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Overstreet on Christian Fiction

Strange Horizons is one of the premiere Speculative Fiction sites on the web, so it was great to see novelist and film critic Jeffrey Overstreet being interviewed there. Overstreet reviews for Christianity Today and his fantasy series, Auralia’s Colors, is published by WaterBrook Press. Throughout The Revelatory Power of Story: An Interview With Jeffrey Overstreet,  the interviewer veered toward the subject of Christianity before finally asking this question:

JOIII: Have you found there is a stigma attached to being published by a Christian publisher? What kind?

JO: Categories matter. Wouldn’t you look at the autobiographies of John McCain and Barack Obama differently if they were shelved in the “Christian/Inspirational” section? I suspect most people would. Why weren’t they shelved there? Obama and McCain are both professing Christians. Why were they categorized in more general categories?

It just goes to show how ridiculous it is to have a subsection of the bookstore marked “Christian.” Some bookstores are burying Auralia’s Colors in the “Christian Fiction” section, where the audience most likely to enjoy and appreciate them will never notice them. They’re shelved alongside a wide range of volumes from preachy allegories to classic literature. I want to know why, if we must have a “Christian Fiction” section, we don’t also have an “Atheist Fiction” section. Or “Vegetarian Fiction,” “Hindu Fiction,” or “Hispanic Fiction.”

Fiction is fiction, isn’t it? I wish we could assess each volume individually, by its artfulness.

If you’re immediately identified as a “Christian author,” people tend to read your stories suspiciously, using reader radar to search for allegory or some kind of suspicious agenda. That’s because so many Christian writers don’t know much about art—they’re intent on preaching a message using characters no more complicated than flannel-graph figures. That tradition of shoddy and manipulative storytelling has created an unfair prejudice against those of us who just want to tell a good story. (emphasis mine)

What is most refreshing about Jeffrey’s assessment, at least to me, is not the painful objectivity of his observations,  but that he is a Christian author published by a Christian publisher. Now, when someone like me, an unpublished Christian novelist, suggests it’s “ridiculous…  to have a subsection of the bookstore marked ‘Christian'”, I’m viewed as being seditious or, at best, gutsy. Thus the consensus among Christian writers is that opinions like these jeapordize one’s chances of publication in the religious market and are best left unspoken. But I’m a Christian first, and a writer second. So I personally find it encouraging that other Christian novelists — especially published ones — are willing to walk that plank and openly question the inherent flaws with the genre. Kudos to Jeffrey, not just for his great writing and thoughtful essays, but for expressing what many Christian novelists secretly ask.

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{ 24 comments… add one }
  • Heather April 15, 2009, 9:33 AM

    But if this is true, and we shouldn’t have a Christian subsection (which is something I’d love to get rid of!), shouldn’t we by the same token get rid of Christian publishers (and here, I’m playing the devil’s advocate)?
    There’s a tension here. On the one hand, I love the potential (and somewhat fulfillment) of CBA showing the Church as a patron of art in the world. On the other hand, wasn’t CBA created to sell specifically to Christians? Also, as Siedell pointed out in God in the Gallery, doesn’t the term “Christian art” (here, Christian fiction) marginalize the art created by Christians. We’re no longer interacting with the world.
    So can we keep Christian publishers but get rid of Christian subsections in Barnes and Noble? If we want Christian publishers to be about good stories without worrying about how many times the book refers to “Jesus,” and we want to be on the shelves next to Stephen King and Anne Tyler, then don’t we also have to accept that nonChristians will want to be published by Christian publishers as long as they have a good story? (Honestly, I don’t have a problem with that.)
    These are things I am (and have been) working through.

  • Dee Stewart April 15, 2009, 11:11 AM

    Hi, Mike.

    Great interview. I am a huge fan of Overstreet and loved Auralia’s Colors. It deserves to be shelved in the fantasy section. But then this is the double edged sword for getting published under a Christian publishing house. Authors need to visit bookstores and see where their prospective publishing house books are shelved, and what readers gravitate to those spaces. If your ideal reader isn’t there, then you may have to do what I do for my clients, manually take over some of your books to the right section, and let the staff restock them that evening. We’ve had a campaign doing just that. lol.

  • Nicole April 15, 2009, 2:20 PM

    “That’s because so many Christian writers don’t know much about art—they’re intent on preaching a message using characters no more complicated than flannel-graph figures.”
    This is just flat nonsense and a direct insult to many Christian authors. Commercial fiction, Christian or otherwise, lends itself to the “less than artful” language and plot points, but not all of it negates the writing talent.
    As far as the mainline bookstores placing CBA fiction in the “religious” or “inspirational” sections, that does present problems for a lot of authors who are Christians but write stories which either don’t include faith elements or deal peripherally with them (i.e. J.O., Robert Liparulo, Rachel Keener, some of Ted Dekker’s, Tim Downs to name a few). I know this has been a topic of consternation for CBA publishers as well as their authors.
    I’ve clashed with Mr. Overstreet before on these issues because he self-admittedly is a snob when it comes to whatever he considers to be “art”.

  • dayle April 15, 2009, 2:29 PM

    I know this is off your main point, Mike, but :

    Did he not know where Waterbrook would place his book when he signed the contract?

    Sounds to me like he should have turned down their offer and searched for a publisher who would place his novels where he wanted them.

  • Mike Duran April 16, 2009, 6:39 AM

    Heather, I think it would be wrong for Christian publishers to retreat. What needs changed, in my opinion, is the scope of our efforts. The current configuration of the religious market not only obscures what makes a story “christian,” but it prevents those stories from getting maximum airplay in the places that really matter (i.e. with people who need to hear the message). Thanks again for your insights!

    Thanks for visiting, Dee! Or is it Diva Dee? I think the fact that Christians need campaigns to move their books from the religious section into the mainstream is indicative of a problem. Thanks for organizing such efforts!

    Nicole, I agree that that statement comes off as snobbish, and unduly whitewashes some very good Christian fiction. Nevertheless, I agree with Jeffrey’s overall perspective that many Christian writers approach their fiction as more propaganda, than art.

    Dayle, that’s a good question. I’m not sure if WaterBrook signed it as a crossover series, but most of the copy for Auralia’s Thread does not highlight the author’s religious beliefs nor the book’s spiritual intentions.

    Thanks for the great comments!

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller April 16, 2009, 2:27 PM

    Ha! I copied the same line Nicole did and was planning to paste them here as a point of discussion.

    The thing I have trouble with is people who don’t read Christian fiction repeating these kinds of lines. In an industry that admits “buzz” is the single biggest seller of the product, this kind of negative buzz by someone who makes his living as a critic is poison.

    I wish Jeffrey had named the last five books of Christian fiction he’s read. Are all the books great? No, but I can’t think of a book I’ve read in the last two years put out by a member of the ECPA in which the characters were flat and uncomplicated as he states.

    Of course, I haven’t read all the books coming out, so that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but I think it’s inaccurate to give the impression that Christian fiction=preachy stories with flat characters.

    I suspect Athol Dickson might disagree. I know Katy Popa would. I could easily name a dozen writers who are producing quality fiction.

    Rather than allowing the label to remain a negative (and repeating it as if it is still true), I think Christian readers and writers would be wise to start buzzing about something else.

    What got the Left Behind books out of the Christian fiction shelves, when it was clearly a tale influenced by a particular view of Christian theology? It wasn’t the lack of preachiness, that’s for sure. It wasn’t its artistic merit either.

    Blaming flawed Christian fiction for why a book is not out where everyone can find it, is an easy dodge, I think, and doesn’t address the real issues of that particular work.

    Becky

  • Mike Duran April 16, 2009, 8:32 PM

    Great points, Becky. I concur about the quality issue and don’t think it’s nearly as disparate as Jeffrey implies. But he’s spot on when he says that people tend to be suspicious of Christian Fiction. That’s also true for Christian movies and Christian music. I think you’d agree that this suspicion is not just manufactured by Christian critics and/or criticism. The average reader IS suspicious of Christian Fiction for good reason. After all, most Christian Fiction does have a stated agenda, i.e., share the Good News, glorify God, encourage believers, etc. The bad “label” attached to Christian Fiction is not always warranted. Granted. But neither is it just the result of disgruntled writers within the fold. There ARE real problems with the genre. Not talking about these problems may pacify readers and writers of Christian Fiction, but it doesn’t make the issues go away.

  • Kaci April 17, 2009, 9:56 AM

    I kinda see it both ways – I might also add I was never aware of this ongoing discussion until my college years. Til then….I honestly would read about anything you threw at me, and I didn’t care as long as I enjoyed it. Now, I think I’ve turned away books based on things people have said that have influenced me.

    Weirdly enough – An author friend of mine told me that his understanding was, it’s really more in the handling of the subject matter, he’s noticed.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet May 29, 2009, 9:00 PM

    Dayle writes:

    "Did he not know where Waterbrook would place his book when he signed the contract?Sounds to me like he should have turned down their offer and searched for a publisher who would place his novels where he wanted them."

    Dayle, Waterbook assured me that they were striving to publish work that would be taken seriously by mainstream readers browsing the general fiction section. Indeed, Donita Paul's books are being shelved in the general fantasy section in most Seattle bookstores. I'm impressed with that. I don't write for Christians… I write for the whole world, or anybody who wants a good story. If I wanted to write just for Christians, I'd strive to get my books in the Christian fiction section. But I want my book to be picked up by somebody browsing for something by Phillip Pullman. Fortunately, my last name starts with "O", so there's a slim chance that could happen. 🙂

    So I made a very "informed choice" signing a contract with Waterbrook. And, God bless them, Auralia's Colors is in the general fantasy section at Barnes and Noble. I've also been stunned and delighted to find it on the New Fiction tables near the front of the store. Waterbrook has done an amazing job. I'm grateful and delighted to find out this is possible.

    Now, it's a challenge for Waterbrook. Sometimes, the fact that they are known as publishers of authors who are Christians makes the booksellers automatically shove all of their stuff into the corner. But I'm glad they have a larger vision, and are making a concerted effort to change things.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet May 29, 2009, 9:26 PM

    Nicole has taken issue with something I said.

    In the interview, I said,
    "That’s because so many Christian writers don’t know much about art—they’re intent on preaching a message using characters no more complicated than flannel-graph figures."

    Nicole answered:
    "This is just flat nonsense and a direct insult to many Christian authors."

    Well, please note: I said "Many." Not "All."

    And no, it's not a "direct insult", because I didn't name anyone directly. I made a generalization. So no particular author should feel insulted.

    And if you demand proof of my claim, I have piles and piles of manuscripts that authors have sent to me asking for endorsements. I'd be happy to photograph that stack and post it for you. But I won't reveal any names. I believe in a rigorous critique of the *writing*, not public humiliation of the *writers.*

    I have declined to endorse many of them. That's troubled a few folks, who have seen this as an unwillingness to support my fellow believers. But no, I cannot endorse as "excellent" what wouldn't have earned more than a B or B-minus in the creative writing courses I took my freshman year of college. Some of them are preachy. They're often poorly written. Sometimes, they read like a first draft on a word processor with no spellcheck or care about grammar. One even introduced Jesus as a character (by name!) in the middle of a story that takes place in a fantasy world. I'm sure these authors are all lovely people, and if I met them we'd probably become friends. But that doesn't mean I should cast aside discernment and give their writing a free pass.

    If I go shopping for a used car, I want the car that's built skillfully, that will last a long time, that will get good mileage. If I see a Christian bumper sticker on it, that does not increase my interest in the car. Just because it's associated with my own faith doesn't mean the car is worth owning.

    So I stand by my claim. Many Christians who are authors are still at a beginners' level. The same is true for any category of authors. And yes, some of them have been published.

    But I don't want to start a game of "direct insults", so I won't mention names.

    Heck, I once wrote terribly preachy, poorly crafted stories myself. And I would never claim to have "arrived." I think I have a lot of room for improvement as a storyteller too. I'm trying to get better.

    And I can't tell you how hard it is to get an honest, insightful critique from Christians. So many Christian readers are too forgiving simply because they affirm my religious beliefs. But how will I learn to excel without somebody being frank enough to tell me, "Jeffrey, here is where your work is shoddy"…? I want to become excellent in my storytelling. And I want to exchange critiques with other writers who care enough about excellence to be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of our work.

    I am very, very grateful to be working with the editors I've found. My editor at Waterbrook has a great sense of what makes a strong story. The freelancer Waterbrook has hired to work with me in more detail… he's amazing.

    I'm not going to endorse something that I don't think is going to be worth readers' time. I want to spend time on the Best, not the merely adequate. I take Philippians 4:8 seriously. I want to focus on what is excellent and worthy of praise. If that makes me a "snob," I'll take it. But I don't believe it is snobbish to desire excellence.

    Should we speak truthfully about the stuff that needs work? Yes. But we should also speak the truth "in love," as Christ instructs us. Sometimes, love has to be tough. But it should always be characterized by grace.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet May 29, 2009, 9:26 PM

    Nicole also wrote:
    "I've clashed with Mr. Overstreet before on these issues because he self-admittedly is a snob when it comes to whatever he considers to be 'art'."

    Nicole, would you kindly remind me where I admitted I was a snob? I seem to have forgotten that. But you say it happened, so I trust you can show me where that occurred. I have a feeling I'll find that, in context, I had my tongue firmly in my cheek.

    By the way, has anyone noticed that Marilynne Robinson is writing fiction with surpassing excellence about matters of faith… and it is in Literature, not "Christian fiction"? She's been winning prizes. Annie Dillard as well. Frederic Buechner. Madeleine L'Engle. Stephen R. Lawhead.

    These prove that Christians who are writers do not have to surrender their books to the hard-to-find Christian Fiction section of the store. But how do they do it? They write with such beauty and skill and excellence, mainstream booksellers accept their work as something that deserves high-profile attention. They realize that *these* books will be enjoyed by believers and unbelievers alike.

    Occasionally, this "crossover" happens merely because of a fad or a trend or a controversy. But it also happens when something is written with such excellence that it stands out.

    I will leave it to others to assess my writing. But I am striving, whether successful or not, to try and give readers books that they'll keep in order to read them again.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet May 29, 2009, 9:34 PM

    By the way, a producer I know in Hollywood talks about how many Christians came to him after the success of The Passion of the Christ and said, "Now is our chance! Hollywood is paying attention to Christians! Finally, Christian movies will start getting more attention."

    He says that people started asking him a couple of years later, "What's going on? I thought Christian movies were going to start showing up in theaters more often? Why haven't we seen anything great?"

    He told me, "Here's the thing. I *want* to produce movies made by Christians. And I think the material is getting better. But we're not making giant leaps and bounds. I joke about wanting to make a museum of bad Christian screenplays and not being able to find a building big enough. I get a lot of stuff sent to me that's pretty awful."

    He also talked about how often he sees scripts that seem designed to show the world that Christians are right and everybody else is wrong. Many of them portray people who pray, or who come to Jesus, and suddenly, all of their dreams come true, or they win the big game, or they are suddenly able to have kids where they couldn't before.

    He said, "Where are the screenplays about people who pray and *don't* get what they want, but have faith anyway? Where are the stories about people who find Jesus and *don't* see all of their dreams come true?"

    He sees, in other words, a lot of stories that convey a sort of "self-righteousness," movies that point the finger at unbelievers and say, "Until you start behaving in a way that we approve, your life will be miserable."

    That's not evangelism.

    I prefer Madeleine L'Engle's definition:

    “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

    Mike, thanks again for your blog and for bringing some of these complicated questions into the spotlight.

  • Nicole July 7, 2009, 5:59 PM

    I gave up waiting for a retort from Jeffrey, so I doubt he'll check back to see this:

    "And if caring about excellence is the same thing as being snobbish, then I think we need more snobs." Feb. 19th, 2009 (A Christian Worldview of Fiction)

    Anyway, we remain at an impasse. No problem.

  • Jake July 8, 2009, 3:24 AM

    Nicole,

    It seems to me you just proved Jeffrey's point that if he claimed to be a snob, it was tongue in cheek. He's not admitting to being a snob . . . the implication is that caring about excellence is often unfairly referred to as snobbish. He's right . . . but there's no claim in that statement that he is a snob in the true sense of the word.

  • Jeffrey July 9, 2009, 12:01 AM

    Thank you, Jake, for noting what I thought was fairly obvious humor when I said it.

  • Nicole July 9, 2009, 2:04 AM

    Tongue in cheek or not, guys, read the entire posts. No surprise I failed to see the humor. Right? I think you're a literary snob, Jeffrey, but you can be whoever you desire to be. I'm not trying to be unkind here, believe it or not. I know you're talented, I acknowledge your preferences and education are impressive, but, geez, other writers strive for excellence, do their best to learn craft and produce good literature, and yet you'd probably think some or most of it was pulp. I'm saying that your demeanor is humble but your words sound arrogant. I stand by that.

  • J.P. July 9, 2009, 3:31 AM

    "The last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world."
    – T.S. Eliot

  • Jake July 9, 2009, 4:12 AM

    Obviously Nicole is entitled to her opinion. But I've been reading Jeffrey's work for quite a while (admittedly I don't know him personally), and have never found him to be arrogant. Honest about what he thinks and about his enjoyment of, and pursuit of, excellence. And I know that I've been consistently challenged and encouraged by his work.

    But sometimes in the Christian world any kind of critique is considered "mean" – we've elevated a false idea of "niceness" as some sort of Christian ideal. We can surely critique in loving ways – but I'm not seeing how Jeffrey has failed to do so. He's not naming names, nor is he criticizing all Christian writers. You can certainly argue that he is incorrect. But calling him a snob for having an opinion and offering a critique – particularly when he invites the same critique of his own work – seems unfair to me. And while I don't doubt Nicole's sincerity, it seems a bit disengenuous to claim you're not trying to be unkind. Labeling someone as a snob is pretty harsh. I don't think it makes much difference whether or not you're *trying* to be unkind when the end result is still that you *are* being unkind by using such vitriolic labels.

  • Nicole July 9, 2009, 5:09 AM

    Look, Jake, "snob" is hardly "vitriolic". I commend Jeffrey's talent, and for the most part in all the commentary that he writes about "excellence", it's apparent how he values artistry. But his generalization of CBA writers was definitely unkind. And snobbish. Regardless of not "naming names", he insulted "some", a "few", or "many" in a particular Christian market.
    I've done my share of "poor" reviews of CBA fiction. I don't enjoy criticizing a writer who has probably done their best, so I try to be careful but honest.
    If you don't think he's being snobbish or his particular words regarding Christian fiction either here or at Rebecca Luella Miller's blog sounded even remotely arrogant, I appreciate that. I'm not accusing him of being an arrogant person–quite the contrary, really–but I am saying that's how his words came off.

  • Jeffrey July 9, 2009, 5:18 AM

    My understanding of "snob" means that the person in question shows some kind of contempt or disdain for works or people who don't meet his particular standards of excellence.

    I have no such contempt. I've read and enjoyed many "pulpy" novels and a lot of mediocre volumes. My DVD library is full of formulaic, forgettable movies that I enjoy for one reason or another, and I'm in no postion to turn up my nose at others for their choices.

    But as I strive to become a critic of integrity, I want to speak honestly about the quality of various works. (You should read how Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, and O'Connor wrote about books they did not admire. They were gracious and eloquent, but they had strong words for material they found shoddy. Tolkien himself had some harsh things to say about the Narnia tales, actually. I don't think they were snobs.)

    If I were a professor, I'd have to grade a wide range of papers. Would I be a snob for giving somebody who tried really, really hard a B- or a C+? I don't think so.

    I'm not going to be forced into calling something *excellent* if it doesn't meet some high standards of enduring quality, poetry, and vision. If the author tried really really hard, well… that's good. That's a requirement. But not everyone who tries really really hard is deserving of being in the Olympics. Great effort does not necessarily result in good art.

    Heck, I watch "Bones" on TV with my wife every week, and we get a kick out of it. Some things about it are very well done. But if I started calling it "great art," people would be right to start questioning my definitions. If I start over-praising unremarkable storytelling, there goes my integrity and honesty. High praise shouldn't come cheap from any of us.

    If my words implied contempt for anyone in particular, forgive me for not speaking clearly enough. I certainly never intended such a thing. The dictionary tells me that a "snob" is condescending and disdainful toward people, and I harbor no ill feelings toward writers whose work failed to make me stand up and cheer.

    There's a big difference between discernment and snobbery; between honest criticism and cruelty; between expressing disappointment with a book and speaking in a condescending tone about its writer.

    My editors and critics express disappointment with aspects of my work all the time. And I thank them for it, so long as they stick to criticizing the work with eloquence and intelligence, and don't just get mean. I serve a God who spits what is lukewarm out of his mouth. Is he a snob?

    I only meant to express a strong conviction about the difference between excellence and mediocrity, I'm grateful for those who respect that.

    And thanks again, Mike, for your patience with all of this. As this is the internet, I certainly don't expect to have the last word in a situation like this, so I'll leave it at that.

    An invitation: Anyone's invited to come over to http://lookingcloser.org, peruse my lists of favorites, ask me about books or music or film, and draw your own conclusions.

    Peace, out.

  • Nicole July 9, 2009, 2:09 PM

    I enjoy "Bones", too. 😉

  • Mike Duran July 10, 2009, 2:41 AM

    Jeff, I really appreciate you taking the time to respond to these questions / objections. I think the length of your answers, and the obvious thought behind them, should alone dispel the charges. Were you a genuine snob, I doubt you'd have bothered being here and dialoging (not to mention admitting you watch "Bones"). In the end, I think you and Nicole (and me too!) are after the same thing — magnifying God through our talents, abilities, values, and passion.

  • Kenneth May 21, 2012, 2:27 PM

    Know I’m dipping in here a little late. Okay, really late. But Overstreet needs to realize that others can’t read his intentions, and they can’t read the minds of Waterbrook’s publishing team. They can, however, read their mission statement. Last time I checked, it read like this:

    “The WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, the evangelical division of Random House Books, Inc., is committed to creating products that both intensify and satisfy the elemental thirst for a deeper relationship with God. By communicating encouraging and life-enriching truths, WaterBrook Multnomah provides resources that can be trusted to be spiritually sound and readers will find to be captivating and enlightening. In providing these products as a Christian publisher, we hope that readers of all ages will gain a deeper understanding of God and live a life pleasing to Him.”

    So, take a look at those key terms. Evangelical. Deeper relationship with God. Christian publisher. They may have a higher commitment to excellence and intend to reach non-Christians, but the nuance of intention is all too often lost on readers and bookstores.

    No matter what he intended to do with his writing and the audience he wanted it to reach, the fact is that Overstreet willingly signed a contract with a Christian publisher for the Auralia Thread. Which is perfectly fine. Many good friends of mine are deep in the Christian publishing world.

    But as long as you try to gain an audience among non-Christians, the fact is that any self-proclaimed “Christian publisher” will get dismissed by most of them. No, it isn’t fair, but that’s kind of the way it works. If Jeffrey wanted to reach more of them and avoid getting written off as “just another Christian writer,” he should have gone with another division of Random House, or another publisher entirely. It does no good to jump on-board with Waterbrook, then complain about how he loses readers when someone calls “Auralia’s Colors” Christian fiction. (It doesn’t help that Christianity Today is one of his main writing credits in his author’s bio on the cover).

    Come on, Jeffrey, how did you think it was going to go down? This is like trying to put a flyer in a liquor store and complaining when the paper picks up the smell of wine and bourbon. If you don’t want the smell, go put it somewhere else.

    I know I should be more gracious, but it frustrates me to no end when a fellow Christian gets totally misread when they had many other options that were clearly available to them (other publishers, in this case), and then incessantly whine “That’s not what I intended!” God forgive me if I have been truly uncharitable.

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