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Purge The Stereotype Of ‘Geek’ Readers

Fantasy/sci-fi fans include more than self-described nerds.
| Jan 8, 2014 | 22 comments |
Middle-aged parents who saw and loved a mainstream film like Frozen could be fantasy geeks. Maybe they just don't know it yet.

Middle-aged parents who saw and loved a mainstream film like Frozen could be fantasy geeks. Maybe they just don’t know it yet.

Tomorrow’s column is about how Christian fantasy fans can help all great Christian fantasy publishers — including the recently sold Marcher Lord Press — grow their readerships.

We must quit being “support zombies,” like evangelicals, and promote the stories we love.

But that’s tomorrow. I thought I’d get started early with an edited version of this comment from yesterday. Here I replied to fellow SpecFaith-er R. L. Copple’s remarks about how new Marcher Lord owner Steve Laube apparently seeks to market MLP books more broadly.

First Rick offered his interpretation of Jeff Gerke’s expression of support:

Steve’s goal is to expand the genre into the broader “we like Amish romance” readers.

I’d say that’s not his primary job. Or Jeff’s. Or Marcher Lord’s. Or other publishers’.

It’s our task, to “sell” this genre better to churches, friends, and culture at large.

Big houses have tried to do that before with limited success in many cases

There’s the problem right there, it seems. Genre preference must change at the “grassroots” rather than because of the actions of big-house publishers.

But would someone suggest that Amish fans couldn’t like sci-fi in a house, couldn’t like it with a mouse, wouldn’t like it here or there, wouldn’t like it anywhere?

If so, then I would disagree. You’d be surprised.

Once I was at a writers’ conference, an evangelical writers’ conference chock-full of womminfolk and which smelt of Amish butter and cozy-romance perfume. I struck up a conversation with two older women about our preferred genres, and they both mentioned that though they like romance stories, they also love fantasy. They kind of admitted this in lowered voices, as if to say they only enjoyed it for the articles.

A question about your average run-of-the-mill Amish/romance fiction fan. Really, think not about imaginary groups but the people you know at church or in culture at large. If we don’t know them, then we aren’t yet qualified for this discussion:

  1. How many of them would have seen, say, Disney’s Frozen in theaters?
  2. How many of them have at least read Narnia or Lord of the Rings?
  3. How many of them have boys crazy for superhero stories or movies?
  4. How many of them have girls who love princess/fairy tale stories?
  5. (Because I can just hear someone beginning to grump …) Or boys who love fairy tales and girls who love superheroes? (Happy now? :-P)

If so, then you’re talking about a closet fantasy fan who just doesn’t yet know it. Or, even if they can’t stand fantasy, they have children who love it. Booyah. Market.

We need to purge any stereotypes of fantasy fans being only stereotypical “geeks.”

Our primary question should be: how?1

  1. For more explorations of this idea, see (satire) The Strange Case of Nicheolas Bartleby, Reading Is Worship 5: Identifying Weirdness Idolatry, both by yours truly, and The Heart of Speculative Fiction is Not Weird by Rebecca LuElla Miller.
E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also 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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R. L. Copple

I think you have a good point. There are probably a lot of Christians who like romance novels who would also like fantasy and/or science fiction if done well, whether they would admit it or not. The “hushed tones” discussion you mentioned point to that closet mentality, like a homosexual afraid to come out of the closet because of what others would think.
That’s the crux of the matter. There are Christian leaders and groups that see most fantasy and science fiction as evil and Satanic, and can have a big impact with Christians not as firmly convinced of that. Harry Potter being a prime example of that mindset and influence.
The distribution problem is that Christian bookstores play it safe, so you don’t see much in the way of spec-fic on their shelves. Anyone seriously looking for Christian spec-fic gave up on finding it in Christian bookstores long ago. Because of that, Christian publishers had a hard time selling those titles.
Now publishing and distribution has changed, but online marketing seems more geared toward reaching the niche markets than a broad one. But if Steve hopes to increase readership by getting MLP titles into bookstores, which would be what he’s used to doing in his work for publishing houses, he may find it difficult to make it work. Like you said, a top down approach isn’t what a publishing company or a bookstore respond to, but to customer demand.
But it would seem to me any grassroots changes need to include not only getting more visibility to Christians, but changes in belief about the spiritual value of Christian spec-fic. The later may be the harder to shift.
Look forward to your comments on how to get Christian spec-fic beyond the niche audience.

Leah Burchfiel
Leah Burchfiel

The tactic I think works best is desensitization, i.e, baby steps. I finally got my dad to watch an anime, but I picked Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso. It’s more accessible: a more realistic art style, it’s set in Europe (less culture shock), the only fantastical element is the main character’s appearance (Dad’s not a fantasy fan), and the dub is great and funny in the right places. It would have been a bad idea to start off him off with Fullmetal Alchemist, one of the first anime I watched, because 1) it’s a series and he wouldn’t be up to that level of investment, 2) it’s pretty heavily fantasy and that’s not his thing, 3) it’s a more cartoonish style of art.

Phyllis Wheeler

Jeff Gerke pointed out that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a spec fic movie, yet everyone loves it. How did it get off the ground?  No gatekeeper (bookstore owner/CBA) was standing over it.  I think we need to work around the gatekeepers. Their time has come and gone. Of course, exactly how to do that is the next challenge.

D. M. Dutcher

No. You’ll just water down the product and drive off the people who support the genre while failing to capture the people you aim for. Nintendo tried this with the Wii, and that cemented its third-place status in the console wars.
I mean come on, now it’s a wonderful life is science fiction? You might as well say Harvey is paranormal fiction because it stars a Pooka. 

Fred Warren

We need to purge any stereotypes of fantasy fans being only stereotypical “geeks.”

To accomplish this pogrom, you’ll need to purge the “geeks” who reinforce the stereotype. “First, they came for the geeks…”

Seriously, I take issue with the idea that the audience is the root of the problem and to broaden the popularity of Christian spec-fic, we need to somehow “fix” the audience, whether via education, targeted marketing, bandwagon appeal, or perception management. I think the energy would be better spent working to understand our audience and speak to their hearts, rather than assuming we know what’s best for them and trying to invent more effective ways to make them eat their brussels sprouts, so to speak.

Alex Mellen
Alex Mellen

I’m surprised that the audience we (Christian spec fic publishers, or MLP) are trying to attract is CBA readers. If there’s one thing I wish all Christian fiction did more, it’s striving to produce books that can compete in quality with the secular markets. If we write it well, the next audience who should be interested in Christian scifi is the secular scifi readers. They already know the “power” of the genre, so let’s offer them something they’ll like with a redeeming quality to it.

Austin Gunderson

Amen and amen.  Unlike many here, I in no way believe the average quality of Christian spec-fic is up to spec.  Call me a snob, call me impossible to please, call me whatever you want, but none of the explanations typically employed to excuse poor writing and/or storytelling in the Christian ghetto have ever struck me as anything other than just that: excuses.

This state of affairs is unworthy of our calling to do everything to our utmost, as if working for the Lord.  If we must aim to court a particular market, it should be the broader “secular” market — the “everybody” market.  Only in our minds are we consigned to a reality in which lovers of Amish romance constitute the frontier of potential readership-expansion.

Arise, Christian storytellers, and look out upon your land!  Breathe the free air again!