A week ago I started putting some of today's concepts in The Great Conversation, but I quickly realized that they deserved a post of their own. This post is a companion topic to last Friday's thoughts, and further explores the art of conversing with authors as we read.
I've never read Tolstoy, and I'm a little leery of using a quote when I don't know its context. But it suits today's article, so forgive my ripping it out of its original form and running with it.
Tolstoy isn't the first person I heard this idea from. A few weeks ago K.M. Weiland mentioned in an interview that "Novels aren't meant to provide answers, only ask questions." And as a reader and a bibliophile, it's been niggling in the back of my mind ever since. I'd never heard the concept before and wanted to reach some kind of conclusion on it. Is it true? Half true? All wrong?
In the end, it all seems to come down to which direction you take it.
First of all, it is true that artists must be about the business of painting life in all its manifestations, good and bad. Every author writes a scene to match a piece of reality--sometimes he makes it more beautiful, sometimes he removes the trash from the back alley--but in the end, the most compelling stories are those to which readers can relate to. Reality. Not the gilded Victorian sentiment, but the real, gritty, equipping-for-life, war games stuff.
Yes to both. There are some times when a novel simply asks a question, and lets the reader seek out the answer on their own.
Why wouldn't we want to give clean-cut, nicely wrapped up packages of perfection?After all, we have every answer we need in Scripture. Don't lie. Don't steal. Don't disrespect your parents. I've thought about this with almost every book that has challenged me most. If Scripture makes it clear, then novels should make it clear as well, shouldn't they? Certainly ethics should be clear. Right is right and wrong is wrong and truth is truth, and every author worth their salt will say it clear and say it bold. That's a point that by the grace of God I hope never to back down on in my reading or my writing. However, Christians and non-Christians wonder, and indeed, most novels are centered around the main question: what happens when those around us deliberately disobey things they know to be true? How do innocent people deal with the consequences of sin in others, and how do frail humans deal with the consequences of yielding to the flesh? That's when the rubber hits the road, and we're faced with contradictions, and difficulties, and things we don't understand. And that's the stuff novels are made of.
We as readers like irrefutable resolutions, plots wrapped up nicely, and characters who see the light by the last page. But in the end, when we close a book with the character realizing everything they ever needed to know, we know that doesn't quite match up. In real life, we don't know how to fix things. Not all oldest sisters shape up. Not all lovers reconcile. Not every murderer repents of their sins, and not every broken relationship finds healing. And there is proper place for fiction portraying that--the open-ended struggle of living in a world broken by sin, that won't be fully fixed until all the saints get to heaven.
More on that in a moment.
It seems wise and true that all novels should definitely ask questions. They should be a quest--a journey--a learning experience for the reader. Then we can divide the questions into two categories: ones that should be answered, and ones that shouldn't
1. The questions that don't have to be answered.
After some thought, I would reword Tolstoy's quote a little bit. He's on the right track, but a little tweaking would make it even better: "The aim of a Christian artist is not to resolve a question irrefutably, but to compel one to love God in all His manifestations, and these are inexhaustible." [bold words are my changes]
The love of Jesus is vast and unsearchable (Ephesians 3:17-19). The wisdom of God is beyond our finding out (Romans 11:33). Sin and grace, mercy and sacrifice, questions about our future and pain and personality--these are all huge questions that we are told in Scripture we don't have all the details of--and in that case, it's perfectly acceptable to leave the message of "we just can't comprehend it" in novels.
For instance, the biggest "open-ended question" a story can show is perhaps found in the book of Job. He suffered horribly. He couldn't see the meeting between God and Satan, or the permission that God gave for him to suffer. Job only knew that his anguish was great and God seemed far away, and he sat in the misery of open sores and judgmental friends. The book of Job reads as a story of a man who never gets his question answered. We, thousands of years later, see that it is because God specifically allowed his suffering--but we're never told why, beyond the fact that we know from Scripture God works all things to his glory and out of love for his children. But at the end of Job, you always end with the question of why God allowed it at all--and are forced to conclude that you have to trust God for the answer.
2. The questions that do have to be answered.
If Scripture is clear, then we can be clear as well. And we must be. When the character is ambiguous on any point where Scripture has made something abundantly clear, then we as the reader have to ask the question: Does the author expect me to use this character as a role model, or are they trying to show me that this character doesn't always make wise choices?
If the former, then do a double take and seriously question whether the book was well written. Obvious role models are allowed to do wrong in a story on occasion, but it should be clear that what they're doing is not wise. Otherwise, the author is using them to send a message of false reality to the reader, that wrong doesn't really matter. That's not true artistry, to blur where things are clear, to make abstract things that we should be able to see the shapes of. Artistry paints things as they are--and doesn't alter the sun shining down clear and bright.
How it All Applies
Sometimes a character is there to show the reader that not everyone chooses the right thing. Stories are, after all, to paint a portrait of all aspects of life, and that includes sins and mistakes. Some authors are subtle in the way they show the consequences of wrongdoing, so take a minute to think about their worldview, their story choices so far, and the obvious ethics of the story before you decide whether or not they're taking it the right direction. After all, every good story expects and deserves a thoughtful reader. Good authors don't spoon feed readers with moral theses on every plot. The reader has to work and think and reason in turn.
Because Christian authors and readers look to Scripture as our highest example, there's a point we can take from it for novels we read and write. Everything happens in Scripture because God ordains it for a specific reason--and he works through the messy and the beautiful, the sin and the virtue of his people to accomplish his purposes. Novels can demonstrate the same principle. Sometimes, in a novel, it's very clear that the character has no idea where they're going or why. They're stuck in what they can see in the moment, and have to take things as they come. But the reader can tell that it's all leading up to a purpose, and no matter what mistakes the character makes, that purpose will be accomplished.
For instance, in the novel I'm writing, one of the themes I hope to make clear is Providence. While I don't state it explicitly, it should be fairly obvious over the course of the story and its sequel that the series of events happens for a specific reason. My character is put in a situation he has no desire to be in, and faces a lot of challenges that he doesn't know how to handle. Sometimes he chooses right, and sometimes not, and often he's confused about what his place is in it all. But in the end, it's clear that he's there for a purpose that he and no one else can accomplish, and for a lot of good, as well as a lot of hardship, that he wouldn't have faced otherwise.
I've chosen to make that point completely clear through the story itself. It will be there, for life will be there in all its manifestations. But I never come out and say it openly--or at least, I haven't yet. And not all authors do.
In conclusion, life is messy and complicated; therefore books can be messy and complicated too. As long as they are clear where God is, we can love the wonder of that which we aren't sure about due to our human limitations. Good stories are made, not of moral ambiguity, but of honest, worshipful wonder at the intricacy of our journey towards Christlikeness.
And any good story that adds to the wonder of our God is a beautiful thing.
It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. ~Proverbs 25:2
P.S. The Movie Reviews tab is updated with three new films that I'd love to discuss by email with any of you! :)