Thursday, March 04, 2010

Forgotten Beauty

Athol Dickson’s novels have been favorably compared to the work of Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly), Daphne du Maurier (, by Cindy Crosby, Christianity Today fiction critic), and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). His last four novels were all finalists for the Christy Award, which he has won twice. Other honors include the Audie Award, a Booklist Top Ten Christian Novel of the year and a Christianity Today Novel of the Year finalist. His most recent novels are Winter Haven and Lost Mission. Athol lives in southern California.

It was an obvious mistake. Long ago during my life as an architect I designed a restaurant’s floor plan with the front doors swinging inward. If there had been a fire and a crowd rushed out, those who got to the doors first would have been unable to open them because of the press of people coming from behind. In the years since then as a full time novelist, I have spent a lot of time with other authors exploring the best practices of plotting, characterization, theme, setting, and craftsmanship. Strangely, I cannot recall a single conversation about beauty. This is remarkable omission for professional writers, easily as inexplicable as an experienced architect who draws a pair of entry doors that swing against the flow.

When I first realized what we were missing, I thought perhaps it was because the goal of beauty in a novel is so obvious we think conversation is unnecessary, much as people rarely talk about the importance of air.

Yet that can’t explain it, since we spend so much time discussing other aspects of good fiction which are also obvious. If we feel characterization is worth our consideration, or plotting, or theme, why not beauty, too?

Next I wondered if we might ignore the topic due to the mistaken belief that beauty is the end result of every other aspect of a novel. If we do those other things well, beauty will—so the theory goes—follow naturally. But it seems to me this makes no more sense than a pair of tourists who plan a journey to the last detail without ever mentioning their destination. To arrive at a place, one must set out for it. To set out for it, one must have it in mind.

Maybe we’re embarrassed by the idea of discussing beauty in our work. Maybe we feel it is immodest to admit pursuit of such a goal. Or maybe we’re intimidated by the subject. Maybe we fear open talk of beauty makes us more accountable for its absence from our words.

Whatever the reasons, I think it strangest that I didn’t notice this omission earlier. When novelists get together to talk about their work, beauty (or the lack of it) is the elephant in the room, the emperor’s new clothes, the front doors swinging inwards. This is particularly odd for Christian authors, who write in service of the One who “shines forth in beauty” as the
Psalmist said, and who are commanded to pursue an unfading beauty which “is of great worth in God’s eyes.” We create because we were created in the Creator’s image. God called all creation “good,” which is to say, beautiful. Since beauty was God’s end result, it must have been His intention in the beginning. Should it not be so with us?

The modernist movement in architecture, guided by Louis Sullivan’s famous statement “Form ever follows function,” brought us those
boring glass boxes that now pass for good design among the skylines of our cities. But consider something like a rose. Certainly its scent and color serve a purpose, but does the rose exist in all its glory simply because form follows function? I think not. We are taught to focus on grace and good works will follow. So it should be in a novel. Beauty ought to be intentional, not a byproduct of craftsmanship and characters, plots and settings.

If our work is an offering to God, let us not rely on accidents to make it worthy. Let us search out the finest words deliberately, with beauty as our goal, as shepherds once searched through their flocks for lambs without a blemish.

Perhaps some will object that they find glass boxes beautiful. If so, far be it from me to disagree. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, if I may fall back on cliché to make the point. What I am concerned with here is not some universal standard that makes a novel beautiful. I am simply saying a novelist should strive for beauty with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. If lust equals adultery, and anger equals murder, surely the principle works in the positive. What matters most as people and as writers is what we hope, what we dream, what we strive to do. Even the most discriminating art collector would find a misshapen lump of clay beautiful beyond compare if it was formed as a gift by the small hands of a loving son or daughter. If a Christian author’s novel is her offering to God, let her strive to make it beautiful however she defines the term, and it will be so to God.

Commercialism, fads and apathy toward the subject are perhaps the worst enemies of beauty in fiction. Commercialism begins with the wrong motive, when motive is a fundamental quality of beauty as I have just said. The pursuit of fads, while popular with some marketing professionals, yields nothing more than slavish imitation, when nature’s infinite variety reveals beauty and originality as inseparable. And apathy is the opposite of love, when love is the underlying purpose of all things beautiful. An author who cares about beauty in her work will rigorously avoid these things.

The best friends of beauty in a novel are deep contemplation, honesty, intentionality, originality and love. Deep contemplation, because lasting beauty is never superficial. Honesty, because duplicity is ugly. Intentionality because true beauty comes only from beautiful motives. Originality because again, nature’s variety proves it inseparable from beauty. And love, because it is both the purpose and the Source of all things beautiful.

Sadly, our culture values instant gratification above everything, even at the cost of ugliness and mediocrity. Television, fast food restaurants and tract houses testify to this. Even more sadly, Christian readers are as guilty of it as anyone. The popularity of simplistic answers to the many paradoxes in the scriptures is one proof of this.

Only pride or money could explain why a novelist would pursue readers who demand easy answers to the vast enigma of the Godhead, who have no time for sunsets, who find an ocean view too empty, who barely see the roses, much less stop to smell them.

We are told no one can serve two masters. Write for pride or money, and you do not write for love or beauty. Yet we are also told our novels must burst upon the reader’s mind with all the urgency of a fire drill. We must hook them. We must do it right away or they will rush off to the next shiny lure, and we must keep them on the hook, wiggling like a dying fish until the bitter end. But beauty does not operate that way. Beauty demands nothing. It does not insist. Beauty whispers. It entices.

For those who love in spite of the unknown and unknowable, for those who gaze in awe at sunsets, ocean views and roses all ablaze with color, there is another sort of hook. Just to pick one fine example, consider One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Marquéz. I found little in the plot to justify so many pages, and today I do not recall a single character’s name, but the words . . . the words! Contrary to the usual advice, for me it was no page-turner. Instead my mind lingered, dreading the coming end because each page turned meant one page closer to the ceasing of those beautiful, beautiful words. The joy they sparked within me will not die until I do.

How I wish the world was filled with novels of such beauty! How I strive and strive to write such words, every single one an offering without blemish to the Source of beauty. And how I search for those who also strive to write that way, that I might have a chance to read them when the Lord is done.


Glynn said...

I just finished reading "River Rising." When I closed the book I told my wife that for some (seemingly) odd reason it reminded me of "100 Years of Solitude." Now I know what it was -- the beauty.

Lori Benton said...

I'm three or four chapters into my first Athol Dickson book (Lost Mission) and have already been inspired by the beauty of the words. They are what captivated me as a reader, and I didn't even notice the moment when story and character hooked me, though by now they have. This post of yours Athol underscores that, and makes me want to strive all the more for beauty in my writing.

Brenda Anderson said...

I've always believed that great stories consist of more than plot & character, but also have prose with a symphonic quality. Athol's novels achieve that. Thank you for broaching this important topic.

Athol Dickson said...

Thank you for such kind words, Glynn and Lori and Brenda. I'll do my best to live up to them in my future work.

Meg Moseley said...

Thank you for this, Athol. Words can be, should be, a holy offering to the Lord who gave us the beautiful gift of language. He deserves our best.

Ron Estrada said...

I've thought a lot about this, but never used the word "beauty." It's fitting. Often I'll read something that is technically flawless. Story, characters, tension, etc. Everything is perfect. But something just doesn't snap. I can paint by numbers and create a nice picture, but it isn't art. I think that's the "aha" moment of every writer, when we've got the technical points down, and one day we add the sunset. Then it becomes a beautiful work of art.

Laura Frantz said...

Beautiful, memorable post. You've just written what has been on my mind and heart for so long. A few months ago my first novel was released. Only one person said anything about the beauty within - the "symphony of words" - and she's commented here (Brenda). She's the one who linked me to your post. Sadly, I think most readers miss out on the most wonderful aspect of the reading experience - the beauty and appreciation of language. Ever since childhood, I've felt writing is an act of beauty, of worship, but wasn't able to articulate it. Thank you for this. It's one of the best posts I've ever read.

Athol Dickson said...

That's so true, Ron. There's an almost indefinable presence to beautiful words that transcends technique. But I do think (or I hope, at least) that "presence" can be studied after the fact, and the study of it can be a useful guide for achieving the same thing elsewhere. It's strange that this is very seldom done.

Lynn said...

Wonderful post! I love the concepts you've shared here.

Yvonne Anderson said...

Amen, and amen!

I've put this quote on the wall above my writing space: "Let us search out the finest words deliberately, with beauty as our goal, as shepherds once searched through their flocks for lambs without a blemish."

Kelly Klepfer said...

Well said. After reading and reviewing scads of books over the past few years I can honestly say beauty is a rare and precious thing.

If I pick up a book and get lost in the words, if I forget about the dull or stressful world around me while I'm drinking up good writing, it equals the sun shining after weeks of gloomy gray, a song sung by a flawless voice, the laughter of a baby.

If the writing, the beauty that the words create, catch me, I don't care one whit about plot, grammatical correctness, or even characters.

We need more books written by men and women who love words, not because of how they make the author sound, but because of the mind art that they create.


Kathleen L. Maher said...

I appreciate the teacher's heart as well as the student's heart you have, Athol. You exude a love of learning that is contagious. This post inspires, and that is what beautiful writing does for me. Well done.
Thank you for mapping out a destination as we write. God has made everything beautiful in its time. May our words reflect the multifaceted blaze of His glory.

Jennifer Lyn King said...

Thank you for your post, and for poking a finger into something so difficult to describe and almost impossible to set out to achieve. I think in the quiet, in the resting with the words and story, the beauty somehow emerges, and becomes. Words and story cannot be microwaved and zapped into beauty. But this is a wonderful discussion. Thank you, again,
Jennifer King

sibella9 said...

Thank you, Athol. As well as making your case, this essay demonstrated the point: It was beautifully written. A true pleasure to read.

And while reading it, an image came to me. The woman pouring out her last reserve of oil for Jesus. Her choice made no common sense to those observing, but it made perfect sense to God.

Thank you for the gentle yet pointed reminder.


Athol Dickson said...

What an excellent analogy, Silella. Because of course you're absolutely right; the perfumed oil was luxury, pure and simple, but Jesus loved her for it in spite of Judas's oh so practical objections. I suspect God feels the same when we invest the extra time to take a painting, song or novel to a higher level, and conversely, I suspect He mourns a little when we're satisfied with mediocrity.

Kay Day said...

I wonder if writers shy away from discussing beauty or striving for it because they are afraid of slipping into the dreaded purple prose?
Just like any other skill of the craft, writing beautifully is something that must be worked at and learned. Or is it something that comes naturally for some writers and not for others?

I've known that the common factor of my favorite writers is the beauty of their words. And you're on that list.
I was just discussing Magic Realism with a friend and was thinking of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I haven't read it, but I will.