Friday, January 21, 2011

Why Christian Fiction?

The topic of Christian fiction has been widely debated on the Web these past few years. I've followed discussions with readers asking "Why the Christian label?" and other discussions that insist "Christian" fiction is substandard to fiction in the general market. And then there's the lack of choice for those who do enjoy Christian fiction. Often the debates become very heated, so clearly it's a sensitive subject.

So, what are the answers? Why Christian fiction?

I'm just a stay-at-home mom with my lit major collecting dust so I won't pretend to have great wisdom, but I do have my simple opinions based on my own anecdotal evidence.

  • Why the label? Shouldn't Christian authors write material that will appeal to everyone instead of just preaching to the choir? Look at C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. More recently, Leif Enger's Peace Like a River and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson have both won wide acclaim from all markets.
First of all, as a writer, I'd love to have the talent of a Lewis or a Tolkien, but let's face it, they are true literary masters. Leif Enger's sophomore effort, So Brave, Young, and Handsome completely lacked the magic of his first book. Was his first a fluke or does he genuinely have the skill?

As for preaching to the choir? Don't Christians need to hear stories of other Christians' struggles, and witness the power of God's redemption? Yes, I'm a member of the choir, but my choir is filled with broken lives, and we all need those lessons Christian fiction teaches.

I would love to have the gift to write something that appeals to the general market as well as Christian, but so far the stories I'm compelled to tell will likely be rejected by non-Christians. I applaud those who are able to reach the wider audience.

  • True or False: Christian Fiction is substandard to general market fiction.
Sure, some of it is, but then there's a lot of fiction in the general market that's pretty awful too. And yes, I read from both markets. It's a stereotype that needs to be broken.

A few years back, after continually hearing Christians and fellow church goers berate Christian fiction, I knew I had to find a way to show how much the genre has grown. I began writing a book review for our church newsletter highlighting a book a month, showing not only the diversity in Christian fiction, but also the quality. People were genuinely surprised by what's out there. That monthly book review is what birthed Spire Reviews.

But why read more Christian fiction than general market? For me, while I love to read stories about messy lives, I don't need that mess photographed out to me.

I prefer to read books that avoid crude language. I recently read a Michael Connelly novel (love his Harry Bosch series) and he likes to use the "F" word periodically. At first when I see the word, I tend to flinch, but by the end of the novel it's amazing how it's stopped bothering me. I've become desensitized to it.

People often say that the Bible would be R-rated. Really? Yes, the Bible is replete with stories of genocide, seduction, and adultery. Talk about edgy. BUT, when you read about David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11:2-5, the NIV version says,
"One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”
Messy, yes, but hardly R-rated. I believe passion can be shown in a book without giving me pages of explicit description. I love stories that show people getting down in the muck to help others, as God meets us where we are, but when the author flings his own muck, the story loses its power.

As an author, I realize the potency of words and how important it is that we choose precise words when we write. If you choose to use crude language, it needs to have a purpose in the story. If you choose to open that bedroom door, that scene needs to have relevance.

Just my humble opinion. You're very welcome to disagree.

  • True or False: Christian Bookstores offer a lack of choice for readers.
To an extent, this is true. When I peruse my local Christian bookstore's shelves, I see lines of historical romance and Amish. Sprinkled here and there are some mystery/suspense, some contemporary, maybe a literary or two, and if you look hard enough you'll find a speculative. But please look. The choice is there and it's worth the effort.

If you want to laugh, read Michael Snyder. Love a good mystery? We've got Steven James (who's reached a crossover audience) and Tim Downs. How about legal fiction? James Scott Bell's always enjoyable and Randy Singer has become a very competent writer. Love poetic prose? Then read Charles Martin (another crossover), Athol Dickson, and Laura Frantz. Need to be challenged? No one does that better than Lisa Samson. Mary DeMuth is close behind. Enjoy sports' novels? Rusty Whitener, Richard Doster, and Graham Garrison tell beautiful stories. And of course, I can't forget Ted Dekker, Tosca Lee, River Jordan, Jennifer Erin Valent, Chris Fabry, Dale Cramer ... Well, you get the idea.

So yes, the bookstore shelves are burdened with historical and romance, but that's what the current market demands and that high-selling market is what allows the less popular stories to be printed. I think the real question is:

How do authors reach that wide Christian audience who won't pick up a Christian novel because of the stereotype.

What about you? What do you read? Do you enjoy Christian fiction or do you avoid it? And why?


  1. Brenda -- I love how you think...after reading some of your newsletter reviews, I did start reading Christian fiction. Like you say, some is appealing to me, and some isn't...just like any other genre!

  2. Exactly, Karen. My aim is to spread the word that there is diversity & quality writing in the Christian market.

    Thanks for stopping by. Hope you have a blessed weekend.

  3. Amen and Amen! :-) On all counts. I was one of those people who thought Christian books were...well...lacking somehow. Had I read any? No. I just made that assumption. Then a couple of friends through a fanfiction site got me to try a couple. I cut my teeth on Dee Henderson and Julie Klassen and I haven't looked back since. I read Christian fiction almost exclusively.

    And you want to hear a secret? I actually think Christian fiction is far superior to mainstream fiction!!! There's something about delving into the inspirational side that gives a story more depth. Plus, I am finding that the authors themselves are so giving and encouraging to new writers. There's so much in place to help a writer hone her craft. Lots of encouragement and tough love. The Christian authors I 'know' are constantly improving and eager to grow. I appreciate that immensely as a reader.

    I love what you said about preaching to the choir. I've heard some authors lamenting the fact that they are writing to convert but can't reach that target audience because they are pegged 'Christian'. I wish they could understand just how much they lift me up and strengthen my testimony. And isn't helping the converted stay converted important too? It's hard to be in the world but not of it. Reading Christian fiction reminds me of who I am and where I want to be while helping me work out weaknessess and problems right along with the characters.

    Phew! I could go on but I better stop here. :-) Thanks for starting the conversation!

  4. I wrote a post too today about this same kind of subject, my answer was in response to Amy at My Friend Amy's.

  5. I love it. It has everything the secular world has but you get God's perspective on life. Keep writing Christian fiction!

  6. Kav, I thoroughly enjoy hearing your thoughts. I think many of us cut our teeth on Dee Henderson. I think she cleared the way for so many romantic suspense authors out there.

    I agree that the spiritual element adds another level of depth to novels that many general market books lack. One of my big disappointments with the general market is all too often they offer no hope. Sometimes I'll complete a book and just feel depressed. Whereas, generally in Christian fiction, you may not always have a happy ending, but there's usually an element of hope.

    Thanks for stopping by Kav!

  7. Annette, thank you for sharing that link. I love your depiction of "bubble gum" fiction and "plucky reads." That's perfect.

    Thanks for stopping by today.


  8. Hi Linda - I appreciate you stopping by today.

    I agree with you. Let's keep writing Christian fiction & improving our craft & pretty soon the secular market will take notice.

  9. I brought a boxful of Christian Fiction to a recent women's church devotional. We were discussing ways to live a more Christ-like life. I was leading the discussion and book-talked some of my favourite inspirational fiction while explaining how it was one way I felt that I could merge entertainment and spiritual growth. These reads were pulling me towards Christ not pushing me away as many mainstream books do today -- especially in the romance genre.

    NONE of the women at the meeting had ever considered checking out Christian fiction. At the end of the disucssion I swear I blinked only once but when I looked down at the table it was empty. Everyone had grabbed a book or books and wanted to borrow them!

    My poor librarian's heart was torn. I live to share books, but these were my prized possessions and I knew some of them would never find their way back home. In the end I bid them a fond farewell. A month or so later and most of them have made their way back to me...sniffle...though there are some orphans still out there. BUT -- I have started lending books to two ladies who are devouring them! They just needed to know the quality that was out there! Whooohoooo!

  10. Kudos to you, Kav. It's awfully hard to give up those precious books, but think of the seeds you've planted.

    I weeded out my bulging bookshelves a few years back and gave boxes of books to my church library. It's a thrill to watch others enjoying them now when before they sat silent.

  11. I've heard things like that too. When I mention reading Christian fiction, someone will say "Oh, I read that once. It was about some Amish community" or "I read that once. I was that one author, the Mitford one". People have no idea that Christian fiction is a huge market. I'm trying to review every single Christian Teen Fiction book in existence and don't know that I'll ever get them all done, there are so many - and that's just the teen ones! There are even more adult ones! Yes the main displays on the shelves and on CBD are Amish, but if you look further there's a lot more there! There's even fantasy like Karen Hancock or Donita K. Paul.

  12. J:-)mi - Thank you for creating awareness of all the teen reads out there. I have (3) teens who are always looking for good books, and other people continually ask me for recommendations. In our local bookstore the teen reads are buried back behind children's books, & the section is pitifully small. Now I can refer everyone to you:


  13. Good post, Brenda. It's a bit daring (or just plain stupid) to say this, but some Christians enjoy dabbling in the world and feel "safe" doing it in novel form. They're tired or bored with inspirational fiction either because they've read the perpetual "bestsellers" in CBA or haven't read but one or two novels and made huge, albeit incorrect, assumptions from miniscule reading in the genre.

    The majority of novels in either market doesn't qualify as superior. It's commercial fiction the publisher designs to sell. Brenda, you and I know the "standards" with which they (some CBA professionals) measure certain genres, and it's way behind the times and unimaginative, ignoring a potentially significant audience.

    Christian authors in proportion to general market or secular authors hold their own. You mentioned some excellent writers.

    I think the major failure in CBA publishing is figuring out how to market fiction. Reaching readers for the different genres is key to sales, and I just don't see that happening in a broad-based way. The trendy stuff sits in large numbers on the shelves and end caps faced out and ready to grab that market's attention. So many more sit unknown on the shelves waiting for some adventurous reader to pick them out.

  14. Nicole, you nailed it with this phrase, "... ignoring a potentially significant audience."

    I would assume that people who attend church are our overall audience, but if my church is any indication (it may or may not be), most church members won't read Christian fiction.

    As someone who achieved a level of success in direct sales, I understand marketing. If you have a quality product, the key to selling it is reaching that particular audience that will purchase it. Conversely, if a product has a poor reputation, no amount of marketing will sell it.

    The question is, how do you reach the reader who believes all Christian fiction is the same? How do we change their mindset? Is it up to the publishers or the authors to reach that potential audience?

    I don't know the answers. What I do know is that we shouldn't wait for someone else to make a move to reach that audience. If enough of us talk up the books that are different, & get word of mouth going about the diversity & quality of Christian fiction, our little ripples of promotion will turn into waves.

  15. Brenda, I'd be interested to hear how you would market Chain of Mercy to reach its audience. I have no marketing skills other than I'm a drama queen and would gladly speak in front of a crowd, do a live interview, etc. ;) Would you invest in a publicist? Would you enlist your author friends to promote your novel on their blogs/websites? Will they endorse your work?

    What would you put in a proposal? (You can email me if you don't want to answer here.)

  16. Tough question, Nicole. I'd absolutely enlist all my author friends, but then I'd be reaching much of the same audience that Christian fiction currently markets to.

    I think I'd start with my church. My first readers are from my church and few of them typically read Christian fiction. There's a huge untapped market there. I'm also part of a book club that reads general market fiction and they've been wonderfully supportive of my venture and would reach a unique audience. Also, with each of my books, I'd look at the subject matter (I've written about heart disease, Down syndrome, adoption, men & abortion, plus others) and market toward them.

    Well, those are a few ideas to reach beyond the norm.

  17. This conversation keeps getting more and more interesting. I like what Nicole has to say about marketing. That does seem to be the downfall if your book doesn't fit a popular niche.

    Take Melanie Dickerson's The Healer's Apprentice for example. I ordered it from my Christian bookstore and recommended that they get in some copies as well. They did -- but they didn't know what to do with them. LOL. They don't have a Young Adult section, you see...just teen -- which I guess if for younger readers.

    The book kind of languished on a shelf inbetween until I was in there before Christimas. The place was packed -- a bus had come in from a church in a small town about an hour's drive away. That busload of people were bound and determined to get their Christimas shopping done that very day! They kept asking for help from the sales clerks but it was obvious they were not well versed in Christian Fiction. They just kept pointing out the bestseller wall.

    Anyway, to make a long story short(er) -- I couldn't keep my mouth shut and started helping out. The Healer's Apprentice went to every customer who had a teenage girl on their list! LOL.

    But you know, I see that so many times when I go into the store. I've been reading blogs and making lists so I know what I'm looking for, but most people walk into the fiction section and immediately feel lost and then wander out again without lifting up a book!

    Ways I think booksellers could make a difference in Fiction sales:

    Have staff members write a short recommendation on a tag and place it on the shelf by that title.

    Have a bulletin board or tag board or brochures or bookmarks which read: If you liked _____ try ________.

    Have a staff member keep tabs of a few staple blogs and frequently post reviews of books next to the display shelves.

    Have the staff read the books!!!!!!!

    Ask for customer feedback. "Adopt a book" or genre where customers could give their reviews or recommendations.

    Host a book club in the store.

    Phew, I could go on. But I really think that a large part of 'selling' a book is up to the bookstore staff.

    Oh and thanks for the link to the Teen blog. I'll have to go check it out!

  18. Excellent suggestions, Kav. I've helped out customers too at our local Christian bookstore and at Borders. People probably think I work there. Hmmm, maybe I should.

    I've always been disappointed with the lack of marketing our local stores do, even within their own shop.

    They could easily highlight Christy Award winners, INSPY winners, etc, just like a B&N would highlight Pulitzers & Caldecots. Who doesn't want to read a winner? Also, I love supporting local authors & I'd bet others do to. How hard would it be to put a little flag by books and mark them "Local Author." Julie Klassen was up for a prestigious Minnesota Book Award right beside John Sandford, a million book seller. Customers should be made aware of that.

    And the most obvious suggestion, of course, you named: have employees read the books & know their product. You can't sell something if you don't know all about it.

    Kav, maybe you & I should open our own book store. (Has always been a dream of mine.) Just think of the ideas we'd come up with! Of course, you'd have to move down to Minnesota.