Thoughts on Kitsch in Fiction

I read somewhere—I think it was C.S. Lewis—that the devil’s favorite trick is to get people to pick one truth to the exclusion of another. He doesn’t care which direction we stray off the Path, so long as he can get us off the Path. That is certainly true for novelists.

Writing a good novel is much like walking a very narrow path. A novelist can fall in one direction by ignoring the audience altogether (call this “elitism”), and in the other direction by pandering to the lowest common denominator in the audience (call this “kitschiness”). The first mistake results in truth or beauty withheld due to a failure to communicate, usually because the author is too in love with her own words to sacrifice them for mere readers. The second mistake results in truth or beauty corrupted due to “dumbing down” the words to suit readers who refuse to think. As with most important things in life, maintaining a good balance between these extremes is not so simple.

Among Christians writing novels, the problem of literary elitism is fortunately rare. Unfortunately however, the problem of literary kitsch is all too frequent in novels by Christians. Recently I got some insight into why this is, when to my very great surprise I heard several published Christian novelists and working Christian painters and sculptors deny that there is anything wrong with pandering to the lowest common denominator in one’s audience.

Clearly, a mistake can’t be avoided if it isn’t seen as a mistake, so it seems worthwhile to explore this problem.

What is a “kitschy” novel?

“Kitsch” in literature involves two closely related ideas. First, it’s the literary equivalent of a politician kissing a baby. It means going for an easy and superficial emotional response instead of doing the more demanding and enriching work required to draw the audience deeply in through genuine connection. The emotion in kitschy work means little or nothing, and most people know it, but the audience so strongly hungers for what it ought to mean that many will pretend it’s real and worthwhile anyway. In other words, kitsch is similar to ideas like “corny,” “cheesy,” or “saccharine.” But that’s only part of the meaning.

Kitschy novels are also the literary equivalent of faking a friendship in order to get something from a person. They place theme or message ahead of everything else. The novelist might devote time to their “friendship” with the audience, saying the things one says to friends, giving gifts and doing favors, so to speak, but if the underlying motivation is to get something from the audience—to get the readers to do something, think something, believe something—then every other aspect of the novel is corrupted and in the end the audience either: a) feels they have been used (if they are smart), or b) is manipulated and doesn’t know it (if they are not so smart). Either way, the reader’s experience is similar to that of a con man’s victim. Even if they do or believe what the novelist hoped, it is not for genuine reasons, not sincere, but only because they were tricked. This is particularly abominable if the novelist’s goal is to communicate the gospel. How could any Christian think God would approve of spreading the Good News through cheap tricks?

Why this is wrong

Since the definition of “kitsch” includes the ideas of mediocrity and manipulation, I assumed all of my more artistic and literary friends would agree that kitschy art and literature is undesirable, but as I mentioned, it turns out that’s not so. Some don’t even agree there is a problem. Fascinated, I asked them a lot of questions and it turns out there are at least four common arguments for why kitschy art and literature should be accepted. Each argument contains the seeds of its own destruction.

The first argument is, “Who are we to say it’s kitschy?”

This is driven by an admirable desire to avoid judgmentalism, or else by a less laudable tendency to make tolerance a virtue for its own sake. Either way, we should return to the definition of “kitsch”. Does the work go for an easy and superficial emotional response? Is it driven by a message to the exclusion of other legitimate artistic concerns? These questions transcend personal taste. One need not like a novel to respect it, to agree that it is sincere, complex or deeply meaningful. To a very large extent it is possible to say, “This is good work,” or, “That is bad work,” based on definable criteria rather than personal opinion. Legitimate literary and art critics frequently overlook their personal opinion to base reviews on these objective standards.

Also, we should return to the idea of an artistic spectrum and note that the existence of “gray areas” as we move toward both ends of that spectrum doesn’t mean we can ignore the dangers further on in those directions. Some novels stand in a gray area between the balanced middle and a bias toward elitism on one end, or kitsch on the other. Legitimate differences of opinion may exist about the nature of the work in those gray areas, but that doesn’t excuse a thinking person from standing firm against the general mistakes of elitism and “kitschiness” in principle.

The next argument for accepting kitschy art is this: “Lots of people like kitschy novels, so let’s leave them alone.”

This may be driven by another admirable instinct, which is the desire to avoid causing offense or hurting feelings unnecessarily. After all, if you tell an audience you think their favorite novelist’s work is kitschy, it will likely cause offense. And it is certainly true that “lots of people like kitschy novels.” But for a Christian this is the simplest argument to dismiss, because of course we know the world’s approval is never a reason to define anything as acceptable. Often the truth is just the contrary. In the fallen world, people have a long history of settling for the mediocre. This is what we do when we choose anything but Christ. So as Christians, we know better than to respond by saying, “Well, they seem to be happy, so let’s leave them alone in their ignorance and error.”

Part of our role in life is to shine the light of God’s love and perfect beauty into all the dark and muddled corners of this world. Therefore Christian novelists in particular bear a responsibility to stand against both haughty elitism and the (much more common) easy kitschiness that infects the world of Christian fiction. We have a responsibility to demand instead a kind of literature that respects the audience enough to sincerely attempt to engage them (no elitism), and to engage them in ways that are honest and important (no kitschiness). If the audience is too ignorant to understand that they need this, or too ignorant to even know such a thing is possible, then it is our responsibility to help them see the possibilities they’re missing.

A third argument I’ve heard is, “If it’s the best work a person can do, that’s good enough for God.”

Often the widow’s mites are cited, or the parable of the talents, and of course it is perfectly true that our best (and nothing less) is exactly enough for God, whether our best is excellent in worldly terms or not. But it is a long way from saying that, to saying God doesn’t want us to improve, or God doesn’t care if we are working in the wrong field.

In this case we’re assuming the novelist does not want to produce kitschy work; she just can’t help it because she hasn’t the skill or the experience to do otherwise. Skill and experience being two different things, we should look at them separately.

When a writer’s level of experience is not up to the task, the proper thing to do is to honor their effort and sincerity—as God does—while honestly critiquing the work for what it is. No good can come from lies or prevarication, from saying the work isn’t kitschy, or the kitschiness of the work doesn’t matter. The novelist is robbed of a potential learning experience, and the suffering public is subjected to yet more mediocrity. If the novelist is young in her genre but appears to have the fundamental gifts required, those who are qualified should explain where she has gone wrong and help her find her way, but we should never pretend a kitschy effort is acceptable.

As for skill, Christians are taught that everyone is given particular gifts. In Exodus for example, it says of Bezalel, “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs…” Clearly then, artistic ability is a gift from God. Although everyone is given gifts, not everybody is given artistic gifts. Unfortunately, many people desire artistic gifts they were not given, or else have become convinced they have those gifts when they do not. Much misery is caused by the pursuit of goals requiring gifts we do not have. Therefore when we encounter someone who seems to be determined to pursue an art form for which they are not gifted, we do them no favors by pretending the results are in any way acceptable. On the contrary, the kindest and most loving thing is to steer them away from the arts and toward the area of their true giftedness, because it is only there that they will be fulfilled.

A fourth argument commonly used to justify kitschy novels is, “God can use it. Many people have been blessed by it. Some people have even been led to Christ by it.”

Here we find yet another good motivation gone wrong. Of course we never want to interfere with God’s work on earth (not that we really could), but it is flawed theology to think God approves of a thing simply because He can use that thing.

Consider Assyria, a nation of idolaters, which God used to punish Israel and ultimately to return them to faithfulness. Think of Judas, used first by Jesus to teach the value of “a beautiful thing” (perfume worth a year’s salary poured extravagantly on the Lord), and then used again to demonstrate that Jesus was not coerced, but instead freely chose to give his life for you and me (“what you are about to do, do quickly”). And above all, think of the cross. What Christian would dare to say God approved of the Assyrian culture, or of Judas, or (heaven forbid) which of us is prepared to say God approved of crucifixion? Yet how the cross was used!

Similarly, we must never make the mistake of approving of kitschy novels—or mediocre work in any part of life—simply because our mighty God is fully capable of using even kitschy things for His good purposes. That would make us guilty of violating the command, “Do not test the Lord.”

Let the light shine

The Bible has a lot to say to novelists. Among them are these three facts: 1) Artistic creativity is a gift from God; 2) We are to bring our very best to God; 3) We are to let our light shine before men, that they may see our good deeds, (our work), and praise our Father in heaven. Given those imperatives, there is no excuse for Christians to approve of kitschy novels (bad “deeds”) which reflect poorly on the Lord, just as there is no excuse for the egotistical obscurity of elitist writing. As in so many other areas of life, the Way lies in the balanced middle.