Who Reads Christian Speculative Fiction?
This past week in widely different settings I read two Christian speculative writers say that they don’t read Christian speculative fiction. This was jarring but not surprising since I know others who also don’t read Christian speculative fiction. But is it as it should be?
If Christians who love the genre so much that they are writing their own stories aren’t reading what other Christians are writing, then who is reading them?
What’s more, some of these writers give reasons for not reading Christian speculative fiction that sound a little . . . how can I say this, biased against the genre they are writing. Frankly, this confuses me.
All my confusion somewhat exploded this weekend with a couple blog posts on the subject. In Lars Walker’s article “The Christian Fantasy”, he intimated that he left off reading Christian speculative fiction because of writers who are Tolkien or Lewis wannabees.
My mind immediately jumped to Karen Hancock’s fantasy series beginning with The Light of Eidon, Bryan Polivka’s Trophy Chase Trilogy, Andrew Peterson’s Windfeather Saga, Jonathan Rogers’ The Charlatan’s Boy. Lewis? No, not even close? Tolkien? Not an orc or hobbit or elf in a one of those other stories.
In response to Lars Walker’s article, Jeffrey Overstreet (because Lars mentioned his work) posted a response: “Why I Want to Be George R. R. Martin’s Neighbor.”
I don’t write “Christian fantasy.”
I write fantasy.
While I do have some Christian readers, I don’t write stories for a Christian audience, nor are my stories designed to deliver “Christian messages.” There is no reason to for my novels to be segregated from other novels, to be branded as part of some sub-genre.
The suggestion here seems to be that Christians writing Christian speculative fiction are either a) writing to a Christian audience or b) writing to deliver a message in some way that is different from what other writers intend to do in their writing.
I don’t think most Christian writers who include a conversion story in their books are doing so for a Christian audience. I have read some Christian fiction, including some in the speculative category, that address things specific to Christians, but not all, by far. In other words, as far as I’m aware, most Christian speculative writers are not writing exclusively to a Christian audience.
Are they writing to deliver a message in some way that is different from, say, the writers of Avatar or from Phillip Pullman in His Dark Materials? Or different from J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter books? I suggest that those writers also intended to deliver a message, as do most storytellers.
In some instances writers explore issues (such as Rowling did about death in Harry Potter), and in others they intentionally set out with what they want to say firmly in mind (as did Pullman). In either case, the story is the vehicle, a grand parable, if you will, a show illustrating their thoughts.
Are Christians supposed to operate in some other way? Are we alone to have nothing intentional guide our work? Is meaning to seep unconsciously from us into our story? I tend to believe there are some writers who would say, yes, that’s it exactly. Consequently, if a theme begins to surface, the story is inferior.
I will say, there’s a line between showing a theme and telling a theme, and some writers are still learning the difference. Some are refining their ability to show what they believe and what they want to communicate. But quality fiction says something meaningful.
Writing instructor Donald Maass in his most recent book, Writing 21st Century Fiction, said this:
Ducking the big questions is easy. So is achieving low impact . . . Do we teach in schools ‘truths’ that are untrue? Does the accumulation of capital do good or does it corrupt? What are the limits of friendship? Should loyalty last beyond the grave? We read fiction not just for entertainment but for answers to those questions. So answer them (pp 169-179 emphasis mine).
Are there good reasons to give up reading Christian speculative fiction?
On the contrary, I think there are reasons to read and continue reading, especially for writers. An editor once convinced me at a writers’ conference of the importance of reading in the genre we wish to write. How else can we know what’s been done and how it’s being done?
I also think it’s great to support the genre. A different editor convinced me in a comment to one of my blog posts that publishers respond to what readers are buying. If those of us who passionately love speculative fiction aren’t buying what publishers are putting out, why would we think they would want to put out more?
Yes, Christian speculative fiction has had to endure growing pains. For so long, readers complained there there just weren’t any Christian speculative novels beyond Frank Peretti. If you’ve scanned the books in the Spec Faith library, you’ll see how far the genre has come in a few short years.
Are all these great books? No more so than all the books at Barnes & Noble are great. But are there some really stellar books? You bet! It’s one reason Spec Faith is hosting the Clive Staples Award this year. Readers need a way to let others know about the truly great novels they’re reading–speculative stories with a Christian worldview. Of course that can’t happen if no one is reading them any more.
So who is reading Christian speculative fiction?
I noticed that in Overstreet’s blog post, he praises Walker and mentions that he’s currently reading one of Walker’s books. So, Walker has evidently read Overstreet, and Oversreet has evidently read Walker.
I’m sure you have a much better knowledge of the extent of the Christian speculative fiction and its presence on the web and in the book industry than I do. However, we really are only a small Internet community, when it comes down to it. It stands to reason that lots of Christian writers may have never heard of us, or only heard of us passing. (And if you’re a busy writer, it’s understandable that you might not delve into everything you learn about in passing.)
Just because people don’t read books by the relatively few Christians that the online CSF community knows doesn’t mean that those people don’t read books written by Christians at all. Overstreet says he doesn’t want to identify his work as “Christian fantasy,” so I imagine he probably wouldn’t be interested in joining a website like Speculative Faith. Although we can never know, it seems likely that Tolkien would not have been hanging out with us either, if he had lived in the digital age. I don’t think we should be offended when someone doesn’t want to play in our playground.
Bainsepal, I’m not in the least offended. After all, I have no published book for anyone to not read. 😀 And of course authors, especially those who also are working day jobs, are busy. There are a number of authors who are members of the CSFF blog tour who haven’t done a review in a long time. I certainly understand their busy-ness and why they aren’t able to read as they did before.
But when Christian authors start saying the same things about Christian speculative fiction that I’ve read from non-Christians, I feel a little like I do when Christians start bashing the church.
I used to get in discussions with another writer all the time about the quality of Christian fiction. I thought, no way can you say on one hand that you don’t read it and on the other that it’s not well done. Those two things just are incompatible logically. So too with this discussion. The people who can offer a critique, I think, are those who are reading it. (And as you undoubtedly have noticed, we here at Spec Faith haven’t hesitated to challenge writers to write at a high level.)
Interesting point that Lars said he’s read Jeffrey. I wonder why he didn’t conclude that there could easily be other quality Christian speculative fiction that he might enjoy and that it would be worthwhile exploring.
“I thought, no way can you say on one hand that you don’t read it and on the other that it’s not well done.”
I read what I can find, mostly at libraries. I rarely buy books by authors I’m unfamiliar with, just because of budget limits. So I think that’s one reason.
I hear you, Galadriel. Thank goodness for libraries. And in that vein, I’ve read from a number of authors, one just recently, that asking local libraries to carry a book is a good way to help promote it. So if you see a book mentioned here or elsewhere that intrigues you, ask your library if that could be one of their next purchases. I have made recommendations to my church library, even before I started working there as a volunteer, and the librarian bought those books for us.
When Harry Potter first came out, I remember being on a mailing list for a Christian writers group. The first thing that people did (apart from recommending book burnings, bans, education on witchcraft, you name it) was to say that what we really needed was a CHRISTIAN Harry Potter. In other words, a counterculture answer to a direct assault on our values. (Their perspective, not mine.) I pointed out that what they were missing was the fact that stories about Wizards and Good vs. Evil have been around for a long time (and wasn’t it The Wizard of Oz, that ancient enemy, that heretically deigned to ask, “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”). I also pointed out that what they were missing was the fact that Rowling had somehow tapped into something quite powerful, and that was the ability to get kids reading … not to mention getting adults to read the same books with a similar level of enthusiasm. A weak counter-culture attack on Harry Potter would never, and should never, gain the kind of momentum a truly original piece of art would gain. Instead of trying to figure out how to be the Christian J.K. Rowling, or even the next C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien they really should have been worried about becoming the best J. Doe they could be. When Lewis and Tolkien wrote, it was because no one was telling the kinds of stories they wanted to read. When Rowling wrote, it was because she had a powerful vision and a story that was just bursting to come out. When these Counter-Culture Christians wrote, it was generally with an insipid plot designed to preach on the perils of witchcraft, or weakly echo the power of the Chronicles of Narnia by having modern children go to another world where they meet God.
I can understand the aversion to “Christian Fiction.” It seemed, for a while, that anything was being put out. Remember those experimental days in the eighties when some pretty awful Christian bands were being promoted more or less just because they were Christian? I have seen the same phenomenon in books. To be fair, I don’t know that the standard was truly lower for the Christian market, but it does seem that the CBA standard was pretty much designed to not offend Christians. I think that Tollers and Jack would have choked had such constraints been placed on them.
Tolkien and Lewis became the powerhouses they are not because they were British, or had cool initials (though looking back at the success of the authors I’ve mentioned here, maybe I should change my non-de-plume to R.A. Mullin). They simply came from a philosophical stance of telling the truth through fiction. Not pushing a specific church doctrine, not trying to counteract a demonically-inspired piece of garbage clearly designed to lead children to Hell (I really hope that the sarcasm is coming through here). Simply writing what they loved best, and doing so for the love of writing it.
Lars Walker and Jeffrey Overstreet have elevated the art form by doing something similar; their novels are not counter-culture in the slightest. They are probably following more closely in the footsteps of Lewis precisely because they are not attempting to do so.
I can’t speak for a number of the modern authors; I think that we have all been bitten by the “no one is writing what I want to read” bug, and I think that’s phenomenal. But I balk whenever I hear a work compared to Harry Potter (positively or negatively), and the comparison to Tolkien has been so overused that even though it should be meaningful, it is actually something avoided like the plague in editor and agent circles. (Unfortunate, because sometimes that’s really the best descriptor you can give; if someone is literally the next Tolkien, you would think that would mean that they are going to be the next ground-breaker and trend-setter, not merely that they have the ability to tell a long story, or even do detailed world-building.) And the Lewis wannabes … well, they’re published. They’re out there. And I’m not going to name them or criticize them, because right now, they’re making more money than I am.
But I do know why Walker and Overstreet might be concerned that they get lumped in, however accidentally, with such. As artists, their primary goal is to make good art. As Christian writers, one fear I’m sure the most conscientious wrestles with is to simply not make Christian fiction look bad.
I know that when people ask me about my novel and whether it’s “Christian fiction,” I hesitate to answer. “It has Christian themes,” I say, because that is true. In the words of Tolkien on LOTR, “It is a fundamentally religious … work, unconsciously so at first, and consciously in the rewrite.” But am I trying to convert anyone or make a doctrinal point? No. I do hope that those non-Christians who read it will find it to be compelling enough that the fact that the author is a Christian does not put them off. I would hope they see that I am trying to “tell the truth through fiction,” and not “preach a sermon in a novel.”
Perhaps almost as annoying was the resultant coverage in secular media. Vividly I recall one 2007(?) Washington Post article that talked about Christians falling all over themselves to imitate Harry Potter — without bothering to mention that Rowling herself was following in an Inkling-like tradition after Lewis and Tolkien. Neither of these Patron Saints of Fantasy Fiction was even name-checked in the article. The writer seemed only interested in echoing the stereotype: Tsk tsk, there goes those silly Christians again, catching scraps from culture so they can make ripoffs.
Yes, that stereotype does come from somewhere. But it’s still annoying.
Not to mention the fact that all good-versus-evil stories derive from Scripture anyway.
Crucial to note here is that Lars Walker expanded on his views in a sequel feature published right here at Speculative Faith yesterday: Lars Walker: Beyond ‘Wannabe’ Fantasy. The most relevant bit might be here:
Ultimately I think the complaint/concern that says “why isn’t there more Christian fantasy that’s original and well-written?” really turns into “why isn’t there more Christian fantasy that’s original and well-written and automatically popular?”.
One answer to that last, of course, is that all these little splinter groups and “niche” circles are splintered and niched to the point of absurdity.
This is an echo-chamber effect. Aspiring authors fall all over themselves mainly to critique The Industry or talk shop or improve their own craft, rather than share their love of stories and develop good theology and even apologetics for better stories. Given these conditions, how can anything get popular even if it is original and well-written? (And should Christians even expect massive popularity anyway?)
This is why overall I’m grateful for Lars’ insistence on better theology and craft and education behind our fiction — and especially his gentle critique of self-publishing approaches. In response to his original column, one too many folks clearly missed his point and (once again) hastened only to promote their own self-published stuff.
Surely such folks mean well. But I’m this close to calling specifically this kind of self-publishing approach selfish-publication. I guess already have. …
A first answer is that echo-chamber authors and intentional “niche” narrowing are automatically set up to defeat any truly great story from gaining popularity.
I meant to add a second and related answer: that if you read an awesome Christian fantasy or science-fiction novel that’s written well and with originality, you first duty as a reader is to promote that story. Review it. Write about it. Tell your friends at church. Start a reading group. And do this for the glory of God and to reflect His beauty and goodness and truth, not just because it’s Entertaining or because Amish fiction sucks.
Then, and only then, might you consider also trying to promote and sell your own Great Christian Fantasy Epic That Is True to The Tradition of Lewis and Tolkien™.
I asked this question on an email list several months ago. Aside from Christian spec fic circles, I also circulate around some YA fic blogs. They’re constantly reviewing books, interviewing authors, giving writing tips, and doing book giveaways. But more than that, they’re EXCITED about what they do. They LOVE these books and can’t wait to shout about them.
So, puzzled, I asked on the loop if anybody read Christian speculative fiction, since you’re supposed to read the genre you write. To my horror, 80% of the replies were negative. “Of course not! It all sucks anyway!”
But how can we know the competition if we don’t even read it? If we’re writing Christian YA fantasy, shouldn’t we also be reading the secular stuff to see what’s been done and what’s hot? (I recently read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and I could hear Christians screaming in the background, since it’s all about non-Biblical angels and demons. And it was a really good story!)
I’m behind in my Christian spec fic reading, and I hope to catch up this summer.
People are prejudiced about niche groups. Their own, other peoples, doesn’t seem to matter. We humans are very quick to make a judgement based on one good (or bad) experience, and write an entire niche off. Even within Christian spec fic circles…
That being said, Kessie, one suggestion about opening others up to your favorite genre is this: don’t recommend the genre. Not because it’s bad, but because you don’t want your friend/fellow reviewer/potential convert to have a knee-jerk reaction. (If I suggested a prairie romance on this forum, or most others, I would expect an immediate backlash of snobbery. Most romance readers/writers do the same to spec fic…) Recommend a specific book or author you can be very enthusiastic about, and give clear reasons why this one is GR-R-REAT! The same advice goes for any new material you want to introduce to someone. For example, published last year was this surprisingly adorable secular YA fantasy called Enchanted (by Alethea Kontiss). Charming fairy tale mash-up of ten or so well-known fairy tales that was quite clean, full of unexpected virtue, and had some nice twists. Even though it’s not Christian fantasy, I felt very safe recommending this to all the bookworms I know. Even the sheltered Christian ones. The genre was suspicious to these readers (because it clearly had no Jesus in it), but they trusted the reviewer and found this one book to be well worth the trouble reading. This reinforces the trust and opens a door for the potential convert to be open to another book in the same vein. Try offering Aurelia’s Colors, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, or another really high quality Christian spec fic, and see if they’ll read just one.
Sally Hogshead’s Fascination Triggers were discussed at last year’s ACFW conference (I heard, anyway…), and there’s a couple very valuable points about them to ponder in this case. Each trigger is a specific method (almost a mix of branding and marketing) of engaging your intended audience’s attention. Whether that audience is a crowd of people, your best friend, or the reader holding your book for the first time. One of these triggers is “Trust.” Some people trust scifi, because the name of the game isn’t romance or because they get to dream big, whichever–the trust is there because the reader knows ahead of time what to expect. The flip side of this trust is that this reliability can be scorned by a “foreigner” if the genre consistently delivers themes or quality control that isn’t considered worthwhile. Another trigger is “Alarm.” Knowing that suspense, horror, and certain strains of spec fic all aim for this trigger, a lot of mainstream readers avoid spec fic entirely, because they don’t like being upset. You hear that and immediately want to argue, “But it’s not all like that.” As soon as you make your argument about defending the books you love instead of respecting the person at the other end of the argument, you’ve lost them. That wall gets higher. Your knee-jerk reaction proves to them that you trust the books more than you value the person, so they trust the books less.
Each of these triggers play a role in what we like about books and what we don’t, but it all boils back to one important concept: relationship. The relationship spec fic readers have with their books is different than the relationship Amish romance readers have with theirs, and so on. The sharing of books, the invitation to newbies, doesn’t happen by keeping our noses pressed to the screen of our preferred interface (Nook, Kindle, tablet, world wide web, etc.). That happens when we look each other in the eye and acknowledge that the other person matters. Nerds do this less than other people (no offense, none taken), but those connections are no less profound for all that they’re rarer. We love our books. We love that they are the same every time we open a page, that the characters we have come to love are exactly who they were last time we read the book. If we want others to come to love these books, we have to take our eyes off the books and put our attention on the hearts and souls of those potential converts to our favorite books. 🙂
THAT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE! DING DING DING!
That’s how I read a Francine Rivers novel, in this case And the Shofar Blew. My wife, who is not a prairie and/or romance genre fan, had nevertheless recommended that one. Of course, it helped that it actually was not what you would expect from the title — Hebrew/Biblical fiction. In fact, the novel was 100 percent contemporary, set in the world of local churches and megachurch politics, and that’s why I enjoyed it.
Veronica Roth’s DIVERGENT and INSURGENT are huge in the YA general market right now — and lo, they are speculative fiction written by a Christian. D.M. Cornish’s FOUNDLING a.k.a. MONSTER BLOOD TATTOO trilogy was written out of a Christian worldview as well. Jessica Khoury, author of ORIGIN? A Christian. Those are just the fellow Christian spec-fic authors I know off the top of my head, who have confirmed in interviews, blog posts, e-mails and/or the afterwords for their published novels that they are believers. (Well, and me too, of course.)
But none of these authors were published in the CBA, so many Christians looking for good speculative fiction don’t know enough to seek them out. It seems that between the Christian authors writing for the ABA and those writing for the CBA there is a great gulf fixed, and there are really very few resources out there to help readers close the gap.
Well, I read Christian speculative fiction. So here I go.
Usually, I read one or two Christian-spec novels a month. I’m no expert, but I am consistently experiencing the genre as a reader. And this is my experience: Although some of the books are not worth reading, and some are only all right, many are very good.
This is why I’m surprised at the incessant complaining about Christian speculative fiction. Not all of these books are good, but how much does that really prove? On this standard, every genre of every religious degree fails. And would these Christian critics even apply it to anyone else? How about: I never read westerns, but they’re all bad, and here I am to instruct the world on why.
Some people will never read westerns while they can read anything else, much like how some people will never eat vanilla if they can get chocolate instead. And some people simply do not like Christian fiction, or will always be uncomfortable with any kind of conversion scene. Curiously – and I don’t think I’m misjudging appearances, though I may be – some of these are Christians.
Christian speculative fiction comes under a lot of fire from Christians. Some don’t like the “speculative” part; others don’t like the “Christian” part; some just wish it were better-done. Self-criticism is a healthy thing; without it, we’re at best complacent, at worst self-righteous, and as a literary community, almost certainly moribund.
But at some point, it just becomes self-laceration. It discourages everyone involved. And at any rate, the most helpful criticism always comes from those who know whereof they speak.
That is generally true of me. I’m not very comfortable with conversion scenes, most of the time.
I understand the discomfort, because I sometimes experience it myself (usually in TV, though, not books). No one is obligated to enjoy conversion scenes. But we should all understand that there is an element of personal taste in this, and it isn’t fair to condemn any novel or genre on the grounds that it does – or doesn’t – contain altar scenes.
I’ve been on a “quest” to prove the old “Christian SF/F stinks” chestnut wrong, by seeking out the good stuff. (Focusing on the sci-fi, because there is far more fantasy being written.)
I’ve found a few that I have really enjoyed. When I find them, I celebrate them. I invite them on my podcast, I post about them on Facebook. I want people to know about them.
When I read something I don’t like, I generally don’t talk about it. My own experience causes me to be gun-shy (I’ve been dealing with reviews for years, but one that stuck out to me is a guy on Goodreads who just gave one of my books one star, no reasons, and skewed that book downward because there are no other ratings. If someone looks through my books on Goodreads, they will not be inclined to read that one, for sure. I’d feel better about it if at least it was a review, but two years of work was judged a failure with a single click of a mouse.)
That said, while I do not write bad reviews, I do critique when invited to. Many writers do not want a critique, they want a pat on the back. But the good ones, and the ones who want to rise to the top as things gets sifted, WILL and SHOULD look for critiques and edits. (One BIG problem with self-publishing — self-editing! Ugh! My pet peeve!)
What it looks like I NEED to do is spend more time poking around on this website? I’ve just been visiting for the articles I see promoted on Facebook and Twitter — I rarely see reviews posted on Facebook or Twitter, and honestly wasn’t aware of how big a part of this website the reviews section is.
One thing I hasten to add: the writing is not Christian, the WRITER is.
(There’s a joke my high school friends and I used to say: “Excuse me, is this seat saved?” “No, but it’s willing to listen.”)
Christian fiction . . . Christian sci-fi . . . Christian fantasy . . . Christian comics (my genre, and I realize not really what this website is about, but it’s still what I do) . . . the label is meant to cover the heart of the creator.
Unfortunately, it has become a marketing tool. A marketing label. A BRAND, almost.
But sites like this, and some of the Facebook groups, and some of the other thing like that — they should be serving the heart of the creator. Christian creators NEED sites like this: “iron sharpening iron” and the “cord of three strands” are vital for us to stand and be strong and grow stronger and sharper.
I love that I can look at secular successes and learn from them; I also love that I can learn from my Christian brothers and sisters about what works and what doesn’t, and also be encouraged by their inspirational exposition and personal stories.
The niche, as I see it, has value in building a community, not to become insular, but to send out the community members so they can engage and encourage those outside the community.
I feel like I’ve blabbed way too much, and done so as someone not really part of this community. The point is, this community (and others like it) has value to the Christian writer and reader. (Note: NOT the “writer who happens to be a Christian” — I hate that definition for some reason.) Christian sci-fi/fantasy HAS value, but exponentially MORE value when the “Christian” adjective applies to the creator, not to the creation.
Oh yes, we’re working on that.
Recently I upgraded the reviews section to display each review individually. That may help promote link-sharing, social-network liking, and resulting comments.
Available reviews still display at the end of every book listed in the Library.
If you want to write a review, or republish a review you’ve already written, for any novel that’s listed in our Library, here’s the easy-to-use review form.
How do books get listed in the library? None of the books I’ve been reading are there.
I love this approach, Ben. I can whole-heartedly get on board with that approach. I think we should be reaching across the niche aisles to become a force publishers recognize, but mostly so that readers will find the books that exalt God and honor Him.
I hope you feel comfortable enough here at Spec Faith to consider yourself a member of this community. 😀
It’s something I’ve been mulling over, but never put into words until thinking through my response here.
Again, a great purpose for communities like this.
I must also applaud this way of phrasing it, Ben.
Isn’t this “niche” mission also the purpose of the Church?
Isn’t this what some Christian F/SF readers condemn publishers for not doing?
Isn’t this also what Christian F/SF readers are in danger of going all over again?
A rather lengthy and parallel discussion about that topic is ongoing over at the Lars Walker: Beyond ‘Wannabe’ Fantasy featured article. Several Spec-Faith readers and frequent commentators challenged by my challenge that went like:
Evidently this came across wrong, so I wish I’d said something like this first: