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What Makes Novels Mediocre?

How does sin influence our mediocre expectations? What makes reading novels a duty rather than a delight — or even makes you put down the book and refuse to read further?
| Oct 19, 2012 | No comments |

On Monday Rebecca LuElla Miller discussed what pulls us into great stories. Wednesday brought my poll about negative reviews — would “anonymizing” reviews add benefit?

Now for a question to tie these all together (in lieu of a guest author who needed to re-schedule). What makes novels mediocre? What makes reading them a duty rather than a delight — or even makes you put down the book and refuse to read further?

I’m finally drawing near to the end of a certain Christian-speculative book, and I’m very glad my e-reader shows 97 percent done. Reading this book was certainly more a duty than a delight. And ordinarily I would not have finished it, following a rule of “if by 50 pages you are not satisfied, stop reading.” But I chose to finish it, so I could complain here about it.

We likely know that yes, people wrongly stereotype “Christian fiction” as being worse than “secular fiction.” Yes, we are pioneers in many ways (as in fantasy and even post-dystopian quasi-sci-fi). And yes, it’s silly to suggest all Christian fiction is averse to nastiness, when Frank Peretti’s characters in The Oath say “oh my god,” and a Stephen Lawhead Song of Albion demonic creature is bloated with filthy genitals before it gets worshiped to death.

Yet mediocre novels persist.

Why are these stories mediocre, especially ones by Christians? Athol Dickson wisely spies the main fault line as not in marketing, publishers, or writing skills, but in sin itself:

As creatures made in the Creator’s image, we were designed to use our gifts to their utmost, and to savor excellence in our neighbor’s use of their gifts. It’s impossible to imagine the words “good enough” being spoken in the Garden before the Fall. But we did fall, and one of the things we lost was our ability to throw ourselves into living with complete abandon. “Good is the enemy of great,” as Jim Collins wrote (paraphrasing Voltaire). Thus, in settling for good enough, we have rampant mediocrity in the world.

Another thing we abandoned in the Fall was our ability to perceive the true extent of what we’ve lost. So when expediency and ego dilute the full potential of even our best writers and artists, the audience, being also lost, doesn’t know enough to care. Therefore they applaud what little they can get, and their applause rewards mediocrity. This in turn inspires the production of more mediocrity, and the cycle builds more and more support for itself until mediocrity seems normal, or even (God forbid) good, and because that lie has become pervasive, the truth is difficult for even Christians to remember. Thus we have rampant mediocrity even in the church.

This sinful decline from God-created potential to mediocre expectations in turn makes Christian novels mediocre in many ways. Here I am limiting my observations to Christian fiction, and also flagrantly generalizing beyond the particular book I have been reading:

  • Emotional over-analyzing. Especially within point-of-view style, no one pauses and thinks to himself about the two different emotions colliding within. Authors should speak that way to describe machinery cogs meshing together, not feelings.
  • A “what if” question too far. Asking, What if God created another world, and it looked like this is a standard what-if question, yet with endless exploration potential. But asking, What if God really did create that rock that’s too big for Him to lift — and it’s been secretly hidden in Forest City, Arkansas! comes off as just plain strange.
  • Christians From Another Planet! Why don’t Christian characters act like real Christians? One could think an author must downplay the Bible-quoting, church-attendance, and even sinful behaviors of actual Christians, and add alternative sentiments to appeal to non-Christian readers. But then those actual readers write reviews and say this (actual sentence): “The constant ‘God loves you so much’, and ‘God believes in you’ [slogans] began turning me off early on.” Ah. So it wasn’t just me worsening the problem by also making up Theoretical Non-Christian Readers.

I’m still pondering this alternate-universe “Christianity,” but I believe I can safely say this: It’s not as much a fruit of bad writing but of shallow internalized beliefs.

Here’s an example, paraphrasing a novel’s non-Christian character’s line of thought:

He wondered if it could be true. If there really could be a God who loved him.

Authors: non-Christians don’t think this way as often as Christians would wish. Rather, such responses usually come from “seeker-sensitive” “nonfiction” and anecdotes.

I suggest that if we pay more attention to God’s Story, which reminds us that people do benefit from “common grace” and want God but are also spiritually dead, then our stories and authenticity will improve. Moreover, we’ll truly reach out better to all kinds of readers.

For you, what pushes books into the realm of can’t-read-much-longer mediocre?

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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Kessie Carroll

Now I’m wondering what in the world you’ve been reading. In light of the anonymous-bad-review debate, do you think you’ll write a bad review? 😀
I think your three points up there (Emotional over-analyzing, what if too far, and Space Christians) are both symptoms of Christian fiction as well as just plain bad writing. Other signs of mediocrity that turn me off:
Meh characters. I’ve gone fifty pages and I don’t care about any of these guys. Or worse, I despise the hero because he’s whiny. Thomas Hunter was one of those whiny, angsty heroes, but I put up with him because I wanted to see where Dekker’s Circle concept was going. (And wow, what a disappointment it was.)
Predictable plot. When I can point at the bad guy’s secret identity three chapters early, predict exactly what the hero will do in the climax, and yawn my way through all the fight scenes–yeah. I’ll be hard pressed to finish it and even harder pressed to recommend it, let alone write a good review.
Embarrassing Bible treatment. I squirm when I watch Veggietales retellings of Bible stories. I find them borderline blasphemous. It’s even worse to see Bible stories re-cast in a fantasy universe, where they don’t fit. If I want to read Bible fanfiction, I’ll go read something like the Bronze Bow. Don’t retell Jacob and Esau with dragons. Just. Don’t.
John Grisham wrote a GREAT character conversion in Testament. I always go back to that, because the hero’s conversion is so quiet, you’ll almost miss it. But it helps him start to slowly conquer his alcoholism. He presented the Gospel in such a plain, no-frills way, and then showed its effects on peoples’ lives. That’s one of the things that made Testament such a good book. (That and the adventures on a riverboat in a swamp in Brazil, as well as the wranglings of the psychopaths back in the States.)


Thanks for mentioning The Testament by Grisham.  It is one of my favorite novels and an excellent example of how redemption and conversion can happen in fiction.


One book that I thought had bad writing…or at least bad concept… Maximum Ride series. The characters keep gaining new powers with little or no explanation and kids are more rational than adults…

Kessie Carroll

My hubby and I read the first three Max books, put them down and went, “Eh.” So much preaching, so little logic. How did their wings fit under their windbreakers, anyway?

D. M. Dutcher

Yeah, don’t get me started about Patterson. Someone else mentioned John Grisham, and while he’s probably not the best author out there, people like him, Scott Turow and others at least tried to stock the shelves of CVS, Walgreens, and airports across the land with some decent, well-crafted thrillers. Patterson is just cranking books out now, and for some odd reason people lap them up like sweet milk.

Kristen G. Johnson
Kristen G. Johnson

Fantastic post! I’m printing this off and putting it above my desk. Thanks so much.

Austin Gunderson

It’s my suspicion that a good many writers of speculative fiction targeted at Christians think the mere fact that they write from a Christian worldview ought to suffice for their credentials.  That’s certainly the case in the emergent Christian film industry (which I studiously avoid, even though I’m a Christian who produces videos for a living).  Unfortunately, good intentions do not good art make.

I’ll be brutally honest: there’s a sense of entitlement out there in the Christian media world – the kind which says, “You should see Film A or read Book B because it’ll be good for you!”  (As though that’s a typical justification for media consumption!)  When Facing the Giants or Fireproof or Courageous debuted, did we the target audience hear about how artistically excellent they were or how deeply moving were their featured performances?  Of course not.  Instead, we were subjected to revival-style exhortations toward cinemaplex sanctification, complete with study guides.  (If you can’t tell, I’m not a huge fan of the Kendrick Brothers’ work.  I anticipate that many of you are.  My point here is not to deride their storytelling per se, but to call attention to the way their films are marketed.)  I understand that the motive there was to make a difference, and I’m sure those movies did make a difference in many people’s lives.  But what suffered as a result was the actual quality of the art itself.  When an author or filmmaker is so confident that his didactic message will meet with audience approval that his story climaxes with an alter call, any real understanding of how the human heart assimilates meaning has fallen victim to pious complacency.  The Kendrick Brothers assumed that their target audience already subscribed to the beliefs espoused by their films.  That’s why they didn’t bother to present those beliefs in a compelling or realistic fashion: they knew they didn’t have to.

This is part of why I grow uneasy whenever I read – here or elsewhere – that writers of Christian spec-fic should abandon the ‘secular’ (read: ‘normal’) marketplace and target their books exclusively toward their fellow Christians (or, worse yet, their fellow Christian spec-fic fans).  The danger that an author will develop an entitlement mentality is strongest when he knows his audience already agrees with his worldview.  In that case, the bar he must clear in a bid for adulation is low, indeed.

Familiarity breeds complacency, and complacency breeds mediocrity.  Want to up your storytelling game?  Try writing for someone you know disagrees with your worldview.  Easy answers won’t cut it anymore.  You’ll be forced to dig deep – past those “shallow internalized beliefs,” past those straw-man non-Christian counterarguments – down into the well of God’s Word, through which He speaks to everyone in the way they’ll best understand Him – even if they think Him “Unknown.”

I think we as Christian spec-fic writers need to lift up our eyes to the sun-bleached fields beyond our streamside copse.  The nonbelievers won’t be the only ones who’ll benefit from our branching-out.

D. M. Dutcher

I don’t agree with Athol at all. That’s pop success talk masquerading as theology. Writers vary in talent, dedication, and accessibility to the public. Sometimes writers only speak to a limited number of people, or aren’t a good fit for the age or genre they are in, or are overshadowed by others. Some will only speak to a few fans, but they will speak deeply. Some just aren’t skilled enough to be more than average, and even despite this they will succeed often beyond their wildest dreams. Horatio Alger Jr. is about as bare-bones a writer as you can get, for example. One of my favorite writers is Robert F. Young, who wrote the short story “The Dandelion Girl.” He’s a good writer but not a great one. But he managed to reach some people, and you can find his influence sometimes where you least expect it.

There’s also business considerations, and the influence of the editor and others on the writer. There’s also some measure of taste and genre savvy, as well as nostalgia-Star Trek as a series is a shining example of mediocre SF, but so many people like it that it keeps rolling on like a perpetual motion machine. Same with many of the Star Wars expanded universe books, or books based on Marvel heroes or video games. 

To be honest there are so many factors influencing the success or mediocrity of a book that it’s hard to single out universal themes. I think though you have to be careful in spiritualizing this because its art. If you go to Chik Fil-A, and you don’t like their chicken and find it mediocre, you are not going to start spinning theories about the inner spiritual life of its founder, nor chide the line workers and blaming sin for their inability to fry nuggets properly and clean the tables. There might be spiritual causes, such as greed or sloth, but most suggestions would be more mundane and concerned with the work first. Stephen’s suggestions are on target, and I’m sure plenty more can be added, depending on the book.