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How To Be A Silly Christian Fiction Critic

Don’t read actual Christian fiction. Compare apples and oranges. And especially, never challenge your own silent acceptance of evangelical tropes.

Different kinds of critics filled the world, surprisingly enough even before the internet.

I count at least four kinds: constructive critics, trolls, silly cheerleaders, and silly critics.

ratatouille_antonego

Delightfully, Anton Ego is proven a serious and constructive critic by the Pixar film Ratatouille’s end.

Naturally I want to encourage the constructive critics, and hope to remember “don’t feed the trolls.” And I want to chide the final two groups of “critics,” especially when they cross onto our enjoyments of God-exalting stories (speculative and otherwise).

Here’s how I define those final two groups:

  • Silly cheerleaders — Rah rah rah! Yay Christian fiction! It’s like the fiction you love, only, you know, Christian. No, the story style and craft don’t really matter. Stop being so elitist. After all, God Himself didn’t give His own Story with the best craft and genre diversity and most wonderful style in the world — all that matters is the Content.

We often challenge silly cheerleaders at Spec-Faith. So I feel free to address only:

  • Silly critics — Christian fiction sucks. It’s not reaching people. It’s not Realistic and Artistically Excellent and too often offers Easy Resolutions that gloss over suffering and nastiness. Look at the success of “secular” fiction. When will Christians achieve that?

What am I to do? Criticize silly critics? Not at all. I want to be a positive speculative-story explorer. I cannot curse the darkness without lighting candles. Naturally I present:

“Too long, didn’t read.”

“Too long, didn’t read.”

Seven Ways to Be A Silly Christian Fiction Critic

1. Don’t read the actual books.

One can’t become a silly critic who bashes all available Christian fiction by actually reading all available Christian fiction — which includes not only the stuff found on Christian store shelves, but independent publishers and even self-publishers. Limit your reading choices.

2. Compare Christian fiction’s most popular novels to the best literary novels.

applesandorangesYou must be casually aware of Christian fiction’s dominant genre and/or authors, and set those in your mind against the (real or perceived) dominance of Classic Works written by Christians past or present. Result: “Oh dear, oh dear, why are Christian readers favoring books with titles like Amish White Christmas Pie instead of the value of a Flannery O’Connor short story?” But you cannot carry out this criticism without subconscious belief that:

3. “High culture” is better than “low culture.”

As author Ted Turnau points out in Popologetics, many Christians accept (or suspect they must accept) an elitist notion that “words are better than images” or that “this music genre is simply better than that music genre.” Accept this dichotomy. Really, Christians should not be reading or writing “popular” level novels anyway; we should only read the best classic novels. (We must also avoid reading Turnau’s annoying and Biblical rebuttal of this view.)

4. Avoid recalling the “bad” Christian stories you may (have) truly enjoy(ed).

Or is it just me?

… Or is it just me?

Did you read, say, the Left Behind series? Did the Holy Spirit use even that questionable-eschatology-filled, seemingly-never-to-end thriller franchise in your life? Well then, isn’t He an idiot. The Holy Spirit doesn’t know excellent Art and can’t possibly use it to help anyone.

5. Avoid asking, “What exactly would change my opinion?”.

It’s much easier to keep one’s standards vague and floatey than to put them in writing. What exactly makes for “bad Christian fiction” over and above “bad secular fiction”? What is the mathematical ratio? Twenty parts bad to one part good = all bad? If there are but ten righteous in the city of Christian fiction, shall we spare the industry for their sake?

No, of course not. After all, all these other secular critics are not impressed with Christian fiction (for whatever reasons, genuine or otherwise). And we do want to show them that Christians can be artistically cool and also agree that the Church sucks, do we not?

Actual cures? Those can come later, after just one more blog re-re-re-identifying the illness.

But if you do happen to think about exactly what would cure this disease, then you must:

6. Offer yourself and your idea for another novel/publisher/universe as superior.

Who else to reverse the course of history and finally Take This Town for Christ than us?

Finally, this seventh point is the most vital to being a reflexive, silly Christian fiction critic:

7. Don’t challenge your silent acceptance of evangelical change-the-world tropes.

thumbsdownMany evangelical readers, authors, and publishers seem to think something like this:

We must change the world through our fiction. Story’s purpose is not to glorify God by exploring beauties and truths of Himself, people, and His creation. Instead story’s purpose is to entertain, or evangelize, or morally edify, and Change the World.

So as a silly Christian fiction critic, you are bound to respond:

Yes, oh evangelical fiction industry, your core assumptions are exactly correct.

Your only problem is: you’re doing it wrong.

Your stories must be more entertaining, and not so “cleaned up.” That way you’ll be able to do evangelism better, and will not put people off Christianity.

Also, in all your moral edification — family values and patriotism and anti-abortion are nice, but they’re also very off-putting. Let’s have more stories about the values I support, such as challenging intolerance or hatred of gays, or caring for the poor, or even squishy beliefs like ecumenism or universalism.

Maintain this line. Never give up, never surrender. Never consider whether subpar stories result because of these assumptions, not despite them. Never consider what Scripture says about great stories: that they’re not for its own sake, or ours, but to reflect our Author.

E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Kat Heckenbach
Member

I very much agree with #2. I think Amish romance getting the shaft as being the major part of CBA fiction is unfair. We then need to look at secular fiction and face the fact that something like 60% of it is category romance as well. The CBA has bonnets, the ABA has sex. I don’t read either, but I really, really doubt the level of craft is terribly different for the two–in this case, the main difference is content.
To truly compare the CBA and ABA we have to look at *percentages* because the CBA is simply smaller. What percent of books in the CBA are of really high quality vs average quality vs really low quality?  My guess–based on what I’ve seen–is that it’s a bell curve for both. It’s just that the ABA curve reflects an overall higher number of books. 
That said, the curve may get skewed because the CBA doesn’t have *as much room* for some of the books outside the mainstream. Spec fic writers and those who write more literary or gritty works find the CBA door locked and end up either self-publishing, or going to small presses or ABA presses. So it’s out there, but it’s not being classified with true CBA works. And that is where the legitimate critique comes in. It should NOT be about what already exists in the CBA. That stuff has an audience and has every right to be there. It should be focused on making room for more diverse works.

Jon R
Guest

Ok, help me out here. I’m interested in reading Christian speculative fiction, but I’m really picky. I generally read what’s classified as ‘new grit’ or ‘new weird’. I like books with more adult themes because I’m an adult. For example, if we’re talking movies, I generally prefer something with an R-rating, because I’m more likely to be mentally or even morally stimulated, whereas in most PG-13’s I’m likely to get cheap jokes and green screens. This is what I’m afraid of in stepping back (for the first time since jr. high school) into the world of Christian fiction. With mostly adult-oriented content off the menu, am I going to be stuck with Michael Bay/Nicholas Sparks gimmicks? I’m sure there’s good stuff in the Christian speculative fiction world, but I have no idea where to start.

C.L. Dyck
Guest

Jon, check out Brian Godawa, Ted Dekker, Vox Day and Marc Schooley for starters. Not sure if that’s exactly what you’re looking for, but between them they cover a range of speculative and suspense.
Funny thing, I tend to prefer a grownup presentation as well. 🙂

kim
Guest

Hi Jon, I wish I had an answer for you, but I read PG stuff.  I get tired of sex, cursing and homosexuality being thrust at me whether I want it or not, so I only write/read PG-13.  You may have to do some searching to find it.  Most Christian authors stay in PG-13 b/c it’s what their audience wants and what God wants.  I know Marcher Lord has a more ‘rougher’ section, but I haven’t read them so I’m not sure what they are like.  Check out Jeff Gerke’s website, Marcher Lord.  He might have something for you. 

bad_cook
Guest
bad_cook

Whoa there, hombre. “What God wants” is PG-13 or lower? I don’t know if you are aware of how sanctimonious that comes off as. You have your personal preferences, but some of us have higher thresholds.

Jon R
Guest

Hi Kim, I appreciate your thoughts on this. Grits great, because it more often touches on the deeper deficiencies that mark our fallen nature, but I’ve enjoyed a lot of compelling storytelling that doesn’t include that. Toy Story 3 was one I enjoyed immensely for it’s themes. It just seems like that kind of movie or book is so rare. I grew up with parents who were of a similar mindset as you are presenting, so I certainly respect what you are saying. At the same time, Judges-II Chronicles, would have to be R-rated, just a thought. Thanks for the recommendation.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

Pat Todoroff’s Running Black is a good book that doesn’t really pull any punches. I usually compare him to Bruce Sterling. Mark Carver who posts here now and then is pretty intense in his books. Rachel Starr Thomson is very good, as well. David Alderman is a friend who Black Earth trilogy is a bit rough, but has a strong anime-meets-Stand vibe to it.
 
Rick Macey is good. Elemental by Emily White is also good. There are books out there that push the edges some, but they tend to be hard to find.

Kessie Carroll
Member

Wow, so our reviews aren’t allowed to compare new Christian fiction books with secular books in the same genre? Doesn’t that lead to even more severe cloistering, since CBA is so much smaller? Recently someone did a Facebook poll of what was the last secular book people had read, and some said they hadn’t read a secular book in years. I was horrified.

Austin Gunderson
Member

So we’re supposed to be okay with mediocrity within Christendom just because the world tends toward mediocrity as well? That’s a profoundly unconvincing argument — like saying we shouldn’t be concerned about the divorce rate among Christian couples because, after all, non-Christians divorce each other just as often.
 
Last I checked, Christians are supposed to aspire to a standard higher than whatever happens to constitute “average.” We shouldn’t be using the Bell Curve as an excuse. And we shouldn’t be measuring our sufficiency by the yardstick of the world. Regardless of a book’s content or target audience — whether it’s a profoundly philosophical work of sci-fi “literature” or a whiz-bang foray into sensationalistic space opera — if it’s bold enough to boast of its “Christian” nature, no one should ever be able to honestly criticize it as “poorly written” or “poorly constructed.”

kim
Guest

Austin, I’m a bit confused when you say Christian writing is ‘mediocre’.  I’ve been reading Christian lit for sometime now and I have yet to find one that is poorly written, unless it is possibly a self-published novel. I’m a prof writer and  I will admit, I can’t and won’t write as a secular writer b/c there are plot lines I refuse to follow, lines I refuse to cross because I love Jesus more than what someone wants to read.  I won’t write about sex, cursings, homosexuality, new age junk, etc.  Many folks believe that b/c we won’t cross lines, our writing sucks.
 
I”ve also learned the more technique one learns, the better a writer they become.  Writers really need to focus on Technique and what works and what doesn’t.  Before the year 2000, writers mostly ignored technique, but are now discovering it works.  Christian lit has gotten a lot better in the last 13 years, but it still has some ways to go.  Instead of being puffed up and saying it all sucks, maybe HELP writers by encouraging them to study technique, show them what they can do with it and how it can help them.  That’s what I did and still do.  The writers in my writers group and growing and expanding in their writing everyday and I’m a proud mamma. 

Austin Gunderson
Member

Content is not quality.  The fact that an author may choose to avoid the exploration of certain subjects says absolutely nothing whatsoever about either the craft or substance of his or her story.  This lack of correlation with regard to craft is obvious: some of the most stylistically beautiful works of literature have been composed by adherents of dangerously warped worldviews, and many doctrinally-sound Christians are sadly capable of producing the most banally insipid bilge imaginable.  What might be less obvious is the utter lack of correlation between content and substance.  You say, for instance, that you refuse to write about “sex, cursings, homosexuality, new age junk, etc.”  While there might not be anything particularly wrong with such a policy, there isn’t necessarily anything right with it, either.  Goodness is ever so much more than a mere lack of badness, especially when such a lack could conceivably be due to nothing more than squeamishness or cowardice on the part of an author.

The central fallacy here is the idea that certain subjects are so intrinsically sinful that to merely discuss or portray them is to “cross a line.”  But as E. Stephen pointed out above, were that the case we’d all have to avoid large swaths of the Bible itself as tawdry, lurid trash.  Such an idea is, of course, ridiculous.  What matters is not content per se, but how that content is handled.  If all Christian authors were to avoid the subjects of “sex, cursings, homosexuality, and new age junk,” only secular authors would be left to write about such things.  And, shortly thereafter, the Christian perspective on such subjects would become lost, forgotten, unknown.

bad_cook
Guest
bad_cook

Bad_cook’s guide to being an awesome Christian fiction critic:
Being mostly like an awesome secular fiction critic, because I think a fiction critic’s first concern is for the story.
If people want cut-and-dried theology, they read theology. It’s STORYTIME, snitches! Just theology won’t cut it. We need good characters, good plots, well-handled tension and conflicts, and verisimilitude. We need creativity, and I don’t just mean palette-swapping werewolf romances for Christian werewolf romances. (For real, that is a thing that exists, at least online. The ones I flipped through were pretty much as melodramatically meh as regular werewolf romances.)

Robert Mullin
Member

I think too many try to force grit into their stories as an attempt to make them more acceptable to the secular masses (see? Christians can write gritty, too!).  Then others go so far to avoid it that the work comes off as a bit milquetoast.  I have no problem with self-censorship, as it is an admirable goal to reach the masses without offense. But I can understand the complaint that something is missing, and that there is little to cut one’s teeth into in much of the CBA material.  I think the best stories are honest stories. That is to say, they attempt, even within a fictional framework, to tell the truth about whatever given subject matter is at hand. Even the most sanitary Amish romance can be honest, if it feels that the author is not shying away from the real complexities that make up life, love, and relationships in general.  And the most gritty “realistic” novel can come off as forced and warped if it seems that the author is simply trying to shoehorn “edge” into the text in an attempt to offer “substance” (which is an altogether different thing).  Perhaps the problem is that readers fail to see the distinction between content and theme (or subject matter).  
At the end of the day, I’ll take an honest novel over one that tries too hard to offend, or strains not to. Honesty in writing covers a multitude of authorial sins.

RACHEL NICHOLS
Guest

I enjoyed one of the first Amish books called The Shunning. It dealt with real, complex themes like the constrictive lifestyles many church goers are forced into by small minded legalists running the show. But when it went into the formulaic adoptive child looks for lost “real mommy”, narrowly missing True Love who had been supposedly drowned at sea I sighed. I gave the book to my aunt who reads all things sentimental, and swore not to bother with the sequels.

Galadriel
Guest

The whole highbrow/lowbrow thing tends to extend to mainstream/genre in writing classes far too often. One of my textbooks actually said:

Many–perhaps most–teachers of fiction writing do not accept manuscripts in genre, and I believe there’s good reason for this, which is that wereas writing litary fiction can teach you how to write good genre fiction, writing genre fiction does not teach you to write good liteary fiction–does not, in effect, teach you “how to write,” by which I mean how to be original and meaningful in words.–

That’s its own post, but I think genre, especially speculative, defaults to “lowbrow” in people’s minds.

RACHEL NICHOLS
Guest

Speculative fiction can actually cross over to literary rather easily if well written. I find Christian spec fiction is often better than the secular kind since it forces an outside the suburbia box view of the universe while maintaining Christian standards and can be far less preachy than stuff like The Handmaiden’s Tale.

This openness helps the writer use imagination to create better characters, and use altered reality as an allegory for truths about God and the human condition. Like Kafka’s stories. He was an atheist, but he dared to ask questions many writers today are afraid to. And he asked the right questions; sadly he never found the Answer.

kim
Guest

Mr Burnett, you are my hero!!!! I love this article. I don’t understand those who say Christian liturature just SUCCCKKKS!!!! In all due honesty, I never thought it ‘sucked’, just not as nasty as secular books. As for fantasy? Has anyone here lately READ a secular fantasy novel? I went to the library last year and all I saw were book after book of heros who had sex with anyone with genitalia and who were the offspring of some god and a desperate human woman. Ick!! And they say christian lit is bad. I looovvve Christian fantasy and have my own favey writers now. Also one thing that I’ve kinda noticed are the folks who claim christian lit sucks are those who’ve never written a novel or some, not all, are self-published and pretty much think they know how the publishing world works. Gesh!!!

Paul Lee
Member

Wow… I tried to post a rebuttal to this blanket accusation all day, but my comment never gets through.  Since I got a different comment half-through last night (in reply to E. Stephen Burnett above), it got truncated, I’ll try again, this time only saying that I have read secular-published fantasy, even recently, and they’re not all like that. 🙁

RACHEL NICHOLS
Guest

My favorite modern Christian writers are all indie novelists. For a while the CBA was too scared to do anything new. That’s part of the reason assembly line formula driven novels abounded in the 90’s. Indie publishing is great for small niches like this.

Paul Lee
Member

I’ve been thinking about this subject since this article and discussion went live.  I agree that Christian fiction is not inherently worse than secular/mainstream fiction.  However, it is also a fact that I have felt disappointed with much of the Christian speculative fiction that I have read.  My feeling of disappointment is personal and subject, and also does not indicate total dislike or unappreciation of the works.  There are things that are done well in all the Christian speculative novels that I’ve read.
 
Alone, my personal disappointment is meaningless.  But if lots of readers who have sincerely tried Christian speculative fiction have similar feelings, then I think that does indicate a problem, or at least a deficiency.  Whether or not that deficiency can be corrected is a good question.  It may simply be a matter of this being a relatively small community of writers, most of whom are relatively new at their craft.
 
Austin Gunderson wrote:

the relatively cloistered nature of this subgenre’s niche market tends to insulate its authors from the cold, hard, dispassionate dissection endured by participants in the mainstream publishing industry. Yes, yes — cheap vampire romances are a dime a dozen in the larger market, but, thanks to withering criticism, they’re almost universally recognized for what they are: shallow escapism. I don’t see the same kind of relentless quality-control in Christian spec-fic circles.

I suspect that Austin is on to something here.  I don’t know this community well enough to say how much this applies, but I think it is probably true that we aren’t very good at rigorous, internal criticism.  Again, this may be a nearly inevitable result of the smallness of the CSF community.  We want to feel like a happy family, doubly so because of our faith.  But real families are not sweet and affectionate all the time.

Paul Lee
Member

I wish I hadn’t posted this comment last night.  It was a bad decision.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Because you don’t really believe something that you said, or because you think you could’ve phrased it better?

Paul Lee
Member

Neither.  I’m just feeling embarrassed.
 
I want to find a series like The Wheel of Time, a saga that awes me in its depth of meaning and sense of honor.  I don’t look for perfection on any level, neither mechanical nor literary perfection.  The Wheel of Time is so far from perfect that I don’t think using it as my personal standard is unreasonable or elitist.  I just like it.
 
Every time I read a Christian speculative novel and I don’t get the experience I’m searching for, I can’t help but wonder whether I might have had a better chance to get a good book from the shelf at the library for free.  (“Good book” meaning subjectively one I like.)  That feeling is probably unfounded.  I don’t know for sure that many of the secular high fantasy books in the section at the library have what I’m looking for, and I do know that secular fantasy has its share of stinkers too.  But that doesn’t change the feeling.
 
So, yeah, I just embarrassed myself again. 😉

Austin Gunderson
Member

You’ve nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s not as though it’s your duty to appreciate Christian spec-fiction just ’cause it’s written by Christians. Such an approach would suck all joy and meaning from the whole pursuit.
 
My prescription: read Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Peretti’s This Present Darkness to remind yourself that truly great Christian spec-fiction isn’t a pipe-dream, and then read Sanderson’s The Way of Kings to renew your imagination with the finest work of contemporary epic fantasy, period. It’s colossal in scope, rich in complexity, deep in profundity, breathless in tension, and beautiful in execution. It will move you and raise your personal standards for all other authors, which will be a good thing.

Paul Lee
Member

I thought about this a little more, and I think the whole problem comes down to the fact that the Christian speculative fiction community doesn’t have hundreds of readers who aren’t also trying to get published.  That’s why the books on the library’s shelf have a relatively high chance of being subjectively interesting. Even though subjective interest is subjective, the collective masses of fantasy fans have narrowed the set of all available fantasy novels to those that have some kind of broad appeal.  My personal tastes are my own, but among the collective masses of fantasy fans, there are probably enough people who share my approximate tastes that the library offers something for us.  This is less true of a bookstore, which sells all the latest trash.  The library collects books that many people seem to think are worth reading.
 

It’s not as though it’s your duty to appreciate Christian spec-fiction just ’cause it’s written by Christians.

I do appreciate at least most of the CSF novels I’ve read so far.  By ‘appreciate,’ I mean that I can enjoy them for what they are, even if they weren’t quite what I was looking for.  I think I may have some obligation to enjoy that which I consume, at least to try to, although this duty is not exclusive to Christians’ works.  You’re right, though; I don’t have any duty to rank Christians’ novels as my favorites.
 

My prescription: read Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Peretti’s This Present Darkness to remind yourself that truly great Christian spec-fiction isn’t a pipe-dream, and then read Sanderson’s The Way of Kings to renew your imagination with the finest work of contemporary epic fantasy, period.

Thanks for the recommendations!  I’ve read Space Trilogy, and it is the best of all Lewis’s fiction, simultaneously philosophical, literary, and pleasantly campy in it’s science fiction tropes.  I haven’t read This Present Darkness, even though I’ve known for years that I should.  Just finished The Well of Ascension, so I have to grab The Hero of Ages before starting The Way of Kings.  I’m looking forward to it. 🙂

RACHEL NICHOLS
Guest

Don’t forget Charles Williams’ novels. Early urban fantasy without the love triangles. He was buddies with Lewis and Tolkien, a fellow Inkling.

On Moral Fiction by John Gardner is a must for Christian writers. His novel Grendel is also good.

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Chila Woychik
Guest

Austin G., you are the most clear-headed thinker I’ve encountered in a good while. Thank you.

Chila Woychik
Guest

Very good, Andun, and I agree on all levels. It /can/ be done, it /should/ be done, but it generally (and sadly) isn’t being done.

“And I’ll keep beating this drum until I read something written by a Christian that’s comparable to the best works currently produced by secular genre authorship.” I do believe you’ve been inside my head …

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