The Brighter Side

For the past few weeks, we’ve had a running discussion about what is wrong with Christian speculative fiction and how we can fix it. Here’s a look at the brighter side.
on Jan 21, 2015 · 16 comments

For the past few weeks, we’ve had a running discussion about what is wrong with Christian speculative fiction and how we can bright sidefix it. It’s a worthwhile debate, but today I’m going to look at the bright side – the brighter side, anyway. Here are some complaints about Christian SF, or just Christian fiction in general, put into perspective.


1) Most Christian fiction is mediocre, or alternatively, Most Christian fiction is not great: This is a sentiment often expressed against Christian fiction; it may even rise to the level of a casually expressed judgment. But when considered as a serious analysis of Christian fiction, it’s vaguely hilarious, like the Irish newspaper headline that proclaimed “The Election Went As Most People Hoped It Would”. See, that’s the way it works.

The majority of Christian books is mediocre; that is, indeed, the definition of mediocre. Few Christian books are great; the definition of greatness is, after all, that it is better than most things. You cannot denounce the majority for being average when the definition of average is that the majority is like it.

We take note of authors like Charles Dickens and C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling precisely because they’re rare. By their standard, Christian fiction generally falls short. But if it makes you feel any better, secular fiction generally falls short, too.

2) There are more good secular books than good Christian books. Purely as a matter of statistics, this sounds accurate. But is it a matter of statistics and, furthermore, do the people who make this criticism know it might be?

What I mean is this: Far more books are published in the general market than in the Christian market. It stands to reason that there will be more of every kind of book in the secular market, including good and bad. When determining the relative quality of Christian fiction, the real metric is not: Are there numerically more good secular books? It is: Are there proportionally more good secular books? It is the percentage, not the number, that matters.

I don’t know the percentage of really good Christian novels, or the percentage of really good secular novels. But neither do many of the people who condemn Christian fiction, and until we’ve settled the matter of statistics, this criticism is meaningless.

3) “I don’t read Christian fantasy”, and any variant thereof. There are critics who stress two points regarding Christian fiction: (1) It’s bad, and (2) They don’t read it. Somehow, they never worry about the question, “If you don’t read it, how do you know?”

In the worst cases, such critics have barely even tried Christian fiction before issuing their universal condemnations. I will not stop to consider the unfairness of this, or even the more interesting fact that Christians who would be ablaze with indignation if their fellow believers doled out similar denunciations of secular fiction take them solemnly when made against Christian fiction. The salient point is the irrationality of it. Imagine if statisticians had standards like that. Both college students I interviewed disliked jazz, so … ALL COLLEGE STUDENTS HATE JAZZ.

Of course, the criticism may be more valid than that, coming from people who used to read Christian fiction. Even then, “I don’t read Christian fiction” is a caveat to any criticism. Because things change, and people who judge Christian fiction based on what they read five or ten or fifteen years ago may find their judgments out of date.

As we consider the state of Christian fantastical fiction, it’s worth remembering that more important than where we are now is where we’re going. For that we need a long view, to take into account where we’ve been. I think that, for those of us who want to see Christian fantastical fiction flourish, it’s trending our way.

And that, more than anything else, is the bright side.

Shannon McDermott is an author of science fiction and has been occupied for years with constructing scenarios of the colonization of Mars. Her first Mars-centric novel will be released by Enclave Publishing in late 2024. Her earlier works include “Jack and I” (Once Upon a Future Time: Volume 2) and “The Fulcrum” (Hidden Histories: Third Flatiron Anthologies Spring/Summer 2019).
  1. Excellent article, Shannon. I intended, several times, to join in the discussion to other articles to point out your number three, but for one reason or another, I got derailed. A good thing, I’m sure, because you were much more comprehensive and gentle in your article than I would have been in my comment.

    The one thing I would like to ask each and every one who writes a post in this series or who comments: what are the last five Christian speculative novels you’ve read, or the last three. I’d even go for the last one.

    All this generalizing and hand wringing is not helpful, I don’t think. And definitely, for anyone who has done any reading of speculative books put out by Christian arms of  publishing houses, it’s clear there’s been a lot of growth—in type, subject matter, and even number. Unfortunately not enough self-proclaimed speculative fans are buying the books, and publishers still operate on the basis of which books are selling well.

    So if books like Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s Tales of Goldstone Wood books, which have no conversions in the sense that most people suggest Christian fiction mus have, and in fact do not name God as God or have an allegorical likeness of Him, though He does eventually emerge—if books like that which win awards aren’t bought and read by supposed speculative fans, then why would the publishers continue to produce more novels like those?

    I could ask the same of Patrick Carr’s fantasy trilogy, with the first book free for over a year (and maybe still free), or Jill Williamson’s Safe Lands trilogy or R. J. Larson’s fantasy trilogy, or Robert Treskillard’s Merlin’s Blade books or . . . well, there really are a lot of good ones, but people who don’t read them continue to complain about the quality of Christian speculative fiction. I find the fallacy completely undermines the conversation.

    So, in the end, I’ve resorted to my not very gentle response after all. I suggest visitors move from this comment back to Shannon’s post and re-read her much more reasoned thoughts.


  2. Julie D says:

    Last two I’ve read would  be Search of the Shadow Key by Wayne Thomas Batson and Dragonwitch by Anne Elisabeth Stengl.  The former as a reviewer, the  latter just because I like it.

    But as to your points, 1 and 2 are valid points, but I’d suggest a corollary: how does the best Christian fantasy compare to the best secular fantasy? If the best secular fiction comes at , say 80/100, where does the best Christian come in? Limit both sides to the past, say 5 years, and what would one get? Or even, if we wanted cross-genre comparison, the top-sellers of the past five years.

    I don’t want to rain on your parade, but I would like to hear your answer.

  3. bainespal says:

    I’m including 7 because I don’t remember the order exactly; this way the latest 5 will definitely be in there:

    The Superlative Stream by Kerry Nietz
    Curse Bearer by Rebecca P. Minor
    Bid the Gods Arise by Robert Mullin
    A Magic Broken by Vox Day
    The Windrider Saga by Rebecca P. Minor
    The Earth Painter by Melissa Turner Lee
    A Star Curiously Singing by Kerry Nietz

    It appears that I only support indie CSF based on that list, and that’s actually true. I’ve never bought a CSF book published mainstream.

    No… I did buy one once at a bargain surplus store, but I gave it to a friend before I had a chance to read it. No, I also bought some of the Dragons in Our Midst books as gifts.

    I normally admit in chagrin that I don’t read CSF at all, but that’s not true. I don’t read it much, but I don’t read fiction much anymore at all, because I’m too slow.

    I have nothing to say when people complain about the CSF fan base by saying that we don’t buy books very much, because I don’t buy books very much. This makes me feel pressured to identify as someone who doesn’t read CSF. But that’s not true; I actually have read a fair amount of the indie side of it. It seems like you’re only interested in a hardcore CSF fandom; casual fans don’t count because we don’t provide enough economic impact.

    • I’m thinking my list of book from 2014 isn’t any longer than that, Bainespal. I’m a slow reader too. But I do read Christian speculative fiction. Not exclusively, by any means. But I get a lot of free books as part of the Blog Tour I’m a part of. Unfortunately, small presses don’t have the money to give away free print copies of their books. Some of our members are willing to take digital copies now, and that number is on the rise. But I bring that up because I know from my own experience some of us don’t have the money to support Christian writers the way they need to be supported.

      It seems like you’re only interested in a hardcore CSF fandom; casual fans don’t count because we don’t provide enough economic impact.

      Not sure why you said this, bainespal. I’m concerned about people saying how bad Christian speculative novels are and then admitting they don’t read any. These aren’t “casual fans.” They aren’t fans at all. They are critics who are giving a negative opinion about books they don’t read. How do they know they aren’t well written if they don’t read them? Or that they are do or don’t have deep emotion or are restricted by the gatekeepers. These things might be true and they might not be true.

      But when people (not saying you’ve done that here, bainespal) make blanket statements about “Christian speculative fiction,” they’re wrapping indie books and traditionally published all in the same generalization. Then to cap it off with, I don’t read those books, well, it gets under my skin.

      I mean, think about it. I wondered about the last five or three or one book in the genre that visitors here at Spec Faith have read, and only three people gave titles. This, at a site dedicated to speculative stories.

      Maybe they didn’t see the comment. That’s certainly a possibility. But I can’t help but wonder if those people commenting to the other articles that they don’t read Christian speculative fiction weren’t being literal.

      I’d even say that’s their prerogative. I mean, no one has to read in a certain genre. But they should not go around bad mouthing the books, then, I don’t think—saying how bad they are and telling everyone what’s wrong with them. How do they know if they don’t read them?

      OK, I think I just ranted again. 😉


      • kim says:

        Hey Rebecca, I wanted to jump in here.

        How do they know they aren’t well written if they don’t read them? Or that they are do or don’t have deep emotion or are restricted by the gatekeepers. These things might be true and they might not be true.

        I read a lot of Christian SFF b/c it’s what I write, so I want to see what others do. I got the idea about the deep emotions b/c it’s what I’ve seen in the Christian books. I see characters seeing horrible things and they brush if off as if it’s nothing.  Then I read secular SFF and it’s totally different. Hunger Games is a great example. That series is very difficult to read.

        I do read a lot of Christian SFF and I do enjoy some, but I’ve seen a lot of Christian SFF that was too happy, happy, joy, joy. ANd my first thought was, you’re seeing your good friend being burned to death and it doesn’t affect you? Really?? I’ve seen other characters whipped and again, oh my. Oh dear. Sigh … But all of us are different.

        As for the rejection of the gatekeepers? Oh yeah, you’d be surprised as to what they’ve rejected, which made me think, really?? You don’t like that?? Why??? But they are willing to take risks with cursing, but not over the top SFF.

        I’m not saying all of it is bad. Some is really good though. And it’s pretty funny b/c the stuff that I really like is stuff the big publishers said, nope, we ain’t touching that one!!  But you are right, if you don’t read the books, then don’t give an opinion.

      • kim says:

        I also want to add, I love books by Marcher Lord/Encave publishing. The Songkeepers Chronicles is so much on my list!! I love Gerke’s books b/c he would publish The Walking Dead Meet the Apostles, which would rock. LOL!! His books aren’t fluffy and I love them. I bet the big boys wouldn’t touch Gerke’s books for the world, but I’m glad he did!! Now someone write the Walking Dead Meet the Apostles. LOL!

  4. Kat says:

    I don’t remember the last ones I read, but ones I’ve read recently would be:

    Moonblood by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

    Outlaw by Ted Dekker

    The Judas Gospel-author’s name escapes me

    I have a long list of books I want to buy, but I try to stick to library books when possible until my book money jar is full.

    • kim says:

      LOL!! Oh, Kat, you and I must have the same jar. My jar is so full of books that I’m not allowed to have anymore until I read with I have, which is a lot.

  5. kim says:

    Not all Christian literature is bad, some is pretty good. But yeah, a lot is bad. I  do agree with the above posters though. Some Indie and small publisher stuff rocks. But I never got into the books published by the bigger publishers. Too much censorship. ONe thing I noticed in some Christian books is the lack to real emotion. I read one book, I won’t give the name, in which the MC saw her friend burned alive by the enemy. Oh boo-hoo. My poor friend is now dead. Sad, very sad. That’s how the author approached the story.

    Now read the Hunger Games when Rue is killed and Katniss sings a lullaby to the dying girl. Try to read it out loud if you can. You won’t be able to before you choke up.

    IMO, that’s what missing from some Christian Lit. Hard core emotions. I remember when ISIS was chopping off children’s heads and how that stuck with me for months. Chilling and even made me question God as why all of this happened. And yet some authors would just glide over it. Or worse, ignore it. Heartbreaking and difficult emotions are a part of life. Some of us HAVE questioned God’s love and some of us have had to deal with horrible trauma and walk through it. Yet is seems some authors just glide over those emotions. It hurts to go into the pit. It’s painful to bring up those hurts. And some publishers say NO! But it’s the horrors and the hurts that bring us together.

    I taught a class to my writers group on how to write deep painful emotions. I started with the Thor movies in that I was shocked at how many folks wept for, not Thor, but Loki, the bad guy. Why? Because all of us have suffered pain and heartache and could relate to him.  Some folks even PRAYED for him. Guess what, folks? You know what God does when you pray for a Character? Guess. that’s right, nothing. Why? Because the character doesn’t exist!!

    It was a very hard class to teach, but I think they got the idea. Jesus never promised us a rose garden, but He did promise to be there for us and walk us through the difficult times. It isn’t easy to get down into that pit of pain and it hurts like a son of gun. But it’s worth it.

  6. Kim,

    You can ask others readers, but some of us do attempt to deal with deep and painful emotion in our novels. The problem is that some readers only like 100% heroic characters who don’t struggle, so the market pushes some of this.

    In particular, my 2nd novel, Merlin’s Shadow, is about two journey’s of faith … Merlin, who is doubting God at every turn due to the suffering of himself and his friends … and his sister, who has just witnessed the death of both of her parents.  These are not pleasant journeys…

    My third novel, Merlin’s Nightmare has him facing his greatest fears … and in doing so, he comes pretty near to the edge of a breakdown.

    My first novel has him struggling with the disability of blindness.

    Anyway, just sayin’ we’re not all bland on the emotion scale.

    And, yo, Rebecca … thanks for the plug! 🙂

    • kim says:

      I didn’t say all of is is bad. I’m glad you deal with the emotional side.

      • I agree, though, that a novel that only skims the surface of the characters emotions or that doesn’t deal with them realistically would be a bummer of a read.

        • kim says:

          At the same time though, it really isn’t an easy thing to do. Like a friend of mine had once said, you have to get down into the pit of despair. (Yes, I know, Princess Bride. LOL!)  As I said above, I saw this in ‘Loki’ videos and so I asked writers of all kinds, how do you write despair? No one could give me an answer. I prayed and God showed me stuff. It’s hard to do and if you don’t know how to do it, then the writer will skim the surface. I don’t believe there are bad writers, only uninformed writers. If someone doesn’t know how to do, then they can’t do it. But once they get the idea of it, BAM!! They are off like a rocket. And some don’t want to do it b/c God’s word says, count it on joy. I have joy, but I also have depressions. I like the joy, but hate the depression. It’s the same with others. Some writers don’t like the depression but like the joy. I wish life was all joy, but won’t be that way until Jesus comes back.

          Deep emotions are like ‘showing’. ONce you know how to do it, you never stop. The same with deep emotions. ONce you get it, you’ll never stop. It’s just a matter of learning to do it. 🙂 Peace!!

  7. Matthias M. Hoefler says:

    Nicely done! Some critical thinking to defend CSF from would-be bashers.

What do you think?