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The Christian Crossover Novelist: Is Writing for the General Market Compromise?

Light-under-bushelPhyllis Wheeler, co-founder of Castle Gate Press, recently cited me in her article Could You Write for the General Market? at the New Authors Fellowship. Phyllis attended my workshop at Realm Makers 2015 on The Crossover Christian Novelist. She writes,

Christian horror author Mike Duran wants to reach Christian readers… who read primarily in the general marketplace. This is an “untapped demographic,” he argues. It’s not small. And these readers are willing to read edgy books and books with fictional ambiguities.

Mike thinks that what market you aim for depends on your genre. If you’re writing romance, historical, or cozy mysteries, aiming at CBA readers makes sense. But if you’re writing sci-fi, horror, crime, YA, or urban fantasy, aiming at the general market makes sense.

He has more things to consider. Your book will be grouped alongside various general market books, including possibly erotica. What do you think about that? And, can you talk about yourself or your book without “playing the God card”?

I appreciate Phyllis expanding upon the subject. My class at RM was well-attended and I have since had terrific response. It definitely seems like a subject relevant to contemporary Christian novelists. However, it’s also a subject that remains controversial to many Christian authors. The objections are numerous. I’ve found that the four most common misconceptions and objections to Christian novelists crossing over into the general market are these:

  • “You have to compromise your message when writing for the general market.”
  • “You have to compromise your morals when writing for the general market.”
  • “Writing for the general market is less a ‘ministry’ than writing for the Christian market”
  • “You can’t write about faith in the general market; it’s anti-God and hostile to Christians”

Each of these objections deserve bigger treatment. But I wanted to address the first one as it seems to be one of the most common. Case in point, the following comment was left on Phyllis’ post. The commenter seems mainly concerned with my suggestion that the Christian crossover novelist must be able to talk about themselves and their novel without “playing the God card.” Apparently, this idea suggests to some the idea of compromise. H.G. Ferguson writes,

“…and not play the God card…” Although I wasn’t a participant at RM 2015 so I don’t have the full context of this statement, I have noted at least one bestselling “Christian” author who, interviewed in a “secular” blog, bent heaven and earth itself to avoid in almost every way imaginable being identified as a Christian. Jesus said whoever is ashamed of Him, of that person He will be ashamed in the end. Are we to hide who we are, because we do not wish to offend, and because that’s where the money is? Are we to adopt unbiblical worldviews in our fiction to “fit in” the general market? Because that’s where the money is? Aiming at the general market doesn’t mean we hide our faith, we bury our love for Jesus Christ and avoid being associated publicly with “those people.” I’m sure that’s not what Mike meant — but it is what’s happening. Yes, the general market wants a rip-roarin’ good time, and we can give them that, but never at the cost of being afraid to be known as a Christian. Jesus also said whoever denies Him, that person He will deny. Those are tough words, but they trump everything else. Especially where the money is.

H.G.’s comments represent the concerns of many in the Christian writing community. So I wanted to take a minute to offer up a few quick responses.

First, by way of clarification — By “playing the God card” I’m referring to the belief that unless one constantly references Jesus, Scripture, or their own personal faith they are somehow “ashamed of Christ.” People who hold to this view often feel compelled to routinely drop “God cards” in their interviews and social media stream. You know, they make sure to thank God or quote Scripture. However, just because I don’t mention Jesus in my books, interviews, blog posts, or articles does not mean I have denied Him. In fact, Jesus described a category of person who would profess to know Him and do lots of good works in his name, yet would not be saved (Matt. 7:21-23). Thus, it’s possible to drop the God card and not really know God. It’s also possible to NOT make mention of Him and still be saved. So it comes down to personal freedom, liberty, and the heart.

Second, Being tactful / wise / measured with your “Christian” content does not mean you’re compromising your faith. In fact, sometimes it’s the smart thing to do. Listen, we do this all the time. Whether at work, school, family gatherings, business meetings, or public events — we filter the level of our spiritual discourse. The apostle Paul said, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders” (Col. 4:5). Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The important distinction here is that people will “SEE your good deeds” not “HEAR your good words.” Frankly, some people won’t listen to your “Christian” spiel until you earn it. As a novelist, knowing your genre and knowing your craft is the best way to win an audience’s ear. Many readers are more open to listening to your “message” if they’re first won over by your tact and talent.

Thirdly, it is possible to write for the general market and be a faithful Christian. Duh. This seems so obvious as to not need mentioned. However, it’s surprising to me how many Christians equate writing for the general market as being synonymous with being worldly or being a compromiser. However, there ARE many Christian authors who write for the general market and who aren’t shy about sharing their Christian faith. Thing is, they just don’t go around bludgeoning everyone with their message. Some examples.  Veronica Roth, author of the wildly popular Divergent series wrote on her blog“I’m a Christian (as you have probably noticed).” Thing is, because she doesn’t regularly announce it or write Christian fiction, some conclude she’s a compromised Christian. Jessica Khoury, author of Origin, in her discussion with The Talon, said, “ORIGIN is not Christian fiction, but it is certainly influenced by my Christian faith. In a way, it’s what you’d call pre-evangelistic—something which attempts to get people to ask the sort of questions that ultimately can only be answered in Christ.” Pretty “Christian,” huh? Problem is, because Khoury doesn’t write Christian fiction or always talk about her faith, some assume she isn’t a real believer. But my favorite is probably Dean Koontz. Again, Koontz doesn’t write Christian fiction. However, he is open enough about his faith when asked. Which is why Hunter Baker, in Breakpoint magazine,  described Koontz as “probably the single best-selling Christian author on the planet.” Point being, writing for the general market is not synonymous with being worldly or being a compromiser.

Of course, the Christian author who intentionally avoids reference to their faith and “God talk” may need a heart check. Avoiding public mention of God / faith CAN be evidence of compromise. However, it can also be evidence of tact and wisdom. But to make blanket statements that writing for the mainstream market or not making mention of Jesus means I am “ashamed” of Christ and denying Him before men, is a rather narrow, unbiblical approach to what is a much bigger issue.


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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • R.J. Anderson August 27, 2015, 6:10 AM

    Great article, Mike. I’m glad to be able to say that no one has yet accused me (to my face, at least) of hiding my Christian faith in order to write in the general market, possibly because my second faery book REBEL has overtly Christian content, and because I’m pretty frank about my faith in Christ in my essays and blog posts. But I’ve been asked by fellow believers whether my general market editors tried to get me to tone down or remove Christian references and content in my books, and so far not, I’m happy to report that not one of them has done so. In fact my first editor at HarperCollins actually asked me to clarify a particular point in REBEL and make it more plain that when my faery heroine mentions the Great Gardener, she is talking about the God of the Bible. I was surprised by that as I thought the conversation was veering toward blatant already and I thought she was going to tell me to back off! But it was a confirmation to me that my convictions about writing for the general market were not misguided, and I still thank the Lord for that experience.

    That being said, I have definitely noticed some reader pushback when Christian content is included in my books, even when the characters are not Christians and no conversion scene or equivalent takes place. Some people get extremely prickly and unhappy when any mention of “religion” is included in a positive or even neutral way — a recent blogger review of my upcoming A POCKET FULL OF MURDER, in which the heroine is part of a persecuted religious group, remarked that I “didn’t need” to include the religious aspect because the heroine and her family were poor and therefore would have been persecuted anyways. And another person who read QUICKSILVER thought it was “creepy” that my non-Christian heroine would find a certain Bible verse comforting at a time of trouble, rather than being indifferent or put off by it.

    That kind of quibbling usually comes from non-professional readers, though. Overall the big reviewers, like Kirkus et al, have been quite fair about it, or not even thought it worth quibbling over at all.

  • Christopher Lansdown August 27, 2015, 6:45 AM

    C.S. Lewis observed that a Christian will do everything differently, because God is the central fact of creation, but that doesn’t mean that he’s going to be a bad carpenter who will carve the word God into every piece of wood even if it’s a structural beam, but because he simply lives in a different universe. It seems to me that this distinction – between something implicitly Christian and something overtly Christian – hinges on the distinction between the two meanings of the word “perfect”. One meaning is, “without flaw” while the other is “maximally good”. Thus you could describe a perfect 0.1 carat diamond, or “the perfect diamond” which is the biggest, most beautiful diamond possible. Christians are called to be perfect in the first sense, but many people seem to conflate that with the second sense. A novel should not have flaws in it, and thus a Christian will never write a novel approving of vice. But “the perfect” novel, in the sense of a novel not only without flaws but also better than all other novels, past present or future, would (probably) contain wonderful explicit theology in it. The bible, which is not without justification called “the greatest story ever told”, certainly does.

    To denigrate a lesser good by comparison with a greater good is a trap that many people fall into, and I think that people who complain that a mass market book which is not the greatest novel ever written are doing precisely that. There are legitimate stories which aren’t the best story ever, but are none the less good, and can be perfect in the sense of being without flaw. And the bottom rungs of the ladder to heaven must of necessity be outside of heaven, or else we’d never be able to catch hold of them. It is fine for a novel to only contain a bit of the truth, rather than the fullness of all truth, so long as it doesn’t present the former as if it were the latter. That would be like complaining that a single brick isn’t an entire church.

    • R.J. Anderson August 27, 2015, 1:32 PM

      Great points, Christopher. I’m often reminded of the powerful effect that George MacDonald’s PHANTASTES had on C.S. Lewis prior to his conversion — how it was the “fragrance of holiness” he perceived in that book that helped eventually lead him to Christ. Yet when I read both LILITH and PHANTASTES as a younger Christian, eagerly expecting to find the same powerful Biblical symbols and message I’d found in MacDonald’s children’s fantasy books, I thought both of them muddled and even a bit nasty, and haven’t bothered to re-read either one since. Clearly I wasn’t seeing the things in that book that Lewis did, and I certainly wouldn’t consider it to have a “clear Christian message” in the modern CBA sense — but it seems to have been exactly what Lewis needed. So I think we need to be careful about judging whether a book written by a Christian author has “enough” Christian content or not.

      • JaredMithrandir August 27, 2015, 5:18 PM

        Lilith I”m pretty sure was based in part on MacDonald’s Universalism.

        I also read once it has Vampire element, but I didn’t see that in the summery. Lilith elsewhere is vampire like sometimes but not always. Reading the summery of MacDonald’s novel I didn’t even get why she’s the title character.

  • Carradee August 27, 2015, 6:49 AM

    Someone who wrote for general market while being true to her faith: Flannery O’Connor. Even CS Lewis is an excellent example, with Till We Have Faces, which is an entirely pagan story, yet has a Christian allegory beneath.

    I, too, am a believer who writes for a general market, in part because my message would have to be compromised to be published in the Christian fiction world—and not only because I write sci-fi and fantasy. (I don’t write horror, but I include plenty of horrific elements.)

    Life is imperfect. Not everyone comes to salvation—and the church has abusers in it, and the world has kind people in it. We’re all imperfect and screw-ups. Everyone’s crazy somehow; some of us just hide it better than others. I’m not about to make things sanitized and cookie-cutter to keep believers comfortable.

    You don’t learn or grow, if you’re comfortable.

    • Carradee August 27, 2015, 8:59 PM

      Note: I have nothing against folks who write things that suit CBA. If you want to write that, bully for you! I’m just not such a person. 🙂

      Clarifying because I realized my comment could’ve been interpreted to mean I don’t believe folks should be writing the “comfortable” works. Such works do have their place and uses.

  • Jay August 27, 2015, 7:12 AM

    Your opinion here is generally agreeable, Mike, but I think the fundamental issue doesn’t have to do with Christian art but the intellectual orientation towards creating new sins. One might find their personal mission to keep out of the general market or go all in, but there’s no authority for people to make it others’ mission.

    Really, only those who hold prophetic office can do things like that, and that’s the last thing people should presume to take on (as I recall, it’s rare for God to select direct mouthpieces and the consequences for falsely assuming the role are pretty harsh).

  • JaredMithrandir August 27, 2015, 8:23 AM

    I am an Evangelicla FUndamentalist who disagrees wiht the majority of my fellow fundamentalsits on social and political issues.

    For me it’s not compromise that I write LGBT friendly stories, ti’s what the Holy Spirit leads me to write.

    But Christians publishers probably aren’t going to be willing to publish my stories about a Eurasian YA Lesbian Pentecostal Baptist and her volatile romance with a woman claiming to be Josephine Balsamo.

  • Johne Cook August 27, 2015, 8:40 AM

    “You have to compromise your message when writing for the general market.”
    People generally don’t like reading Message in fiction, especially if it’s overt and not from your particular perspective. Add in ‘poorly written’ and you’ve just described the problem many people have had with Christian fiction.

    I try to put myself in the other guy’s shoes. Would I read a poorly written Message piece from a writer from another faith? Unlikely. I have a hard enough time reading fiction from someone of another faith even if it’s expertly written. I prefer to read fiction where the story itself is the only apparent thing and not some underlying agenda.

    “You have to compromise your morals when writing for the general market.”
    I like the distinction here that I picked up from R.C. Sproul – ‘ethics’ are what we should do, ‘morals’ are what we actually do. You don’t have to compromise your ethics to tell a genre story, you just have to dial back how overt you are in the telling.

    “Writing for the general market is less a ‘ministry’ than writing for the Christian market”
    One could argue it’s a greater ministry that we simply don’t use Christianese to execute. When in Rome, don’t assume they speak English.

    “You can’t write about faith in the general market; it’s anti-God and hostile to Christians”
    Think of your audience and write in terms they will understand. The parables of Jesus were accepted by the people because they used common examples to portray practical and spiritual truths.

  • R. L. Copple August 27, 2015, 12:02 PM

    Good points, Mike. I think what it boils down to is this is a matter of one’s own heart and what God wants a particular author to write and focus on. Either side deciding those on the other are not Christian, or somehow less of one, are committing the sin of judging their neighbor, which according to Scripture puts the judger under judgment.

    We each need to focus on our own calling and Christian life, and not judge others by our standards. It is one thing to judge whether a particular book or type of book would be harmful for me to read. Another thing to judge whether that author is a Christian or not based on that. We can’t know a person’s heart; only God does. Otherwise we’re no better than the Pharisee judging the publican, “I’m glad I’m not like that person.”

    Certainly, while no doubt some do fall into the trap of writing for the general market for the wrong reasons and compromise their faith in the process, it is a fallacy and sinful to judge whether an author has done so purely on them writing a book targeted to the general market. That’s like Samuel judging who of Jesse’s children would be the next king purely on outward surface criteria: we’ll usually be wrong.

  • Sheldon Bass August 27, 2015, 2:04 PM

    Oh, someone besides me has been wrestling with this issue! Thank you for helping me to find further expression in answering some fellow Christians in two of my writing groups. I remember when I first brought it to the Lord and asked Him outright, “May I…?”
    Back to scripture is where I was directed. Am I putting Him first before all else? Isn’t everyone I know already aware I’m a Christian? After all, I am quite verbose about my faith. “Okay then, Sheldon, go write.”

  • John Robinson August 27, 2015, 2:53 PM

    After some small success writing for the CBA, my agent and I decided I never was a good fit there (and never would be), so with my new suspense/thriller series I headed over to the general market. It was a bit of a thrown-in-the-deep-end moment, but the first one, PITFALL, came out last week through Wildblue Press. And FWIW, I went with a pen name, Cameron Bane, as not to cause confusion with what few CBA readers I had.

  • JaredMithrandir August 27, 2015, 5:20 PM

    I did not know the Author of Divergent was a Christian, that perhaps makes me rethink some of what I said in my early review.

  • HG Ferguson August 29, 2015, 4:33 PM

    Thanks, Mike, for the clarification and elucidation. I knew good and well your remark needed to be couched in a broader context. My intent was not to judge or criticize; but biblical discernment has gone the way of the dodo these days, nobody practices “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are 0f God” anymore, or if they do, they get labeled with the term “fundamentalist” or some other convenient “ist” to close the discussion. Bludgeon others with the gospel? Never. I was absolutely certain that’s what you meant. But it’s funny how when I quote what Jesus said, I often get accused, either directly or backhandedly, of being judgmental. Jesus said what He said. That applies to me as well as it does to all of us. If someone has a problem with what I said, then they must have a problem with what Jesus said. Thinking biblically is also, slowly but surely, going the way of the dodo, and anyone taking a stand for truth as God tells it in His word, is going to get a pushback, whether from people in the world or, sadly, those who call themselves Christians. Sit in judgment? No. But my first question, in life, in teaching, in writing is first, foremost and always, “What do the scriptures say?” We live in an age where everything is relative, and it’s unseemly to say to anyone, “That’s wrong.” But what do the scriptures say? Thanks again for having the courage to speak up and out and encourage us.

  • Donna Schlachter August 29, 2015, 5:03 PM

    Someone famous once said, “preach Jesus everywhere, and if necessary, use His name.” I understand that His name has a unique power all its own, but if we’re telling His Story and that story reaches people who’d never set foot in a church or a Christian book store, isn’t that the point? To bring the lost to Christ. Thanks for all of you who got the point of Mike’s article. HG, you’re right on point. What does the Bible say? What did Jesus say? He never preached Jesus. He always pointed people to the Kingdom.

  • Lynne Stringer August 30, 2015, 5:30 PM

    Fantastic article. As a Christian who writes for the mainstream, I have have conversations like this with other Christian authors. I’d like to think that God touches my work, and people’s lives though it, without him being mentioned every other word.
    I’d love to see an article on that other thing that Christians think Christian authors shouldn’t do – write fantasy or science fiction. Guess which genres I favour in my writing?

  • Simon Morden September 1, 2015, 3:09 PM

    Well, this is what I did this weekend… My experience chimes with RJ Anderson’s, and I’d like to think that the alleged conspiracy theory against faith in mainstream art is now dead and buried. But probably not.


  • Nickolaus Pacione January 5, 2018, 4:59 PM

    When I wrote Wandering In Darkness — I had written years in the secular market as I held my own with Trent Zelazny in my own magazine and with Kealan Patrick Burke on The House of Pain E-Zine. I started to infuse theological undercurrents in Halloween Girl, Gruesome Cargo, The Fandom Writer and a few others as I had some pro-Wiccan themes when I walked from the church and was pissed at a youth pastor for giving shelter to the two who almost murdered me. When I do psychological horror — the God question is not always included though Wandering In Darkness I did this seamlessly as it was a kinship with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. In the mid-1990s I was seeing a forefront of Alternative Rock being more faith based as thrash metal saw Tourniquet introduce Gothic Horror narrative into Christian Metal as Saviour Machine had churches protesting them as Circle of Dust, Argyle Park and Klank saw a lot of flack for not being religious enough. When my website emerged there were Christians looking at me like I killed Christ myself because I included a lot of gore and strong language in with my horror output. When I went Postmodern I played down the faith elements though the discussions were in the open.

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