Yesterday I was interviewed by a reporter from Christian Today, a UK based online magazine, for a feature on Christian fiction. He asked a lot of great questions, one of which was Who is Responsible to Change the Christian Fiction Market: Publisher or Reader?
Of course, this question assumes that the Christian market needs changed. All the industry news I read seems to suggest that Christian fiction has remained quite viable, even during the recent economic downturn. So why should we be discussing “change” at all?
It all comes down to what you expect Christian fiction to be.
- If you are happy that 80% of Christian fiction is aimed at female readership, then nothing needs to change.
- If you are happy with the glut of Amish fiction on the bookshelves, then nothing needs to change.
- If you are happy with the sparseness of other genres in the Christian market — like sci-fi, speculative, crime, epic fantasy, etc. — then nothing needs to change.
- If you are happy with only G-rated fare, then nothing needs to change.
- If you are happy with message-driven fiction and/or fiction that contains overt references to Scripture and spirituality, then nothing needs to change.
I’ve been vocal about my concerns about all these things. Which led the reporter to ask me that ever-sticky question: Who’s responsible? Is the market this way because of Christian publishers? Or are Christian publishers just providing what the market demands? If there’s going to be change, on who’s end must it start?
This is a fairly common question for those of us in writing / reading circles, a question that usually has little concrete resolution and leaves everyone frustrated. However, I wanted to share my opinion because I think it’s a little less typical.
Who’s responsible to change the Christian market: Publisher or Reader? Neither.
I believe we put too much emphasis upon publishers to change the market. They exist to make money and the easiest way to do that is to capitalize on what their audience wants. Should Christian publishers aspire to a higher standard than other publishers? I think so. I mean selling cheap, greasy burgers because there’s an audience can make you money. But there’s other ethical issues in the mix, like whether or not we’re happy contributing to American obesity. Point is, if science fiction doesn’t sell well in the Christian fiction market, why should publishers invest in it? If there isn’t an obvious ethical imperative to do so, why should they?
Trends start at the grassroots level, not the publishing level. Sure, trends can be fueled by publishers, in the same way that the craving for cheap, greasy burgers can be fueled by establishing an empire of cheap, greasy burger stands. But that burger mogul is simply building off your appetite. The Christian fiction market proves there is an appetite for what’s being served. Does this make publishers complicit? In part. However, until the “Christian appetite” for what the Christian publishers are serving changes, until a trend starts at the grassroots level, we shouldn’t expect publishers to respond.
Appetites are complicated things. They are shaped by internal dynamics (genetics, values, personal preferences, tastes, etc.) and external dynamics (advertising, culture, economics, social circles, etc.). So in this sense, when we’re talking about changing consumer appetites, we’re talking about complex, multidimensional issues. This is not something a new ad campaign or a new line of veggie burger can transform overnight.
Which brings me to my response to the aforementioned question: Who’s responsible to change the Christian fiction market? Answer: the Church and the family. The Christian market is reflective of more basic social units: the home and the church. Much like American politics. If the government is reflective of voters’ preferences, we can’t really blame government for all our political problems. We should blame ourselves. Likewise, Christian publishers, like politicians, are just giving us what we want (insert pun).
The Christian market is simply reflective of a more narrow, ultra-conservative, artistically shallow, highly feminized, ethnically closed, societally cloistered, puritanical reader.
Now before you start sending me hate mail, this doesn’t mean that every Christian reader is stupid, stiff, and dumb. Nor does it mean that there aren’t any good writers writing Christian fiction. (In fact, this was one of the stereotypes I addressed in my interview.) It simply means that the Christian market is reflective of a culture that wants G-rated, somewhat predictable, less literary, message-driven fiction that contains overt references to Scripture and spirituality.
This culture has come about because of two things: the church and the home.
To bottom line it: Until we — in our homes and churches — begin to teach our kids and congregants to be more discerning, to appreciate art on a broader level, to interact with rather than retreat from culture, to not perpetuate the sacred / secular divide, to not settle for kitsch and mediocrity, to write more, bigger, better stories, not those just aimed at a certain demographic, to eschew Christianeze, and to pander less to our own insulated culture in favor of the broader marketplace, we shouldn’t expect any real change in the Christian market.