How to Criticize Popular Fiction

1998 saw the publication of the first Harry Potter book, and a firestorm of Christian criticism followed.  Christian parents who months before had lovingly read the Chronicles of Narnia to their children at bedtime banished Harry Potter because there were witches in it.  Some Christians, sensing the tension, banned Narnia as well.

In all the yowling, Christians paid very little attention to the fact that J. K. Rowling singlehandedly created an entire generation of children that wanted to read.  Christian critics paid even less attention to the fact that although the shelves of their local Christian bookstore groaned under heaps of schlocky Christian fiction, children could apparently tell the difference between lousy stories and well-written ones, and preferred the latter, in droves.  Embarrassing, that.  How come the Christians weren’t producing any good stories?  Our last runaway pop-culture hit was…what?  The Chronicles of Narnia?  Been a while…

In addition to being hugely unaware of the log in its own eye, the criticism was, for the most part, just bad.  Shrill.  Embarrassing.  Obviously written by people who hadn’t an ounce of sense about how to write, or how stories work, or how to read them. Philistines and yahoos, to put it bluntly. Hacks.

Of late the guns of Christian literary criticism — if it can be called that — have been aimed at the Twilight phenomenon, and the overall tone is not a whit improved.  It therefore gives me enormous pleasure to point to a bright spot on the horizon: a Christian literary critic who is Doing It Right.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is how literary criticism ought to be done.  I am referring to Douglas Wilson’s ongoing review of Twilight, the most recent installment of which went up Monday. You can find the reviews, which proceed chapter by chapter, on the Credenda website. If you’re a skip-the-book-and-see-the-movie type, there’s even a (brief) video version, available at Canon Wired. (Update: there’s a part two to the video.)

But read the reviews.  Seriously.

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4 Responses to How to Criticize Popular Fiction

  1. Bobby Grow says:

    Of course there’s a difference between Potter and Narnia, and that is one of informing worldview; the former being naturalistic/materialistic, the latter being Christian theistic. I think that’s a substantial difference, even if they both fit into the broader genre of “fantasy.”

    The fact that we have kids reading, and that this is used as justification for reading Potter seems to be following a consequentialist or utilitarian ethic; which could be at odds with a Christian ethic, unless properly construed.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Greetings Bobby,

    There are substantial differences, and “Hey, kids are reading” isn’t a sufficient justification. They need to be reading something good — morally good, not just skillfully executed — and Potter ain’t it. Didn’t mean to suggest otherwise; just didn’t want to get sidetracked into Pottermania, on any side.

    But in truth I think the larger point was that the Christian critics were only too willing to turn the guns on Potter, but nary a peep about the terrible, stupid, fiction that disgraces the shelves of the local Christian bookstore. If we’re so devoted to the kids reading good stuff instead of bad stuff, we could maybe give ’em some worth reading. And we ought to wonder how our Christian culture managed to get so sterile that we aren’t producing any. The illiteracy — I don’t know what else to call it — of the critiques, the inability of the critics to explicate the differences between Narnia and Potter, just underscore the point. If we plan to win the culture wars, it is necessary, first of all, to have a culture. American Christianity is culturally sterile, gnostic, pharisaical and boring.

    It’s very exciting to get caught up in the flaws of the other guy, but it’s spiritually perilous to be so occupied in that project that we don’t see our own. Kids read Potter, in part, because we haven’t given them anything better. Why not? People come to Christ because they read Narnia. We don’t make stuff like that much, especially now. Why not?

  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Woops, misread you Tim!

    Maybe we don’t have good writers like C.S. Lewis because we simply don’t . . . he was a genius, like Tolkien. Of course the Fundy/Evang. culture doesn’t necessarily foster an environment that encourages the engagement of good literature; which can have a retarding affect on the “Christian imagination.” So maybe we do we have CS Lewis’ running around, they just have never been encouraged, “culturally” to develop the gifts that the LORD has given them in this regard . . . which is another sad commentary on the legacy of Fundyism.

    I think we’re actually in total agreement!

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Bobby,

    What is this strange thing you call ‘agreement’? 😉

    Seriously, I agree with you at both points. I’d go a little further and say that people like Lewis, Tolkein, Sayers, et al., are gifts from God — if He doesn’t give them, we won’t have them, and no amount of educational program-mongering can make up for that.

    On the other hand, if we are not ready to receive them even if He gives them to us, then we’re committing a sin of omission there. If we ‘eat our young’ — which we do, when it comes to artists and writers — then we can’t complain when the mature artist or writer is alienated; we alienated him. God will not be mocked.

    Thank God for N. D. Wilson and a handful of up-and-comers like him. May their tribe increase, and may God grant an undeserving Christendom more communities where such minds can grow.

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