The Fate of Christian Speculative Fiction

Why doesn’t Christian fantasy, sci-fi, or anything else “weird” sell with the overwhelming success of bonnet-and-buggy stories?
on May 30, 2016 · 8 comments

Last week, E. Stephen Burnett posted on why there seems to be a lack of Christian fantasy.

Amish familyBesides digging into an ongoing debate for which there seems no resolution, the post got me thinking. We have Christian readers and Christian writers, the majority of which are found in the glowing lands of sunshine, bonnets, romance, and “feel-good” stories.

Not nearly as much love is given to the genres that lurk on the edges of acceptability with things such as aliens, zombies, or—gasp and perish the thought—magic outside Narnia and Middle-earth. In Christian spec-fic circles, this divide has been discussed as thoroughly as our favorite fandoms, with the recurring theme, “Why doesn’t Christian fantasy, sci-fi, or anything else ‘weird’ sell with the overwhelming success of bonnet-and-buggy stories?

Do we blame the publishers? The stores? The authors or readers? How about all of them?

As Stephen aptly put it:

Our faith is supernatural, fantastical, even “magical.” It’s about a divine/human Hero, Jesus, come to slay the dragon of sin, save His Church, punish evildoers, and redeem the whole world. Given all this awesome, why opt for another (Adjective) Romance novel?

Such tales are brimming with potential to share the most profound, meaningful truths about reality in intriguing, compelling ways. With a few exceptions, Christian spec-fic has done a virtual belly-flop in the CBA pool. The “why,” as I said earlier, has been examined nearly to death. There’s no denying the fact that for whatever reason, Christian readers don’t flock to fantastical stories as readily as do secular readers.

We can debate all day long the causes and trends. The question going forward is, “What will the fate of Christian spec-fic be?”

Here are what I think are the three most likely outcomes.

Scenario 1 – Continued Obscurity

Life in the land of Christian spec-fic will go on as it has—neither vaulted into wild success nor slowly buried by a lack of interest. Authors will continue to write for a small but loyal niche.

Christian spec-fic will remain relegated to a backwoods pond, thrilling those who appreciate what it offers and seeking to transition to the broader ocean of CBA readers.

Scenario 2 – Growing Popularity

I’m in my mid-twenties, and almost all of my reading friends around my age range from interested in spec-fic to obsessed. I know plenty of young writers who prefer science fiction or fantasy over romance or other powerhouse Christian genres.

If there’s going to be a major change in the CBA, this is where it will happen. Speaking generally, Christian millennials hunger for the excitement and otherness provided by spec-fic. They want stories that capture their imaginations. They want to read about superheroes, hostile planets, and daring adventures through castle-dotted lands.

Eventually, they’ll grow up to become editors, agents, and publishers, in addition to writers. They’ll be avid readers and raise their kids to appreciate the delights found not only in classics like Narnia and Lord of the Rings, but in the quality books produced today.

The old guard, readers of romance and all things Amish (except when combined with vampires in space), will slowly give way to the younger generation. A generation that doesn’t see magic as automatically taboo and fantastical stories as useless because they aren’t grounded in reality. A generation that will shine the spotlight on Christian spec-fic.

Scenario 3 – A Shift in Approach

We know “Christian fiction” as a term is a misnomer. There is fiction for Christians and fiction by Christians. This is an important distinction, because it means—enter Captain Obvious—Christians can write stories aimed at the general market. Stories that subtly reveal their worldview instead of blaring it from a megaphone.

bookstoreIf Christian readers continue to snub spec-fic, authors will turn elsewhere to find a readership. It’s not impossible for a Christian to do well in the ABA. In fact, in some cases it’s probably easier. Fantasy and science fiction, while still an undersized slice of the ABA pie, have an avid–and much larger—following in the general market.

Why not turn there?

And in a strange sort of way, I think some ABA readers are more open to “Christian-esque” content than Christians are to “non-Christian” content (language, magic and so forth). Christian authors will try to make inroads in the ABA.

It doesn’t matter who’s to blame in the end for the lack of success, spec-fic stories targeted at Christian readers will slowly fade out of existence. The category known as Christian spec-fic will become legend.

Authors, wanting a readership that, but for a small segment continues to ignore them, will grow frustrated and weary. Publishers won’t take any risks, despite the presence of excellent books, care first and foremost about their bottom line. Publishing is a business. If people won’t pay, you can’t fault the publishers for catering to consumer demands. In order to find the newest release by a favorite Christian fantasy writer, readers will have to look in the general SF/F section of the bookstore.

As a reader or writer (or both) of Christian spec-fic, what outcome do you think is most likely?

Zachary Totah writes speculative fiction stories. This allows him to roam through his imagination, where he has illegal amounts of fun creating worlds and characters to populate them. When not working on stories or wading through schoolwork, he enjoys playing sports, hanging out with his family and friends, watching movies, and reading. He lives in Colorado and doesn't drink coffee. He loves connecting with other readers and writers. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, Goodreads, and at his website.
  1. sheesania says:

    I’d love to see Christian writers publish spec fic with strong Christian themes and worldview in the general market. These genres (particularly sci fi) have a long history of being used to explore and promote different political and religious ideologies. Great authors like Heinlein and Le Guin had definite opinions that they often discussed in their fiction. It would be awesome if modern Christian writers could do the same.

    I think having more Christian spec fic in the general market would also enhance the dialogue between different ideas, storytelling styles, subgenres, &c that’s so interesting in the spec fic world. If Christian fiction is off in its own little genre with its own separate fanbase, it can’t benefit from the same cross-pollination, sharing and discussion of different ideas and streams among both readers and writers. I’d love to be able to bring up a fantasy novel with truly Christian themes in a discussion on, for instance, and have its ideas be part of a debate over character development or diversity or approaches toward magic or feminism. And it would be great if Christian authors could freely borrow and experiment with tropes and ideas in mainstream spec fic and then _innovate_ as their general-market counterparts do, rather than mostly tagging along behind.

    But I don’t know. Maybe secular spec fic publishers aren’t interested in stories with strong Christian ideology, even if they’re okay with other ideological fiction.

    • What I’ve found as a Christian spec fic author writing for the general market is that one reader (or writer)’s “strong Christian ideology” is another reader’s wimpy cop-out or, alternatively, heavy-handed sermonizing. (I know this because I’ve seen all three reactions in reviews of my books — indeed, of the same book.)

      It’s impossible to please everyone, or to resonate with every reader. Someone with the same theological background as myself might p

      ick up on all the Biblical allusions and parallels I’ve put into the books and be delighted by them, or they might breeze right past them and wonder, in the absence of an allegorical Christ figure or salvation metaphor that seems sufficiently obvious to them, what makes this book “Christian” at all.

      In the end, I’ve concluded that all I can do is write the stories that resonate with me personally, and try neither to force an artificial Christian message or moral into them on the one hand, nor to shy away from presenting one when it seems to emerge naturally from the story on the other. And then trust God for the rest.

      But I can say with confidence that secular publishers are not opposed to well-written fiction from a Christian worldview, if the faith elements seem organic to the story and characters. Or at least, I’ve never had an editor tell me to cut any of that “religious stuff” out, even though the heroine of my last two books is explicitly part of a persecuted religious minority who must learn to take a stand for her faith.

  2. Lisa says:

    I love the idea of Christian spec fic being published in the mainstream. I love the idea of Christian fiction in general, all genres, being published in the mainstream too. I do think that the box of “Christian fiction” stifles creativity and leads to poor quality in terms of writing and story-telling at times. That being said, I do think there is a place for the more overt Christian stories than would be publishable in the mainstream. And that’s ok too. My big beef is quality. Sometimes I think a Christian fiction book gets a pass on things like good writing because , well, hey, someone gets saved. And that drives me crazy.

  3. Zac, I think you built the case for an EXPANDING readership for Christian speculative fiction (see the paragraph about Millennials). Some of the editors and agents even now grew up reading Harry Potter (next year, the first book published in the UK will be 20 years old!)

    We may think the growth of Christian speculative fiction is painfully slow, but growth there has been, to the point that an entire imprint (Enclave Publishing/Gilead Books) is dedicated to the genre.

    I’m not at all opposed to Christians writing for the general market. May many, many more find success doing so. But It’s not as easy as some people think! The book business requires a lot of hard work and persistence and prayer.

    From my perspective, speculative fiction is the very best way to soften hearts, create a thirst for Truth, present the gospel, show Jesus, or whatever else a Christian may wish to accomplish as part of our mandate to make disciples. So the more books Christians produce, in whatever venues—traditional publishing in the CBA or general market, small press, independently—the better.

    May we keep writing, and reading.


  4. Lots of food for thought in both Steve’s and Zac’s articles. I ran across an award some years ago with a title I cannot remember. The award was designed to recognize the best novels written from a Christian worldview but published through secular publishers. Evidently someone felt there was value in “infiltrating” secular markets with Christian material.

    Back when Lewis and Tolkien and all the speculative fiction “giants” wrote, there wasn’t a specifically Christian readership or market like there is today. You simply wrote a story from your worldview and marketed to general audiences.

    Then again, the market back then was more tolerant of Christian material, since people of the older generation, even if non-Christian, generally had some Biblical literacy and respect for Christianity. Today, many people equate Christianity with preachiness and intolerance, and shy away from Christian material. Not everyone, certainly, but a sizable segment of readership. I’ll admit that, for a number of years, I was one of the *Christians* who shied away from Christian fiction because I found it all cliche, predictable, and moralistic. Since then, I’ve happily discovered worthy Christian fiction. (Hurray for Enclave!)

    With that said, I’ve found some authors who seem to have preserved Christian worldviews in speculative fiction even within secular markets. So Christianity in mainstream markets isn’t dead.

    The best of both worlds would be if Christian publishers could effectively market their books to mainstream audiences as simply sci-fi and fantasy, not as “religious fiction.” Imagine Christian fantasy right next to Harry Potter and Christian sci-fi right next to Brave New World in the bookstores. Imagine books from the Christian worldview publicized through secular radio, in secular magazines, turned into movies by secular companies, etc.

    Also, I think we need to consider independently published books more seriously. We should appreciate good Christian fiction, no matter who it’s published through. If it’s good, promote it.

    I’d love to be part of helping Christian fiction to struggle from obscurity to acceptance. I’m with Zac. I think the millennials are the biggest hope for doing so (not to discount the exceptional efforts of the older generation), because millennials share profusely on social media and have natural enthusiasm. The power of the fandom is profound!

    Aaaand I’ve practically written a blog post, so… ’nuff said. Super discussion, though. Can you tell I’m passionate about it? (Yup, you pegged me. I’m a millennial!)

  5. Mark Carver says:

    This is why I am proud to be published by the Crossover Alliance. Nothing against traditional or YA Christian sci-fi and fantasy, but there are so many spec fic titles out there that are well-written and don’t create a conflict of conscience, it’s hard to draw Christian readers to Christian titles. Where there is a hunger, and where the Crossover Alliance steps in, is in edgier, more controversial Christian fiction (speculative and otherwise), the kind of books that Christian bookstores would probably be hesitant to carry but are still based on Biblical principles. I don’t know if it will ever blow up into a huge thing but I like not worrying about if I’m being too “this” or “that” for the Christian market.

  6. Excellent article. I’m a Christian who writes fantasy, but I don’t write “Christian Fantasy.” I write fantasy in which the truths of the Christian faith are part of the fabric of the fictional universe.

    It’s worth noting that neither The Lord of the Rings nor The Chronicles of Narnia are “Christian Fantasy” in the sense of being written specifically for the Christian market. And they both have well established places in the secular Fantasy genre despite their Christian elements. I think that this is generally a better model to follow, though there is certainly a place for “Christian Fantasy” as well.

  7. I think we’ll see a combo of 1 and 3, unless things really change. As a writing and literature teacher for home-schooled teens (I teach once a week at a co-operative where home-school kids come together for a day of classes), I have discovered that most teens (and even tweenies) are allowed to watch/read a variety of non-magic, non-Christian shows and books, but they are not allowed to read fantasy or Christian speculative shows and books. Some of the “kids” that I taught four years ago are starting to explore other books, but most are sticking with the same trends – Christian speculative/fantasy isn’t on their shelf, but World War Z, Walking Dead, and other stuff that can somehow be explained as “science” is on their shelves. It’s tough for me to understand it as a long-time fan of speculative and fantasy fiction, both Christian and secular.

What do you think?