Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fiction that Cuts Deep

by Dina L. Sleiman

A few weeks ago one of my writing buddies made a shocking confession. “I want to write fiction that hurts people,” she said. “I just realized this about myself. Ultimately, I want it to get in there and break open wounds and clean them out so they can heal, but I think I also want to hurt people in the process. That's a problem.”

Yes, that is a problem. Just try selling that book. We do want our fiction to cut deep, but in a targeted sort of way. We need to use anesthesia (i.e. entertainment value), precise surgical tools (i.e. excellent writing technique), and don’t forget the pain meds (i.e. positive spiritual takeaway.)

The point can’t be to wound. The point must be to heal.

That being said, I crave fiction that cuts deep. I just finished Embrace Me by Lisa Samson. The book shattered me in the best sort of way. Yes, it hurt, and I loved it. No, I’m not a masochist, quite the opposite. But, I adore a book that gets in there and does surgery in my heart. That changes me and helps me grow. Here’s the blurb for Embrace Me:

When a "lizard woman," a self-mutilating preacher, a tattoed monk, and a sleazy lobbyist find themselves in the same North Carolina town one winter, their lives are edging precariously close to disaster . . . and improbably close to grace.

How could a book like that fail to touch you? It is described on as, “Biting and gentle, hard-edged and hopeful . . . a beautiful fable of love and power, hiding and seeking, woundedness and redemption.” Lisa Samson is “An Artisan of Hope,” and in my opinion, a writer of the highest caliber. Dare I say, a literary author?

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what “literary fiction” is. Some say it excels in artistry and use of literary devices. Some say it focuses on character and theme more than plot. Some say it seeks to enrich more than entertain. On the other hand, some say it asks questions without answering them, or it’s depressing, or worst of all, that it’s written by pretentious snobs who think they’re too good for popular fiction. Given such a vast array of definitions, here’s my take.

Literary fiction: a rather useless term used by some as a compliment and others as an insult.

I’ve been called…or accused of being …a literary writer. And that’s not surprising since I’ve taught literature. I do give attention artistry and literary devices. I do tend to focus on theme more than plot and enriching more than entertaining. But most importantly, I want to write stories that change lives.

Call them whatever you want.

Fiction that cuts deep and changes lives can come in all sorts of packages. Readers have come to expect it in literary writing and angsty women’s fiction. But I’ve also found it in the romance novels of Ruth Axtel Morren. I’ve found it in the demented thrillers of Steven James, and the hysterical chick lit of Siri Mitchell.

Changing lives is what truly matters. Add in some artistic elements, as the above authors most certainly do, and you might just get the compliment…or insult…of being called a literary author. I’m not going to concern myself with the label anymore.

Ideally, quality Christian fiction should both entertain and enrich. That’s my goal. I want my writing to attract readers interest and then seep down in their hearts to change them in some small...or big...way. Most importantly, I want my writing to advance God’s kingdom on earth.

What is your definition for quality fiction? What do you look for in a novel? What does it take for a book to truly move you?


  1. I agree. On all terms. I can say the best of those things about the literary books I loved and say the worst about those that were written by those pretentious snobs who wrote words to impress only themselves.

    For me, I need a mix of literary novels and genre fiction unless I can find one that does both. It happens. Lisa Samson is an excellent example.

    I don't want to be cut deep unless there's something to be removed, that's for sure. One cheap answer to the 'what is your definition for quality fiction' is ...when I wish I'd written it myself.

  2. Ahh, I like "when I wish I'd written it myself." I definitely feel that way with Lisa Samson books, but I also feel like I wouldn't be able to write them. Her mind is a truly amazing place. Probably my favorite character in Embrace Me was Lella, the armless legless woman. Her bright shining spirit juxtaposed against her deformed body was just brilliant. I've had a character like that in mind for a novel for quite some time, although I was going to make her quadrapalegic. I would never have thought of pushing the boundaries to a "human cocoon" in a freak show.

  3. Wanted to mention that I'm also a guest blogger today at just in case anyone can't get enough of me ;)

  4. Dina, I think you have the best definition of literary fiction I've seen.

    Yes, I get literary devices and such, but really, who's to say? Today's commercial is tomorrow's literary. Ask Dickens or Twain.

    I want to write fiction that moves people and opens up their vision of the world while entertaining them. Tall order, one that scares me.

  5. Sounds like you and I are on the same page in what we hope to accomplish, Patricia.

    I was thinking more about this today, and was considering that for some, Lisa Samon's books probably cut a little too deep. I love them because they mostly deal with areas in which God has already dealt with me.

    On the other hand, if someone was religious, selfish, fake, materialistic, etc...her books would hurt tremendously. I confess they still challenge and twinge me a bit in the materialistic element.

  6. Great post, Dina. I'm like Deb, and I need a mix of literary and genre novels.

    Beautiful, top-notch writing that challenges me as a person and a writer can be found in romance novels, and likewise, "literature" can leave me scratching my head in befuddlement, wondering if it has a single redeeming quality -- style, message, dialogue, anything.

    But that doesn't happen very often.

  7. I can do without genre novels, but my very favorite books of all time give the full entertainment value along with the artistic elements and great message.

  8. I admit, Dina, I don't usually read the more literary books. I truly have to be in a mood, and defintely must have the entire day to read because if I'm too tired, I miss the point. Not because I'm empty-headed, but because I need light reading when I'm stressed or tired. But, when I'm in the right frame of mind I get very absorbed. Great post!

  9. Yes, but don't I recall you liking some fairly hard hitting fiction, Suzie? Were you the other Unspoken fan?

  10. Unspoken. Sigh.... Yes, without a doubt one of my favorite books. There's also a series of books by the same authot - Angela Hunt, that are among my favorites. The Heirs of Cahira O' Connor. I think you would love them, Dina. I also loved The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner.

    Okay, you've convinced me... my favorite books are in the very category I've been too exhasted to read. I guess I've just been overwhelmed lately. When I have another break from school, I will read one of Lisa Samson's books.

  11. Exhausted. I meant exhausted. I really dislike typos.

  12. I've stopped worrying about typos on my comments, of which there are many.

  13. I had one last thought on quality or literary fiction. Fiction with enough meat that you can use it for a book club. I think the reason I love "literature" is that when I taught literature classes we had such amazing conversations about philosophy, psychology, history, politics, religion, well as my much appreciated literary devices.

  14. Like Susie, literary fiction often leaves me wondering if I missed the point. But I believe even genre fiction should address social issues, and philosophical debates, and so forth. If not in the plot or main characters, then certainly in the subplot.
    I did love "Embrace Me," because it put into fiction much of what I'd been thinking about the church and Christianity in general. It pushed the envelope, and I like that.

  15. "But I believe even genre fiction should address social issues, and philosophical debates, and so forth."

    This is so true, Niki. I think that's why I keep reading Steven James's thriller novels. Part of me hates the gory stuff, but I adore all the philosophical discussions.

  16. Great definition, Dina. The literary fiction term always left me muddled. I akin books to food. Some times I just want candy. While other times I need nourishment. The best stories provide both, but I think they're hard to find and much harder to write.

  17. Candy and nourishment together. Sounds perfect. I love those salads with fruits and candied nuts hiding my green vegetables :)


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