"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

For Fiction, Dropping the Royal “We”

August 11th, 2016 by

I was an undergraduate when my ethics professor taught me to stop using “they” when describing collective behaviors. He did this in his written response to my ethics paper on pacifism (yes, I was one of those students who read my teacher’s responses). He underlined “they” in a passage like this: “They have gone against the right teaching and have failed to practice peace.” In the margin, he wrote, “‘They’ sounds accusatory. It makes you sound like you are preaching.”

I learned from that.

More recently, I’ve been more sensitive about using “we”–except when describing a night out with my wife, friends, or family, or when expressing delight in a ride at the county fair.

The “we” I am referring to is the “we” that assumes all human behavior. Just as my use of “they” above suggests an us/them dichotomy, using “we” to explain behavior suggests that I’ve left the level of actual experience and have moved into a higher level of generalization, which might be fine for a textbook or a lab report, but not for the nonfiction I’m working on. In switching from the personal to the collective, with “There are times when we do feel this way. We want to cry because we are frustrated. But there is a better way,” I’ve become the expert. This passage really could be rewritten in first person and be just as empathetic, which I suspect is one of the motives behind the royal pronoun. Even so, though I keep looking for ways to use “we” effectively beyond the description in “We went to the airport,” this passage isn’t one of them. For memoir, I generally try to just keep to the lens I know and not implicate others in my conjectures and theories about how everyone acts, based mostly on how I act, of course.

The Royal “We” of Fiction
I’ve noticed what I suspect is another intrusion of the royal “we,” and I think it appears in religious or political fiction. This comes up when the writer has formed a deep conviction around a system of belief, and that conviction is everywhere in the air of the story as the unquestioned truth and may even come out in platitudes. Not too many stories of this kind get published, of course. But they seem to be enough in demand. The recent movies about God not being dead certainly both demonstrated this demand and suffered from this bent.

A better way to write for religious movies or fiction is to anchor the belief or a certain conviction in a specific character. Flannery O’Connor does this. A recent TV series I watched did this with a powerful secondary character who came to have faith. John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany does this. Owen is a peculiar character, and he keeps asserting his faith, but it isn’t a faith that the narrator shares. There are a number of other interesting characters with other ways of thinking, and the novel creates an interesting tension and longing for faith at the end.

There is a challenge in this. Whatever belief system I am convicted by, whether it is Marxism, secularism, Calvinism, libertarianism, or bohemianism, I should seek to convey those beliefs in the passions and failures of particular characters. To do this is to create characters more interesting than we are. To do otherwise is to run the risk of merely writing a religious or political tract.

Avoiding the Royal “We”: An Example
Perhaps one example will clarify this. When I was just entering college, I was reading a lot of John Steinbeck’s fiction. I loved his stories, his use of allegory in settings in California, and his philosophies, and by the end of my sophomore year I’d read most of his novels. Much later, though, in my thirties, I picked up In Dubious Battle, which I hadn’t read as a student. This was a novel Steinbeck wrote just before The Grapes of Wrath, and it draws on some of the same material. And it reads as though the characters are merely acting out the writer’s political convictions, which mainly concern labor rights and the struggles of fruit workers. It is told in Marxist terms, and there are many, many speeches–too many speeches. I say this as someone who is sympathetic to these concerns. In the end, I found this to be a lesser novel than the next one he wrote, The Grapes of Wrath, which also has chapters devoted to the author’s philosophy, but also couches the main conflict in the terms of the migrant Joad family, who do not, at the beginning at least, simply line up with the author’s convictions.

Both novels have literary qualities. Both titles build allusions to other works. The dubious battle Steinbeck is referencing is of course Milton’s reference to the demon’s fight against God. This is a reference that should work in a book about fruit workers fighting against land owners. But the book is full of speeches and convictions too close to the author. It should compel. It doesn’t.

I suspect that this is one of the difficulties that will arise with religious fiction. For that matter, what is a Christian novel? Is it a novel that begins with scriptures? Is it a book that doesn’t have swearing, drinking, or adultery in it? Is it something written by a Christian? Wayne Booth once noted that the problem with reading “Everything that Rises Must Converge” as a Catholic story is one of understanding intention. How do we know, Booth asks, that O’Connor didn’t put her Christian assumptions aside when writing that story? Of course we don’t know that.

I think that Sophocles’ tragedies capture the best of what it means to write a pagan play. They capture the fated sense of the world he saw. They also capture something deeply sensed in what it means to be a flawed human. Oedipus is a story about and by a pagan, but it is also about a human being, and to the degree that the writer dared, that human being still lives and speaks to us.

Posted in Uncategorized| 7 Comments


Comment by Tim Riter on August 11, 2016 at 8:04 pm

Some intriguing thoughts, Tom, and well done. One of the discussion questions I used in teaching high school was, To what extent is The Great Gatsby a Christian novel? We had some fun times.

Comment by Tom on August 12, 2016 at 6:57 am

This is an excellent question, Tim, and worth thinking about. What kind of thinking did you get in response to that? I’m afraid that today, people might define a Christian novel as “a novel that white evangelical Christians will read.”

Comment by Tim Riter on August 12, 2016 at 8:17 am

Tom, the comments were varied, but nothing like your feared definition. Quite conservative Christians would often be the first to proclaim it couldn’t be, so we had to explore what makes it a Christian novel, or at least compatible with Christian values. The old definition, thankfully gone, that Christian novel needed a salvation story, wasn’t much of an issue. Some would see that Fitzgerald’s portrayal of greed and sex and carelessness made it unchristian, others would counter that the book demonstrated that those factors brought destruction and therefore the book was at least compatible. It was always one of my favorite discussions. 🙂

Comment by Tom on August 12, 2016 at 8:22 am

Sounds interesting, and insightful.

Comment by Tim Riter on August 12, 2016 at 8:26 am

It truly made the students think and reevaluate their beliefs, and they saw how good fiction could challenge and refine their beliefs.

Comment by Joseph Bentz on August 12, 2016 at 11:41 am

On the question of what the term “Christian novel” means, I think that if you look at the ones that are being published today, the answer is that there is a wide range, and no simple definition will cover all of them. There are Christian fantasy novels in which Christian elements appear allegorically, there are contemporary realistic stories in which characters are struggling with some issue of faith, there are political thrillers in which different faiths are colliding geopolitically, etc. Flannery O’Connor had one way of dealing with Christian themes, but there are many other ways to do it. I have written four Christian novels, and what the term means to me is that the characters are grappling with issues of faith, and the novel takes that faith seriously as opposed to simply making it a source of mockery or condescension.

Comment by Tom on August 12, 2016 at 1:51 pm

Thank you for the response from a practitioner of the Christian novel. I do find it impossible to define. I want to say that Christian fiction is centuries old, and I do suspect it is possible that a Christian novel could also be written, as with John Irving’s work mentioned above, by an author who is coming from a long-ignored faith tradition and is not, when writing, trying to create Christian fiction.

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