Saturday, February 22, 2014

Why So Few Good Fiction Books About Religion?

The Feb. 22 Winnipeg Free Press carried a review of Leah Vincent's memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. It is described as a tell-all story of “self-hate, self-damage, terrible loneliness and frightening and unfulfilling relationships” while growing up in an ultra-orthodox branch of Judaism in the U.S. The book reminded me of a column I wrote in 2009 about why there are so many books that portray religious communities in a terrible light.

Have you read the book about the Roman Catholic priest who served his parish well and long—never molested children, was always faithful in his duties and was much loved by everyone?

No? Well then maybe you read the book about the young Mennonite girl who grew up in a loving Christian home, attended an accepting and supportive church, and who became a joyful and dedicated Christian?
Missed that one, too? Well then, what about the book about the book about the Muslim woman who feels happy and secure in her religion, and who doesn’t feel oppressed?
What’s that—you never heard of any of these books?

I’m not surprised; they probably haven’t been written. Or, if they have, they certainly never became best sellers.

In 2005 Wendy Shalit touched off a literary firestorm in the U.S. when she criticized the way some writers who aren’t religious have portrayed ultra-Orthodox Jews in that country.

Writing in the New YorkTimes,  she said: “Authors who have renounced Orthodox Judaism—or those who were never really exposed to it to begin with—have often portrayed deeply observant Jews in an unflattering or ridiculous light.”
These books, she went on to say, leave “many people thinking traditional Jews actually live like Tevye in the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ or, at the opposite extreme, are like the violent, vicious rabbi in Henry Roth’s novel Call it Sleep.”
What bothered Shalit the most was the impression these books left with people who knew little, or nothing, about Orthodox Jews.
“We have relied for too long on people disaffected with the Orthodox world to produce an ‘Orthodox literature’ that verges on caricature,” she said.

“Their characters, ostensibly spiritually motivated, never show anything resembling an inner life or concern for others . . . unfortunately, the media (and many readers) seem to feel that these writers are representing the traditional Jewish community, when by their own admission the authors do not identify with these worlds.”
I must admit to feeling a little bit like Shalit over how members of my church—Mennonites—are sometimes portrayed by authors.

Take, for example, Miriam Toews’ book A Complicated Kindness. Set in the fictitious Manitoba town of East Village, it describes the effects of an oppressive, fundamentalistic and hypocritical Mennonite church on a teenage girl and her family. 
I can’t deny that this may be the way Toews experienced the Mennonite faith, or that those kinds of Mennonite churches have existed or still exist today.

But what I can say with certainty is that those aren’t the only kinds of churches in the Mennonite faith—back then, or now. But you would be hard-pressed to find many books about these kinds of faith communities.

I understand why publishers are more attracted to books that cast religion in a negative light. Stories about happy teenagers who love Jesus, go to church every Sunday and work at Bible camps each summer just don’t sell.

But write a story about a former churchgoer who rebells against religious authority, uses drugs and sleeps around—now we’ve got something!
One could argue that this is normal; the goal of fiction is to explore extremes. Who likes to read a book that doesn't featuring conflict, controversy and harrowing experiences? The escapades of a fallen believer will always be more interesting than someone who never does anything wrong.

But if that’s all that gets published, it doesn’t take long for a stereotype to emerge. And if the stereotype is reinforced often enough, it becomes the truth for those who don’t have a more complete picture of the group in question.
Maybe what's needed are more writers who explore not just the bad things that happen in the name of religion, but the good things, too. What's needed next are publishers willing to take a chance on books that promote the positive aspects of religious life.

Last, readers are needed to reward those publishers by buying those books—maybe people like you.

Originally published in 2009. If you want to reprint this column, send me a note. You can find my e-mail address in the post labelled About This Blog or in my profile.

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