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Who Is My Reader?

February 26, 2014 10:11 am | 5 Comments

I read my first “Christian novel” this week. That is, I read a novel aimed at the “Christian fiction” market.

Christians have written novels for as long as there have been novels. Fyodor Dostoyevsky is the first who comes to mind, but of course the Western Canon is overwhelmingly populated with Christians.

Evangelical Christians may be underrepresented in the 18th and 19th centuries, for there persisted a stream of Evangelical thought that tarnished fiction as “lies.” That said, Jane Austen herself, an Anglican, gradually became more Evangelical towards the end of her life.

Christian beliefs and characters have flourished in Western literature and beyond. Where they are currently missing, I suspect–only suspect, for I am not a habitual reader of light fiction–is in contemporary genre fiction, e.g. mainstream romance novels, mainstream detective novels, mainstream science fiction. And if this is so, it may be so because Christianity itself is becoming less and less mainstream, less and less part of the landscape in which Western societies live. Christianity is seen as boring and out of date; university freshmen flounder in lectures about literature written before 1970, lost before any reference to the Faith on which Western civilization was built. Absalom who?

And so some Christians demand contemporary Christian fiction–fiction about them, fiction that boldly proclaims Jesus of Nazareth Lord and Savior, fiction that won’t scandalize them or corrupt their children. Thus the “Christian fiction” market.

The only novel I have read aimed at the “Christian fiction” market is called The Defilers by Deborah Gyapong. (Full disclosure: I know Deb and very much admire her work in Canadian Christian journalism.) The Defilers was published in 2006, but I avoided reading it then because I flinched at the stark title and the theme: sexual abuse of children.

By 2006, I had heard quite enough about the sexual abuse of children, thank you very much. I was living in Boston, and Beantown was still seething with anger, hurt and betrayal. However, thinking The Defilers was a Catholic novel, and seeing that I now write about Catholic novels, and feeling I could bear to read such a story now, I recently bought it on Kindle.

The story opens in Boston, and the scene is set beautifully and believably. We are introduced to a devout Catholic family: a loving couple, their widowed policeman son, and the narrator, his tomboy child. Linda’s childhood is halcyon until her father meets his Canadian second wife and moves with her to Nova Scotia, leaving inconvenient Linda behind. Tragically, this betrayal coincides with the arrival in their Boston parish of a hip, charismatic, guitar-playing priest with a penchant for 13 year old girls.

This could be tough stuff for Catholic readers, but we know what we know. Clerical sex abuse is a reality of our fallen world, and it’s good that Gyapong writes of the damage it does, including to her narrator, who grows up to be an angry, bitterly anti-religious woman ready to suspect any clergyman of sexual abuse.

Linda joins the Royal Mounted Canadian Police, and after an unhappy stint in British Columbia, moves to rural Nova Scotia. Once again, Gyapong does a great job of describing place and characters. The narrator’s disgust with the squalor in which the area’s poorest residents live is palpable. The dialogue is believable too.

Where the novel falls down, though, is in the pacing of the plot and sub-plots and in telling, not showing. The narrator is prone to informing us over and over again how she feels, as Botox survivors are said to have to do: “I was happy.” I was furious.” “I hated him.” Linda can go from “I felt happy” to “I hated him” in the same paragraph. She spends most of the story on stress leave, and no wonder. The unexplained mystery is how such an emotionally unstable woman was allowed to join the RCMP in the first place.

The other difficulty is that a novel that began as a Catholic story, with the betrayal of a Catholic community by a Catholic priest, morphs into an Evangelical novel, with Evangelical preachers and elders, and Evangelical worship, depicted in an increasingly attractive light. And with the history of anti-Catholicism in Evangelical communities, I am uncomfortable with the depiction of a vividly evil Catholic priest in a novel written for the Evangelical Christian market.

Gyapong is now in communion with Rome, so I do not mean to imply that Gyapong herself harbors anti-Catholic sentiment: she certainly does not. I know her to be a loyal daughter of the Church. And it is a sad fact that evil Catholic priests have indeed preyed upon Catholic children. Moreover, Gyapong underscores in her novel that sexual abuse of children happens primarily in twisted families, that economically disadvantaged children of all faiths or none are at terrible risk, and that child abuse is endemic to the porn industry. Although the first rapist depicted is a Catholic priest, Gyapong’s story is clear that this is not solely a Catholic problem.

All the same, I find myself wishing that Gyapong had continued her story as if she were intentionally including Catholics among her readers, according to Catholic sensibilities, and with a Catholic resolution. My thoughts keep returning to her excellent preface describing life in Boston and her clear-eyed depictions of material and cultural poverty. There is good stuff here.

I realize that this is a “genre” and “Christian market” novel, but I think Gyapong should aim beyond that and write as she believes. G. K. Chesterton wrote detective novels out of his increasingly Catholic faith, and although his detective was an Roman Catholic priest, Chesterton wrote for everyone.

N.B. Because of the subject matter and approach to Catholic apostasy, I do not recommend this novel to young or sensitive readers.

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living in Scotland. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.

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5 Comments

  1. February 27, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    Have you not read any of O’Brien’s novels? I think he is a great Christian fiction writer, and his stories are beautiful.

  2. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    February 28, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Does O’Brien write for a solely Christian market, or does he write for everyone, and only a Christian publisher has appreciated him? That’s the theme of my piece, really: writing from one’s Catholic faith, for everyone and anyone, as Chesterton, Waugh, Greene, Percy and Godden did.

    And indeed, from what I have heard, O’Brien’s work could be appreciated by the same folk who love our fellow Catholic Canadian David Adams Richards, who has won many awards for his Catholic-positive work, but unfortunately he has not got the same mainstream exposure.

    Which O’Brien book is your favourite?

  3. March 5, 2014 at 4:56 am

    Who is O’Brien, please?

    • March 6, 2014 at 12:08 am

      You can find Michael O’Brien’s author page here, with bio and links to books: Michael D. O’Brien.

  4. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    March 5, 2014 at 8:40 am

    We mean Ignatius Press novelist Michael O’Brien.

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