I had H1N1 a couple weeks ago, and it seemed to me the best thing to do while hacking up a lung was to read something escapist. You’re less likely to notice the sickness when you’re lost in another world.
I’ve been trying to read a wide variety of contemporary novels to see what resonates with people. Honestly, I’m mystified at the bestselling novels because I find them exceptionally formulaic and not all that intriguing.
But what I find to be the most disheartening news comes from the A-list Christian authors of today. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a novel by a Christian author that I found worthwhile.
Now I have to qualify this comment by saying that the Christian book market is a woman’s market. One of the most damning statistics is that the vast majority of Christian men never pick up a book after they graduate from school—save for the Bible (and I can attest that a lot of them don’t pick up that book, either, if our rampant biblical ignorance is any indication). Christian women drive nearly all the sales of Christian books, including Christian fiction.
So there’s a lot of Christian chick lit out there. Newsflash: I don’t read novels that cater exclusively to women. Christian novels aimed at women could be Pulitzer Prize-worthy and I would not know it. (So if you’re an author of Christian novels that cater primarily to women, you can take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.)
I’m speaking of mainstream Christian fiction that appeals to both sexes or leans toward male readers.
Below are the top problems I continue to find in Christian fiction. Some of these problems are inherent to all fiction, while some are exclusively issues in Christian fiction.
1. Authors still struggling with the Gospel and what it means to be Christians who write novels
What makes a novel Christian? Increasingly, it’s hard to tell. It used to be that a novel would inevitably have a clear “THIS IS HOW TO BECOME A CHRISTIAN” chapter in it, usually depicting a character’s conversion. A few Christian authors still attempt to shoehorn such an obvious presentation into their books— and I have yet to read one of those that doesn’t feel forced. However, the trend in the most recent books has been away from proselytizing, possibly because it has felt forced and seems to bring a story to its knees—and not in a good way. What we see now are “Christian” books that contain the following:
- A Christian character or two (though the characters are almost always nominal or backslidden Christians beholden to some mistaken beliefs about Christianity)
- A story that contrasts “genuine” Christianity with some flaky, cartoonish, fundamentalist version
- A story that incorporates the symbolic elements of Christianity but stripped of their inherent meanings (such as depicting angelic beings who don’t match the Bible’s descriptions of angels)
- A pendulum swing away from goody-two-shoes heroes to ones that are almost ridiculously “overflawed”
- No real evidence of anything inherently Christian in the novel except that it was written by a Christian
While I don’t read as many hamhanded Gospel presentations as I once did, the trend seems to be moving toward attacking other Christians. I know that two books that I selected randomly to read during my flu both set up aberrant straw man Christians sects for pummeling. This is a wrongheaded trend, as it seems to muddy the waters. If that many bogus or flawed Christian sects exist, why consider Christianity at all?
2. Increasingly high suspension of disbelief
Many of the mysteries and thrillers in Christian novel circles call upon readers to invoke an almost inhuman ability to suspend disbelief. All fiction requires an author to stretch credulity, but what I’m reading in Christian novels today is simply over the top. One story I read asked the reader to believe that an entire town quickly and elaborately conspired to deceive one visitor. What made it worse was that the visitor could have easily been sent on her way with what she wanted, with no need for the massive ruse. The “sorry we all lied to you about everything, ma’am” ending should have been written as “the author apologizes for jerking your chain for no rational reason for the last 250 pages.” In short, for those novels that are clearly not in the fairy tale or magic realism categories, the villains are too much, the escapes too implausible, the mysteries too out there, the finales too good to be true, and on and on and on.
3. Mimicking the trends in secular writing and publishing
I’m seeing more A-list writers co-authoring books with newcomers. While this has been common in the secular publishing world, the Christian publishers are now joining in. I also believe it is clear that these are less full co-authoring efforts and more riding the coattails of the A-lister. Christian publishing already tarnished its reputation with the practice of uncredited ghostwriters writing the books of nationally known pastors and Christian celebrities. Let’s not make this worse by tacking on an A-list name to a book written almost entirely by an unknown.
Also, Christian fiction’s identity crisis continues unabated, as few authors have figured out how to create a genuinely Christian genre. Too many Christian authors still watch what sells in the secular world and ape the trends. This gives us little more than derivative, lower-quality, less creative works that do nothing to enhance the stature of Christian fiction. We need works that set the standards, not mimic them.
4. Pulp writing out of A-list authors
I keep hearing the names of the next set of “literary” authors that will save Christian fiction. Then I read their books and encounter the same bush league writing issues.
One issue that seems to dominate the Christian novels I’ve read lately is what I like to call “John Vowed Never to Return to His Hometown” Syndrome. Christian authors LOVE to employ this trick of constantly reminding readers chapter after chapter that the hero John vowed never to return to his hometown—when we all know that John’s inner struggle mandates returning to his hometown. All authors do this to some extent, but again, it seems to be hammered in Christian fiction.
I’m also bothered by the emphasis that plot takes over worldbuilding, as if Christian authors are racing to tell their stories, neglecting to employ all the standard storytelling devices that root readers in the novel. Character and setting descriptions and mood are often passed over, leading to a tenuous hold on readers. I know I put down more Christian novels than secular ones simply because the author hasn’t spent enough time drawing me into the world of the novel.
Christian novels also seem to have a higher likelihood that the author will spend a lot of time recapping events. Often, the protagonist’s inner dialog is constantly rehashing what happened in the previous chapters.
Boring! I read the previous chapters. I don’t want to read them again!
In the same way, Christian fiction suffers highly from a hero running an inner dialog that asks questions beneath the reader, as the reader clearly knows that the hero’s speculations are wrong. There’s a difference between keeping the reader and the hero in the dark and flat-out lying to readers with obviously bogus speculations. Good writers do the former not the latter.
Given some of these issues, it makes me wonder if the authors are just not that good or instead genuinely believe their readers can’t follow what they are writing. Then again, if readers can’t follow the writing, perhaps the author IS bad.
Lastly, I’m bothered by the excessive padding I read in novels. All modern novels suffer from this, but the Christian novels I’ve read of late are plagued by it. What makes this even more remarkable is that I’ve already noted that many Christian novels lack sufficient worldbuilding. If those elements are missing, what’s being padded?
Too many authors repeat elements of the story or revisit a pattern of character behavior with slight modifications. I read one novel by a Christian A-lister where the middle chapters consisted of the same two groups of people wandering around in the woods, going through the same motions, asking most of the same questions, ad infinitum. Tedious is the word that springs to mind.
And it’s tedious because there wasn’t enough story to make a full-sized book. Yet authors can’t get shorter books published because publishers blanch at the thought of printing something for adults less than 250 pages.
5. Unreliable reader reviews
It bothers me that readers rate so many books so highly on Amazon.com. Let’s be honest here: The average book is fair to good. That’s two to three stars. And while most books are overrated on Amazon, the reviews for books written by Christian authors are stellar to the point of being ridiculous. Either readers of Christian fiction are afraid to voice a genuine opinion for fear of hurting an author’s feelings or they simply can’t distinguish a great book from an average one. Either way, the result leads to unreliable reviews. This helps Christian fiction improve not one iota.
I have more opinions on this issue, but these five points highlight the major problems.
If you read (or even write) Christian fiction, I’d like to hear your comments!
85 thoughts on “The Problems with Christian Fiction”
I get sent a lot of books to review and I’ve read some wonderful Christian fiction recently… and some that’s merely mediocre.
I would be very interested to read the same books that you have read to see how I feel about them. My guess is that your standards are somewhat higher than mine! 🙂
This is a great post though… I haven’t been by in a while and I’m glad to see you’re still you and still going strong!
My standards aren’t that high; I just want to see a hint of effervescence on the pages. Too many books are dull, flat, and derivative.
I hesitated to read this post, Dan, because I’ve always had this underlying feeling that I ought to like Christian novels more than I actually do. Reading this would mean I’d have to admit that I don’t actually enjoy them much. However, I kept seeing the update on facebook, so in an effort to avoid my day’s labor just a little longer, I took the plunge–and I’m glad I did.
When Chuck Coleson started calling for Christians who write to start writing Christian novels like the good old days (i.e. C.S. Lewis and George McDonald) I started hoping for something better than the chick lit that was barely literate, much less substantive. I seldom just stop reading a book, because I keep hoping it will redeem itself somehow by the end, and how can you have an accurate critique if you don’t finish it? But in the last six months I’ve quit in the middle of a number of books, three of them Christian novels. (The others were teen lit, which I read so I know what my teens are ingesting–and it’s a scary genre, if you haven’t imbibed yet!) You have highlighted for me problems I haven’t wanted to put names on, just lumped together under the heading “dull” in my brain. It’s more than just dullness. It’s as if even the really good writers of our time are blocked somehow from writing good novels. I can’t believe all the blockage is economically driven, either. Perhaps it’s a form of spiritual bondage.
And perhaps you ought to start writing novels, old friend!
I do write fiction/novels. I have a YA/Adult novella I am trying to get an agent for. I have an additional science fiction novel I completed, though my writing skills have improved considerably since I first wrote it, and it probably needs a massive overhaul. I’ve written many short stories in a variety of genres, including Southern Gothic and Horror.
Lisa Samson, Robin Lee Hatcher, and Deb Raney have all left comments here at one point or another. Have you read any of their works?
When Chuck Coleson started calling for Christians who write to start writing Christian novels like the good old days (i.e. C.S. Lewis and George McDonald)…
That’s because Tolkien, Lewis, and McDonald could NEVER get published today in the Official Christian (TM) Publishing industry. Not Christian Enough, No Chick Lit Appeal to the target demographic, Not Safe Enough for the Whole Christian Family, Not Sweet Enough, et al.
Here’s a link to a Brit Christian SF writer that says it better than I can — “Sex, Death, and Christian Fiction” by Dr Simon Morden.
And another to “Minister or Entertainer” by Steve “Meltdown at Madame Tussauds” Taylor that covers much of the same ground.
Me? I’m going mainstream, to the main SF publishers.
Stephen Lawhead writes fantasy / historical fiction. Niche genres and probably not the mainstream fiction you have in mind. But I find his books deep and rich in worldbuilding (a necessity of the genre, maybe?) and solidly grounded in faith. There’s no Gospel or overt Christian message anywhere to be seen in his books, and yet they inspire me toward renewed faithfulness and worship of God who is over all.
Byzantium in particular has stuck with me for years. It’s a road trip / coming of age story presented as a historical epic, and yes, it does include the crisis of faith / return to your roots formula. But a good book is not so much what it’s about, so much as how it goes about it.
I agree with the female-driven nature of the market. My wife reads and enjoys a seemingly endless succession of Christian fiction that would bore me to tears. The books are very formulaic. If she tells me the story so far after the first 50 pages, I can often predict how the book will end. Later she’ll complain that my plot spoilers ruined the ending for her. She’s stopped trying to draw me into her current novel.
Orson Scott Card is another author who writes a compelling story from a background of faith. His books are mostly sci-fi and fantasy, niche genres once again, and he’s Mormon, so on both counts he probably doesn’t apply in this discussion. Nevertheless, he’s a good example of an author who’s faith is not a hindrance to good writing, and is in fact often an asset.
Lawhead is one of the notable exceptions.
I agree with the female-driven nature of the market. My wife reads and enjoys a seemingly endless succession of Christian fiction that would bore me to tears.
According to Jeff Gerke over at Marcher Lord Press (who was in the Christian publishing industry for years), the target market for Christian (TM) fiction — and the actual sales demographic for Left Behind — is basically Born-Again Bored Housewives, just like the target market for Twilight and Harlequin bodice-rippers, Except CHRISTIAN (TM).
(But then, a lot of what goes on among American Evangelicals is basically “Just like last year’s fad, Except CHRISTIAN (TM)!”)
Last year, one of our spies in the Lost Genre Guild attended some sort of CBA/ECPA Christian Publishers conference. The buzz in a lot of the presentations was The Next Big Thing: Christian Paranormal Romance — “Just like Twilight, Except CHRISTIAN (TM)!” You can’t call them Vampires, but they still have to Sparkle in the sunlight. (While actual Christian paranormal romances like Sue Dent’s Never Ceese are recduced to small-press or self-pub.)
It’s something I’ve seen in Furry Fandom: Fanboy Fanservice. A fanboy will buy anything that floats his/her boat and Fanservices his/her obsession, no matter how bad. Whether what turns them on is fur & tails on all the characters or Bible-verse quotes and Altar Call Endings. As Lewis put it, “An addict has low sales resistance.”
Contemporary women’s Christian fiction freaks me out and I avoid it like the plague. Kinda like contemporary Christian music; a lot of it is sappy and formulaic.
I’ve read a few Francine Rivers books, and the only really good one was The Last Sin Eater, and I didn’t think it was overly female-centric. I also read Redeeming Love which was okay but had a little too much of Rivers’ previous career (romance novels before becoming a Christian) in it with heaving bodices and such. Ugh.
My idea of good Christian fiction is Flannery O’Connor.
I know this is blasphemy, but I have never been able to appreciate Flannery O’Connor. I don’t know why. I’ve read a number of her stories and subsequently followed them up with critical analyses, but I am not seeing what the critics are seeing. So perhaps I am not deep enough to get her points. 🙁
I appreciate your comments. I think the point for those of us who are Christian fiction authors is that we write books that our publishers will actually buy. I mean it would be awesome to write whatever we want, but the fact is (And I’m sure you’ve heard this before) we can stand in the bread line with our principles all we want but that’s still not going to change what the average buyer of Christian fiction prefers. There are exceptions to the rule. There are those like you who cry out for a different kind of Christian fiction, but the majority wants it to stay the way it is.
For every one critic who says my books are crap, ten readers (not reviewers) write to me and thank me for the message.
I don’t write for the critics, I write for the readers.
Having said that… I don’t know a Christian author who doesn’t consistently strive to take their skill to the next level. Be patient
New York wasn’t built in a day (didn’t want to be cliche and say Rome)
God Bless!! And believe me…I hear you
The most deceptive maxim I hear established authors/publishers tell prospective authors is “Write the book you have within you.” What they should really say is “Write the book you have within you that can be marketed to the largest target demographic to ensure maximum sell-through.” Sadly, the second half of that latter statement often negates the first half.
Marketing concerns from publishers surely alter what writers write. Yet craft is craft, and some of my concerns are craft oriented. Systemic problems must be fixed. If a novel is too short and the publisher is balking, don’t pad with repetition but with deeper worldbuilding. Problems in one area might be fixed with answers provided to a second problem.
Thanks for addressing this.
I was once an avid reader of fiction but for many years now I’ve struggled to complete a book. Part of the problem is the feeling of being caught in a literary “no man’s land” in which the well written, attention grabbing books are on the wrong side of the fence; being full of gratuitous sex, violence and profanity. Yet those that are supposedly written from a Christian perspective are usually not worth reading because of the reasons you have mentioned, in addition to their often being influenced by some very dodgy theology.
I am presently at a cross roads in which I am revisiting a long held desire to write fiction. Apart from the very practical obstacles related to motivation and discipline, as a Christian I have the added problem of suitable story material; telling a story in a way that engages the reader while not compromising my Christian commitment. A visit to the Christian bookstore gives me little confidence that such a thing is possible to do. But then again that is maybe an indication of the opportunities available for authors who CAN find a way to overcome those obstacles to provide quality Christian literature.
Publishers are leery of esoteric novels, Christian publishers even more so. I know that despite having enormous readership in secular markets, the kinds of speculative works I write are anathema in the Christian world.
I do believe, though, that the breakthrough for Christian authors is in the genres of magic realism, high fantasy, contemporary fables and fairy tales, and so on. These genres have largely been relegated to the Young Adult market, but adults desperate for simple, escapist stories are increasingly finding YA titles to be an acceptable alternative to the adult dreck you mentioned. One day, some Christian publisher is going to wake up to this reality. One day.
I also believe that the self-publishing market, once filled with its own form of abominable dreck, will increasingly draw quality authors who are sick of the lack of support they get from publishers. If the author has to do all the legwork in marketing a book anyway, why give the publisher money as a reward for their lack of support? I honestly think that traditional publishers are facing the same decline that newspapers now do, and for similar reasons.
I feel the same way. I want to write a book that is genuine, not sickly sweet. I don’t want to hit people over the head with salvation or insult their intelligence. I am a Christian and I have lived one hell of a life. My life story would never sell under Christian Fiction! So I’m having more of a mainstream book, with the redemption of a character. I’m not even sure it is a Christian book, because the redemption piece is not really the crux, but one of the twists in the characters growth.
Thanks for your comment. It was helpful. Great blog,too.
Jill, I believe your book would be called fiction with Christian undertones. Chip McGregor, an agent for Christian authors, believes Christian fiction as we know it is going to disappear under the label of clean fiction. He said that Amish books are going to disappear very soon because the people who were so prolific in reading them are getting older and not purchasing as many. And the younger generation isn’t buying them in droves. I’m hoping that means the younger generation will like something edgier like what I write. I’m tired of competing against these sweet writers who’s stories are so unbelievable to me.
Amen to what Tracy said.
If authors, not just Christian authors, listened to every Tom, Dick and “Dan” (LOL!) with an opinion, we’d throw our computers out the window!
Books are subjective. No one opinion is “right” and no one opinion is “wrong.” You like what you like – someone else likes something else. What you see as trite and repetitive someone else may see in a different light.
Comments like yours are helpful in that I can apply some of them in a positive way to my writing. But I won’t change anything because of them unless I agree with you.. I’m writing first of all for HIM – and secondly for the readers who love my books. I’m probably not writing for you. (S)
I’m really not that hard to please! 😉
I disagree on the “no one opinion is right or wrong” statement. Writing is a craft, and any craft can be bettered (or worsened).
Well, even when it comes to style and craftmanship who decides what is right and what is wrong? I happen to love Sol Stein, but some other “experts” don’t agree with him in every aspect. Elmore Leonard thinks the only acceptable dialogue tag is “said” but many don’t think that’s the way to go.
I can’t think of a single Christian fiction author I know who doesn’t believe in excellence and craftmanship. Yet there are many different opinions of exactly what that means.
I have to admit that I’ve read a few “very popular” Christian novels that gave me pause. I’ve wondered how certain books ever got published. But then I pick up something like “Demon” by Tosca Lee and am blown out of the water at the excellence of her writing style and storytelling ability. When you read a book like that, the “rules” become a secondary concern.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are “different strokes for different folks.” What bothers you may not bother someone else. I noticed a comment here about putting down an entire book because of one bothersome phrase. How sad. I would hope that people would never judge my 100,000 word novel by three or four words. Kind of like throwing the baby out with the bath water, isn’t it?
Stein On Writing is my favorite book on the topic.
I am all for experimental works that break the rules. For years I’ve toyed with writing a novel in second person.
But when people start falling prey to the errors they teach you in middle school, that’s when I draw the line. Pushing the envelope is fine, but don’t throw out the English language and what makes it great.
So nice to see you here today!
Love you, Sistah!
I rarely read fiction and am delighted of the success of the Left Behind series.
Trouble is when I , perhaps out of duty, tried to read it, I found a romantic interest described as “drop dead gorgeous”.
I hate cliches and after the first one I stopped reading. There seemed to be no description of anything to help me picture the environment and goings-on.
Thank you for your remarks about Christian fiction. As an author I appreciate your input. I have a non-fiction book that was Published by a mainstream publisher and I just self-published my first Christian novel. Readers want new and different story lines for Christian fiction, and books with substance, but try to get that published! Publishers want only the best-selling authors that have already proven themselves.
The goal of my fiction book is to give the reader a rare opportunity of a rich cross-cultural experience through an exciting Christian novel. I experienced life among a remote people group, an experience that most people will never have. In my book, The Outcasts, the you will be caught up in adventure and intrigue as you experience life through the eyes of people who have been suspended in time by isolation–until two worlds finally collide. The strong characters in this book risk everything to take a stand against evil…they become “the outcats.”
It’s hard to write a novel that appeals to both men and women, but I believe that mine does. My non-fiction, Hostage, is also geared to both, and has sold 10,000 copies.
Both books are available on my website, http://www.nancymankinshamm.com as well as my bio.
Thanks again for your insights about Christian fiction.
Thanks for writing. The recent defaulting to A-listers only that some publishers are doing is troublesome, so I agree. I think it will only drive more good authors to self-publish.
I tend to avoid Christian fiction these days, as far too much of it has been a waste of money. When I buy a book I want something that won’t make me cringe.
A few people have mentioned Stephen Lawhead. I enjoy his books too, and he does seem to get the balance right between staying true to his faith and creating a good story. There is just one issue I have with him though. I speak a Celtic language (Welsh) that he uses liberally in names and phrases in his books, and as it’s clear he doesn’t have much of a grasp of the language and makes some howlers because of that, I find that distracting. The majority of readers wouldn’t have that issue, of course.
I feel for any novelist attempting to work with arcana, languages, and so on. You almost have to surround yourself with a battery of experts to fill in the blanks. I remember one novelist telling me that a reader was fact checking her on the angle of the sun through a window for the date and location she wrote about in one scene. Harsh.
This is old hat among SF authors. Even if you calculate something down to the 10th decimal place in your worldbuilding, there’s going to be somebody out there who will calculate it to the 20th decimal place, find your discrepancy, and crowing in triumph rip you a new a****** for being so stupid. It’s a vicious form of fanboy one-upmanship that every SF author has had to deal with. I’ve had it happen, and I’m only starting to get published.
I tend to avoid Christian fiction these days, as far too much of it has been a waste of money. When I buy a book I want something that won’t make me cringe.
In the Eighties, there was this saying going around local (SoCal) SF litfandom: “It’s gotta be Christian; look how shoddy it is.”
There’s a well-deserved reputation in the mainstream that “Christian = Crap”, a Christian publishing industry and Jesus-fanboy audienct that likes it that way and Doesn’t Want a Thing to Change, and Christian authors who’ve gone over the wall.
In both the Christian writers’ lists I’m on, I’ve been a very vocal proponent of Mainstreaming — forget about Christian (TM) Bizarro World, get your stuff out into the Mainstream. I don’t want to write the next Left Behind knockoff; I want my SF to be able to have gone head-to-head against the likes of Poul Anderson and Beam Piper in the pages of vintage Analog. I want my stuff on the bookshelves next to the authors who inspired me to want to write the stuff, not stuck beside Left Behind: Volume Whatever or Bonnet Romances in the Christian section.
I really enjoyed http://www.amazon.com/Last-Guardian-Shane-Johnson/dp/1578563674/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1257976690&sr=1-2. It was a rare attempt at examining what an multiverse can look like in a Biblical worldview, good stuff for a scifi fan. The premise of the book is: what would an alternative world that the Great Deluge never happened in look like? Its packed with imaginitive alien tech and culture.
Thanks. Will give it a try.
You make some good points. I particularly agree with you about the importance of craftsmanship. To me, that’s a spiritual issue before it even applies to literature. (Col 3:23)
But in my experience, most of your concerns are not limited to Christian fiction. I read a lot of general fiction, and among the more popular contemporary authors I commonly find exactly the same problems you mention, including layered-on preachiness (although they’re not preaching the same things). Have you ever read a Spencer novel by Robert Parker? Talk about agendas! Have you ever read a Dirk Pitt novel by Clive Cussler? Talk about poor craftsmanship!
As for shining examples of world building and innovation, I don’t think there has ever been a time in history when that was the norm for ANY genre. There’s a reason why they call it “excellence,” and that’s because most everything else is only “good” at best. If everything was excellent, excellent would be the new average.
Still, returning to the point Paul made in Collosians, if anyone is going to do excellent work across the board, it should be us.
Speaking of excellence, here are a couple of Christian titles you should try: Levi’s Will, by Dale Cramer (a character driven novel about a man who leaves his Amish family and is shunned–written before the current Amish fad grew way out of proportion), and Saints in Limbo, by River Jordon (southern gotic magical realism). I think you’ll respect them both very highly, even if the genres might not be your cup of tea.
Thank you so much for writing. I very much enjoyed Whom Shall I Fear? I thought you did a great job breathing life into your characters and settings in that book.
I agree with you completely on the state of fiction in general. I walked away from John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener despite having high hopes. And don’t get me going on my epic quest to finally read Gravity’s Rainbow all the way through.
The hopelessness depicted in most contemporary adult works by critically acclaimed authors needs some response. That many Christian books are mirroring that hopelessness yet trying to turn it around in the last few pages is another trend I see. It’s one reason why I think adults are beginning to flee to YA titles for a respite.
I’ve heard much about Levi’s Will and will give it a shot. But what I find stunning is that any Christian author was able to get a Southern gothic magic realism novel published! Makes me wonder just how that novel was pitched. It gives me hope that I may one day get some of my more esoteric stories published. I will most definitely read the Jordan book. Thanks for the recommendations.
Had to laugh at your comment about Pynchon. I had to read The Crying of Lot 49, V, and Gravity’s Rainbow in High School for a Great Books class, and honestly wondered what made them so great. To be “Literature” seems to often mean “Obsure”. To me, a great book is one I want to return to over and over, not only because I enjoy being in the book, but because something new comes out each time I read it. That can only happen when there are multiple layers, both in character and in the world created on the pages.
I hardly ever reread a book of fiction, as I am greatly fond of books with twists, and once the twist is revealed, there’s not as much temptation for me to go back to the book.
Andrew Peterson has published two out of a trilogy. They are fantasy, and young adult, so maybe not what you’re looking for, but they are skillfully written, funny, and subtle. The Wingfeather Saga
Seasonal sidebar and gratuitous plug: Andrew Peterson’s “Behold the Lamb of God: The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ” is the best Advent album I’ve ever heard.
You might also check out Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia series. Also fantasy.
Thanks for the links.
That was a very thoughtful analysis of what makes it hard to write an honest, unobtrusive, and literary work that appeals to all. I would be delighted to know your thoughts on my new release, Angela 1: Starting Over, which is an attempt to provide high-quality fiction to a broad base. If interested, just follow the link to my url.
Thank you for your work!
David A. Bedford
Hi again Dan,
I woke up this morning thinking about your post, and two other Christian fiction authors you should definitely check out if you haven’t already done so: Lisa Samson and Susan Meissner. Both are excellent authors in my opinion. I saw you mentioned that Lisa has commented here before, so maybe you’re read her work. Last year I had a chance to read an advance copy of Susan’s THE SHAPE OF MERCY for an endorsement, so it wasn’t even the final draft, but even with some editing still to go, man, can that woman write!
Another thing I remembered this morning was the title of the last novel I quit on in frustration. It was Dombey and Sons, written by Charles Dickens. Dry, dry, dry, with the characterisation completely overwhelming the plot. Dickens is one of my all time favorite authors, so I was shocked. But its true I’ve read a lot of Christian fiction that is better. So I think it’s important to remember that even literary giants can misfire now and then.
I appreciate and agree with your effort here to hold us to a high standard. Just remember to post about the good along with the bad, because there definitely is some good work being done in Christian fiction.
Balance is the key to a happy Christian life! 🙂
Lisa Samson and I have corresponded. She lives not too far away from me. One of these days I hope to make one of her writer retreats. And yes, she can definitely write well.
When I take stock of the best fiction I’ve read with powerful, clear Christian themes, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder and “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde easily top the list. And this is troubling to me because neither of those authors could be said to be Christian (and a few knowledgeable folks will know what else they share in common, which is also disconcerting).
When I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a nonfiction journal by Annie Dillard, I kept thinking that the narrative she spins could easily have entered the realm of fiction, and if it had, it would have been equally brilliant. I think what she does in that book needs to find its way into Christian fiction. It’s a more contemplative style of writing that brings a wisdom to it not found in most novels, the kind of Christian awareness that’s lacking in secular works—and even many Christian works of fiction.
The word that best encapsulates what I think is missing is transcendence. That may be a rare quality in any book, but I think Christians more than anyone else should be closer to breathing transcendence into their fiction. Even if the work is simply a potboiler, I think it needs a sense of awe. Lightning is a bottle, yes, but we need more of it. That kind of energy rejuvenates people, and people have never needed more rejuvenation than right now. Again, I think that’s one reason why adults are flocking to YA titles.
Thanks for writing. I will keep looking for good works.
Adults are flocking to young adult titles also because there’s story there, as this article from the WSJ points out.
These days, I am reduced to Andre Norton “Juveniles” as old as I am (54) in order to get an SF adventure novel I can read in one sitting.
When I was in college in the Seventies and a new litfan, the average length of genre novels (like SF) was 55-70,000 words. Now the MINIMUM is 80-100,000.
And there is little market for anything in between one-page flashfics and 500+ page Trilogy Components.
Regarding transcendence, two scenes come to mind from Tolkien: The Battle of Hornburg, and the arrival of the Rohirrim at the Battle of the Pelannor Fields. And even though it is Peretti, the scene in Piercing the Darkness of the reaction of the angels when Christ comes to a new believer still brings tears to my eyes.
The Tolkien books are a few that I have been unable to muddle through, much like Pynchon’s. I did, however, greatly enjoy the films and experienced much of the transcendence you noted. Oddly, I found the majority of that in the second film, the one most people tend to say less about.
Francis Schaeffer spoke to this years ago, but I guess the message hasn’t sunk in, since the world has since been subjected to Frank Peretti and Left Behind. I think it’s the same problem that faces Christian music– the sacred/ secular divide. Either it’s completely secular or it has to say “Jesus” at least 20 times. So, you don’t have Christians writing about day to day issues as normal people who happen to be indwelt with the Spirit.
Are all Christian women’s novels about chaste, virginal schoolteachers on the Kansas prairie? My grandmother seemed to cycle through a lot of those.
Read what I wrote to Athol Dickson above and see if you agree about transcendence.
Are all Christian women’s novels about chaste, virginal schoolteachers on the Kansas prairie?
Every time I hear about a Christian Prairie/Bonnet Romance, I’d like to take their Pious Polly Purebreads a few hundred miles north and drop them into this little place called Deadwood.
Because if their God can’t be there and operating even amidst the bloody mire of Deadwood…
I wrote a novel for my MFA thesis a few years back. My adviser, Bret Lott, liked the work so much that he sent the manuscript to his agent. Her take? It didn’t “tap into the Zeitgeist” enough to be profitable. My take? It was a little too Christian for “secular” fiction, and I knew it was too edgy (violent, morally ambiguous, dark and a little scatological) for “Christian” fiction. After six or seven years of submissions and rejections, I grew tired of pouring my time (and heart) into the manuscript, so I published it myself, as much to get it out of my mind as to get it out in front of the world.
I started a novel called Enter the Nonesuch Land that took place in early 1930s America and traced the adventures of a family of geniuses who ran afoul of a deranged mad scientist. The book had a distinctive Tom Swift-ian feel mixed with equal parts Indiana Jones, Doc Savage, Wooster & Jeeves, and the Lemony Snicket books. In addition, it featured an enormous number of contemporary pop culture references that were veiled amid 1930s language. It was part adventure, satire, and game, as the narrative played out in a way that mirrored Lewis Carroll’s chess game in Through the Looking Glass. I loved every aspect of writing that novel—until my writers’ group gave me the dire news: “We love this, but no publisher will buy it.” And so it sits on the shelf unfinished.
So yes, I hear you.
Try Marcher Lord Press; they’re a new small-press specializing in Christian F&SF that the Official Christian CBA/ECPA publishers won’t touch, founded by a guy who’s trying to break away from that mentality.
And also check out the Lost Genre Guild; they’re a professional association of authors trying to end-run the ECPA/CBA monopoly in F&SF.
Boy, we sure are getting plugs by the authors, aren’t we? 😉
When you’re not a CELEBRITY Best-Selling Author (like Paolini, SMeyers, or Buck Jenkins), you are expected to do all the publicity and marketing yourself.
I wonder if one of the reasons we have such a hard time with the concept of “Christian Novel” is that we have a hard time imagining the “Christian Life”. Imagine if Adam and Eve had not eaten of the apple, but somewhere down the line, one of their progeny did. We would then have to lines of humans: ‘Edenic’ and Fallen. What would that look like?
Now, fast forward several thousand years and we have two groups of people: Saved and Lost. What does salvation look like from the outside? What do the Lost look like from the viewpoint of the Saved? The “failure in imagination” I think comes ironically from the side of the Saved. We are hung up on the “Don’t Smoke, Don’t Chew” and forget the whole “You shall do greater things than these” point of view.
Intriguing thoughts, David. I never considered that mental exercise of Edenic and Fallen before.
Tolkien did. What do you think the essential difference is between Elves and Men?
I think much of what’s been said also applies to Christian music as well…
A timely article from Curator magazine
Great post! I’ve tried reading “Christian fiction” over the years and almost never enjoy them. After being bugged and bugged to read “The Shack” I finally did and was appalled at how poorly written it is. I tried one of those Amish themed novel and found it trite and silly. I’ve avoided the “Left Behind” novels as I don’t doubt it would be more of the same. So, if I want “Christian fiction” I return to Dostoevsky or Hugo or Dickens or Lewis. Are Americans that shallow? Or are there that few Christian writers out there who can write above a middle school level?
I’ve tried over the years to read some so-called Christian fiction and generally find it stiff, trite, and silly. I finally read “The Shack” on the glowing recommendations of many friends and was appalled at how poorly written it is. My mother loves Amish stories, so I attempted one of those, too. Bleh! Are there no Christian writers who can slap together a few sentences above a middle school reading level? If I want to read fiction that uplifts, I return to Dostoevsky or Hugo or Dickens or Lewis. Once again, modern Christians seem not to understand the shallowness they exude.
Sorry, Didn’t mean to post twice! The computer hiccuped the first time and I thought my post went off into cyberspace…
I used to read a lot of Christian fiction and generally do not read much anymore. The one author that has caught my attention recently is Ted Dekker, and wonder if he falls to you in those categories. His novels essentially all play out some theological aspect or another and have found them challenging.
Stumbled here while taking a break from my own book…I entered a contest this year and it helped me prove I could finish something. Too bad I hated the book! Even though I was proud of the writing itself, the whole thing felt forced and false. Like it was trying so hard to be a book! I decided, finally, I am not writing for the Christian market anymore–but I am a supporter of Christian authors.
When I think of Christian authors, I think of Walker Percy, Flannery O’Conner, maybe Ron Hansen and Ron Rash. In fact, I LOVE Ron Rash! You must give Serena or One Foot in Eden a try. It helps that he’s a poet as well. I stopped writing with the Christian publishers in mind because when I aspire to write my best and pull books from my own bookshelf to inspire me…it is never from the Christian market! But I have tried.
Thanks for the post. It is encouraging and I will keep writing, no matter the outcome. As Francis Schaeffer wrote in Art and the Bible, it is the Christian who should write the flaming truth. That statement always makes me think of the cries of David.
I guess I need to read something by Ron Rash, as I work for his alma mater, and everyone’s obsessed with him around here. I didn’t realize he was considered “Christian fiction.” He did graduate from a Baptist university, however.
It’s important to keep in mind that Christian Fiction can not be discussed accordingly unless you define the Christian Fiction you are talking about. The Christian Fiction Tracy Bateman spoke of in her comment that “Christian” writers should write stories that “Christian” publishers will pick up is referring to authors wanting to sell their stories to the fee-based and denominationally exclusive CBA market which by no means is the biggest market out there but simply the loudest.
I will never compromise a story to fit a market that excludes even if it means going hungry for a short while. Christian Fiction by my definition is simply fiction written where the authors theme is slightly more slanted toward a particular Faith than say some other book.
Before 1950 when the Baptist Bookstore formed the fee-based, denominationally exclusive Christian Bookseller’s Association there was no need to call anything Christian Fiction. And now that CBA and ECPA have claimed the title for themselves it usually just refers to work put out by that fee-based affiliation. And for the record, you can wait around and wait for them to broaden their market if you want to but I’ve better things to do with my time.
I just now found this site after googling “sappy Christian books.” Thanks for your spin on the subject. Yep, I’m sacrificing craft for the needs of the publishers. I’m so tired of deleting pages to fit someone else’s mold.
Francine River’s “Mark of the Lion” series or “Redeeming Love” will change your opinion of Christian fiction forever. Sadly, I can’t find another writer like her.
I don’t get Flannery O’Connor either.
I am writing an annotated bibliography for young adult fiction. Any suggestions? I already picked up the ideas from the above posts.
I appreciate your comments and agree with many of them…but I also agree with the person who said that mediocrity is not limited to Christian fiction. It abounds in “secular” fiction as well. I would also point out that the books which you abhor are obviously meeting the reading needs of some people, or they wouldn’t be published and selling copies…so their existence is justified. However, it would be nice if the reading needs of other people, like yourself, would also be met! I enjoy a limited number of “Christian Chick Lit” books but also crave the more meaty, less preachy, more thoughtful fiction and wish there was more of it.
I’ve experienced some of the same frustrations myself while reading Christian fiction. For a while I didn’t read ANY fiction at all (which was my favorite) because all the Christian novels I picked up were poorly written, and the literary books I came across were wonderfully written but had obviously depraved characters with no worthy redemption in sight.
So instead I simply resorted to Christian non-fiction (theologically based), but that didn’t satisfy my desire for a quality, well-written story.
I addressed my frustration for this on my blog here:
The biggest flaw of Christian fiction is that the characters tend to be too simplistic and the material very intellectually shallow…
I really enjoyed reading this post, because it made me think about what’s lacking on Christian novels. I also agree with you when you said that Christian novels seem to be written for female readers only. As a person who would like to write a Christian novel someday, I wish to ask you something that I think will help me a lot: What elements or characteristics should a novel have in order to be more appealing to male readers? I tend to write cheesy stuff, but I want to change that, Lol.
Thank you for reading my comment, and God bless you ^^
The most obvious answer to your question of writing for a male audience is to write the opposite of what attracts a female audience. 😉
While I’m joking, I’m doing so only in part. Think of the themes that attract women and then write something other than those.
Five other common essentials in fiction for men:
1. A male lead (in most cases, except men may read stories with a female lead if that lead acts “manly” or pursues manly pursuits)
2. Written in first person from a male perspective
3. Story elements: battles against people who are oppressors, cloak and dagger, races against time, rescuing others, leadership, overcoming, quick thinking, solving life-threatening mysteries
4. Genres: Espionage, conspiracy, science fiction, horror, thriller, military, alternate history, hard science, masculine fantasy (think Conan, Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones)
5. Darker humor, wisecracking
In the past, I have asked this same question to other men trying to understand the male perspective when it comes to fiction, but in many cases, I ended up feeling really unsatisfied with the answers I got, because they only expressed criticism about what women like, but never explained to me what men like and why. And that’s why I feel really thankful to you, Dan, because your answer was very complete, not only including elements, but also mentioning examples. Thank you very much for taking the time to read my question and answer it. I don’t know if I will ever be able to write something that don’t kill men out of boredom, but at least now I can not blame ignorance for it, Lol XD
Thank you for your personal opinion. But I’m certain you have heard of common fallacies, one being the fallacy of using a limited example to paint the whole of it. That is how prejudice is birthed. I’ve heard it said so often that all Christian fiction is overly sentimental or cheesy that I wonder how long it has been since the readers saying such things have visited the latest Christian fiction offerings. I haven’t written formula style fiction since the early days when all that publishers were buying were biblical re-tellings or prairie romances. Even then I aimed for edgy and new. There are many novelists, including myself, who take great pains to put out a fresh new voice with every book we write. There are examples of formulaic writing in all book markets. There are also books that can be held up as literature in every generation since Jane Austen. Several of my novels are perennial selections for college and high school reading lists. Each reader develops a personal aesthetic for how literature is defined. The majority may lead the market, but every generation leaves behind a literary legacy even if unintentionally.
I am a new author, and have enjoyed your comments. My grandmother was a published author, her passion would show in her writings! My first book is an autobiography, and a testimony as to the pit from God brought me. It is being edited now. I have started a second book; Christian, fiction, fantasy. God has given me an awesome imagination. There hasn’t yet been one book or movie I couldn’ t predict the ending! I pray that my books will be one that can’t be put down, leaving you on the edge of your seats! Please pray that God blesses my writing. Steve Clark
I couldn’t agree more. But I put much of the blame on the Christian publishing firms who have NO vision or creativity. The very idea that Tolkien and Lewis couldn’t get published today shows just how safe the publishing firms play it to the vest. That said there are some bright spots like Marcher Lord, Kevin Kaiser and others, but until the giants decide that people want more than they are giving them Christian fiction will continue to languish.
Because our Lord knew what was in the hearts of men, he could not be offended. We Christians should be immune to offense, and yet we seem to be offended by EVERYTHING.
It’s for this reason that Christian publishers are trapped and can only toe the line. We can’t blame them because they are only making the least offensive products they can so as not to incur the wrath and ire of Christian folks who seem offended by nature.
I found your post after googling, “why is Christian fiction so bad?” I just flipped through to the end of another Christian book that was very similar to the highly-rated book I had just trudged through. I looked up the authors to see if it was the same person using a pen name. Nope. The theme of hating/loving the home town was in both books. Words like “ridiculous” and “give me a break” and “stupid, stupid, stupid” were running through my head. I agree with your comments and find the five-star reviews bewildering. I couldn’t even give them two stars, and my standards are not high. I simply want a reasonably plausible story that keeps me turning the pages. Do I have to put up with cringe-inducing profanity in order to read a page turner?
I am a Jewish Ghostwriter. (Is that one strike or two?)
I have a client wanting to write a YA novel set in the traditional (a.k.a. Orthodox) Jewish world. I believe common to both communities are issues of fitting in with other teen girls and the conflict between following community rules and personal development and expression. I am looking for examples from the Christian world to see how other writers handle the many problems of producing a work of art set among people who take their faith seriously and try to live from it. Suggestions?
I think the main problem is that, christians are not taken care of. All they do well and are encouraged to do is praying. Sometimes we often forget other areas of life, we have no mentor ( C.S LEWIS is dead). We are not INVOLVED in life: educating and building ourselves is not our priority. Are there speeches, programs, sermons that encourage christians to take the world out there, in ALL areas of life? No! Not much. They have let the world be the best, because they thing God only knows spiritual things. They do not attend good non christian programs to know what they should know.
Christians don’t know because ‘ My people perish for lack of knowledge’ Ignorance runs the streets in the Church. Those who want to try do not know the way to turn, when they do they are not perfectionnists, other christians discourage them, they call them fake and others do all they can to ‘Expose’ them. ( It’s not only about literature) In a nutshell THE BODY DOES NOT FUNCTION WELL.
Francis Schaeffer encouraged the engagement you discuss, but he is dead as well. Still, I would recommend you read his works on Christian interaction with the world.
I am an emerging writer in this genre and it would be fantastic if you could do a personal review of my self-published book.
The points you made are quite valid, and I would not want to fall into these categories at all. I wish there was a clearer road map but I think I’ve found my voice and the niche within the genre that I want to explore but a critique would be helpful to see why my book does not sell well (may be due to my lack of marketing prowess or it’s just not that good).
Please let me know if this is possible. I can even mail a copy of the book and it’s available on Kindle Unlimited as well.
I agreed so much with your points here that I wrote my own novels. I realize this log post is from 2009(?) but your points are more valid today. I challenge you to read one of my novels. Though since you are a man, you won’t like it simply because they are romance-ish. I had a reader ask me, “How are your novels Christian Fiction with so much sex in them?” My first reaction was don’t Christians have sex? but I replied, “Well Dear reader it is like this, my novels are not typical Christian fiction and they are placed under adult contemporary fiction genre for that reason. What I mean is my novels are not about back slidden Christians who are goody-two-shoes heroes (I see you used the same terms) I write about real life people with real life problems, ugly sinful problems. Then I present the reality of Christianity in ways that once you have read a character’s acceptance of Jesus, you say “oh there is the Christianity part” as it slips ever so gently in to your brain. I am pushing the envelope on what mainstream Christianity expects from Christian writers in a radically different voice and style. Because of this I have written about sex addiction, codependency, alcoholism, abortion, and other sinful topics most christian writers are afraid to write about. I can promise you I am not afraid. ” ~Lori O’Gara
Have you read the novels by Bud Macfarlane? I’ve read the first two and they’re quite good. You can get them on the site below for $1 each. Cheers!