The More Things Change...

Things are changing fast in Book Land. Last month, the world’s largest Christian fiction publisher decided to convert one of its traditional imprints into a self-publishing division. This week, the world’s largest romance fiction publisher announced they have entered the self-publishing business, too. Never mind the troubling ethical questions and conflict of interest concerns that many have raised about established publishers choosing to blur the lines between traditional and self-publishing this way. That’s another blog. Today I’m interested in bigger trends.

Some people think we’re looking at a future filled with hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people putting out their own novels. Given this new thrust toward self-publishing, and the ease with which a manuscript can be uploaded to the Internet as an e-Book, why not? Any author who has ever done a book signing will tell you that everybody seems to think they are a writer. Now they can prove it without having to jump through all the traditional hoops of getting an agent, attracting an acquisitions editor and satisfying a publication board. Write it and post it. It’s just that simple!

Some people also think the Internet has changed everything when it comes to production and purchase in the arts. We used to be macro-consumers. Now that it is so easy to get “published,” we’re going to become micro-consumers. No more blockbuster novels. Everybody will be reading something different because there are so many different things to read.

The Internet, they say, has changed everything, and we published novelists had better get ready for hard times because there is a wave of words coming that will overwhelm us.

I don’t believe it for a second.

Take Hollywood for example. At the end of the day, after Johnny uploads his latest YouTube video creation, I think he still sits down to stream a blockbuster Hollywood production on Netflix, right along with a million other people every day. No matter how many Youtube videos get uploaded, I don’t think that’s going to change the fact that the blockbuster Hollywood production is much more fun. And if Johnny does watch someone else’s Youtube video, on what does he base that decision? On the fact that a whole lot of other people have already watched the same video, of course. Take away the view counter and Youtube would die of lack of interest. We don’t have millions of people watching millions of different videos. We have millions watching a few videos. All the other millions of videos are seen by the people who make them, their friends, and family. Sort of like home movies.

In exactly the same way, Johnny might upload his novel to some file sharing site, but for his own reading he’s still going to choose a Steven King title over some unknown person who wants $1.50 for a download from Scribd.

I’m thinking about general trends here, and of course there will always be a few people who swim upstream, but while the Internet allows us to produce stuff at a micro-level, but that doesn’t mean the vast majority of us want to consume stuff on that level. This is due to basic human nature. Human beings have a heard mentality, and no technology will ever can change that.

There’s so much proof. Anyone could start a “news” service like Matt Drudge’s. All the man does is post links to other people’s news stories. Countless bloggers have tried to do the same, and it’s safe to say many of them post the same news links, or more interesting links, but Drudge still gets 28,000,000 hits a day while all those others get maybe 50 to 5,000. Why do millions of people go to Drudge every day? Because millions of people go to Drudge.

People have a herd mentality. We always have. We always will.

We see a line; we get in it, whether we know why or not. It just seems easier, somehow. How many times have you seen this at a ticket booth? A couple of lines, one long, one short, both for the same thing? And what is your first instinct? If you are like most people your first instinct is obviously to get in the long line, because that’s why it’s longer in the first place. It takes extra thought to get in that short line, and it takes a little courage, because a little voice warns us that the longer line must be better. After all, everybody’s in it.

Since we’re wired to take the well trodden path our marketplace will always be driven by that instinct, which means sales will always pile up in a few places rather than being thinly spread all over the place. How many search engines are there? How many people use Google, versus all those others combined? We’ve even turned “google” into a verb. We might enjoy the fantasy that someone’s out there reading our blog or looking at our video, but when it comes time for us to do some reading and looking, the Internet hasn’t changed our herd mentality. On the contrary, the Internet enables it.

What will probably happen as traditional publishing slowly dies as some predict, is a corresponding period when it’s every author for himself, with a proliferation of websites like Scribd where you can market your wares. Then one site will rise to dominance, a la Google, Drudge, Amazon, Craig’s List, Youtube, and etc.. That dominant e-publishing site will include a download counter for each title. And just as we see on Youtube, the titles with the most downloads will attract the most downloads. Tipping point will remain a fundamental marketing dynamic. Buying patterns will continue to exist just as the do today. A few authors will rise to the top, and all the others will sink to the bottom. At the end of the day, fiction authors will be in much the same place as we were ten years ago, with a small pool of the luckiest or the most talented professionals selling 95% of the novels, and a few million others wannabes splitting the other 5%. There will always be a need for professional editing. PR and marketing will still be necessary. The dominant e-publishing website will eventually change their business model and start taking a percentage of sales, of course. And being very poor negotiators, I suspect we authors will still be lucky to retain our usual 5% to 15%. In the end, unless human nature changes, life as an author will remain essentially the same in spite of everything.

Piracy, on the other hand, could ruin everything for everyone, authors and readers alike, but that too is another blog.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:41 AM 8 comments  

Thoughts on Humility Against Despair

I chickened out last night at a weekly men’s discussion group at church. Rather than our usual Bible study, our pastor chose a chapter from Thomas Merton’s classic New Seeds of Contemplation. At first I was delighted, because as it happens I’ve kept a copy of Father Merton’s book on my bedside table for occasional inspiration for the last year or so. But then I saw the topic of our discussion would come from chapter 25, “Humility Against Despair.” While it’s a timely treatise for these difficult times, as we talked about Father Merton’s observations on the relationship between humility and despair, I found myself feeling more and more cowardly.

Father Merton begins that chapter with these words: “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love.” As it happens, I disagree. But I wasn’t willing to say that, because I was afraid of having to explain why.

Later in the chapter I think Thomas Merton was right to point to humility as absolutely necessary for release from despair. I also agree some forms of despair are fueled by prideful self-pity. But I am not convinced by the father’s unqualified statements in the opening paragraphs of his chapter, where he also writes, “Despair is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God...”

Because I didn’t know my pastor planned to present this topic for discussion last night, I didn’t have time to psyche myself up to talk about it transparently. But today I decided it might help someone if I wrote about it openly, so here’s what I was too chicken to admit yesterday:

I know quite a lot about despair. I once suffered from it to the point of being sorely tempted to commit suicide.

The Bible tells us in many places all trials are beneficial for believers, even when they cause us grief. Here is some of what I learned from my particular trial...

Jesus, quoting the Hebrew scriptures, teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” so in spite of Father Merton's phrasing, self-love itself is not the problem. One cannot love another without first having a healthy appreciation for the fact that the Creator of the universe considers us worthy of a deep and sacrificial love. Who are we to disagree with God on this?

But of course self-love can be taken to an unhealthy extreme, as all good human impulses can. For the sake of conversation I suppose it is convenient to select a word for that condition, but I wish Father Merton had chosen more carefully. In most English-speaking peoples' minds “despair” is synonymous with “depression” (it certainly seemed that way in last night’s discussion) and that’s where I find I can’t agree with the father, because there are several reasons for depression that have nothing to do with improperly conceived self-love.

According to this source (which I highly recommend) depression can be hereditary, or chemically induced, or the after effect of prolonged physical or emotional stress, or an involuntary reaction to a major change in life’s circumstances. Merton’s definition matches yet another of the usual suspects, something called “endogenous depression,” which psychologists believe is the result of a prolonged and deep-seated anger turned inward at oneself because it feels unsafe to direct it outward at the cause. In other words, there is a kind of depression which can be caused by clinging to unforgiveness.

I believe “unforgiveness” is a far better term than “despair” to describe this form of spiritual corruption, this “absolute extreme of self-love” Merton describes, because unforgiveness is the spiritual action undertaken (when the cause is spiritual), and despair is only the result.

But again, not all depression is the same. For me despair (or depression) came during a three-year period in my life when I suffered through a series of unrelenting personal betrayals, losses and grief. Each of those evils attacked me hard on the heels of another. In every case I had good reason to mourn.

There is nothing wrong with grief, of course. After all, “Jesus wept.” In this fallen world, it’s natural. But when one suffers through a Job-like period with life handing you one evil after another, if it lasts long enough, against your will it can change the way you think. That’s so important it bears repeating: against your will it can change the way you think.

This is an established medical fact. It is possible to become involuntarily addicted to a beneficial drug if circumstances require you to consume it long enough. In a similar way, depression or despair is sometimes caused by a long immersion in the grief and pain which is a natural and logical and proper emotional response to very bad events. If you have never suffered from severe depression and you don’t believe it’s possible to end up there against your will, ask a combat veteran. Ask an abused child.

So here is the question I would ask Thomas Merton if I could: should we tell a combat veteran or an abused child that they feel despair because they are insufficiently humble? And if we are not prepared to do that, who are we to decide to draw the line elsewhere, to say to anyone, “He and she have a legitimate reason to struggle with depression and despair, but you do not”?

Maybe a stronger faith, with its accompanying humility, would have kept me from the depression that led me to thoughts of suicide. But maybe not. Deeply faithful people become sick and it has nothing to do with a lack of humility. So was my depression a form of sickness, or was it sinful pride as Merton suggested? I can offer two evidences that Merton was wrong in my case.

First, when I thought of ending my life—and I did so many times over a period of several months—again and again I chose not to do it for one reason only: I knew it was against God’s will, and I knew it would break my wife’s heart. In other words, while Merton summarily dismisses all despair as “the absolute extreme of self-love,” I chose life in the midst of despair for the sake of outward focused love.

My second evidence is a guiltless conscience. Not once since that time have I sensed the Holy Spirit’s conviction in the matter, and while I am often disobedient, I am nonetheless very aware of God's displeasure when it comes.

I find great inspiration in Merton’s work and in his life-long example, or I wouldn’t keep his book so close at hand. And nobody gets it right all of the time, of course, so disagreement on one point is no reason to ignore a hundred other pearls of wisdom. Even in this chapter of New Seeds of Contemplation I agree with the good father to this extent: humility is indeed essential in the fight against despair.

In Christ’s case, only his infinite humility could have saved his sanity when he was driven by unrelenting evil to cry out with the despairing Psalmist, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” In my case, God’s beauty as revealed in His natural creation finally drew me up and out of despair. I could not have connected with God’s beauty if I had remained focused on myself, so that part of Merton’s premise is correct: in all humility I owe everything to God. There was no room for pride. I was utterly helpless; God had mercy on me, and I was rescued, plain and simple, just as I was rescued when I first surrendered myself to Him through Jesus, my Messiah.

The other men in the room touched on this final point last night and I was very glad, but I wish I had been brave enough to take it one step further, because this truth contains an important contradiction with Merton’s initial statements: God is under no obligation to rescue anyone, and whether He chooses to do so or not is not a function of human humility, therefore it is possible to be completely humble, and yet remain caught up in despair simply because it is the perfect will of God.

In other words, sometimes, despair is simply a test, like so many other forms of evil.

Some Christians are not rescued as I was. Some, like Paul with his famous thorn in the flesh, are left by the Divine within the fight. Indeed, Paul’s thorn was left in place precisely so he would not fall into self-love. So who are we to say depression can only exist because of self-love? Not only is that assertion judgmental in the sense Jesus hated, but once we take that step, we must be prepared to accept the same explanation for things like schizophrenia, or cancer.

I do believe—I know from personal experience—that humility is essential in recovering from depression and despair, I don’t think it follows that corrupt self-love is necessarily the cause of all despair, nor do I believe corrupt self-love is an essential characteristic of despair. Sometimes it is there, for sure. Maybe even most of the time; who knows? But to say as Father Merton did that “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love,” is to do a grave disservice to those who continue to suffer from depression or despair, and yet who, like Job, resist the beguiling temptation of release that death would bring, solely because of their selfless obedience to a God they dearly love.

P.S. Do me a favor, will you? If you reading this, let me know you're out there by leaving a comment, even if it's just to say, "Hi Athol. I'm here." Thanks!

Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:53 PM 19 comments  

Artful Conversation

Interviewing novelists is an art form. Most radio interviews I've done have been pretty disappointing, because the person asking the questions clearly didn't understand fiction, and didn't have a clue about how to take us into interesting territory without giving away too much of a novel's plot. But Victor and Alicia Gentile at Kingdom Highlights are masters at doing exactly that, and they truly understand the purpose and meaning of literature.

Recently Victor and Alicia interviewed me for the second time. They began our talk with a discussion of the idea that authors can use style and voice in the service of a story rather than being tied to one style or voice for every story.
In other words, should an author "sound" the same in every novel, or are there good reasons to adjust one's voice for the telling of particular stories? Victor then led us into a critique of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, and an exploration of the passage of time in the written word. From there we sailed off into how story ideas come to writers, using the inspiration for my latest novel, Lost Mission, as an example

That took the conversation deep into the state of the church in America today and how American Christians are perceived by Christians in the rest of the world (Alicia is from Peru and offered first hand knowledge of that topic). We then segued into the importance of following God's vision rather than asking God to bless our own vision, and from there we got into the difference between the prosperity gospel's view of blessings and the true nature of blessings.

For me it was a fascinating conversation, so if you have the time I hope you'll head on over to Kingdom Highlights, click on "Listen to our Guests," and then "Athol Dickson - Lost Mission". I think you'll find it very interesting.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:40 AM 0 comments  

The Trouble With Theme

I love to talk about art with artists, and had the opportunity recently when my wife and I had dinner with our friends, Terry and Regina Jacobson. Terry is a talented architect who specializes in designing churches, and Regina is a wonderful painter (as you can see in her painting, "Spinning in Infinity" at left) who explores spiritual themes. We had a good talk about the joys and challenges of expressing our faith in our work. At one point in the conversation I mentioned the strange fact that there’s no faster way to start an argument among people who write Christian fiction than to bring up the subject of theme.

“Right away, we divide into two camps,” I said, making two fists and putting one on the dinner table to my right, and the other on the table to my left. Lifting one fist I said, “Over here are authors who insist Christian novels have to kowtow to the most prudish people in the pews, and speak about the gospel so plainly it crosses the line into propaganda.” Lifting my other fist, I said, “But the authors over here think being authentic and relevant means we must show profanity and violence and sex realistically, and they’re willing to avoid all hint of Christianity rather than risk being seen as preachy.”

Nodding, my friend Regina zeroed right in on the problem. Pointing to one fist she said, “Too much truth.” Then she pointed to the other fist. “Too much grace.”

Regina knows her Bible. She knows you can never really have too much truth or too much grace. What she really meant was, not enough harmony.

People are like pendulums. We can’t seem to stop swinging from one extreme to the other. Sometimes this is good. Passion is important. But in addition to passion, all the finest things in God’s creation have a sense of harmony. It’s true in Regina’s world, where the best painters pay as much attention to the background, or “negative space,” as they do to the subject matter, or “positive space.” And it’s true in fiction, where the best writers devote attention to theme, style, setting, plot and characterization without giving any one of those fundamental elements too much emphasis, or too little. Everything works together, harmoniously.

When we swing so far in one direction that we ignore or oppose the other end of the spectrum, it’s a sure sign we are lazy. It’s easier out there on the ends. The gray areas in the middle require much more work. In those middle places we can’t thoughtlessly accept simple black and white ideas; we have to think about everything. This applies to writing, and it applies to Christianity itself.

It’s lazy writing to layer a theme onto a story superficially and it’s lazy to turn one’s back on theme for fear of overstatement. That’s why a good writer will wrestle with a theme, always aware of the dangers of going too far, and always aware it’s just as dangerous not to go far enough. Some wrestle with their theme up front; others let the theme develop as they write and then go back to wrestle with it later. Either way this is a lot of work, but it’s also the only way to write a novel that matters.

Similarly, it’s lazy writing to demand thoughtless compliance with rigid rules simply to avoid causing offense, and it’s just as lazy to break those same rules merely to appear relevant or authentic to the outside world. A good Christian novelist will offend even fellow Christians if there’s no better way to make a point that should be made. A good Christian novelist will also do the extra work it takes to write about the fallen world without contributing to the fall. Jesus ate with prostitutes and “sinners” but not once did he emulate them.

A long time ago I was advised by a Jewish agent and an unbelieving editor to add a stronger spiritual subtext to a plot, only to be told later by a Christian author that the novel was too preachy. More recently, another Christian author assured me that my upcoming allegorical novel about God’s love is a waste of time, because only people who already know God will understand the symbolism. (I could not help remembering that God is not mentioned in the book of Ester, nor does that book contain any commentary on the actions of the characters. Apparently God trusts readers, even if we don’t.)

These experiences are fairly typical of what I’ve found in several organizations where Christian authors discuss writing. We often talk about how to create sympathetic characters, or how to write a page-turner of a plot, but amazingly enough, we almost never discuss how to communicate a theme. When it comes up we tend to flee to separate corners, with those on one side saying, “You abandon the gospel!” and those on the other side saying, “You write sermons, not novels!” The finger pointing is easier than doing the work it takes to speak to readers deep down, between the lines. Although we are all in the business of writing about Christian ideas one way or another, theme is a touchy subject.

Oh, the irony!

Whether the genre is romance, speculative fiction, mystery/suspense, general fiction or chick lit, writing about Jesus means letting go of safe assumptions and easy shortcuts. It also means approaching every novel as if it’s the first one we ever wrote in order to encounter our stories in a middle place where life is gray and complicated, because that’s where true harmony is found. This is only natural, since that harmonious yet complicated place is also where Jesus lives. The apostle John tells us Jesus came “full of grace and truth.” Jesus never compromised on one for the sake of the other, and He calls us to live our lives the same way. Imagine the power and the glory if our novels did that, too.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:53 PM 7 comments  

How to Pray

Feeling distant from the Lord? Today I received some practical advice on how to pray from my friend and pastor, Jay Grant, a man who routinely prays for miracles and receives them. Here in Jay's own words are his excellent suggestions for those of us who sometimes feel we're talking to the wall instead of having a conversation with God:

Helping You Pray: There are times when praying is difficult. We may be tired or distracted or frustrated. Perhaps we have been away from the Lord and feel little inspiration to pray. It could be we’ve had a relational breakdown that has left us discouraged. And sin can deeply affect our desire to pray. When prayer becomes difficult here are a few helps…

1. Pray Scripture: Take a passage, read it, and pray over it. Such as; “For God so loved the world He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but should have eternal life.” I would pray something like this: “Lord, your love for a world that largely rejects you astounds me. Where would we be if you hadn’t sent your Son to die for us. I thank you for opening my heart to believe, that I can now have full confidence that my eternal destiny has been assured. I am immensely grateful.” Scripture is a great way to help you pray.

2. Worship: When prayer is difficult, worship can bring release. Read a series of worship Psalms out loud such as 8, 47, 48, 63, 84, 95, 96, 100, 103, 145. Worship makes prayer enjoyable and easier.

3. Thanksgiving: In a funk? Finding it hard to pray? Take out a piece of paper and write down all the blessings of God, everything He has done that has been wonderful in your life. Then thank Him for all the favor you’ve received. For instance: “I thank you Lord for my wife, Nikki, my family, for such a fantastic place to live, my health; for Little Church by the Sea, your grace, mercy and forgiveness, etc.”

4. Confession: Sin definitely waylays prayer. It freezes our hearts and clogs up our spiritual lifeline to God. The solution? Simply confess your sin and receive God’s forgiveness: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9 Confession frees us to pray.

5. Resisting the Enemy: James says, “resist the devil and he will flee from you.” An impasse in prayer, feeling stifled when desiring to pray, can occur through the intimidation of the enemy. Know the enemy hates prayer and will do anything he can to discourage it. When I feel hindered in prayer and sense it’s the enemy, I ask for the blood of Christ to cover me and then say, “Satan, the Lord rebuke you, you and all your helpers.”

6. Praying/Singing in the Spirit: Scripture exhorts us to pray and sing in the Spirit which can be an immense help when praying is difficult (Romans 8:26-27; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Corinthians 14:15). Words of Spirit-filled adoration combined with a melody from the heart breaks us through to God and helps us pray more effectively.

7. Walking: Staying stationary in prayer can sometimes make prayer difficult. Sitting, kneeling, or laying down and trying to pray can be challenging. Walking (on the beach, in my back yard, or in the Upper Room) helps me to pray more alertly. Or perhaps you’d like to run/jog while praying.

Athol here again. Jay suggests that you print this page and keep it with your Bible, to help you the next time you feel you're not connecting with the Lord. Sounds like a great idea to me!

Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:57 PM 0 comments  

Our Calvary

These beautiful, wise words came to me from a friend today. My friend didn't know for certain where to find the source in print, and although I tried to find confirmation of the author or a copy of the poem via Google, they were nowhere to be seen. But I believe the author would not object to finding it here. Anyone who understands this truth as well as the poet clearly does, would want the world to know by all means possible.

Our Calvary

The tree
That fell last year
Knows now just why it fell;
Why came that hell
Of axe and saw, and leaping, clear blue flame.
To the world's uses it was set
In pit, or ship, or polished cabinet,
Or other needs of man.
The spirit of the tree
Knows now the plan
Of that, its agony.

So we,
Fall'n in the mire
Shall someday surely know
Why life held blow
On blow, and sacrificial fire and knife,
Seeing one stand the firmer for our rout,
Or some brave, laughing ship of youth sail out
The braver for our pain.
So-know, seeing-we
Shall smile again
At this, our Calvary.

- Constance Holm

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:35 PM 1 comments