Christian Creative, Let’s Move Away from Safe Stories
I’m an avid collector of memes, and a few weeks ago I came across a particularly funny one with the following caption: “Do I have to watch Spiderman 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 1 and 2 to understand what’s going on in Spiderman 3?”
Our culture's increasing longing for familiar stories is evident every way we turn. As Brett McCracken pointed out earlier this year, all of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of 2022 were sequels or reboots, and 2023 has proven to be dominated by much of the same, including movies inspired by toys or video games (e.g., Barbie, The Super Mario Bros. Movie), with a few exceptions (notably, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer).
In my own genre of fantasy, I’ve seen the bestsellers list continually dominated by fairytale retellings or books with variations on the same kinds of tropes. Even clean or Christian fiction authors advertise their books with a long list of (often romance) tropes such as enemies-to-lovers, only one bed, grumpy/sunshine, marriage of convenience, and he falls first.
In the secular arena, erotica continues to storm its way into YA and adult fantasy, where the predominant offerings drip with a sensuality that feels more reminiscent of Fifty Shades of Grey than Lord of the Rings, and the top-selling books together appear to boast more shirtless men (albeit, as ripped vampires and fae lords and werewolves) than the entire backlist of Mills & Boon.
Now, to be clear, I’m not denouncing (clean, healthy) romance in fiction. All my books feature clean romantic subplots, which is also a reflection of what I like to read. And I’ll be the first person to admit that in an age of an overwhelming number of story options, I often reach for a book that feels familiar, such as a variation on the story of Cinderella, rather than an entirely new story to which I have no point of reference. And why? It's an easier, lighter read.
As McCracken highlights in his excellent analysis of films, “for overstimulated souls, old narratives are easier.” He explains:
Instead of wrapping our minds around a totally new narrative world, with its own “rules” and characters and unknown textures, it’s easier to encounter a new entry in an old story; we have existing categories we can file that into, frames of reference that more easily make sense of what we’re seeing. Given that mental energy and available units of attention are increasingly scarce resources (and cognitive overload is a common struggle), it’s no surprise the majority of moviegoers opt for stories that fall lighter on their brains.
Now, this hearkening back to nostalgic fandoms is understandable. But as a fiction author, and also a freelance editor (and former psychologist), I am increasingly convinced that the stories we’re reaching for, not occasionally but habitually, are reshaping our brains, and not always for the better.
In continually revelling in safe or easy reads, do we erode our capacity to engage with harder ones? In always reading (and even demanding) happy endings, have we lost our ability to cope with stories where the conclusion is not all tied up in a neat, pretty bow? In equating a story’s interest factor and value to its ability to tick off a list of tropes, are we side-lining those stories which do something different and unique, which playfully subvert overdone tropes or flip them on their head?
Like sugar and carbs which generate cravings for more sugar and carbs, is our cultural intake shifting to the point where we only ever reach for the comfort food, and never for the food of substance?
I’m the first person to declare myself guilty of these habits—and, to be clear, these kinds of stories are not bad in themselves (unless they're of a sort we consume to satiate lust, etc.). There are many occasions when we need a lighter read; you don't break out War and Peace while undergoing chemotherapy, for instance. And tropes are a kind of shorthand that helps us determine what we may (or may not) like. For example, a book that self-identifies as a marriage of convenience story may help you to know whether to gleefully hit “buy” or toss it down in disgust.
We do need the familiar, yes, but we also need the strange—particularly the kind of strangeness that helps us to make sense of the familiar (an effect I think the fantasy genre can accomplish exceptionally well). We need all kinds of stories in order to grow and develop, as both readers and people. W.H. Auden once said:
There must always be two kinds of art: escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable-art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love.
Where would our world be if all the stories were like Twilight, but never Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the anti-slavery novel which had a substantial effect on attitudes towards African Africans and paved the way for the American Civil War)? The opposite is also true—it would be a loss if the only stories that flourished were of the didactic or teaching variety (though I believe, in contrast to Auden, that a story can function as both escape-art and parable-art, The Chronicles of Narnia being one such good example).
Inviting new characters to take a seat at the dining table of our mental headspace is, of course, a challenging and even unsettling endeavor. Jo March slides into the chair next to Mr. Tumnus. Frankenstein's Creature strikes up an unlikely conversation with Jane Eyre. And we watch them, hear from them, learn from them, not the least because we are sometimes the least wise or experienced person at the table. It is a bit like the cognitive scaffolding that occurs when we learn new things as children: new information is presented alongside old (often with the help of an older, wiser teacher), so it can be easily integrated into our frame of reference.
This is also, I think, what happens when we authors say that our story is like Lord of the Rings meets The Princess Bride… Or “If you like this, you may also like…” We’re functioning like an Amazon algorithm, inviting someone with an interest in something old (or established) to take an interest in something new. And so, we readers move outside our comfort zones. We grow.
However, you may say, in order to sell books and possibly feed our children, we authors must write to market. As McCracken identifies in regards to movies: “Hollywood is a business that responds to markets, and the market has made clear its desire: the old and familiar, not the new and unknown.”
But reader tastes are not always predictable or enduring. Think of the thirst for dystopian stories in the previous decade that has now gone out of fashion (though I don’t believe that dystopia is dead, as some commentators and critics insist). Or the glut of paranormal romances that came into existence following the success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight franchise, which now seems to have morphed into the demand for the erotically charged fae romances of Sarah J. Maas and other authors using the formulaic “A something of something and something” titles.
Tastes for particular books can change as quickly as the weather, which means that the present hunger for familiar stories may well soon shift toward a desire for new, more original storylines. My high school ancient history teacher once observed that when the economic/social climate is uncertain, people often reach for familiar stories, while when people feel at ease, they are more likely to be open to exploring fantastical worlds (especially those that seem potentially "dangerous," since danger is only ever "safe" if it maintains a certain distance). Lord of the Rings might not have gone down so well in 1945, but it was better-received by its audience in 1954 (though, even then, the series took a while to achieve the success and popularity which we ascribe to the books today).
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it comes as no surprise that people hunger for the familiar repackaged as the new. But trends are defined by their mutability, which is one reason why I believe authors should primarily write to please themselves rather than their audiences (though I do not condemn those who write to market).
More importantly, as Christian creatives and creators, I think we have a special responsibility—an opportunity, at the very least—not just to reproduce clean versions of secular potboilers, or stories that merely entertain (as in Auden’s escape-art), but stories which make readers think. They do not have to be parables, of course, or Christian allegories, or even contain explicit references to the Christian faith. As C.S. Lewis writes:
…we needn’t all write patently moral or theological work. Indeed, work whose Christianity is latent may do quite as much good and may reach some whom the more obvious religious work would scare away. The first business of a story is to be a good story. When our Lord made a wheel in the carpenter shop, depend upon it, it was first and foremost a good wheel.
(Letter to Cynthia Donnelly, August 14, 1954; Lewis' emphasis)
These kinds of stories may well have more limited audiences. They may not make the bestsellers list or earn their authors a six-figure income (though sometimes they do). But when genre fatigue strikes or a reader finds himself or herself longing for something more than just another crime thriller or fairytale retelling or erotic fae romance, they may well reach for your book instead of the latest bestseller, especially if they are hungry for something meaningful, rather than something which simply (and temporarily) satisfies lust or pride.
In moving away from “safe” stories, I don’t think we need to move away from common themes or tropes, either. In fact, there is really no escaping them. I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea that there have only ever been three, or five, or seven, or thirty-six types of story ever written. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, while an original and creative masterpiece (at least in my opinion), touches on universal themes of belonging, identity, found family, and standing up to the darkness…alongside common experiences such as growing up and getting up to mischief at school. It gives us something quite new, even as it wraps up those things in nostalgia-stamped paper.
And thus it is no surprise that this series is one that readers continually reach for and re-read, year after year, along with other enduring classics like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. They become a part of us, sometimes occupying permanent places at our dining room table. As Rowling herself says: “The stories we love best do live in us forever.”
These narratives may well be echoes of the stories that have always been with us—and, I think, incomplete echoes of the Great Story which God alone fashions from beginning to end. But, like Aslan the Lion himself, they’re not necessarily “safe” or “tame”—though they are undoubtedly “good.”