Who Reads Christian Speculative Fiction?
Last week I explored some issues connected with writers knowing their audience, specifically whether or not writing to the “typical reader” of a particular kind of story locks an author into writing only that type of book. The common term for this is “branding.”
Now I’m wondering, who are these “typical readers” of Christian speculative fiction?
I’m thinking about Donita Paul’s books — Dragons of the Valley, The Vanishing Sculptor, and the DragonKeeper Chronicles. During the recent CSFF Blog Tour one of the participants coined the phrase “cozy fantasy” as a way of communicating what Donita’s stories are like. It’s a good term, I think. Clearly someone who prefers dystopian fantasy would likely not be apt to pick up a Donita Paul “cozy fantasy.” Someone looking for gritty realism in their fantasy (isn’t that an oxymoron?) probably will look elsewhere. But someone who wants to experience an imaginative world with an adventure tale that ends happily, and who wants to discover Biblical truth woven into the fabric of a story will be a huge fan.
But what about that last part, the “Biblical truth woven into the fabric of a story” part? If a story integrates Truth as the Christian knows it, does this automatically narrow the readership to those who understand Truth in the same way?
I’m thinking about this in particular because of the last two books I’ve read. One was Dragons of the Valley , a fantasy with allegorical elements. “Wulder” is clearly a representation of God and much of the story is about characters learning to know Him and trust Him. The other is general Christian fiction, Another Dawn by Kathryn Cushman. This latter book is about Christians and some real-life struggles. When I finished, I thought, This is why Christian publishers exist. The book is well written, realistic, engaging, compelling, but it’s about Christians. Would a non-Christian want to read that book? (And consequently, would a general market press consider publishing it?) It’s possible because of the central story question, but the greater internal conflict that the main character experiences is all about spiritual matters. How would someone who doesn’t know Christ relate?
So I wonder, in our science fiction, our urban fantasy, our epic fantasy, who gets the “take away”? In other words, can speculative fiction transcend the divide between those who believe the Bible to be True and those who don’t?
We know, certainly, that C. S. Lewis’s children’s fantasy has done so. But how about his science fiction? How about his fantasy treatises, The Great Divorce and Screwtape Letters? J. R. R. Tolkien would seem to have transcended the divide, though some Christians deny that The Lord of the Rings is in fact “Christian.”
Must Christians have our own peculiar brand of literature because we are a peculiar (used in the best sense of the word) people? Or can speculative fiction do what editors at writers’ conferences tell us not to do — reach everyone.
I have this idea that there are things about us humans that we hold in common. We have eternity in our hearts. We have the need for security (love), the need for significance (purpose), we are relational, communicative, creative, sinful. So my idea is, there might be stories that touch the core issues we all share — those of us who are sinful and saved and those who are sinful and lost. But maybe those stories have to be speculative fiction so that Christians and non-Christians alike feel at home.
I think speculative fiction may be a way to bridge the divide. When religious elements are presented in a veiled way, non-Christians may read it, assuming the book is wll-written. If the Christian elements are too overt, I don’t think it will cross over. That’s why the Narnia and Lord of the Rings books appeal to a wide audience–because the stories are exciting, the characters interesting, and the meaning quietly woven through the story. I do believe this is an important strength of these books; they can subconsciously plant a Christian framework that may help Christianity make sense when it is met in a more straight-forward way. (At least we can hope!)
Susan, I guess I’m not sure we need to veil the spiritual elements as much as to weave them properly into the story.
In the Cushman book I mentioned, the spiritual issues the character faces are totally believable. The help and hope she finds come from realistic sources and her progression to change is natural — not forced in any way. BUT that’s because the character is a Christian. A non-Christian reading this story could easily find it enlightening because it shows the way Christians think and act and relate — what we struggle with. Or they could feel “preached at” because they don’t share the faith experience we have.
In other words, I believe Kathryn Cushman wove her spiritual elements into the fabric of the story the way a good writer should, but being that this story is about Christians, I don’t know that non-Christians can relate, understand, care about the character’s struggles. I don’t know that they will find the dialogue between a mature Christian and one hurting to be natural rather than “preachy.”
But in fantasy, because much of the spiritual is delivered metaphorically, I think non-Christians may miss the power behind a scene, but they won’t feel it is not for them.
For example, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace turns into a dragon because of his greed. He only becomes human again when Aslan scrapes away the layers of scaly hide. A non-Christian who does not recognize Aslan as a Christ figure will see truth in this scene but not necessarily Truth. In other words, he may see that Eustace, who didn’t receive good discipline from his parents, needed someone to stand against his selfish ways and “whittle him down to size.” That would be a valid way of looking at the scene.
And these valid interpretations, I believe, plant seeds. They increase our longing for Someone who will stand against evil, who will lead aright, who will challenge and change us from ordinary into Kings and Queens.
In no way do I think the Christian speculative writer needs to “dumb down” his Christianity or gloss it over. And it’s possible, when the non-Christian “gets it,” he may be mad.
Jesus encountered this reaction when He told parables and the Pharisees saw themselves in His stories. At other times neither the Pharisees or His disciples “got” the point of his parables. That didn’t mean His stories failed. They accomplished the purposes He intended, which sometimes was to open up a dialogue with His disciples to explain what the parables were saying.
All this to say, as you did, that Christian speculative fiction may bridge the divide because we write Truth into our stories in a way that gives Christian and non-Christian alike some nugget. One might see the bottom of the well and another nothing more than the surface, but to both we have made water available.
As someone who was raised in an unbelieving home I read secular fiction. When I became a believer I changed over to Christian fiction. Not just because secular books became offensive to me but because fiction written by Christians helped me in my relationship with Christ. (Some way more then others). The world is at enmity with God. They hate Him because they do not know Him. To them our message is The Bad News until they believe it, then it becomes The Good News. We are fighting a spiritual battle here, not a physical one. Fantasy is a genre that allows a message to be hidden so that the unbelieving reader can entertained and even enlightened without realizing it. Many books, like one I read recently by Chip Hill “The Fire Watcher” would not be excepted by most unbelievers because of the straightforward message.
I could still read pagan fiction but why would I? It’s the same with them. Why would a non-christian want to read one of our books? I’ve loaned out quite a few books over the years to guys I work with and they’ve loved them. I tend to loan out one that are not real heavy on the Message so they’ll read more plus I talk them up so well it gives them a desire to read them. I even had a guy read This Present Darkness recently and not only did he like it, he had many questions afterwards.
Do I sound like I’m contradicting myself? Could be. It’s 4:50am. Hopefully you get my point.
No, Steve, I thought you made good sense (were you just starting your day or ending it!?) I especially like this line: To them our message is The Bad News until they believe it, then it becomes The Good News. I think Christian speculative fiction can deliver the truth and the Truth, as I said in my response to Susan. By showing, say, a friend willing to make a costly sacrifice, a writer might prompt an unsaved reader to want to be a better friend. At the same time, it may also spark a longing for such a friend who would be willing to lay down his life. Seed planted.
I think it’s awesome that you’re putting Christian stories into the hands of your unsaved co-workers. That’s what I dream about — producing a story that a Christian can pass along as a conversation starter with friends who haven’t yet found Christ. May your tribe increase! 😀
I know this discussion is long past and gone but I still wanted to comment… you see, this is exactly why I took up writing my stories and what I want to accomplish.
I want to write clean, entertaining, and even a bit of inspirational fiction that represents characteristics of christian living, but that will appeal to everyone.
It’s about the story and the lives my character’s live that I want to draw people in with. A subtle message to reach the unreached.
Something I would have read as at teenager or young adult… something Fun.
Okay, back to the closet… 🙂