. Perkins, but another character calls her “Mrs. Persnickety.” She’s such a stickler for order and cleanliness that she has no use for genuine beauty.
I hope I’m not like that. But it has been brought home to me lately that I am extraordinarily picky.
I don’t mean picky in general. I’m not fastidious about food, or careful about cleanliness, or whiny about wine. I’m fairly accepting when it comes to people. What I’m picky about is words, and specifically, good writing.
A blog I follow (and have contributed to) is currently doing a series called “Would You Read On?” featuring the first page of a novel and asking readers to comment as to whether they would read any further. One recent page was from a published novel. All the commenters before me were enthusiastic, but the page left me cold. It wasn’t a matter of not liking the genre or the subject matter; what I didn’t like was the writing. It struck me as overdone, sensationalized, immature. (Later commenters noticed this as well.)
Books that get nominated for awards I find flat and uninspiring. I regard as puppet-like characters that reviewers describe as “realistic” and “well developed.” Novels that others call “life-changing” are, to me, only just good enough not to put down in ennui. Manuscripts I reject as poorly written are published elsewhere and well received.
So is it me? Am I so jaded and world-weary that nothing can please me? Have I set standards so unrealistically high that no writer can meet them?
I don’t think so. There are many writers whose works I greatly admire—and not all of them are dead. Some recent bestsellers and award-winners stand proudly on my shelf of all-time favorites. Harry Potter, for instance. Peace Like a River. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Gilead. Anyone who’s followed the reviews on this blog knows I can sometimes wax positively ecstatic over a book. When I love something, I can even be more or less blind to its flaws.
But there’s an interesting trend here. The books I embrace, rave about, read over and over, are mostly published in the general marketplace. The books that make me scratch my head and wonder what all the fuss is about are mostly published in the CBA.
And that makes me wonder: Do Christians, as a body (not maligning individuals here), have poor taste? Have they read so little in the classics and the truly-greats that they don’t recognize good writing when it leaps off the page and shakes them by the throat? Or are they just such nice people that they (a) value niceness over real merit in fiction and/or (b) don’t want to offend any other writer by being critical of their work?
I have a little sympathy with (b). I’ve forborne to review certain books on this blog because I liked and respected the author but couldn’t be enthusiastic about the book. But not reviewing something is different from reviewing it in more glowing terms than it deserves. The latter may preserve a friendship with the author (although it shouldn’t be necessary for that purpose), but it does a disservice to the reader looking for a really good read.
I’d like to challenge everyone to be a little pickier in what they read. Pick up a classic now and then and study the writing. Think about what has made that book last through the decades. (I’m talking here about the kind of classics people still actually read outside the college classroom. Think Austen and Dickens rather than James Joyce.) Then take a second look at the books you raved about yesterday. Do they really deserve that praise? Or should you be setting your sights a little higher?
Then come back and tell me what you think. Am I Mrs. Persnickety, or just a defender of quality in the written word?*The Vestibule of Heaven is represented by Diana Flegal of Hartline Literary.