Yesterday, I got yet another rejection letter from an agent noting my "considerable talent" with a lot of good details about why the agency couldn't represent the work. Some of them, I can use to improve the manuscript, others, however have to do with making the moral transformation of the narrator happen faster. Basically, she said this serial philanderer and negligent father, who also happens to do some heroic and kind things along the way, was too static (She said she read halfway through the book). Now, the book is also a reframing of the story of the prophet Hosea an the prostitute Gomer with the gender roles reversed. The transformation of the biblical relationship happens after three illegitimate children, i.e. at the end (if any of you are biblical scholars out there. I know the book of Hosea is a difficult one when it comes to deciding where the end is, but let's just say I mean the reconciliation of Hosea and Gomer is the end). I made the transformation happen after three increasingly more heartbreaking affairs in my book. And truthfully, my own experience with cheating men is that they can have some very fine qualities, understand how much pain their infidelities cause, and still cheat anyway. It would be really helpful to be able to talk to an established writer who was also a person of faith about this.
I know I've shared in this forum before that I feel I write for a small demographic of secular people who aren't freaked out by religious content and religious people who aren't freaked out by sexual content and profanity. Is there a career author out there who is a person of faith--Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc--who incorporates religious content into her fiction I could occasionally bounce questions off of? At this point, all my fiction seems to have a theme or sub-theme of secular and religious people interacting with each other. That's what's in the deep inspiration that comes to me.
I hate to tell you this, but Chaim Potok's literature is NOT for people of faith. Religious Jews consider books like "The Chosen" to be the worst form of apikorsus, and that's PRECISELY why the Publishing world embraced Potok so vigorously. You need to understand that the publishing industry is rife with militant secularists/atheists who won't touch a religiously-themed novel with a 10 foot pole. Your question is the hardest one I've seen on the SheWrites forum and there are no easy answers for your dilemma. I believe that, as an author, you should write the books that you want to write, regardless of what the literary agents and publishers say. In that case, self-publish and market your book on Christian-themed blogs. But if you want to write a commercial manuscript, then you must go back to the drawing board and find out (for your genre) what are the expectations for a book like yours. Write to the genre, whatever it is. Read the most prolific and talented writers in your genre and rework your novel accordingly. Remember: there are no easy answers to this problem.
I think that you're making a good point that Potok is disliked among the Ultra-Orthodox. Maybe most people don't know the word apikorsus, (Greek for skeptic, but which to Ultra-Orthodox Jews means heresy.) I would venture, though to say that "Religious Jews" covers a wide span from Reform to Renewal to Haredi (ultra-observant Jews). And I would have to say that many Jews within that spectrum, many people of faith, would love Chaim Potok, precisely because he writes of wrestling with a traditional faith in a modern world, and of the spectrum of "religious Jews."
Potok doesn't write about "wrestling" with traditional faith. He writes about discarding it.
I don't know if you're referring only to My Name is Asher Lev, or to The Chosen, or Davida's Harp, (I think his most successful novels) but I read my way through his entire canon one summer--do you spell this kind of cannon with one n or two?--and I found his characters struggled mightily to find a place within their traditional faith for themselves, for their whole selves. Although I think that Asher Lev's Jesus painting was ultimately an authorial cop out, the whole novel is about Asher's struggles to be an observant Jew and still allow his art, the calling of his art, (one might say God speaking through Asher's art,) to be expressed and yet still maintain his connection with an Orthodox world. Davida's struggle is primarily about her desire to be a woman in a faith that at that time, (and in various branches, one might say still) had little room for women save as care-takers of the heart and hearth. I personally found Davida's desire to become an educated Jew and to recite the Kaddish particularly poignant and clearly very much a Jewish wrestling match.
I suspect from what you write here that you live in a highly observant world. I also would guess that Potok's writing felt to you like an attack on this world and these values that you think are the one right way to be Jewish. I can understand that perspective. I do not in any way ridicule you for thinking this way. I would only say that this practicing Jew (i.e. me) most humble disagrees with your perspective. To be a Jew is foremost, as far as I am concerned, to wrestle with God, with the texts, with interpretation and with practice. I know that is a modern concept and would have been considered heretical in Poland 150 years ago, in Spain 700 years ago, or in Williamsburg now, but I have a feeling it is one that Moses might find familiar--how to be a Jew, to obey God and the principals that God hands down from the Mount, while interacting with a very different dominant religious culture and wrestling with people who don't want to practice Judaism the way you do--Golden Calfs, etc. (Of course, it must have been a lot be easier for him, in that God showed up in a bush that burns and yet is unconsumed and told him what to do. I know I'd listen better in that case, too.)
I would consider Chaim Potok's characters to be no less valid and no less respectful a representation of a Jew wrestling with how to be a Jew than those of The Book of Esther, in which the haredi Jew tells his cousin not only to "marry out" but to keep quiet about her faith, Jews are encouraged to take revenge on their enemies, and the name of God is never mentioned, not even once.
I agree with Sophie. You have to follow your own heart, but decide what audience you are writing to. That could substantially change your story one way or the other. You are welcome to bounce spiritual writing dilemmas off on me if you like. I was raised, Catholic, belong to a UCC church (because I like their outreach work and like linking with people of faith) but personally don't follow any particular religion, though I enjoy many and varied spiritual beliefs.
Hi Kathleen, I am not your career author, but I share your struggle. I also write for the audience you describe and have encountered similar feedback. It's a dilemma. Faith requires a patience that many people can't relate to. (Isn't that the theme of Hosea? Love your premise.) I would encourage you to keep doing what you are doing--use the feedback that makes sense to improve your story but stay true to your theme. i am praying that those of us who are inspired to write the hard truths for people who have an ear to hear will find a way to reach that audience.
Hi Kathleen. I don't know how "seasoned" I am, but I am a Christian who incorporates religious content into my fiction. My agent is currently submitting my first novel, which deals with a Jewish woman's attraction to an Italian police detective after she discovers her husband has a dark side. My second novel - in progress - deals with an Episcopal priest. I'd be happy to answer any questions I can. All my information is below if you want to contact me. Happy writing!
Kathleen, Unfortunately, I'm not one who can help with the specific market you're speaking of but I wanted to congratulate you on getting so far. I traditionally published for years and I know how hard it is to get an agent's attention. You are at the tipping edge it would seem. The only thing I was thinking as I read the agent's input and your own questions was are you adhering too closely to the biblical story that gave you the inspiration. I write legal thrillers and I often use real cases for inspiration but real cases can become plodding when translating into fiction. That means I have to set aside the inspiration sometimes and remember I'm telling a story of fiction about fictional people who need to live and grow within 3-400 pages. Do you think you're creating a road map instead of being inspired to travel a road by that story? It's just a thought. Best of luck. Obviously, the writing is great. You got a personalized rejection. That's something to celebrate.
Thanks everyone; I really appreciate your comments.
I was walking around the botanical gardens at UCLA this afternoon and realized I could interject the reflections of narrator, who spends decades unjustly imprisoned at the end of his life when he sacrifices himself for his daughter into some of earlier part of the novel so he people know that transformation does happen a little earlier (although I note that that particular critique is from an ideologically progressive agent and my ideologically progressive colleague, so I need to be careful about whether I am being true to the character and not just making people more ideologically comfortable.) I would argue, Sophie, that Potok IS for people of faith--maybe not for some Orthodox Jews, but certainly for this Mennonite Christian. Davita's Harp remains one of my all time favorite novels--it's essentially about how a girl grew up to find love among her Communist, Evangelical Christian, and Orthodox Jewish family members.
I believe Barbara Kingsolver is another writer who though she is not religious herself incorporates religious people in sympathetic ways into her novels.
Anyway, this has been very helpful. Thanks again, folks.
BTW, Rebecca, thanks again for the tips on the website. I showed my step-son yours and said, "There, something like that."
That's marvelous. I'm just ready to try and make some changes. I wish I could import your step-son LOL. Good luck with the book. You are so darn close.
My mind sort of zoned in on the "making the moral transformation of the narrator happen faster" part. By halfway through the book, the man should have made a turn, a transformation. I don't know how your book is organized, but readers need enough time to believe whole heartedly that the character was sincere and lasting in his transformation. If the transformation comes too late, the reader won't believe he is earnest. This transformation should be the climax of the book.
I think you have a neat idea and self-publishing or Indie-publishing would probably be your best options. I'm sure there are plenty of small presses that would consider your novel.