A few weeks ago my mother and I watched the film The Bookshop, based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. This evocative film is about Florence Green, a widow in the late 1950s, who tries to establish a bookshop in a small English town against the wishes of the controlling doyenne of the local community, and is (*spoiler alert!*) ultimately unsuccessful.
Not having read the book, I was (unpleasantly) surprised by the ending, which prompted a conversation with my mother about how it perhaps reflected the reality of many small business owners who invest huge amounts of capital and time and energy into their dreams, only to see them fail. It's not the Australian dream, it's definitely not the American dream, but it is many people's reality. We try, and sometimes we don't succeed.
Driving away from the movie I started to wonder how this story could have ended. Should it have been more of an 'underdog wins against all odds' story? Or would that have been too simple, a Disney response to a world that doesn't like to face uncomfortable truths? Was I simply caught in the romance writer's bubble of 'happy-ever-after'? One of the central themes was about how the courage of this small, kind-hearted woman gave courage to others, so it wasn't completely depressing. But it was unsettling.
I believe hope is one of the most wonderful aspects of being a Christian, and something that we should offer in a desperate world hungry for good news. Yet this tension exists between creating stories that are real with ones that offer the chance to escape reality, and enter a different world where hope can perhaps be more plainly seen.
Sometimes I see this tension as people discuss the types of fiction they enjoy reading and/or writing, contemporary vs historical, realistic vs fantasy, redemptive vs squeaky clean Christian. (Side note: It's funny how what one person sees as 'squeaky clean' another might see very differently. I saw this recently with two editors both working for my publishers which saw certain sections of manuscript red flagged by one editor after the other okayed it. 😬)
Sometimes this 'either/or' mentality isn't helpful, as we can focus more on what perceived differences are than what we have in common. For whether we are published or not, self-published or traditionally published in Australia or the US (or not), writing stories for the general market or for Christians, stories that subtly allude to Christian truths or include Bible references, the most important thing we need to offer is a sense of hope.
Yes, we can be gritty. Yes, we can be real. But if our words don't ultimately offer something that fuels courage and persistence and enables readers to dream and not despair, then our readers might as well be watching the news.
I no longer enjoy watching the news. (Side note: does anyone truly 'enjoy' it? "Ohhh, look, here comes the bit about the grisly murder in Sydney! Yay, can't wait!") I don't particularly enjoy the uncertainty it delivers along with a sensationalised side of negativity; it doesn't restore my soul or give any great confidence for the future. Call me naive but I prefer what I watch and read to instil a sense of courage, of reassurance, that victory is possible, something that I hope my novels can offer also.
A person's need for story varies at different times, and in different seasons in life. A 'happily-ever-after' might seem a bit raw to someone in mourning, or it might give that person comfort, or possibly even courage to one day dream again. We can't know how our words will be received.
But we CAN know that God is good, and that He gives us hope, and in Jesus Christ, He gives hope to all who believe. So even if our stories are gritty and realistic and grounded in the cares and concerns of this world, we know that ultimately, in Him, there is a happy ending when good triumphs over evil.
Something that gives us hope.
Carolyn Miller lives in the beautiful Southern Highlands of New South Wales, Australia, with her husband and four children. Together with her husband she has pastored a church for ten years, and worked part-time as a public high school English and Learning and Support teacher.
A longtime lover of romance, especially that of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer’s Regency era, Carolyn holds a BA in English Literature, and loves drawing readers into fictional worlds that show the truth of God’s grace in our lives. Her Regency novels include The Elusive Miss Ellison, The Captivating Lady Charlotte, The Dishonorable Miss DeLancey, Winning Miss Winthrop and Miss Serena's Secret, all available from Amazon, Book Depository, Koorong, etc