I was told long ago that if you wanted an honest opinion about something, trust that of strangers, not of family or friends (I call them "chummies"). Strangers will give you an honest assessment, while chummies will tell you only what they think you want to hear—or in some cases, say nothing at all.
If you are a writer, artist, musician, cook, or engaged in anything that's creative, when you're done, you want feedback, especially from those closest to you. But when my debut novel, Gray Rainbow Journey, was published in 2008, I forgot that long-ago advice and was pumped up with expectation. My telephone would ring constantly with congratulatory family and friends. My inbox would overflow with "keepers" I would file in my cyber brag book.
Oh, I received lots of feedback from strangers and the not-so-close. But what I got from the vast majority of my chummies (even those gifted with complimentary autographed copies of my literary opus), was silence.
What was going on? Did they think my writing was boring? Not up to par? Then, several months later, the novel won a USA Book News National Best Books Award for Multicultural Fiction. It was also a finalist in Mystery-Suspense and Religion. Surely, I thought, that would start the feedback ball rolling.
But still, nothing.
I suppose I could have flat-out asked, "What did you think of the book?" But I didn't. And here's why: if guests, say, ate a dinner that you, a competent cook, spent hours preparing, should they depart the table in silence, leaving you to wonder (or, I shudder to think, ask!) if they enjoyed the meal? Of course not!
The same is true regarding my book. I was left to wonder what (if they read the book at all) did they think of the plot? The characters? The denouement?
I mentally explored other possibilities. My heroine, a Native American beauty, struggled with traditional spirituality and her mainstream faith. But if that were the reason, dare my chummies think she (okay, her name is Dina) should follow the stereotyped "shy Indian princess" who lives a scripted life? And be characterized through other expectations far too heavily influenced by the mainstream's portrayal of the Native American?
I even considered that my chummies were leisurely readers. But, all of them? And wouldn't any reasonable person agree that from 2008, the date of my "Great Giveaway" to the present is enough time to have read 223 pages of pure inspirational excitement?
The final possibility I hate to bring up, because it applies not only to my chummies but also a significant population to which many belong: they're good, faith-based folks, but as such, brought to the story their own set of ultra-conservative expectations. After all, one of Dina's life-challenges was that she...well...did something that they may have felt a heroine in the inspirational fiction genre would not do.
Now, I'm not talking about an inspirational heroine-turned-rebel who flaunts her freedom to do her own thing, throws off all restraints, and has no regrets. I'm talking about a young woman who is drawn in, regrets having done that, and "repents in sackcloth and ashes."
That had to be it! They simply believed that they were misled regarding the story's genre—that such a book does not belong in the category of inspirational fiction. What other reason could there be behind "The Chummy-Wall-of-Silence"?
Mind you, this is what I think that they think, and is, admittedly, based solely on my own (believable) observations. I wish they would prove me wrong and talk about it. Then I could cut the guesswork, and we could have a stimulating discussion about the very real, very human Dina whose halo happened to slip.
We could discuss the environment that shaped her: a hard-scrabble life where, in her Native enclave, if you wanted to break the mold and enjoy the best of both worlds, the price you paid to keep the dream alive was tedium. Substandard wages. Sore feet from long hours of standing. Sweaty armpits. Not to mention being regarded as a pariah by many because, faith-wise, you "stepped outside the box."
They would discover that Dina's is a world where, of the estimated 3 to 8 percent of the total Native population that are church members, even that small number often fails its tenets. It is a place where, at an age when group acceptance is the "in thing," the "cool kids" regard her and her small group as "sellouts"—traitors to their culture. Apples. Red on the outside, white on the inside.
Maybe my chummies simply expected too much from the young beauty, which brings me to my next point: failing in their discomfort to read past that situation, which makes discussion impossible, they passed up the opportunity to consider several underlying messages.
That, churchgoing or not, we all fail in some way at some time or another; there are no perfect people in reality (certainly not in my stories!); and that the book is not mis-categorized within the genre of inspirational fiction. Furthermore, discussion would remind them of some crucial Bible facts. In the Book of Genesis, didn't even the faithful Abraham's troubles begin with sex as its undertow? And there is Reuben's dalliance with Bilhah, his father Jacob's concubine. There is Potiphar's wife (today she'd be termed a "cougar"), who is determined not to take young Joseph's "no" to her advances for an answer.
Oh. And dare I mention the language in Song of Solomon? Some call it the most controversial book of the Bible (anything about sex generally is, from the viewpoint of religion and faith). So, is this poetically beautiful, explicitly and tastefully written book basically an erotic teaser? I hardly think so! In it are vivid lessons about feelings, courtship, commitment, intimacy within a love relationship...and the inevitable conflicts and challenges.
And let's not overlook the woman Jesus defended from a stoning after she was discovered "in blazing offense" (with a man who, curiously, faced no such demands from the mob).
Strangely, though, those of that mindset don't seem to have a problem watching Bible-based movies about sexual dalliances, such as those of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel; or in Samson and Delilah in the Book of Judges. Church folks have lauded these movies for generations. And they should. There are great lessons in the heroes' falls from grace (and sometimes repentance) after succumbing to the pulls of the flesh. We laud their strengths, but their frailties are what we identify with, because they make them so like us.
But when it comes to inspirational novels that demonstrate the same basic subjects, lessons, and outcomes—in my circle of chummies anyhow—things seem to get more touchy. In my titles, a young woman is the central character; and if it's inspirational fiction, it seems that such a heroine is expected to overcome that kind of temptation at all times.
And worse is the probable expectation that Dina should never have fallen in love with a firebrand and iconoclast with strange powers like the story's Marty in the first place. But as affairs of the heart sometimes go, she does, and their irreconcilable spiritual differences send her into a downward spiral. As an inspirational heroine, some may believe that she, in Shakespeare's words, "should be made of sterner stuff."
I don't know if my assessments are on target or not. But if they are, it would be great to invite my boycotting chummies and the like-minded to re-evaluate their judgment of what the inspirational fiction genre should and should not include, because, all things considered, what we're talking about here are choices—and consequences that are sometimes heart-wrenching and far-reaching.
There is nothing new about such a theme. It has been played out on life's stage ages before and cuts across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, culture, and time. And that is what the Journey series and similar stories are all about.
K.B. Schaller, journalist, novelist and conference speaker, is author of Gray Rainbow Journey (National Best Books Award Winner, USA Book News) and Journey by the Sackcloth Moon (both OakTara). She lives in South Florida, where she is currently writing the third novel in the Journey series. http://www.kbschaller.com.