1. R. L. Copple says:

    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.

  2. notleia says:

    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.

  3. 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.

    • In fact It’s a Wonderful Life was such a bomb upon its original release that the owners let its copyright lapse. Only then after it was constantly shown on network television did the film become a cult classic — and yes, it’s an alternate universe by the end.

      See also A Christmas Carol. Paranormal, alt-universe, magical transportation, the works. Everyone believes it just “a story,” a classic, and thus also a genreless story.

      That is just how we ought to treat fantasy/etc.: as the assumed, not minority, genre.

      • Bingo.  Genre is our enemy.  Genre designations, like MPAA ratings, artificially and unnecessarily prevent teeming hordes of people from experiencing otherwise excellent, poignant, deep, worthwhile stories.

        And often, fantasy fans only add to the estrangement when they obsess over the insubstantial veneer with which their favorite stories are glazed: “Oh, but the magic is so cool!”  “The creatures are amazing!”  “There’s totally this wizard who can turn a tree into a radio antennae with his Toe Ring of Ancient Awesomeness!”  Such diversions have limited appeal.

        If we want to broaden our reader base, we’ve got to advertise the stories themselves.  I love epic fantasy not for its dwarves, elves, orcs, or Parshendi, but because it’s one of the only genres left which consistently revels in the fierce beauty and staggering awe of metaphysical existence.  That — not “weirdness” — is what will attract outsiders.

        • Julie D says:

          Genre is a matter of marketing, not reading. And even though I’d classify myself as a fantasy fan first and foremost, my reading covers a broader range. Looking at what I’ve read so far this year 
          1 fairy tale
          1 religious poem (The Hound of Heaven)
          3 volumes of a graphic novel (Gunnerkrigg Court, primarily steampunk ?)
          4 Discworld novels with a protagonist under 18
          1 portal fantasy
          1 nonfiction Christian humor (Imaginary Jesus)
          3 animal fantasies from two different series
          1 mythic novella (The Ocean at the End of the Lane)
          1 YA LOTR knock-off.
          Okay, maybe not the best examples, but in last year’s reading list I have nonfiction about imaginary languages, introverts, population demographics and church transitions.  Actually, my profile on Goodreads has several different categories of books and audio dramas.  I wouldn’t want to limit myself to one genre, but sometimes it’s just easier to look by genre than to consider other elements of a good story

        • R. L. Copple says:

          There is a difference between movies and books in that regard. Movies have rarely been classified by genre whereas books have for quite a while now. When I used to go into Blockbuster, they didn’t have  a fantasy section. It was mixed in with drama and action/adventure categories, among others. Consequently, people don’t tend to thing, “Oh,, that movie is a fantasy, and I’m not that crazy about fantasy.”
          But we’ve been trained to do that with books. B&N will have a fantasy section, a science fiction section, and a Christian section. Changing that will be swimming upstream, at least for a long time, if one could successfully eliminate genre from fiction classifications. I’m not sure how one would successfully change that mindset among the general population.

          • Good point.  But I think any differences between film and literary genre-designations in this regard are due primarily to the fact that, while fantasy novels have absolutely proliferated since the ’50s and ’60s, few fantasy films were released before the ’90s, at which point visual effects began to finally make possible the kinds of stories novelists had already been telling for decades.  Thus, there simply weren’t enough films to justify a “Fantasy/Sci-Fi” section at Blockbuster.

            Which reminds me of Peter Jackson’s unfortunate words when Return of the King swept the Oscars in 2004:  “I’m so honored, touched and relieved that the …. members of the Academy that have supported us … are recognizing fantasy this year.”  But that’s not what happened at all.  They were recognizing an amazingly-told story, not “fantasy.”  Fantasy doesn’t live in another world (well, maybe sorta), operate under special handicaps, or require special treatment.  It thrives perfectly well when juxtaposed with the best of any other genre.

            And that’s why I resent the way that fantasy’s been shoved into its own special corner: such relegation leads to popular dismissal because people start thinking, “Oh, fantasies are just books about strange creatures and imaginary worlds.”  See what’s happened?  All stories in the fantasy genre have now been defined entirely by their settings.  Works in other genres at least get the dignity of being defined by their plots (comedies, dramas, romances, tragedies, thrillers, action/adventures, etc.), but apparently, all one needs to know about a fantasy is that it’s set in an imaginary world.  Never mind that every other genre in existence can and has fit inside the “fantasy” genre.  Never mind that some of the most powerful romances, moving dramas, hilarious comedies, and breathtaking actioners I’ve ever read haven’t had this earth as their environment.  The way that secondary worldbuilding has become a red flag for pigeonholing is neither honest nor healthy.

            And I’d say the same could generally be said of Christian speculative fiction. In that case, not only is the story narrowly defined by its setting, but it’s also marked as “interesting only to those of a particular religious persuasion.”  I’d rather that novels be judged on their merits, not the superficial appearance of their plot devices or the spiritual intent of their authors.

            • R. L. Copple says:

              Austin, I agree with your premise. However, fantasy has been in movies long before the 90s. Not to mention science fiction. All the monster movies, horror movies, superhero movies that date back to the early days of film, not to mention films like Star Wars in the 70s and similar kinds in the 80s that blossomed.
              I don’t claim to know why the two developed along different lines of categorization, but they did. Obviously fantasy and sci-fi have prospered under the less categorization in film, though it still happens to a degree ( a Superman movie is going to be perceived as fantasy/sci-fi without having such a categorization printed on it, and dismissed by those who believe they don’t like it ) even if it is ranked under action/adventure. The same story in book form at B&N would be in the fantasy section.
              I think it would be great if they were classified like you mentioned.  But getting readers to think about them differently would be the hard part. As if getting B&N and Amazon, etc. to change their classifications wouldn’t be a big enough hurtle.

              • Historically, science fiction has enjoyed a more dignified reception than fantasy in both literature and film.  And while there are certainly fantasy films which predate the ’90s, most (not all) of those are B-grade.  But in the last several decades, we’ve seen an unprecedented explosion of the fantastic in film, as sparked almost entirely by the development of CGI.

                I’m with you.  I don’t imagine that booksellers or the general public will ever reject the genre system of story classification.  But that doesn’t mean that fantasy fans have to resign themselves to irrelevancy outside their own echo chambers.  If we want to soften the hearts and sharpen the minds of outsiders, all we need to do is what should’ve been done for us in the first place: we need to define our favorite stories by their plots instead of their settings

                For example: rather than attempting to woo readers to The Kingkiller Chronicle by describing it as “heroic fantasy,” I can instead point out that it’s really a beautifully-written retrospective Bildungsroman framed by a present which infuses the past with more tension than one would ever expect.  Rather than gushing to my non-fantasy-fan friends that “The Way of Kings is the best epic fantasy I’ve read since Tolkien” (which it is), or that its tidepool-inspired ecology is fascinating and totally original (which it is), or that its magic system is mind-blowingly awesome (which, again, it is), I can instead talk about how it’s the story of a man who must learn to hope again in the midst of unimaginable hardship and oppression, the story of a woman who must grapple with her own understanding of morality if she’s to save her family, and the story of a man who must stand alone on forgotten principles while everyone around him thinks he’s going mad.

                Genre designations will never accommodate the truth about speculative fiction.  Which is why we’re gonna have to do it ourselves.  As fantasy fans, we need to dig down to the heart of the matter.  We need to start describing the stories we love in terms of their thematic innards, terms that anyone with a pulse should be able to appreciate.

      • fantasy fans only add to the estrangement when they obsess over the insubstantial veneer with which their favorite stories are glazed: “Oh, but the magic is so cool!”  ”The creatures are amazing!”  ”There’s totally this wizard who can turn a tree into a radio antennae with his Toe Ring of Ancient Awesomeness!”  Such diversions have limited appeal.


  4. dmdutcher says:

    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. 

  5. Fred Warren says:

    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.

    • I think the energy would be better spent working to understand our audience and speak to their hearts

      That’s my point though, brother. I’m looking at a huge portion of the potential audience that is already there and seeking to meet their needs, speak to their hearts. As Austin mentioned above, what are the deeper themes and spiritual significance of fantasy that more fans would understand if the active readership (e.g., fans here on SpecFaith and elsewhere) were to promote them? I contend this only involves an “education” in the sense of reminding us what we already know, not trying to force ourselves to accept and market a foreign belief system.

      It also consists in — I dare a secular-humanist phrase — recognizing our own inner “power.” But what I mean by this is that these stories have power, power that we do not recognize because the fantastic/epic/mythical genre is native to our world.

      • dmdutcher says:

        I think it’s not so much the power you mean. I think the thread of what you do here is to prove that Christian fantasy is safe and beneficial for Christians to consume.
        As Christians, I think we are conditioned to view art as something that is innately hostile to our faith. This is not unwarranted, because many times art does seek to overturn Christianity specifically and readers in general. But over time it’s excluded so much in order to avoid offense that it pushes all but the most timid into the secular world anyways. If we could just lose the siege mentality for just a little bit, it might be very good.
        But the tough thing is that it’s not entirely unwarranted. It’s a thin line between edification and corruption at times.

      • Fred Warren says:

        I’m looking at a huge portion of the potential audience that is already there and seeking to meet their needs, speak to their hearts. 

        I hear you, but I don’t think it’s a simple as “scratch an Amish romance reader, find a fantasy fan,” implying that we just haven’t scratched enough of them or scratched hard enough. Certainly some of them might enjoy the occasional fantasy story, but they’re die-hard fans of their favored genre not because they aren’t well-read or aware of alternatives, but because that genre meets a very specific set of mental, emotional, and perhaps even spiritual needs which form the basis of why they read any fiction at all. I don’t think you’ll win them over by trying to convince them they’ve been eating hamburger when they could have filet mignon (what is it with me and food metaphors today?).

        Imagine the positions reversed. How would a spec-fic fan respond to the suggestion that he or she ought to read more Amish romance? How likely are they to “convert?”

        • I hear ya, Fred. That being said, I have found myself enjoying romance when it is tied up in the trappings of science fiction and fantasy (a la Lois McMaster Bujold’s <em>Sharing Knife</em> series). Why couldn’t it work the other way around?
          Nonetheless, it likely depends on the exact flavor of book. While an Amish romance lover might cross over to a YA urban fantasy with a strong romance subplot, she might never go for hard science fiction or high fantasy with lots of magic set in a whole different world no matter how much romance there is.
          I do believe that there are potential fans out there who will be reached by grassroots efforts. I do believe that evangelizing Christians with the message of “come taste and see that speculative fiction is good” will make some converts (and enough to make a huge impact on sales), even if we don’t convert them all. 
          If there’s a bandwagon for evangelizing Christian circles with the good news of speculative fiction, then I’m all over it.

          • Fred Warren says:

            It’s easy to forget we’re talking about human beings rather than some exotic species of duck we can’t induce to breed for lack of a particular nesting material. You’re right…people’s tastes are very subjective and diverse, even within a genre that seems to the outsider to move in lockstep.

            I enjoy a little romance blended into my spec fic too, and while I’m not an Amish fiction fan, I thought Beverly Lewis’ The Shunning was pretty good. It neither gilded nor demonized the Amish and told a moving story about love and loss and the search for identity that I think anybody could relate to. You can find quality in any genre, if you look for it.

            Honestly, I find most of my reading material by accident. I browse. If something stirs my interest, I’ll read a few pages and see if it takes me somewhere I’d like to go. Intriguing characters, unusual situations, innovative ideas, artistry in the language…all those catch my eye, whatever the genre, whether secular or Christian. That’s the foot in the door. If the story can sustain those qualities and forge an emotional connection with me, it’s probably worth talking about and maybe even recommending to others.

            However, I don’t read many books based solely on recommendations from other people, and sales pitches send me running the opposite direction.

            • Sales pitches: Yes! I’ve been thinking about how differently I’d like to present my own stories. My goal isn’t to sell everybody who picks up the book on reading it. My goal is to clearly indicate what the story is about, in a compelling way that engages the kind of reader who would enjoy the book!
              I guess that’s why people read reviews. They’re trying to see if the other people who read it are like themselves and whether the book gave those people an experience they’d like to have.
              If a book’s sample chapter sucks me in, then that’s the best selling point, for me.

    • Another thought: when we speak of “marketing” some folks’ minds may leap to images of book covers, proposals, back-cover descriptions, marquees, and other Industry components. I’m thinking more about conversations with friends at your local church, among you friends, in the workplace and abroad, and online. I’m convinced this is where the action lies: the “word of mouth” side. And I’m convinced that our own “niche-ification,” among either Christians or the “secular” set, ends up marginalizing us far more than the story genres themselves could ever do.

  6. Alex Mellen says:

    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.

    • 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!

What do you think?