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Two Things That Keep Christian Fiction From Crossing Over

There’s much of interest in this week’s Library Journal piece Christian Fiction: A Born Again Genre for Christian writers and readers (thanks to Becky Miller for the link), especially the suggestion that Christian Speculative Fiction is trending. What I found most fascinating was the concluding section titled “Is Christian Fiction Crossing Over?” Here’s a snippet:

While some evangelical writers—most notably spiritual thriller author Ted Dekker—have enjoyed a crossover appeal to the mainstream market, CF publishers are changing marketing strategies to appeal to secular readers. Although Dekker’s books are now targeted to both mainstream and Christian readers, Harry Helm, VP and associate publisher for FaithWords and Center Street, stresses that the Hachette imprints create distinct messaging appropriate for each of the markets. “Many Christian writers can certainly build a readership in the mainstream, but it is essential that the publisher continue to speak directly to the Christian market in vehicles and language that resonate with that segment of readers.”

Rather than the genre becoming more secularized, Jennifer Leep of Revell notes that many Christian novelists like Steven James are simply writing excellent stories with rich characters who strike a chord with a broad range of readers. His books, she explains, don’t contain explicit Christian messages as much as they implicitly explore spiritual questions such as the nature of good and evil in a way that’s consistent with Christian faith.

Bethany House’s Oates credits the increased availability of what once had been a niche genre sold mainly to Christian bookstores for its growing success among general readers. Christian fiction is now the third top-selling ebook fiction category, and Oates believes the expanded audience has become more tolerant on content. “I would not see that as being more secular, just more in touch with the values of the readership,” he adds. (emphasis mine)

While I’m thrilled that Christian publishers appear to be seeing their “mission” in terms of a larger market — both in terms of readers’ tastes and/or worldviews — there are inherent obstacles to “Christian crossovers,” some of which this article inadvertently highlights. Let me suggest two things that keep Christian Fiction from crossing over.

#1: Implicit vs. Explicit Message


In other words, a key component to Christian fiction crossing over has to do with a less explicit Christian message.

In the article, popular thriller novelist Steven James is mentioned as an example of Christian crossover with an implicit, rather than explicit message.  However, James traces this approach back to a specific philosophic approach to spiritual truth and story. Take THIS INTERVIEW with Crosswalk in which the author says:

“I’ve always loved thrillers.  But most of the Christian thrillers I’ve read are thinly veiled sermons.  I say, if you want to teach a message to share or a lesson to teach, write non-fiction.  That’s what it’s there for.  If you want to tell a good story, write a novel.  Fiction explores issues or exposes things, but it doesn’t explain them.  That’s not the point of a story.  It’s to allow people to think and consider and explore things.  It’s interesting to see how Jesus told people his stories.  He didn’t tell people what they meant.” (emphasis mine)

For many, this tension between Implicit and Explicit message is fundamental. While many readers expect, even demand, a clear “Christian message,” others appreciate more nuanced, subtle, implicit concepts and questions. It’s the same reason why many readers DO NOT view Steven James’ thriller series as Christian fiction. It is not enough like a “sermon.”

If you think about it, most of the novels that have crossover appeal have broken from this traditional Christian fiction mold, both in the type of audience they’re aiming at and their aim to clearly convey a “message.”

This is the pesky philosophical divide at the heart of Christian fiction and will forever challenge its crossover.

#2: Marketing to a New Demographic


I’ve described part of the New Demographic as Christians who don’t like Christian fiction. But it’s really quite large. The Library Journal article opened by identifying the traditional target market:

With its focus on biblical values and traditionally low emphasis on profanity, sex, or violence, Christian fiction (CF) has long been popular with a certain readership, mostly white, female, and coming from an evangelical Protestant background.

Question: Do Christian publishers know how to market to anyone other than mostly white, female, Protestant moms, who don’t drink, smoke, or tolerate profanity?

And now they propose to “appeal to secular readers”???

My apologies to friends in the industry, but Christian publishers haven’t figured out how to market to Christian men yet. So how in the world are they going to market to… SECULAR MEN?

And don’t even get me started on the Christian speculative fiction reader.

All that to say, marketing to a broader audience is the right thing to do. But that audience does not just include “secular readers.” Unless publishers can figure out how to target audiences who openly share their worldview (like Christian men, Christians sci-fi/fantasy readers, Christian horror readers, etc.), how in the world can they hope to attract readers on the margins?

So of the two things that keep Christian fiction from crossing over, I’d suggest that one is philosophical and one is institutional; one involves broadening our definition of Christian fiction to include a less explicit message, the other involves broadening our market to include a less traditional demographic. While I’m at it, might I also suggest that until Christian publishing’s philosophical issue is resolved, institutional changes will lag.

As always, your opinions are welcome.

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Heather Sunseri February 17, 2012, 7:19 AM

    This could quite possibly be the best article you’ve every written!! And that’s saying a lot, because you’ve written some good stuff. Nothing to add at the moment, maybe after I’ve digested this a bit.

  • Rocky Lewis February 17, 2012, 7:26 AM

    Great article. I am curious how you feel the flattening of the publishing game will effect this phenomenon. Let’s say the likes of Amazon, Kobo, and Hyperink dwindle down big players in publishing, Barnes and Noble goes out of business, and writers take to verticals to promote their work… will the ability of a big publisher to “reach” a new audience matter as much? Will a less pre-segmented population of readers find what stories they might enjoy online in different ways? And, if so, do you think cross over will happen then?

    • Mike Duran February 17, 2012, 7:42 AM

      Great question, Rocky. The fact that you “found” me (or did I “find” you?) is evidence of the new author empowerment. We just don’t have to depend on publishers to market us like before. But publishing houses, whatever happens to them, still possess resources and leverage that authors never will. Especially if an author is contracted by a traditional publisher and doesn’t achieve best-seller status. If it dwindles down to a few houses, that still consolidates power. Meaning a publisher’s reach will always exceed an author’s. Thanks for writing!

  • R.J. Anderson February 17, 2012, 7:52 AM

    I think a big part of the problem is that many conservative CBA readers (many of whom I know and love, being part of a conservative evangelical church myself) have come to expect a “clear presentation of the Gospel” and/or “good Christian role models” as a hallmark of authorial orthodoxy, and any books which don’t include one or both of those things are worldly and unedifying and a waste of time.

    The problem is that fiction is NOT the right medium for the gospel, and never has been. That doesn’t mean that allegories like Pilgrim’s Progress can’t or shouldn’t be written, it doesn’t mean that fantastic reimaginings of Biblical characters and events can’t have an impact (although even the obvious Christological significance of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe seems to have eluded many non-believers), but it does mean that no fictional narrative can clearly communicate the message of salvation or the principles of true discipleship in the same way that preaching from God’s Word does. Fiction can be a signpost pointing toward the truth, and I believe God can powerfully use it as such; but it can never take the place or do the work of true evangelism. The moment fiction starts to preach at the reader it ceases to be good fiction and stands a great chance of never being read or appreciated by its intended audience at all. And by emphasizing “role models” as crucial to a good Christian story we are forgetting that the message of the Bible is about God’s grace to unworthy, sinful and unfaithful people even in the worst of circumstances, not about what nice, happy people Christians are and how much nicer and happier non-Christians will become if they believe.

    Unfortunately, the moment you say something about Christian fiction needing to include “a less explicit message”, a great many people will assume you Don’t Love The Gospel and are Pandering To The World. When the truth is, high-quality fiction written by believers in Christ and out of a Biblical worldview is a powerful testimony in itself, one that actually has the potential to reach people. While the so-called “faithful” and “edifying” Gospel-preaching books will never be read by anyone outside conservative Christian circles anyway (and even a lot of those readers won’t find them satisfying, because they’re such bad fiction and so unrealistic).

    • Rebecca LuElla Miller February 17, 2012, 12:09 PM

      Great comment, Rebecca. I was looking for the like button several times as I read your remarks.

      I think we make two major mistakes, on the opposite ends of the spectrum, when we think about fiction: 1) salvation stories save, and 2) stories are for entertainment alone. You are so right to point out that it is by the preaching of the Word of God that people moved by the Holy Spirit come to Christ (I think that’s spelled out in 1 Peter 1, among other places). But at the same time, stories can and should make people think — about their own sinfulness, about forgiveness, mercy, who Jesus is, is there a God … any number of things that God can use to open blind eyes, to woo the lost sinner, to let someone see a glimpse of Himself, or whatever else He purposes. Stories can also encourage Christians, spur us to love and good works, edify, reprove, any number of non-crossover type things. Christians grapple with issues that non-Christians don’t (like how to write Christian fiction 😉 ), so it seems there should be some books written with a Christian audience in mind, but certainly a good many stories can appeal in a broader sense to both Christians and non-Christians, and not just on the entertainment level. Do we think only Christians think about life after death or what to do when someone mistreats you or why we are here or … OK, I’ll stop.

      Really just wanted to say, I appreciate your perspective.


    • Rachel February 17, 2012, 1:28 PM

      Amen and halleluuuuuuujah!

      “…great many people will assume you Don’t Love The Gospel and are Pandering To The World.”

      I think this makes me the most sad. As Christians we seem to judge our art by its doctrinal value rather than on its beauty or depth. Or by its quality. Its value seems to only reside in how well it fits in the formula/box–not how well we wrote a book (the actual point).

      We should always be challenging each other to perfect our gifts and hone our crafts. Because, like you said, “The truth is, high-quality fiction written by believers in Christ and out of a Biblical worldview is a powerful testimony in itself.”

      A story can be used to enlighten and tell truth but it should never be seen as the Way to save anyone.

  • Katherine Coble February 17, 2012, 9:56 AM

    In all the times we’ve come at this question from the various angles it’s become more and more apparent that when it comes to entertainment consumption (especially fictive entertainment) there is less and less of a divide between Christian and Secular.

    You make the excellent point that Christian publishers don’t know how to market to Christian men and therefore have a long way to go before they can market to secular men. But from what I’ve seen as a member of the church, a voracious reader, a writer, and a wife is that the question is more and more one of MEN.

    I think it is easier to identify clear-cut market segments in the female population because expectations and norms vary so widely for the female market. One of the reasons for the intense popularity in Christian fiction is that it addresses a niche female market left untouched by the modern sex-sells marketing techniques. If we women want a place to escape from the threats and enticements of postfeminist culture, Christian fiction is an ideal outlet.

    Men, however, have different expectations and societal norms. The life expecations for a Christian man do not necessarily differ as greatly from the cultural expectations for men in general. There is in both sides a tacit acknowledgement of leadership position. And with sexual stimulation for men being more visual and less textual there is less of a push for eroticism–different from sex–in male oriented fiction. Generally a Christian man has less to escape from when it comes to popular mainstream fiction. Which is why, traditionally, the Christian publishers haven’t marketed fiction to men in as heavy-handed a way.

    I have no doubt that Christian fiction, when done well, can cross over to the mainstream. Now that Christian publishers are mostly absorbed into the mainstream houses it’s going to be very interesting to see if their male-oriented marketing expands. It’s going to have to if they need to maintain the kinds of numbers the shareholders expect.

  • Gina Conroy February 17, 2012, 9:59 AM

    Great stuff to think on! As someone whose been told by editors (via my agent) that they really like my writing, but it just doesn’t seem to fit…I’m wondering how this “New Demographic as Christians who don’t like Christian fiction” will apply to me since I think that describes my target readers.

    You asked, “Do Christian publishers know how to market to anyone other than mostly white, female, Protestant moms, who don’t drink, smoke, or tolerate profanity?” In the case of not wanting to take a chance on me (new and barely published,) which I totally understand, I’d have to say no, they don’t, but I’m also hopeful that the masses will speak, and they will learn!

  • Jill February 17, 2012, 10:05 AM

    Christian fiction has become a genre, and the readers of this genre have certain expectations, just as readers of erotic Harlequin romances have expectations. What would happen if publishers suddenly removed the glowing phallus scenes from adult romances (yes, I admit I read some of these books in junior high at my friend’s house)? So what it comes down to is publishing entirely new genres with different guidelines–emphasis on different guidelines. If they attempt to use the same model, they won’t reach their intended new audience. And, I’m sorry, but that doesn’t just mean tacking on tough or controversial subjects. Conversely, if they remove the expected gospel message and clean language of standard Christian fare, they will lose their already established audience. Wishy-washy melding of the two will just create a lot of unsuccessful wishy-washy books.

  • Lyn Perry February 17, 2012, 12:04 PM

    Good analysis. We should stop using Christian as an adjective completely imo. There is no such thing as a Christian toilet, so why use it to describe anything else?

    • Rebecca LuElla Miller February 17, 2012, 12:19 PM

      Lyn, “Christian” like any other noun, is a viable way of describing. We refer to the American flag, for instance, though the flag clearly is not a person living in the US. There are qualities that Christians are known for — primarily for following Christ, which is why people started calling those early believers”Christian” in the first place. Hence, things pertaining to what believers care about, think, adhere to, can rightly be called Christian ___. It’s not a misuse of the word, and it’s in line with normal grammatical use. I don’t understand why this argument comes up from time to time. It’s spurious, but it seems people believe it is making some point.


      • Lyn Perry February 17, 2012, 12:22 PM

        Sorry to disagree. Christian is a noun as in, little Christ. It’s not the same as saying something is American. There is no little America that Americans are trying to emulate. History is wrong, to be blunt, to use it as an adjective. IMO 🙂

        • Lyn Perry February 17, 2012, 12:33 PM

          BTW, I’m not arguing the grammar rule here. I think you know I’m not unintelligent when it comes to this issue. 😉 I’m not making a spurious argument. I’m making a philosophical one. No disrespect intended.

  • Jonathan February 17, 2012, 12:32 PM

    I think this post is probably something you’ve been contemplating for awhile because it ties back to some others. In particular I think it ties to one early this week (or was it last week) about being literary. In order to be more latent with our Christianity our writing MUST be more literary rather than literal.
    As I type that I realize how odd that sounds. We must be figurative to be more implicitly Christian because if we are literal we become explicit.
    At times I feel I’ve become a broken record by referring to it, but there is a reason why reading CS Lewis’s Christian Apologetics was so life changing to my writing. It all boils down to what Lewis wrote describing latent versus blatant Christianity. We don’t need clergy making movies, but movie makers to use latent Christianity in movies. We don’t need more preachers writing books on Christian subjects but rather authors writing books with Christian concepts in them. We need people to use their talents to send out His message. I don’t think Lewis anticipated a talented writer who once was a minister, but I do believe the concept of who needs to and who needs to not do it is clear.

  • Steve Rzasa February 17, 2012, 5:23 PM

    I agree with Jill — and excuse me if I’m misinterpreting — but yes, we need to reach both audiences through the different methods.

    Also, being of a more cynical nature, I love how these industry articles like the one in Library Journal never actually come out and say what’s really going on: That is, “We’re changing our marketing efforts so we can make more money.” I think that’s what’s really driving the “distinct messaging appropriate for each of the markets,” as they put it.

  • Tracy Krauss February 18, 2012, 6:44 PM

    Two excellent observations. change is inevitable, however and it seems it has already begun

  • Bernie Meyer August 5, 2012, 12:47 AM

    I have been puzzling over this issue for a long time. On the one hand, I gag and am embarrassed by fiction that is really a tent meeting in a tacky disguise. On the other hand, I also feel misgivings about fiction that throws open the door and inserts the lens into what was meant to be utterly private and intimate, and spatters our minds with verbal offal because “that’s the way the world really is,” or to prove that it is NOT one of those cloying Christian novels. I love the old movies of the 30’s and 40’s, the old Bogey and E.G. Robinson films. They, and so many others presented convincing tough guy characters to their audiences without a word of profanity. How was that possible? Same with comedy. At one time, there was really funny comedy without profanity. Yet today, it seems like most comedians feel that profanity is almost obligatory, like they can’t get along without it. I am not a very widely-read person, I admit it; but I do like a good tale, and I like the things a great writer can do with language. But also I wonder sometimes if “literary” Christian writers are leading or following?

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