A radio program I occasionally listen to, Family Life Today, ran a series of broadcasts discussing fiction with author Tim Downs, winner of the 2007 Christy Award for best suspense novel of the year for PlagueMaker. Downs’s next novel, First the Dead, features protagonist Nick Polchak, a forensic scientist (an entomologist, to be exact). I haven’t read the book, but from the radio discussion, I gleaned that these “bug book” stories could be considered a Christian version of CSI.
At the end of the first day of discussion, the radio host began his wrap with something like, These books by Tim Downs are safe and entertaining, with a subtle message embedded.
Safe? I’d already been thinking about this topic as the men discussed the research Downs did to understand what a crime scene entomologist would have to do, and how Downs tried to steer into the waters of reality without swamping the expectations of bookstore owners and vigilant, pietistic readers.
It was clear the radio host had read the book. In fact, he mentioned receiving a pre-release copy, but what he didn’t know was what each of the listeners and potential readers were dealing with in their lives.
Is the book “safe” for someone who can’t watch CSI because of the gore? Is the book “safe” for someone who has experienced the ordeal of a murder in their family? Is the book “safe” for a five year old? a ten year old? a fifteen year old?
Those questions may stretch the point, but here’s what I’m getting at: in declaring a book “safe,” it seems to me, the radio host was giving a “G” rating, a blanket endorsement. Such seals of approval, in my view, may snag an unsuspecting reader.
Mind you, I know nothing about Downs’s First the Dead. Possibly, it is truly a book for all ages and stages, that no reader would have difficulty with any aspect of the story or the writing. That idea then prompts me to wonder if the “Christian” story isn’t a moralistic whitewashing of reality?
I suspect, instead, that there are hard looks at death between the covers of this novel. Downs indicated that one thing he wants to do with his fiction is “cross over,” to write a book that non-Christians might read, and leave them with questions to ask about … life, I suppose, or maybe after life.
What I’m wondering … really, what I’m doubting … is if one person can make a determination for another that a particular work is “safe.” Especially if that statement is aimed at millions of unknown listeners who tuned in to the radio on a particular morning.
As clarification, I’m a big fan of this program and the men behind the mic day in and day out. I think their stamp of approval, this declaration that Downs’s book is “safe,” was given with the best of intention. The host liked the book, liked Downs, and wanted to plug First the Dead with his audience, even though some of them might be the vigilant, pietistic readers who would squirm if a book in their local store contained cussing or sex or gratuitous violence.
It doesn’t have any of those, the radio host seemed to be saying, so come on in, the water’s fine.
What happens, then, to the discernment of individual readers? If a reader relies on the “expert” who judges a work to be “safe,” is that any better than relying on where the reader bought the book or what publisher’s imprint is on the spine? In all these cases, the reader is relying on someone else to do his thinking. And frankly, I don’t find that safe at all.
This article, not specifically about Christian speculative fiction but applicable to it, first appeared, minus some editorial changes, at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in June 2008.