About six years ago, when I had just graduated from college and was working my first full-time job as an editor at Insight for Living, I used to take the MetroLink train from Corona to Anaheim and back every day. It was the best investment I could have made in my life at that time. For about $120 a month, which was pretty much what I would have spent in gas, less the oil changes and the stress, I could get to and from work in 20 minutes and read while doing it. In other words, instead of slogging through 2 hours worth of traffic on the 91 freeway every day -- which is, in my opinion, well nigh close to hell on earth -- I sat instead by a window on that fast-moving and quiet-keeping train, in turn watching those sad-seated drivers on the freeway right beside us and broadening my budding literary life.
That's where I first read Annie Dillard's "The Writing Life." It's also where I discovered Bret Lott.
Bret Lott wrote, most famously, a book called "Jewel" that was selected for Oprah's Book Club back in 1999. I didn't read the book because it was selected for the book club. In fact, I stayed away from it for a good, long while because of that. As a rule, I don't trust media hype or books touted by supersized figures. Oprah's stamp of approval, then, was a stamp I did not trust. That is just my way.
But eventually my curiosity got the better of me. This is because I'd heard Lott is an evangelical Christian writing in the mainstream market. For those of you unfamiliar with this terminology or why it even matters, here are two things you should know:
1) Most "Christian writers" (though I hate that confining and off-putting term) publish with Christian publishers, sell their books in Christian bookstores, and never enter the mainstream conversation the rest of the world is carrying.
2) Fiction written by these people is thought to be sub-par in quality because most Christian writers -- and their publishers -- tend to think these books should carry a strong evangelistic message more than anything else. This means that it should have overtly Christian characters, speak well only of Christian values, and include characters who obviously need to find Jesus. It also means that everything will be neatly tied up with a bow by the end, the non-Christian vagrants converted and everyone living happily ever after. As if that's how life really happens, once you're inside the church.
Needless to say, I think this criminal. It infuriates me. If you want to get me going on a subject, this is one you could pick because I think we fail both God and others when we do this. Yes, that's right, God and others -- the same two categories of people we are to love with a true heart more than anything else. But the sad thing is, I think these Christian writers really believe they are loving God and others by doing this -- that because they're writing novels that show "redemption" in the end, where people find the Lord and come into the Christian fold, they are preaching the Good News and helping others see the need for it. The only problem is, they're not reaching the world with this message (remember how I said they only publish for a Christian audience?) and they don't show people or events or even, dare I say, the heart of God in truest form when they do this.
I could write a whole book on this subject.
This is where Bret Lott comes in. You can see now why I'd find it curious that he'd 1) be an evangelistic Christian publishing in the non-Christian market and 2) Oprah would pick him for her must-read list. This is curious because publishing in the non-Christian market means actual Christians probably never heard of him. It's also curious because getting an Oprah endorsement means a million non-Christians now were reading his books. (Just to prove my point, try this little bit of trivia on for size: The day Oprah called to tell Bret Lott she wanted to add "Jewel" to her book club list, the book was ranked 1,069,713 on the sales list on Amazon.com. By that evening, it had catapulted to number 1 on the list.)
All this to say that I finally read Bret Lott on the Amtrack train during my commute 6 years ago and have been entranced by him ever since. I loved that book, and I still do not know why. It's about a woman living in the South who gives birth at an older age to a little girl with Down syndrome. At that point in time, I wasn't one to read Southern fiction, nor had I ever been drawn to books about motherhood or children with disabilities. But there was something about the way he wrote that captivated me from the start.
The same is true with the latest book I am reading of his, called "A Song I Knew by Heart." Again, this is not a book I would normally choose to read. It's a modern-day retelling of the story of Ruth and Naomi -- two women joined by marriage who have lost their husbands and return to the hometown of the mother in the folds of grief. I've read the book of Ruth in the Bible handfuls of time, so I didn't particularly need to read it again. Nor do I usually enjoy stories that retell classic ones. I usually think the original is better to read, so why not just point the way to that one?
But this was different. Almost immediately, I was captivated by the language, by the details, by the emotional undercurrent of grief and pain and confusion and anger and hope for some new beginning. If you want to be really moved by something -- and find your own self inside the story of another person -- read pages 26-31 of the paperback version, where Naomi recounts her baptism experience from when she was a child. That's just one example of the power of his words that I'm talking about here.
When I read this book -- and so far I am only on chapter 5 -- I am entranced by Mr. Lott's ability, as a man, to not only enter into the skin of a woman who has lost her husband and her son, but also his ability to speak openly about faith without "putting it on." Faith isn't trying to be worked into these books; it just is in them already. The best way I can explain it is to say go and read it yourself.
I know this is a really long post already, but I have three last things to say:
1) I think Bret Lott is our modern-day Flannery O'Connor. She was overtly Catholic but published books in the mainstream. She had lots to say about what art should or shouldn't be, and especially art coming from people of the faith. (Just read her book of essays "Mystery and Manners" or her collection of letters "Habit of Being" to learn more about this and get what I'm talking about.) She is generally respected as an authority on this subject by parties on both sides of the fence. I think someday everyone will look to Bret Lott as an example of how to do it best, just like they do for Flannery O'Connor now.
2) Have you ever heard of those books called "The Best Short Stories" or "The Best Travel Writing" or "The Best Mystery Writing" of whatever year we're currently in? They have a whole slew of different ones, including one on best Christian fiction. I don't usually read those books, and I particularly take great care to avoid the Christian version (for reasons I mentioned above), but Bret Lott was the editor of the latest version of the Christian one, called "The Best Christian Short Stories of 2006," and I aim to check it out soon. I have hope that he's found some noteworthy and substantial Christian writers our there that will be worth watching as they grow in their careers.
3) In even more recent Lott news, he just received the Christy award from CBA, which the bookseller's association for the whole Christian market. He was pretty shocked to get this award, since he doesn't publish for Christian markets, and so was I. Turns out a lot of other people were shocked and offended by his very direct speech at the meeting when he received his award, while other people, including myself, cheered. Read what he said about the point of fiction -- and fiction from the standpoint of faith -- here.