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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thoughts on Kitsch in Fiction

I read somewhere—I think it was C.S. Lewis—that the devil’s favorite trick is to get people to pick one truth to the exclusion of another. He doesn’t care which direction we stray off the Path, so long as he can get us off the Path. That is certainly true for novelists.

Writing a good novel is much like walking a very narrow path. A novelist can fall in one direction by ignoring the audience altogether (call this “elitism”), and in the other direction by pandering to the lowest common denominator in the audience (call this “kitschiness”). The first mistake results in truth or beauty withheld due to a failure to communicate, usually because the author is too in love with her own words to sacrifice them for mere readers. The second mistake results in truth or beauty corrupted due to “dumbing down” the words to suit readers who refuse to think. As with most important things in life, maintaining a good balance between these extremes is not so simple.

Among Christians writing novels, the problem of literary elitism is fortunately rare. Unfortunately however, the problem of literary kitsch is all too frequent in novels by Christians. Recently I got some insight into why this is, when to my very great surprise I heard several published Christian novelists and working Christian painters and sculptors deny that there is anything wrong with pandering to the lowest common denominator in one’s audience.

Clearly, a mistake can’t be avoided if it isn’t seen as a mistake, so it seems worthwhile to explore this problem.

What is a “kitschy” novel?

“Kitsch” in literature involves two closely related ideas. First, it’s the literary equivalent of a politician kissing a baby. It means going for an easy and superficial emotional response instead of doing the more demanding and enriching work required to draw the audience deeply in through genuine connection. The emotion in kitschy work means little or nothing, and most people know it, but the audience so strongly hungers for what it ought to mean that many will pretend it’s real and worthwhile anyway. In other words, kitsch is similar to ideas like “corny,” “cheesy,” or “saccharine.” But that’s only part of the meaning.

Kitschy novels are also the literary equivalent of faking a friendship in order to get something from a person. They place theme or message ahead of everything else. The novelist might devote time to their “friendship” with the audience, saying the things one says to friends, giving gifts and doing favors, so to speak, but if the underlying motivation is to get something from the audience—to get the readers to do something, think something, believe something—then every other aspect of the novel is corrupted and in the end the audience either: a) feels they have been used (if they are smart), or b) is manipulated and doesn’t know it (if they are not so smart). Either way, the reader’s experience is similar to that of a con man’s victim. Even if they do or believe what the novelist hoped, it is not for genuine reasons, not sincere, but only because they were tricked. This is particularly abominable if the novelist’s goal is to communicate the gospel. How could any Christian think God would approve of spreading the Good News through cheap tricks?

Why this is wrong

Since the definition of "kitsch" includes the ideas of mediocrity and manipulation, I assumed all of my more artistic and literary friends would agree that kitschy art and literature is undesirable, but as I mentioned, it turns out that’s not so. Some don’t even agree there is a problem. Fascinated, I asked them a lot of questions and it turns out there are at least four common arguments for why kitschy art and literature should be accepted. Each argument contains the seeds of its own destruction.

The first argument is, “Who are we to say it’s kitschy?”


This is driven by an admirable desire to avoid judgmentalism, or else by a less laudable tendency to make tolerance a virtue for its own sake. Either way, we should return to the definition of “kitsch”. Does the work go for an easy and superficial emotional response? Is it driven by a message to the exclusion of other legitimate artistic concerns? These questions transcend personal taste. One need not like a novel to respect it, to agree that it is sincere, complex or deeply meaningful. To a very large extent it is possible to say, “This is good work,” or, “That is bad work,” based on definable criteria rather than personal opinion. Legitimate literary and art critics frequently overlook their personal opinion to base reviews on these objective standards.

Also, we should return to the idea of an artistic spectrum and note that the existence of “gray areas” as we move toward both ends of that spectrum doesn’t mean we can ignore the dangers further on in those directions. Some novels stand in a gray area between the balanced middle and a bias toward elitism on one end, or kitsch on the other. Legitimate differences of opinion may exist about the nature of the work in those gray areas, but that doesn’t excuse a thinking person from standing firm against the general mistakes of elitism and “kitschiness” in principle.

The next argument for accepting kitschy art is this: “Lots of people like kitschy novels, so let’s leave them alone.”


This may be driven by another admirable instinct, which is the desire to avoid causing offense or hurting feelings unnecessarily. After all, if you tell an audience you think their favorite novelist’s work is kitschy, it will likely cause offense. And it is certainly true that “lots of people like kitschy novels.” But for a Christian this is the simplest argument to dismiss, because of course we know the world’s approval is never a reason to define anything as acceptable. Often the truth is just the contrary. In the fallen world, people have a long history of settling for the mediocre. This is what we do when we choose anything but Christ. So as Christians, we know better than to respond by saying, “Well, they seem to be happy, so let’s leave them alone in their ignorance and error.”

Part of our role in life is to shine the light of God’s love and perfect beauty into all the dark and muddled corners of this world. Therefore Christian novelists in particular bear a responsibility to stand against both haughty elitism and the (much more common) easy kitschiness that infects the world of Christian fiction. We have a responsibility to demand instead a kind of literature that respects the audience enough to sincerely attempt to engage them (no elitism), and to engage them in ways that are honest and important (no kitschiness). If the audience is too ignorant to understand that they need this, or too ignorant to even know such a thing is possible, then it is our responsibility to help them see the possibilities they’re missing.

A third argument I’ve heard is, “If it’s the best work a person can do, that’s good enough for God.”


Often the widow’s mites are cited, or the parable of the talents, and of course it is perfectly true that our best (and nothing less) is exactly enough for God, whether our best is excellent in worldly terms or not. But it is a long way from saying that, to saying God doesn’t want us to improve, or God doesn’t care if we are working in the wrong field.

In this case we’re assuming the novelist does not want to produce kitschy work; she just can’t help it because she hasn't the skill or the experience to do otherwise. Skill and experience being two different things, we should look at them separately.

When a writer's level of experience is not up to the task, the proper thing to do is to honor their effort and sincerity—as God does—while honestly critiquing the work for what it is. No good can come from lies or prevarication, from saying the work isn’t kitschy, or the kitschiness of the work doesn’t matter. The novelist is robbed of a potential learning experience, and the suffering public is subjected to yet more mediocrity. If the novelist is young in her genre but appears to have the fundamental gifts required, those who are qualified should explain where she has gone wrong and help her find her way, but we should never pretend a kitschy effort is acceptable.

As for skill, Christians are taught that everyone is given particular gifts. In Exodus for example, it says of Bezalel, “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs...” Clearly then, artistic ability is a gift from God. Although everyone is given gifts, not everybody is given artistic gifts. Unfortunately, many people desire artistic gifts they were not given, or else have become convinced they have those gifts when they do not. Much misery is caused by the pursuit of goals requiring gifts we do not have. Therefore when we encounter someone who seems to be determined to pursue an art form for which they are not gifted, we do them no favors by pretending the results are in any way acceptable. On the contrary, the kindest and most loving thing is to steer them away from the arts and toward the area of their true giftedness, because it is only there that they will be fulfilled.

A fourth argument commonly used to justify kitschy novels is, “God can use it. Many people have been blessed by it. Some people have even been led to Christ by it.”


Here we find yet another good motivation gone wrong. Of course we never want to interfere with God’s work on earth (not that we really could), but it is flawed theology to think God approves of a thing simply because He can use that thing.

Consider Assyria, a nation of idolaters, which God used to punish Israel and ultimately to return them to faithfulness. Think of Judas, used first by Jesus to teach the value of “a beautiful thing” (perfume worth a year’s salary poured extravagantly on the Lord), and then used again to demonstrate that Jesus was not coerced, but instead freely chose to give his life for you and me (“what you are about to do, do quickly”). And above all, think of the cross. What Christian would dare to say God approved of the Assyrian culture, or of Judas, or (heaven forbid) which of us is prepared to say God approved of crucifixion? Yet how the cross was used!

Similarly, we must never make the mistake of approving of kitschy novels—or mediocre work in any part of life—simply because our mighty God is fully capable of using even kitschy things for His good purposes. That would make us guilty of violating the command, “Do not test the Lord.”

Let the light shine

The Bible has a lot to say to novelists. Among them are these three facts: 1) Artistic creativity is a gift from God; 2) We are to bring our very best to God; 3) We are to let our light shine before men, that they may see our good deeds, (
our work), and praise our Father in heaven. Given those imperatives, there is no excuse for Christians to approve of kitschy novels (bad "deeds") which reflect poorly on the Lord, just as there is no excuse for the egotistical obscurity of elitist writing. As in so many other areas of life, the Way lies in the balanced middle.

22 comments:

Ane Mulligan said...

Great article, Athol. Very thought provoking and I'll be interested is seeing all the comments. :)

Angela said...

Thought provoking as always, Athol. I kept substituting the word "sentimentality" for "kitchiness," and I see oozing sentimentality in all kinds of fiction, Christian and general market. As I reader, I dislike it immensely. Going for real emotion is harder work for a novelist, and it's true that some readers won't get it, but still . . . One of my favorite movies is LARS AND THE REAL GIRL--a film that celebrates Christian love in the most imaginative and non-sentimental way. That writer went deeper, and came up with the most brilliant metaphor . . . and now I'm rambling. Great post, Athol!

Noël De Vries said...

two thumbs

Athol said...

I agree with you about LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, Angie. A great example of the middle way for storytellers. It's a very simple story on the one hand, yet it totally avoids any hint of kitsch (or "sentimentality", as you called it). On the other hand its treatment of the theme is unexpectedly rich, while not elitist in any way (because it's so easy to understand). It proves the powerful ability of the balanced middle way to tap into foundational truths while keeping an audience entertained with a good story.

Marcia said...

Great post, one I'll link to and, as a writer, try to live by. marcia

Nicole said...

I could probably name the folks shaking their heads in agreement to this post, Athol, but I won't.

There's no question you're a gifted writer. You're intelligent and a student of the word and the Word. You're a thinker. But without intending to, you've come across as an elitist.

I know all kinds of people. Some exceedingly smart like you and others who God has given different talents to use in this world. They will never be able to appreciate what you might consider "great" writing. Won't happen. Why should you insist they be "educated" to appreciate literature from your viewpoint?

Some people love kitsch or sentimentality. Your suggestion that they've been manipulated by the story/author might be correct in some cases, but their emotion is no less real and meaningful to them. I think some of your assumptions are unfair and spiritually incomplete or overreaching.

God gives to the ignorant and the intelligent. He limits and He exceeds expectations. He uses the simple to confound the wise.

I love excellent, meaningful writing and detest being set up or manipulated by an author, but it's not up to me to determine how God will use--or not--what someone else has done.

All of this reminds me of the Lord's rebuke and restoration to Peter: John 21:20-23.

Gina Welborn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gina Welborn said...

Athol, I value how you encourage fellow Christian writers to strive for excellence in craft and in their lives.

Nicole said...

Forgive me, Athol, and any others who took offense at my comments. It was not my intention to disrespect your positions. My opinion is just that. And I meant no disrespect or harm. I apologize for giving that impression.

I respect Athol as a person and as a writer and of course as a Christian and a deep thinking man.

Athol said...

Thank you, Nicole. I appreciate this very much.

Gina Welborn said...

I've done some thinking about this subject this afternoon. What keeps resounding in my mind is "what one defines as kitschy, another wouldn't."

So that took me to the next thought of "what would I define as kitshy?"

A couple of books immediately came to mind from a variety of Christian fiction genres and authors (okay, mostly women's fiction and Amish, although I highly enjoyed Vannetta Chapman's Simple Amish Christmas and Shelley Shepard Gray's Hidden). No offense to writers of those genres.

But how many who particate (write and read) in this blog would agree with me?

So is my standard too high or too low? Are my personal preferences and prejudices influencing my perception? Do I look down on other inspy genres because they aren't pure romances?

Well, does it matter what books I find trite and what ones I find excellent? Hmm.

Didn't Shakespeare write for the common man? Oh sure, us modern readers consider him elitist, literary fiction. I even endured taking a 3-hr college course on Shakespeare appreciation (and I didn't really appreciate anything other than the class party). The question I pose is "Does time alter the destinctions between excellence and kitsch?"

Next, I thought about a book I read within the last few years. It was what I would define as "elitist" fiction. Strong literary feel. Meticulously researched. Well conceived plot. Word choices so verbose and six-syllable-ly as to impress the average Pulitizer Prize winner and crossword puzzle enthusiast.

Boring as dirt. No, that's offending dirt because dirt can be quite fascinating if mixed with water.

I didn't care at all about the lead characters. I felt like the author was in love with his/her own writing.

Yes, it was utterly well written. Excellent craft!!!! So I'm 100% confident NO ONE would define the novel as kitsch...and many would conclude I wasn't smart enough to appreciate or understand the book. Probably true.

Still, it was a snooze fest. Which is an offense to snooze fests because who doesn't like to sleep?

However, I could name a few inspy romances that I love, and I'd bet more than a few would say "ick, kitsch!"

*sigh*

What I realize from my ramblings is that as a writer, I need to pursue excellence by learning to write beauty and God's truth into my stories. How readers respond to it is up to them...and the Holy Spirit.

~Gina, who enjoys bonnet movies as much as laser one, just don't ask her to sit through Benjamin Button without falling asleep

Gina Holmes said...

Very interesting post. I can't say I'm brilliant enough to know worthy writing from unworthy. I know what I like and I know when something deeply offends me, but other than that, I think a lot is subjective. One man's trash... and all of that.

Nicole has a point in that we can come across as elitist when really the calling seems to be to encourage God's people to aim higher. I aim high but that doesn't mean if I fall short that I meant to or what okay with falling short. It just means that I'm human and things are often better in my head than I translate them onto paper.

I'll have to check out that movie (but not Benjamin Button...snore!)

Kay Day said...

I'm in complete agreement with you, for myself. I can't stand books that are manipulative, shallow, or dumbed down.
But I do wonder about the definition thing. My friend thinks her house is beautiful. I think it's kitschy as all get out.
Can one man's kitsch be another man's treasure?

michael snyder said...

Couldn't agree more on Lars and the Real Girl. That's a Top 5 of all time for my wife and me. Brilliant film, and the most generous portrayal of the church as I've ever seen emerge from Hollywood.

Sibella Giorello said...

Athol, this topic requires deep reserves of courage. Thank you for having so much. And for adding grace, too. There is much to chew on here, for several days.

I tend to agree with Angela's point about kitsch as sentimentality. Someone once defined sentimentality as "the failure of emotion." Which seems to be part of your point here, that squishy-soft manipulation of real meaning.

Perhaps the key element to eliminating some less-than-great work is love. Love the Lord God in such a way that you can only write to your highest abilities; and love your readers so that the words will reach them.

Thank you for this essay. It bears reading again. And again.



I actually believe most bad fiction comes from fear -- even the fear of sounding elitist.

Athol said...

Great comments, everyone! To be clear: I don't believe we need a litmus test for kitsch. That's impossible for the reason several of you have stated. One man's kitsch is another's treasure, and all that.

No, the point I hoped to make is that novelists should write with the goal of being authentic and sincere.

That seems obvious, right? But as I mentioned, several working authors and artists I know are going around saying it's OKAY to deliberatly write kitsch as I've defined it (manipulative, insincere fiction). That shocked me into writing this column.

But again, I'm not saying we should be the Kitsch Police. I'm just saying when a Christian author sits down to write, she should do it with the intention of obeying Col 3:23, and among many other things that includes not setting out to manipulate readers with cheap sentimentality in order to sell books, and not setting out to disguise a tract as a novel in order to sell Christ.

Lyn Cote said...

Athol,
Very good, thought-provoking article. What I object to however is literary-types who take one look at my Love Inspired romances and without ever reading a word-dismiss it as Kitschy.
You point out the point is to give true emotion and ideas whatever the platform. (Always remembering the author has very little control over what is put on the outside of a book.) To judge a book, one really must open the cover!

Brad Whittington said...

OK, first I have to say, "Snyder? Is that really you? I thought you were extinct!"

Now, to the point of the post. I have no love for sentimentality and cheesy writing. Therefore I avoid it and read the things I do like.

However, I don't see it as a sin or even error to be corrected. It's simply a preference.

If a reader likes sappy, feel-good stories with the depth of a petri dish, it's their nickel. I feel no need to educate them out of their personal taste for their own good. In fact, I consider it unwarranted interference.

I don't think that there is a "should" in reading taste anymore than there is a "should" in preference of hair color. Some gentlemen prefer blondes. Fine, I like brunettes. Some people like to read Star Wars novelization serials. I like Richard Russo. (Thanks for the recommend, Snyder.) It's not something that needs to be fixed. It's not broken. It's personal taste.

In this I agree with Thoreau: "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life, for fear that I should get some of his good done to me."

Gina Welborn said...

Athol, I did some more thinking on this subject last night. Instead of focusing on defining kitsch parameters, I realized the thing I need to take from your post is...well, me-focused.

I can't change how others write; however...

I can change how I write; therefore...

I should invest time and energy into learning how to write more creatively, more beautifully, more sincerely.

Brad commented about avoiding "sentimentality and cheesy writing." But how are we to effectively judges a book, if we don't open it up and read? (Nicely pointed out, Lyn!)

I'm guilty of passing over books because the cover was cheesy. That's not fair to the author, though.

Sibella's right. This post bears reading again.

David A. Bedford said...

A thorough, thoughtful, and truly well written essay. I could not agree more. In my books I try to do exactly what she's talking about. Please visit my blog and leave a comment. Thanks!

Tim George said...

Thanks Athol for your thoughts. Though I seldom post here, I think I may be qualified in some unique ways to comment.

1)I read a lot of Christian fiction. As a reviewer that is what I do.

2)I have read and reviewed every piece of fiction you have written to date.

3)I have witnessed first-hand your efforts to help a new writer avoid going astray. How could I forget going to bed at 4 am upon rewriting a chapter for the tenth time after you exhorted me to start over and get it right? Nor could I possibly forget the email I received a few days later in which you started your message with the words, “Bravo Tim!”

Now, while I wait for my agent to convince someone to take a look at that work, I plod on forward with the next story. And everything you say here weighs on my mind as I write and rewrite. I have no aspirations of writing the next great classic. But I do want to write words that mean something. I want to leave seeds of ideas that began with entertainment but sprouted into truths at least some readers couldn’t walk away from after my book is long forgotten. You helped cement that in me in more ways than you will ever know.

sarahw said...

"not setting out to manipulate readers with cheap sentimentality in order to sell books, and not setting out to disguise a tract as a novel in order to sell Christ."
Oh, now I get it! Hmmm. I may have a problem. I wrote my story to compete with a best seller because I wanted to share the riches of grace. Ha! I just may have found a way to knock out both no-nos with one attempt! While I admit my work isn't Lars (which I happened to also love) I also am conscious of the fact that apart from the people on this post I don't know anyone else who saw that movie. All I know is readers of all types like the story, I like the story and God won my heart through the process of writing it. I'm sticking with that plan for now.