Americans drink an average of 526 12-oz. sodas a year, which averages out to 1.5 per day. Spending on fast food in America has increased to $140 billion per year. The average serving size in your typical McDonald's value meal has tripled since the 1970s. Whether or not these statistics are completely accurate, the point I'm making here is that consumption of 'junk' food is a staple part of American society. I observe it personally, just looking at shopping carts in the stores. The majority of items are pre-packaged, processed minefields of sugary calories. What, you may ask, does this possibly have to do with books?
Consumption of mental junk food is a staple part of American diet as well.
Since rising costs hit quality items first, this doesn't surprise me. Many families can't afford to eat all organic, natural, locally grown, pesticide-free items all the time. Our family certainly doesn't. And often times an all organic, natural, locally grown, pesticide-free story costs much more than the 'junk food' of modern literature.
And so, we've settled for less. And our evaluation of what is truly excellent in the literary food realm has seriously downgraded.
So welcome, my friends, to part two of "The Mark of Excellence". For those of you who didn't catch my last post, I encourage you to check out part one. Today we will be looking at a few general points about historical and biographical books and worldview, as well as language and action choices.
Historical and Biographical Works
You've all read them. Novels that claim to be written with 'stunning historical accuracy' only to find that the only things historical about them are the side arms and the calico dresses. That is not true historical. When you evaluate 'historical' fiction, try keeping in mind the following points:
1. The history should be accurate.
This may seem like an obvious one, but the more you think about it, the more it rings true. It should be packed full of real people who lived in that time period, real events, and real culture. (Note that I didn't say 'realistic') Take Kidnapped for instance. Because Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his story right out of real trials at the time of the Jacobites and James of the Glen, the words he put in the mouth of Alan Breck were actual events and names that I have come across in other reading. And The Betrayal, by Douglas Bond, a novel about John Calvin. Bond used actual words uttered by Calvin, resources from actual letters, and of course, actual theology from his Institutes. The only fiction thing about it, really, is the 'narrator' of the story. But what the narrator says is actual fact.
2. Remember it's fiction, not fact.
Half of the difficulty of attempting to write historical fiction is the knowledge that your readers will accept some of the enhancing bits as real, and the real bits as fiction. If your only source of history is Tracie Peterson novels, then please find a different one. Much of today's historical fiction is "Hollywood history". Check out original sources, read signs, go to museums, and find out if these authors did their research.
3. The history should be interesting.
I can give you actual names of French Revolution leaders. You'll hear things like 'the committee of Public Safety' and 'Sansculottes' when we're discussing In The Reign of Terror, by G.A. Henty. I can tell you about the Battle of Waterloo, and the years between the revolution and Napoleon. I know countless tales of the Scots, and the names of their British oppressors. You all know Great Britain's Prime Minister during WWII, but I can tell you a little of Winston Churchill's part in Parliament during WWI. Why? because I've found stories who's historical facts check and double check throughout different authors, and different centuries. And they present it in a memorable way--a way that helps the facts stick because you remember them in connection with fictional characters such as Harry Sandwith, Duncan M'Kethe, and Charles Rutherford.
4. Details should be specific
The fact that the women are wearing dresses and people travel with horses shouldn't be the only tip-off. The characters should talk like they're living in the time period, interact like they're living in the time period, and make choices based on the ideology of the time period. The main character shouldn't cause you to think they're a movie actor, paid to take the part. Neither should the supporting cast.
My post "You Can't Judge a Book..." covers some of the points I'm going to be making here, so if you'd like a more in-depth look on that point, check out the above link, and read "The Beau Ideal" if you're wondering what to do with a book that doesn't measure up to these marks of excellence.
1 Moral values
I've covered this point before in an older post, so I'll only mention it in passing here. Why do I enjoy the "Golden Age" of literature from the 19th century? Because the heros and heroines held a moral code. An understanding that certain things were right, and certain things were wrong. Men who protected women, the strong who rescued the weak, the friends who never forsook one another. While Jesus Christ and Christianity may not always be mentioned, you can tell the author's basic premise by the character's moral code. If anything goes, then you'll be up against man-centered philosophies, which you'll find quite often in mystery and social justice novels. If right is right, and wrong is wrong, then the author may not be Christian, but they'll be promoting Christian ideology, whether they know it or not.
2. Clear Gender differences
Skirts and trousers are a good start. But attitudes should be clear-cut also. Is the wife always proving the husband wrong? Does David treat his sister with respect? Would the hero take advantage of the heroine in a moment of weakness? Ideas of chivalry, respect, patriarchy, and femininity should continually surface. Is the girl always leading the boy? Issues...
3. Mentor roles
Young heroes and heroines should have an older mentor helping them out occasionally. Brother Cadfael, (Ellis Peters) Arthur Clennam, (Little Dorrit) and Gandalf (Lord of the Rings) all play mentor roles to younger protagonists. If the young person is all-sufficient, then it sends the message that we're capable of making our own decisions without the wisdom of those who have gone before us--we're our own authority. Please note, though, that this is a general rule, but there may be some worthwhile exceptions.
3. Resolved moral conflicts
If a lie is told, it should be reconciled. If a murder is committed, the murderer should be caught. When authors leave moral threads hanging, or sinners excused, then we're not receiving a serious picture of how God treats sin. He never excuses it, and looks at it in a very grave light. How many children's books contain lies that are 'based on circumstances' or disrespect that is never repented of?
These are a few points on part two of "The Mark of Excellence", meant to be general suggestions and guidelines. All these should be tested against Scripture, and God's leading in your life. Thanks for stopping by, and as always, you're welcome to write with thoughts, concerns, or suggestions. May your reading be to the glory of God. :)