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Genre Redux

When asked what I write, I usually answer Christian fiction. I don’t particularly care for jerome.jpgthat term, nor its equivalents, inspirational fiction, religious fiction or faith-based fiction. The Waterboro Public Library offers this definition, which seems pretty standard:

The term Christian fiction applies to those novels being published by evangelical Protestant Christian publishers like Bethany House, Word, Thomas Nelson, Crossway, and Tyndale. While many of these novels have an overtly Christian message, others are merely well-told stories that lack profanity and references to sex and violence. Christian fiction covers a wide territory ranging from these gentle reads to stories of biblical characters to apocalyptic tales of cosmic good struggling with cosmic evil.

According to this definition, Christian Fiction is characterized either by a.) An overtly Christian message, or b.) An absence of profanity, sex and violence. But while many ball and chain.jpgChristians applaud such distinctions, I see them as troublesome. For by these standards, a lot of great literature written by Christians is not Christian Fiction.

A good example is Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, nevertheless the trilogy falters on both counts: It DOES NOT have an “overtly Christian message,” and it contains reams of violence. C. S. Lewis’s Narnia was obscure enough about its allegory to be embraced by legions of non-christians and even be made into a Hollywood blockbuster. Flannery O’Connor’s stories were often violent, shocking, and anything but “overt.” And, as I mentioned here, Chesterton’s masterpiece, The Man Who Was Thursday, contains far too much cursing and drinking to escape today’s saintly no_cussing_sign.jpgcensors. The sad thing is, not only are these books considered “Christian classics,” it is questionable whether they would be picked up by a Christian publisher today. Perhaps this is why some of the best “Christian Fiction” — books like Gilead and Peace Like a River — is being published outside the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association). Why? Because the CBA genre strictures are far too narrow.

Let me suggest three reasons why the term Christian Fiction does a disservice to the Christian artist and actually hinders our message:

  • It perpetuates a Christian subculture
  • It limits our potential audience
  • It restricts potential subject matter

I’ve recently been enjoying Mute Math‘s new CD, and was interested to learn about the band’s effort to AVOID BEING LABELED A CHRISTIAN BAND.

“I used to be in a very overt Christian band, and I think once we started Mute Math, and there were spiritual undertones in the music–and we’ll openly state, yeah, we’re Christian–we watched how the Christian division of Warner Bros. just ran with it. And they ran with it faster than Warner Bros. ran with it in the general market,” explained [lead singer Paul] Meany.

Mute Math started being labeled as a Christian rock band; they started getting shows that were only geared toward a Christian audience; and the more Word Records, the Christian division of Warner Bros., marketed them as a Christian band, the more doors Mute Math saw slamming in their faces. Rock journalists would type “Mute Math” into Google, and links to Christianity Today and a site called JesusFreakHideout would pop up. Subsequently, no one in the secular world of music journalism would write anything about the band.

But Mute Math is decidedly not a Christian rock band.

“All of the sudden, we began to see ourselves getting pigeonholed into this particular world that we weren’t necessarily proud to be associated with, because we aren’t really fans of the music or fans of the cause of the music,” said Meany. “We don’t fit into that. We’re not trying to preach through our music; we don’t have some kind of evangelistic agenda with what we’re doing.”

“We’ve always conditioned our show universally, and (we’re) just trying to speak to human beings; (we’re) not really conditioning it down to Christians, and that’s what the Christian music industry does. It’s for a certain sect of people. I don’t have anything against that–I’m one of them–but I don’t want to taper it just for that,” said Meany.

I wonder that the publishing industry potentially does for Christian writers what the music industry does for Christian musicians: We get “pigeonholed,” campfire.jpgcompelled to represent an “evangelistic agenda,” and “taper” our material down for “a certain sect of people.” This is not to suggest that worthwhile Christian Fiction is not being published, but that equally worthwhile fiction is being passed over because of narrow, moralistic standards. This is also not to suggest that Christian publishing houses have impure motives and strong arm their authors, but that a certain brand of Christianity rules the roost — one that is forcing wonderful Christian authors “outside the camp.”

So, yeah, I write Christian Fiction. Or, should I say, I’m a Christian who writes fiction? Better yet, I write fiction. Aw shucks, Is there any room outside the camp?

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Ame December 21, 2006, 6:59 PM

    “labels” are difficult to swallow – probably mostly because we know that we don’t exactly “fit” into that label – and because we know that peoples’ perceptions of that label are so diverse and often inaccurate because our individual lenses through which we see the world.

    when i first learned my ex was addicted to pornography, my 70 year old mentor said to me, “you need to be careful not to tell people this or they will see you and think, ‘she’s the one whose husband is addicted to pornography.'” after having time to think this throug i decided, “you know what? i am married to a sex addict! that is the truth!”

    her perception and mine were different and never the two shall meet.

    i think we’re always gonna be “locked” into some perception – or some ONE’S perception – of what we are and what we do based on so many variables we cannot begin to even list much less contain them all.

    i think the long standing argument encompassing whether or not a writer should be true to his craft or true to evangelism speaks some here. those who follow in the way God created them, studying and learning and becoming the very best they can possibly be and become in those areas, will stand above the rest.

    poorly done anything in the name of God accomplishes little good and a lot bad. but excelling at your craft, your talents, your gifts, your abilities, knowing they are all from God to be used in ways that bring Him glory – which include being and becoming excellent at what you do – that honors God.

    when we can take what we do and lay it at the feet of Jesus, and look into His eyes and hear Him say, “well done …” then we can be assured that we have accomplished excellence.

    God gives us these gifts and talents and abilities. they are precious to Him, and He simply gives them to us! when we treat them as though they are less than that, i believe we dishonor God. but when we take the raw material God gives us and we learn and study and work to excel and become excellent in the use of those gifts, talents, and abilities, we honor God.

    in some ways, it is a very fine line; in others, it’s very broad.

    yes, there is the CBA and Word records. and yes, they have “rules” that are arbitrary and difficult. but that’s no different from any other time in history.

    so i do agree with you. but within our humanity, there will be and always have been “human” obstacles to overcome to be excellent in our talents, gifts and abilities. those who do achieve such excellence do so despite culture – and i am confident that you will do so despite culture, too, while also making a significant impact in how this christian sub-culture is defined.

  • janet December 21, 2006, 10:56 PM

    Hey. Just me. I get what you are saying, especially from the POV of a writer. But what about the consumer? So many Christians WANT to read books that are free of sex/cursing, etc. and they want to read books written from a Christian world view. They LIKE to be able to go to a Christian book store or go to Christianbook.com and find the kind of books they like. Without the distinction, how can they easily find the books? Wouldn’t Christian authors sell less books because their main audience wouldn’t be able to find them in the sea of books? Just a thought. It is weird how we got to this state of existence- Christians used to dominate the arts and now we’re just the alternative.

  • Mike Duran December 22, 2006, 1:11 PM

    Thanks for the comments AME and Janet! AME, you’re right that there will always be “rules” — like it or not. In the end, it is perseverance and dedication to craft that will transcend industry codes and decorum. At least, I hope so. (Still, can’t I rage against the machine?)

    Janet, you’re asking some great questions. In many ways, it IS the market that is creating and sustaining the labels — both good and bad. But just because people demand it, does not make it good. (Just look at primetime TV.) I’d suggest that the safe, stereotypical, sanitized Christianity readers want — the stuff that drives the market — is actually shallow, Pollyanna-ish, and unbiblical. (Much Christian romance and chick-lit is just as empty as its secular counterpart. . . save for references to Jesus and the Bible.) Just because there’s a demand for it, does not make it any better. In fact, feeding the misplaced hunger may actually make the condition worse.

    You said: “Wouldn’t Christian authors sell less books because their main audience wouldn’t be able to find them in the sea of books?” By this, you’re assuming that the Christian author’s “main audience” is Christians. What if I’m casting a broader net? It’s one thing to talk to Christians, and another to engage the secular mind. But if Christian authors just write books for Christian readers, aren’t we just talking to ourselves?

    Thanks for your input, gals! Lord bless you and yours this Christmas. . .

  • janet December 22, 2006, 2:05 PM

    Hey, Mike, me again. I swear, I totally “get” the broader net thing. Here’s what I’m thinking of. When I came back to God after 8 years of post-highschool partying/wandering in the world, I had a lot of things to change: my language (had to stop talking like a sailor), my recreational habits (coming to church hungover wasn’t cool), and the things I put in my mind. Before coming back, I’d watch just about anything or read whatever. I loved mysteries. Catherine Coulter was one of my favorites and also that gal who writes the “A is for…” books. They kept me turning pages. But the language was rough and there was plenty of sex. As a newly returned Christian trying to clean up her act, I recognized the kind of stuff I was reading and watching as hindering me from growing and getting away from temptation. So I discovered Christian fiction and was thrilled to find that I enjoyed it just as much as the other stuff, but without the cursing and sex and dark message. Now that I’m more mature in my walk and trying to grow as a writer, yeah, I read more from “the other side,” and there is lots that is good and superior to what can be found in Christian fiction. But I think Christian fiction is finally getting more “real”, Mike. Besides the Polly Anna stuff, there is a lot of real-life struggles going on in these books. We have a ways to go…. I’m rambling. Those are my thoughts.

  • Linda Gilmore December 22, 2006, 5:21 PM

    I appreciate your thoughts Mike (and Janet and AME). I can relate to the range of this discussion. I cringe at the casual sex and language and violence in a lot of contemporary fiction (I like mysteries and crime fiction). I like a good and satisfying story, with some depth, without all that. But I don’t want it to be preachy and the ends don’t need to be so nicely tied up. Maybe that’s one reason I loved Peace Like a River. It’s also why I love Dorothy Sayers’ novels.

    I’m reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman right now — fantastic book, but also unsettling. It’s worth reading, but I know that a lot of Christians would be completely turned off by the language and the mythological figures. But the themes are the kind of things we need to be writing about — love and life and death and choices and belief. And Gaiman can write!

    But could a Christian write something like this and see it published? Not sure, even without the sex and the bad language.

    I don’t think this is a discussion that will be resolved any time soon, but thanks for your good thoughts.
    Merry Christmas!

  • Ame December 22, 2006, 6:30 PM

    oh, absolutely, mike! rage against the machine!!!!! after all, this is your blog; and i’m sure your wife would MUCH rather you rage here than with her!!! 😉

  • janet December 22, 2006, 7:23 PM

    You said, “I’d suggest that the safe, stereotypical, sanitized Christianity readers want — the stuff that drives the market — is actually shallow, Pollyanna-ish, and unbiblical. (Much Christian romance and chick-lit is just as empty as its secular counterpart. . . save for references to Jesus and the Bible.) Just because there’s a demand for it, does not make it any better. In fact, feeding the misplaced hunger may actually make the condition worse.”

    So you are actually saying that the Christians who like reading this stuff should change and decide to read other stuff? That their preferences are “wrong”? I agree there is literature more worthwhile than a fluffy Christian romance (in my opinion), BUT if that’s someone’s preference, why not leave them alone and let them enjoy it? I mean a good salad is more worthwhile nutritionally than a Little Debbie snack, but I like Little Debbie.

    And then the “empty chic lit” stuff- maybe over-stressed wife/mom/employee type women just need a good relaxing laugh, reading about some Christian woman having light adventures. What’s wrong with that? If a Christian woman could either unwind sitting down to watch “Sex in the City,” OR read a Kristen Billerbeck chic lit novel…. I go with chic lit.

    But meanwhile, I’ll be reading something a bit meatier (though probably not as meaty as whatever you’re reading, Mike:))

  • dayle December 22, 2006, 10:12 PM

    I believe there is a huge untapped market for Christian fiction — Christians.

    Christian non-fiction books constantly top the best seller lists. So, why not target those readers? There is great value and virtue in being ministers instead of missionaries.

    I’ve read many arguments of the christian world view novel proponents–One that just has to be entertaining, but without the vices glorified. This is fine and I’m all for it. Three by Dekker is one of my favorites. However, it left me with the thought, what’s christian about this. It was a great read, but where is the ministry. Who says that Christian fiction has to be evangelical, can’t it be just ministerial (sometimes preaching to the choir is okay, they are always in church.)

    One of my fears is that secular writers, desperate to be published, will write “clean” novels and sell them as CBA.

    As an aspiring Christian novelist, I sense a great responsibility. Has God called me to write entertaining “clean” novels that might cross over and earn me lots of money. Or has he called me to minister to his church through fiction. To communicate His message in a thought provoking and entertaining way that might speak truer than a sermon. After all, isn’t the gift of writing actually the gift of communicaiton.

    I say we aim at the christian market. If the novels we write are strong enough, the crossover will happen. If not, then we can live rich in the grace that following God’s will provides.

    -dayle

  • Mike Duran December 23, 2006, 2:10 PM

    Hey Linda, thanks for your comments. I read American Gods a while back and felt the same thing. The subject of mythology and faith, and the conflagration of beliefs that have formed the American landscape, would be a fascinating subject for a Christian to explore. But, even apart from the language and sex, I doubt the CBA is equipped to accommodate something that speculative and biting. (Linda, you might also be interested in checking out my post Author Intersection, where I address the connection between Gaiman and G.K. Chesterton.)

    And Janet, are you bent on riling me up? If chick-lit and Christian romance is the equivalent of Little Debbie snack cakes, then we should be very concerned. Those two genres comprise nearly half of all Christian fiction titles published today! In other words, we’re not talking about an occasional snack for stressed out moms — we’re talking about a primary dietary choice. I’m down with snacking. But if I did it all the time, I’d be in bad shape. However, the truth is that many Christian readers never rise above junk food reading — soda and Little Debbie is their primary literary diet.

    Dayle, thanks for the visit. I think your comments reflect one of the deficiencies of the Christian Fiction label — it’s too narrow. You reference two primary objectives: 1.) Ministry and 2.) Evangelism. That’s a reasonable distinction and a worthwhile objective. However, as it’s currently constituted, I think the CBA is primarily geared toward Ministry, not Evangelism; CF reinforces terms, standards, ideals and storylines Christians already own. Fiction that was intended to be more Evangelistic would, by nature, involve crossover elements necessary to engage secular readers, be more edgy and less predictable and preachy. And this is exactly where Christian Fiction falters. The apostle Paul said he became “all things to all men” in order to reach some. Yet, with the rigid requirements imposed by CBA gatekeepers, the writer can only become “some things” to “some people.” If one of the goals of Christian Fiction is evangelistic, then we must face the reality that our own strictures are preventing us from reaching a lot of people.

    Thanks again for all your comments! Have a wonderful, grace-filled Christmas!

  • dayle December 23, 2006, 8:10 PM

    Mike, If you’re right and you’re trying to change the cba gatekeepers stringent requirements because they represents a shackle on our ability to do the most with our craft, then I believe there may be only one solution.

    Take charge of the situation and Publish your work through aba. If aba books, free of the narrowness you’re speaking of, written by christian authors grab a large audience, then cba will be forced to aquiesce. After all, aren’t the publishers always telling us that they are a business first.

    By the way, I absolutely believe there is a place for both evangelical and ministerial fiction. I really wasn’t disputing your point, only pointing out my fear that “christian worldview novels” will stray too far and won’t do either. I love Dean Koontz. But, if I write a novel like one of his, why should cba publish it just becuase I happen to be a Christian.

    Merry CHRISTmas — and keep it up. I love people who know what they believe and know how to articulate it.

    -dayle

  • Mike Duran December 24, 2006, 1:38 PM

    I didn’t mean to infer you were disputing my point, dayle. I think it’s a good one.

    You said: “I love Dean Koontz. But, if I write a novel like one of his, why should cba publish it just because I happen to be a Christian.” There’s two lines of thought here. (1) CBA should publish “publishable” Christian authors. Period. (2) CBA should publish material that falls within certain guidelines. Instead of publishing well-written material by Christians (whether Koontz-like or not), the CBA strains authors / stories through a moralistic sieve. I prefer (1) to (2), but in doing that, the line between saintly and secular would blur drastically, which, I think, is the primary fear of the CBA gatekeepers.

    I’m absolutely not trying to change the CBA! That would be a futile cause. These things are always incremental and, as I see it, there are good, (at least, arguable) reasons for a “wall of separation”). In the long run, kicking against the goads serves no purpose but to injure one’s feet. For that reason, I’m keeping options open regarding CBA / ABA. It’s just sad that good Christian authors are forced to look outside the Christian book publishing industry to have their stuff represented.

    Hey, thanks again for the comments, dayle. Have a blessed holiday!

  • Vicki December 31, 2006, 4:07 AM

    Mike, thanks for this very thought-provoking piece and the lively discussions following. Not sure if these issues surrounding the strictures of CBA will ever be completely resolved, but either way, we should write what we’re called to write and let God open the publishing doors. (I included you in my Writers’ Smorgasbord this week, btw).

    In a comment above, you said:

    “I’d suggest that the safe, stereotypical, sanitized Christianity readers want — the stuff that drives the market — is actually shallow, Pollyanna-ish, and unbiblical.”

    Few have the guts to actually say that out loud, but I tend to agree with you, with maybe a few exceptions.

    Write on, Mike.

    Blessings to you and yours this New Year!
    ~Vicki

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