Friday, 30 November 2007

On pride

This week I was going to write something about teddy bears and the need to understand the mindset of very different cultures. Having taught for eight years in a culture which was at least partially Islamic I think I have something to offer in the current dispute. However these are sensitive times and I think it will probably wait. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind having my books publicly burnt in Khartoum, particularly if a) they had paid for them and b) I had good press coverage.

The real reason for the shift of topic is that I had a nice surprise this morning which has made me consider an old concern: the topic of pride. I was in early at college this morning but really was not feeling very excited about life; the weather was grey, the sky thick with clouds full of rain and I felt certain I was about to come down with ‘flu. Then I was suddenly summoned to the Principal’s office. I should explain that we don’t see an awful lot of the Principal, largely because he spends a lot of his time dealing with the impenetrable Welsh educational bureaucracy 60 miles away in Cardiff; so it was not a trivial summons. I won’t say my entire life flashed before me but it did cross my mind that December was not a good time to be made redundant.

I had no need to be concerned. On the contrary, it soon emerged that a student I had taught for the last two years had got the highest mark nationally at A-level in Geology. He got a book prize, and as his teacher, I got a Fellowship of the Geological Society for a year. Anyway, Chris Jones, currently at Emanuel College Cambridge reading Natural Sciences, is a great lad who probably could have got it just by reading the syllabus and teaching himself. I wouldn’t be surprised if he occasionally reads this blog (he was very nice about the Lamb Among the Stars books even if he doesn’t share the Christian viewpoint) and he utterly deserves the award.

Now I mention this here because it raises a question that a member of church raised with me the other week: when if ever is it right to be proud? Frankly, I found this a difficult question then and I find it difficult now. When I first became a Christian I imbibed greatly of the truth that I was a miserable worm and that pride was the greatest of all sins. I developed remarkable skills at understating natural abilities and perfecting what I now think is probably a superficial humility. But ought we treat all awards as worthless baubles, as empty and vain gestures in this brief life? I have no doubt the Puritans would have said so. I don’t need them to know that there is a great deal of pride that is clearly wrong. Any sort of superiority that tries to demonstrate you are better than someone else is sinful. But is it totally wrong for instance for a parent to take pleasure in a son’s musical achievement or a daughter’s sporting triumph? Is it utterly appalling to take pleasure in some event that vindicates a tough or painful decision you have made?

It seems to me that these are difficult areas. Obviously, all that we have is by grace and we need to realise that in one sense we have nothing to be proud of. But beyond this isn't there a sense in which we can take pride in an achievement? I wonder whether part of the problem is that the English word pride is very broad and covers a range of things extending all the way from innocent pleasure in a football team’s performance to wholesale and unacceptable boasting. I have to say I was jolly pleased about this morning’s news but my main pleasure lay in the regions of relief and possibly vindication. In the three years that I have been teaching, I have not found it very easy and have frequently felt I was something of a fraud. I guess this morning I finally felt that actually I might be doing a decent job.

Anyway I’m sure I’m not alone with the problem of pride. What I’d love is a simple memorable and permanently usable rule to distinguish ‘good pride’ from ‘bad pride’. Any ideas? In the meantime, I shall with, thanks to God, quietly stick FGS after my name!

Have a good week,

Friday, 23 November 2007

On youth fiction

In a blog response last week, someone mentioned that my books were still being marketed as children’s books and asked for comment. Let me give an explanation here, and then pass along to briefly discuss the whole issue of children’s fiction.

My books were originally written for adults, and still are written for adults. I don’t get a lot of criticism, but certainly no one has said that they are too simplistic or shallow to be considered as adult fiction. On the contrary, many comments have been on the lines that, by the standards of Christian fiction, these are actually deep and thoughtful books. (I fear that this reflects much more on the parlous state of Christian writing than on my writing skills.) Quite simply, the issues I grapple with in the books are those that interest me. I am an adult (albeit with a stubborn streak of adolescence), therefore, the books are adult.

The problem arose when what is now the first volume ended up on Tyndale’s desk: they wanted it but didn’t do fantasy fiction. (You may feel this to be a slightly curious statement given that their biggest seller has been the Left Behind series but I couldn’t possibly comment.) They did however have a youth imprint that they were about to launch and threw me in it. I didn’t object: I was glad to get published in the States. (Of course, in those days the dollar was actually worth something :-)). Since then I have been relocated to the adult category as Tyndale’s first fantasy author. However, there is a bit of a lag time and some people evidently still think of me as a youth author. So if you get the chance please do promote me as adult author.

All this has made me think about what actually makes up youth/children’s fiction. I have no easy answer and I found it easier to define children’s fiction, not by what it is, but by what it isn’t. I decided, in the traditional manner of a Welsh preacher, that there are three things that mark writing for children: a constraint on style, substance and sophistication. By a constrained style, I mean that the writer shuns a heavy and complex prose style full of long words and sentences. By a constrained substance I mean that certain topics are not touched on, or only alluded to in passing. I think these would not simply be the obvious ones of sex and extreme violence, but also include the cynicism, bitterness and despair that characterise much adult fiction. By a constrained sophistication, I mean that we shun the cleverness of allusions, quotes, word games and the like that would go over the head of a young person. Let me give you a non-literary example. The other day, one of our papers had a wordless and well done cartoon of Sarkozy, dressed as Napoleon, riding a donkey alone along a wintery vastness of railway lines. The cartoon required both a knowledge of the present French industrial strife and awareness of Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. The verbal equivalents of this are best avoided in youth writing.

But is there anything else? Is there any particular positive feature that marks out youth fiction? A youthful hero perhaps? Maybe, but that is not essential. An optimistic view of the future? I think that is naiveté. A sense of innocence? No way! But I am open to comments. For what it is worth, I have no intention of trying to write youth fiction as such. What I do intend writing is accessible adult fiction, and it seems to me that that will do.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Villains and covers

This is one of those Friday evenings when I am not going to cover anything momentous. I have just posted an article on Speculative Faith about villains in Christian fiction and that has drained a few of the creative juices.

Actually, it’s been a tiring week. I was back teaching on Monday morning, still full of cold, and kept going well into our open evening where we recruited for next year. I left at five to nine in the evening, after what amounted to 12 hours of solid bouncing around and trying to be enthusiastic. Anyway, thank you those who showed concern, the cold is now more or less gone.

On the book front, there have been some little bits of news. I popped over to the Lamb Among the Stars wall on Facebook and was delighted to find that it is alive and well and that there are some very interesting comments. I also perused to find that The Shadow and Night has managed to now accumulate 10 reviews, every single one of which is five stars. It's just a pity that the sales rank is so low. The main news though was that I received the covers for The Infinite Day – you’ll find the picture on my website.

I have to say I like it. Those desperate to know what is about to happen will I’m afraid derive little enlightenment from it as it was deliberately chosen not to give anything away. I still do not have a publication date, but presume will get one very soon.

Have a good week.

Friday, 9 November 2007

The blessing of blogs

It’s a Friday evening after a busy week and a long day’s teaching and I’m getting my first cold of winter. Reader, I do not feel like writing a blog. Not at all. Yet, I’m going to do it. The reason is not simply out of a sense of duty to the probably very small number of people who actually read this regularly. The fact is, I have actually found it to be quite a blessing. Quite simply, it forces me at the end of a long week to write something vaguely sensible and vaguely coherent. It is the verbal equivalent of making yourself go to the gym. You do reap benefits. So for instance, this week I had to rewrite a statement a student had made about himself for university. His comment about the result was effectively unprintable in its gratitude for how I utterly rewritten his statement. So it is worthwhile.

Anyway what’s new? Well, I have been truly outed as a writer in a couple of my classes and the kids want to talk a lot about the books. The trouble is, you can never be quite sure whether they are genuinely interested or whether anything is preferable to geology, geography, or environmental science. I tend to answer one or two quick questions and then move back to where we were. I’m not paid to promote myself. However, I do sometimes wonder if my reluctance to be drawn on the books is taken as an indication that I am embarrassed about them. If I ever was, I am not now. I have had enough fan mail to realise that most people actually enjoy them to some degree and some people enjoy them a lot. And no one has publicly said they are garbage. (If you think that they are, please don’t ruin my otherwise perfect record and move along quickly to someone else’s website. Please!)

But there are still questions I find difficult. For instance making the right response to ‘I hear you write books!’ For one thing, there is the question of humility; if you shrug your shoulders, look embarrassed and make some comment like ‘we all have our secret vice’, they tend to assume that what you write is utter garbage and you are ashamed of it. When they ask ‘what sort of thing do you write?’ and you answer ‘Christian fiction’ that, of course, seems to confirm the matter. Christian seems to be taken as code for ‘so poorly written that no one except someone with a preoccupation with the faith would want to buy it’. As a result I’m afraid I often leave the reference to Christianity to some sort of supplementary follow up.

‘Do you make a lot of money out of it?’ is another question, which often (too often) produces the tart retort from me “Do you really think I would be teaching you, if I did?” You have to point out that well although the sales are reasonable what writers actually earn after all the deductions is not that wonderful. The trouble is they do the equation: 10,000 books or whatever times say eight pounds and come up with £80,000 and assume that you have pocketed the lot. Chance would be a fine thing, particularly these days, when most of my sales are in the green and sickly dollar. Then they say ‘what are the books about?’ There is no easy answer to that, or none that I have found. I’m tempted to reply ‘these are profound meditations on the problem of evil in the world’ but that may not be a vote winner with 16-year-olds. ‘What’s your best selling book?’ is actually quite easy and quite a good question, because I am able to say it’s The Life, a book about Jesus, and I have sold around 70,000 copies. 70,000 copies gets people interested. But as I said, I’m not paid to talk about myself or to do evangelism and actually there is the student-pupil relationship which you don’t really want to breach. But they do borrow the books from the library and some actually seem to enjoy them. Who knows, perhaps I am doing some good after all.

Cough, sneeze etc.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Segues, spaceships and Suzuki

This is an early blog this week as I am away over the weekend. For new readers and others, I try to post weekly, Friday evening, UK time. And those interested in commenting on the books may wish to know that there is a rather fun Lamb among the Stars Facebook group.

I have always been a fan of the segue: the art of seamlessly moving from one section or theme to another. (Mind you, it took me a long time before I realised it was pronounced seg-way.) Anyway, there are a couple of instances below.

I seem to have survived last week’s posting on JKR and the outing of Dumbledore. I was worried I would either get damned or praised for being anti-gay. One comment I made last week did though come back to haunt me: my criticism of her ladyship for tinkering with the plot post-publication. The reason was that I have been finishing the final edits on the Infinite Day (it is half-term: I get to work at home and drink my own coffee) and I realised that if I was to make any changes, now is my last chance. One change I would like to make but alas, it is in the first book and beyond recall, is where I mention a spacecraft named after Shih Li-Chen, someone who Merral recollects “was poet, church leader and unsurprisingly for early twenty-first century China, martyr.” In hindsight, I think it would have been more daring (and conceivably more prophetic) to hint that the martyrdoms for the faith had been in the West rather than the East.

The fact is that Christianity is alive and well in the East. If you wanted proof of that it was very audible this week with the long-awaited (and not just by me) release of J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass under the conductor Maasaki Suzuki. For those outside the blessed elect of Bach fandom, let me explain. Although elements of the B Minor mass were written earlier, Bach compiled the whole work in in his final years. Two hours long and in Latin, it was quite unperformable in any church context, least of all in Bach’s own Lutheranism and seems to have been intended as a monument for posterity, summing up all that he could do. Anyway, it is one of the most perfect masterpieces of Western music and Maasaki Suzuki does it proud.

Suzuki, a Japanese Christian, and a very considerable musician, has been working his way for years through the vast canon of Bach cantatas (36 CDs so far and about 24 to go) to growing acclaim. What distinguishes his work is a polished musicianship plus – and here is the key – a sensitivity to what the text is saying. Apparently, he makes sure that his singers fully understand the meaning of Scripture. (There is a fascinating article on him and the growing Japanese interest in Bach here.) Anyway, they’ve just released his version of the B Minor and I downloaded it off eMusic for a very reasonable cost. It seems to me that he gets it wonderfully right; reverent without being slow; dramatic without being too theatrical and everywhere beautifully played and sung. It's an awesome piece of music, and in his hands you can happily believe that no one has written anything finer. Even if it seems imperilled in the West, Christianity is alive and well in the East

And now ladies and gentlemen (roll of drums) for that rarity: the return segue. When the Voyager spacecraft was launched in 1977 – by now it’s about 9.5 billion miles away – it bore a golden disc with sounds and musical items on it. Bach was the most represented composer with three tracks. In discussing the choice of music, the biologist Lewis Thomas said: “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach . . . but that would be boasting.”

Just so.