At Intercollegiate Review on March 20, a little column called The Christian Fantasy got a big readership — surprising, given the column’s contents. That’s not my view; that’s what novelist Lars Walker himself remarked after the piece gained more promotion.1
E. Stephen Burnett: Lars, you later said you “thought the material was fairly self-evident and had already been done by others.” True indeed — at least among Christian-SF “circles” and all those let’s-break-out-of-the-evangelical-fiction-mold blogs. So what do you think happened here?
Lars Walker: I honestly don’t know. I’m more surprised than anybody. Like all authors, I’m trying to get attention all the time, and in general I’m not very good at it.
ESB: How did this article come about, and what have you been hearing from readers?
Walker: Anthony Sacramone is the managing editor at Intercollegiate Review. He’s also a very funny – if intermittent – blogger, and I’ve gotten to know him as a commenter over the years. He asked me to write the article. He says he knew from the time he assigned it that it would draw attention. He told me his readership is mostly young college students, and they’re unfamiliar with the “conventional wisdom.” But it’s gone beyond that. A lot of the attention has been coming from people who’ve been fans for a long time.
ESB: If you would have known in advance that this column would receive more attention, is there anything you would have changed or expanded upon in the piece?
Walker: I might have mentioned Sturgeon’s Law – “Ninety per cent of Science Fiction is crud, but ninety per cent of everything is crud.” My beef is not so much that there’s a lot of substandard stuff getting written, but that I fear upcoming writers lack opportunity for the hard, cruel feedback that helps you write better. Because of self-publishing, it’s getting to be like one of those games they have for school kids nowadays, where all the participants get the same trophy. Games like that are for the participants. They don’t have much to offer the spectator.
ESB: Responding to the column, some readers shared examples of published Christian fantasy and science fiction they enjoy, including many Marcher Lord Press titles, The Lamb Among the Stars by Chris Walley, and The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson. If you’re familiar with those titles, do you believe those stories could also use some improvement? Or maybe for some reason they seem more “underground,” unnoticed by more readers?
Walker: No, I must confess I’m not familiar with any of these. My claim to ignorance, at least, isn’t likely to be seriously challenged.
ESB: For those who don’t know you and your work 2, what is your own storytelling journey?
Walker: I’ve loved books from the time I was able to read; I got the idea of writing pretty early, but didn’t think I was smart enough. Although I loved Tolkien, it was actually Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories that sparked the thought, “I could write this sort of thing. Maybe not this well, but this sort of thing.” My original plan was to be an artist – a cartoonist or illustrator. Every picture I drew had a story that went with it. When I started writing, the drawing sort of withered away on its own. One day I realized I wasn’t drawing anymore. Writing scratched my itch better.
ESB: Here on Speculative Faith, some readers suggested that Inkling-derivative or just plain bad fantasy is not any more unique to Christian novels than secular novels. Do you think that’s true — and if so, does that shared criticism even apply?
Walker: Pretty much, as I said above. There may be one problem in that Christian publishing at this point in history – speaking very broadly – has a lower bar for what’s called “professional.” I think the best Christian literature published today stands up with almost anything in secular literature. But I’ve read some novels published by our professional houses that were embarrassingly bad. No, I won’t mention any names.
ESB: Some writers, replying to your piece, repeated things like, “Yes, I agree with you that most Christian fantasy is bad. So please check out my own self-published work at [website X].” Yet you faulted self-published authors (solely self-published, anyway) in saying this:
Today’s writers, so often self-published (I’m not speaking in contempt; I’m self-publishing now myself), lack that thick wall to chop through, that sparring partner to toughen them up. I read so many self-published books now that leave me saying, “This writer has a good story and interesting characters. All he needs is a real editor to tell him to cut out the dead wood.”
What reasons could you give, along with craft-improvement reasons, to support seeking and accepting editorial criticism before going ahead and paying up for self-publication?
Walker: Craft-improvement is the first priority, if you’re a professional. Christians don’t sufficiently understand the idea of Christian “vocation” (my friend Gene Edward Veith has written extensively on this subject). If we understand that every day is God’s – not just Sunday – and that our work is part of our worship, then we’ll want to glorify God by working excellently. C. S. Lewis wrote about this too – what if the best book you could find on any subject turned out to be written by a Christian? This goes into the heart of theology – we believe in the Incarnation and the resurrection of the body. For Christians, there can be none of this nonsense about only “spiritual” things mattering. Everything we do with our physical bodies and minds is spiritual.
ESB: I always like to ask this, regarding notions that “if only Christians would get their acts together, if only we were more creative, if only we pioneered instead of copying others, then popular culture would like or at least respect us.” How much can we credit plain dislike of Christianity for the fact that even good Christian fantasy goes unnoticed? Or how much may readers need to ignore possible “it’s just persecution” excuses and raise standards higher?
Walker: You can never know. The prejudice (I won’t say persecution – yet) certainly exists and certainly counts. I don’t expect this to get better soon, frankly. But I don’t think we can strategize a counterattack. All we can do is our best work as unto the Lord. Success and “ears to hear” are His business. On the other hand, we can construct our own ghetto, to some extent, and lowering our standards definitely contributes to that. I mentioned Jeffrey Overstreet in the column. He responded very graciously at his blog. We’ve had discussions in my blog comments in the past, and we don’t always agree, but he’s a wonderful, wonderful writer. He doesn’t even like the term “Christian fantasy,” and he bridles a little when it’s applied to him. He writes the stories he wants to write, from his own point of view, and to him it’s just fantasy. He says, “My grandfather didn’t build ‘Christian houses.’”
ESB: Finally, where would you seek, or prefer to find in the future, better God-glorifying speculative stories — secular publishers, Christian-mainstream publishers (e.g. Zondervan or Thomas Nelson), independent publishers (like Marcher Lord Press), or self-publishers?
Walker: I had a wonderful break years back, when I sold my first novel to a secular publisher, Baen. I still haven’t figured out quite how that happened. My agent sent it in, and the late Jim Baen – a true original whose like we may never see again – took to it for some reason. I blew it with Baen after a few books – though they’re re-releasing a couple of my titles now as e-books, which pleases me immensely – but I’ve always taken pride in that mainstream sale.
I would hope that we can continue to infiltrate the mainstream market in an Overstreetian manner, through writing more and more quality stuff. I would hope that a rising tide of quality would improve the output of the Christian houses (and I believe that’s happening, too). But in order for that to happen, we need to see young writers learning their craft. And as I wrote, my great fear is that those young writers don’t have the apprenticeship opportunities they need to develop those skills. I think we need to develop some kind of network of writers’ and readers’ groups, where brutal honesty reigns and only the strong survive ( so to speak). Whether that’s actually possible, I don’t know.
- Including Christian at powerhouse theology sites such as Challies.com and TheGospelCoalition.org. ↩
- You can browse all of Walker’s fantasy novels in the Speculative Faith Library. ↩