How do we evaluate Christian Speculative Fiction?
I think this is a key question to answer if one is to correctly evaluate the state of Christian Speculative Fiction in general. There are two main areas to evaluate the general state.
1. The popularity of the Christian Speculative Fiction market.
I think this is what most people tend to think of when this subject is broached. Is the market expanding or shrinking? Are publishers accepting more or less such titles? Are bookstores carrying more of it or less? Is indie-publishing succeeding in publishing and selling Christian Speculative Fiction titles?
I would propose that by itself, this is an inadequate gauge of how the genre is doing. More to the point, it is a symptom, not the cause. Symptoms are good at getting an idea if there is a problem or not, but not how to fix it. Too often, we see the symptom of bookstores carrying little Christian Speculative Fiction, and we hash over how to deal with the symptom.
It’s much like a doctor saying, “Oh, your persistent headaches aren’t a big deal. Take pain reliever and move on.” When all the time the person may be about to have a stroke or an aneurysm. Dealing with symptoms rarely addresses the cause of the symptoms. But that is how we tend to approach fixing any perceived problems in Christian Speculative Fiction.
Likewise, trying to figure out how to get bookstores to carry more CSF titles or publishers to publish more of the genre through artificial means is about as effective as trying to heal cancer with a band-aid.
The solution is to address the core issues in order to change the symptoms. What are those?
2. The quality of Christian Speculative Fiction as a whole.
This is not to suggest that there is little quality in CSF. Rather, that the overall quality may not be where it should be in order to expand the market.
I know, I know. There are other factors involved. Good quality books languish in obscurity all the time, while fluff sells. Some will hang the whole thing on marketing, which is why they point to the publishers and bookstores. But that doesn’t change the truth.
Without a focus on quality in Christian Speculative Fiction, there can be no long-term expansion of the market.
Propping up mediocre stories with marketing will only take a book so far. It is artificial, and only works well when there is product people want to buy. Marketing’s job is to let the right people know you have a good product. If they get it and discover it is not good, you will kill return sales and continued expansion.
Which brings us back to the question at the top. How do we evaluate that quality?
I suggest the standard answer to that, while important, is insufficient: a focus on good story-telling, the knowledge of the craft in plotting, characters, scenery, word-smithing, grammar, spelling, hooks, transitions, points of view, etc.
Because while CFS has been known to be deficient in those departments at times, such that even today many stay away from reading or admitting they write Christian Speculative Fiction, that doesn’t quite cover the full concept of quality we should expect. After all, if we are including “Christian” as part of the genre title, what does that mean and how do we judge it? The previous paragraph applies to all novels and genres. Where does the Christian element come into the quality?
Of course, that can open up another whole can of worms that’s been discussed here and other places. People start evaluating doctrines, use of magic, cussing, sex, cussing, sex, bonnets, cussing, magic, sex . . . you get the picture. That rarely tells us much about the quality of the Christian content, or how well it is presented. So I offer the following guideline on how to evaluate real Christian Speculative Fiction.
Evaluate how well a story incarnates Christian themes and elements into an engaging story.
We just celebrated Christmas. The primary point of that celebration was the incarnation of Christ into the world. To incarnate something is to “embody it in flesh.” The immaterial becomes real to our senses and mind. Once incarnated in a baby, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, could be held, kissed, hugged, and rocked to sleep. He became part of our story, our reality.
Writing a story containing Christian themes and elements is admittedly not easy to do. Too often it can end up appearing unnatural to the setting, the characters, or forced into the plot. Sometimes it can appear the plot is serving the message instead of the plot embodying the message. When done right, a message, Christian theme or element, flows with, in, and from the real world of the story. It becomes incarnate within the story itself rather than appearing to drive the story or stand apart from the story to draw attention to itself.
Combining how well authors incarnate Christianity along with the other elements of how to tell a good story is the route to evaluating how well the market as a whole is performing. Because the more titles that hit that level of quality in Christian Speculative Fiction, the better the genre as a group does, both in the market and in the reader’s hearts. Without that core in place, all the rest is meaningless.
How well do you feel the genre as a whole is incarnating Christianity into their stories?