No quality in art and fiction writing is more elusive and perplexing than sincerity.
No cemetery is quieter than one where nuns lie buried.
No school memories are richer or more compelling than those the Sisters left for us.
Insincerity ought to be easy to detect, there being so much of it close at hand in the form of self-deception and self-promotion. It is not easy, though. I first saw its ghostly presence years ago under the watchful eyes of Sister Almeda, SSND. I hear her saying, “Don’t rationalize, James. Don’t make things up!” It was not the first time she said it to me and to others. She would have embroidered those words on a school patrol flag lowered down over a street named Self-serving Excuses.
This is tough love, Sister Almeda, especially for school children and writers and readers of fiction. After all, what do kids and novelists do but make things up? What do readers want these days but pleasure and escape?
It is almost too easy for a novelist to deceive. When confronted with a few doozies, Dan Brown reminded his critics again and again that The Da Vinci Code was fiction. No matter that readers by the thousands went to Paris and London expecting to see what he saw. More than a few must have scratched their heads as they searched for that huge Opus Dei complex under construction in New York City. For Dan Brown, fact and fiction are as enigmatic as Mona Lisa’s smile.
Sister Almeda would have shaken a finger in his face.
If truth and honesty are not ever-present in fiction, if all that matters is making things up for the sake of selling books, what is wrong with an entire story being a pack of lies? Brown is a talented writer and an accomplished storyteller. His novel is far from a pack of lies, but honesty is especially called for when stories are wrapped in appearances of competent scholarship blurring the line between fact and fiction. (See The Da Vinci Hoax, Ignatius Press 2004).
The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey, and other ‘blockbuster’ novels often hyped as mesmerizing are just that, the works of modern day Svengalis. Anyone reading George Bousant du Maurier’s Trilby, a nineteenth-century best seller, will know that du Maurier’s Svengali employed a mixture of science, superstition, gullibility, and guile to mesmerize his victim. Svengali was anything but sincere. Brown and E. L. James are not evil geniuses, but they know how to cast spells, and they both strike me as disingenuous.
I suppose there are many ways to distinguish sincerely written novels from those playing tricks on the reader. Certainly the latter seem more at home in the flotsam and jetsam of screaming hype—Mesmerizing! Riveting! Sexy! Five Star! Some so touted seem fit for pitching by the carnival barker on an old-fashioned midway, the sort our parents cautioned us to avoid. Imagine that.
Which novels give us hope and while entertaining, also uplift and inspire? Which ones would you feel comfortable reading near the grave of Sister Almeda or maybe the grave of your mother?