Why Isn’t There More Christian Fantasy?
Recently someone1 asked in a Facebook group: Why isn’t there more Christian fantasy?
In a few more words: Why don’t more Christian publishers want to publish “speculative”2 or fantastical novels that explore magic and/or new worlds?
It’s a common, simple question. I don’t believe I’ve ever directly explored it here.
So here are my answers, expanded from my original Facebook reply.
I know a little about The Industry. At least, I have seen some things mainly from the “just short of being actually published in The Industry” side; I’ve been in orbit for a few years.
I’ve done much advocacy for Christian fantastical stories at SpeculativeFaith.com, where a team of fans/writers and I explore fantastical stories for God’s glory. We’ve also put together the Library of every fantastical Christian-written novel we know about, from any publisher. I think that’s helped give me a perspective on what’s available.
Here are a few points I’ve gathered and tend to harp on.
Q. Why isn’t there more Christian fantasy?
Answer 1: There has been, but it failed.
I know many Christian editors and authors who did or do publish fantastical titles, e.g. supernatural/fantasy/sci-fi. And that effort went over like a dead drone. Not because the publishers were not willing. But because the readership did not respond.
Without exception, the Christian fantastical titles I enjoyed in the 90s and 2000s3 are now out of print at their original publishers. Some, such as Oxygen and the Firebird series, ended up being republished by Marcher Lord Press, now known as Enclave Publishing.
Answer 2: There is, but you haven’t heard of it.
Some Christian authors who tried fantasy/sci-fi at larger publishers ended up jumping genres. Or they moved into indie or self-publishing. In some Christian circles, this means even less opportunity for the Ministry platforms a traditional publisher might afford.
Even apart from that, you likely haven’t heard of an author’s self- or indie-published works.
From here it appears that a new author must be able to be a full-time author/marketer to work at making a living from being a full-time author/marketer. Catch-22?
3. There is, but readers aren’t there.
This question is not about the writers/publishers not giving the supply.
It’s about readers and what they demand.
That’s why I overtly push against the “why don’t Christian publishers and writers do X” line. Fact is: Christian publishers and writers have done X, and readers did not respond.
I’ve begun to wonder, among some of the “Christian fantasy” circles I know, whether some writers simply do not know of the many, many writers and publishers who have tried this, and are therefore led to conclude “Well, someone should try it,” e.g. reinventing the wheel.
After I wrote this material, an editor with a Christian publishing house commented:
It’s not that publishers haven’t tried to publish speculative fiction before, but the Christian readers didn’t respond to it. I actually have on my desk a fantasy trilogy that [my publisher] did in 2007; no one bought it and it’s out of print now.
And while Christian publishers definitely should be more willing to take risks, Christian readers (and Christian stores, even in the age of Amazon it’s actually amazing how much they influence what gets published) have often punished those who took risks. That’s why we’re stuck in a never-ending vortex of Amish Romance (and now coloring books).
So here’s the real question we ought to ask:
Q. Why don’t more Christians want more Christian fantastical stories?
Our faith is supernatural, fantastical, even “magical.” It’s about a divine/human Hero, Jesus, come to slay the dragon of sin, save His Church, punish evildoers, and redeem the whole world. Given all this awesome, why opt for another (Adjective) Romance novel?
Answer 1: Shallow theology and legalism.
The notion goes: We only need to read “clean” stories, if any, about “realistic” things.
Answer 2: Wrongful pragmatism.
This notion goes: The only books we “need” are about real-life-like people and events and valuable things like Family and Evangelism. And even if we do get crazier, like with Frank Peretti or Left Behind, well, those are about biblical facts or events that could really happen.
Answer 3: A flawed and un-biblical view of the purpose of human stories and culture.
This notion goes: We only have stories and songs because of some deficiency because of sin (e.g. to educate, evangelize, or entertain). But stories and songs serve no purpose as part of God-given humanity or God’s command to make something of the world and thus glorify and imitate Him.4
What if we work to correct this flawed belief in ourselves and then others? What if we point to the holiness-endorsing, God-glorifying purpose of what stories and songs are really for?
That’s what I want to do: Challenge poor justifications for popular culture (e.g., human stories and songs). I want to explore biblical purposes for these things: To help us glorify God and enjoy Him forever. If we do “inception” on people with this idea, we’ll have more reader demand for better and more fantastical stories. And then more Christian publishers will naturally respond. Because they are not just pastors/ministers who should “do the right thing” regardless of what customers want. They are businesses. And that’s okay.
- Fantasy novelist K.B. Hoyle. ↩
- Despite our site’s name, I’ve begun to prefer the term “fantastical.” “Speculative” makes me think of tech-startup stocks. ↩
- The Left Behind series doesn’t count as “fantastical” here, or to many people, because many Christians believe it is based on prophecy and events that could really happen. This is why they allow(ed) for the series, because it’s “useful.” ↩
- Genesis 1:26-28. Theologians call this the “cultural mandate.” ↩
Yes! Yes! Yes!
One of the reasons I love teaching high school English at a Christian school. Not because I push a speculative fiction agenda, but because I can teach students about reading with Christian discernment (vs. legalism), understanding the difference between lies and fiction, and encouraging them to really put their faith in action in terms of reading and writing!
Fantastic. It’s folks in positions like yours who will help slowly turn things around. 😀
I wonder if Retail isn’t partly at fault. I polled a group of teenagers from our church, nothing scientific- But most didn’t even know there was Christian Fantasy. They don’t go into Christian Bookstores and when they go to a B&N they head straight to the Young Adult section, or the Sci fi Fantasy section. They don’t go to the Religious Fiction. Which is where most Spec Fic from a Christian Publisher will be shelved. Their comments are “There isn’t anything over there.” About six months ago I walked into a local B&B and got excited because I saw a Spec Book in the Religious Fiction section. But the book never sold… However, had they been moved to the Sci fi Fantasy section I wonder if they could have sold. They had a compelling cover, but the authors target audience wasn’t going to the “Religious Fiction Section.” I personally think the readers are there- I think the problem is a “Business problem” with a lack of knowledge on how to properly market to the audience. There is also a retail problem, in that retailers have to make an effort to bring that audience into the store. But- why should retailers, what do they have to gain…? I think the best success for authors is to find a small niche publisher and attack the market like an indie.
Good point, JJ. I wanted to add that the store placement of Christian fiction is driven by the bookstores, not the publishers. Most publishers would love to have there books put in with the mainstream stuff, but they can’t make it happen. Stores like it the way it is.
Yeah, that’s a good point. I saw your comment in The Alumni Group and I think it’s some great advice. The fact that we authors just need to write the best book we can, each time, produce it ourselves, and then write another one.
Shhh, JJ. The first rule of the Alumni Group is that you do not talk about The Alumni Group.
Yikes!!!!! My mistake 🙂
I work at a Barnes and Noble and I would actually argue with you there… I’ve talked to my managers about this problem before, (lucky me… working with several christian managers… 🙂 )
I was given the task, starting about 6 months ago when our local christian bookstore went out of business, to research and order in books of a Christian speculative nature, particularly for teens and middle graders.
I started getting frustrated though when I realized that most of these good books were being immediately shelved in the religious section… I became even more frustrated when I realized that not ALL of the books were ending up in the religious section… some of them were ending up in kids or teens, but only 1 or 2 books from a series would be shelved there and the rest of those respected series ended up being shelved in religion. And upon checking the issue out in our computer system, I discovered that they had been FILED that way.
Of course this didn’t make sense to me so I went to ask a manager about this. She nodded. “There’s not much we can do about it,” she said. “It has to do with the way the publishers label the books… they may label part of a series as YA, but if they label book 3 of that series in the ‘religious’ category, book 3 is going to end up being shelved in religion because that’s the way it shows up in our system.”
I asked her if there was any way to change it… she told me sometimes we can do a title change request, if we think the book fits better in a different category. (This does NOT mean we change the actual title of the book… :p) This, however, doesn’t mean that the change request will actually be approved. I asked if it would be possible to create a separate shelf for teen ya ot teen middle grade nearer their respected secular counterparts so at least the books had a better chance at being seen… and get this: there actually ARE shelves like that near their respected area, but once again we are foiled because thereally is very little ACTUAL product on those shelves because publishes (I reiterate ) don’t k kw how to label things properly. :p.
What needs to ACTUALLY happen is this: Christian titles that are not blaringly overtly “christian” NEED TO BE LABELED BY THE PUBLISHER WITH THE SAME CATEGORY LABEL AS THEIR SECULAR COUNTERPARTS. When this happens, the books will be shelved in their proper spot on the shelves where they can be seen.
Some imprints have already figured this out, like Blink… and some authors have already figured this out and have only decided to query secular houses. Their books end up in the right place to be seen… (though unless the author mentioned s something in the acknowledgements, a lot of people don’t REALIZE they are reading Christian spec-fic…)
Anyway… yes. There you have it.
And I apologize for the typos… wrote all that on my phone’s touch screen keyboard and basically it hates me… :p
One of the things I have encouraged retailers like B&N to do is to try to pull more titles from small press and indie markets. I get that this isn’t as profitable for them, but would improve their competitiveness against Amazon (I shop both, so…). You’re right on about labeling their fiction by genre rather than always as “Christian.” The Narnia and Middle Earth books are in the fantasy section, not the Christian shelves. There are two kinds of Christian fiction: Very specifically religious and those where Christianity is influencing the story (Lewis/Tolkien/MacDonald). Label accordingly.
Yup! It’s a rough fight. I’ve been fighting to encourage Christian Fantastical authors in their pursuit of excellent redemptive and spirit-filled fiction. There are quite a few books of that ilk. I agree with most of what you say except for the fact that even most of the books which are Christian only reach the level of religious fiction. Redemptive fiction and spirit-filled fiction are much more rare.
Your site suffers from what I suspect my site is afflicted with: it’s not easy to make a site which is truly useful to visitors. I can never find what I am looking for on your site. Plus, it is almost impossible to participate because the log-ins with facebook, twitter, and wordpress do not work for me. Like I said, I suspect mine is the same. I am certainly not bashing your site.
But the real problem is, as you mention, discovery. I find that Amazon’s recommendations are littered with heathen garbage, and they are the best. The recommendations from iBooks, Kobo, Nook, BookBub, and many others are completely useless.
CBD does not allow self-publishers on board, and virtually all the interesting books are self-published in our field. I review books for bethany, enclave, and other christian publishers, but almost none of their output is Christian. Enclave is the best of the bunch. They regularly publish books which rise, usually just barely, to the level of religious fiction.
So, after all that, my contention is that sites like this one and Reality Calling are two of the best resources available—and that is not saying much. What we need is a distributor with a website that enables discovery of truly Christian books—most of which are self-published.
That’s what I am praying for. I do not have the capital yet, and may never have it. It will require quite a bit of money. My question is: who is the Lord going to raise up to do this?
I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, Stephen, but I think there’s a much larger audience for Christian speculative stories right now, without any re-education. So I guess I’m disagreeing only with this line: “Fact is: Christian publishers and writers have done X, and readers did not respond.”
I honestly think we have examples of Christian speculative fiction that has succeeded, but instead of saying, Oh, that’s the kind of story or that’s how to get attention to it, I’ve heard over and over and over, Well that’s Dekker (or Peretti or Jenkins) as if he had a following before he wrote speculative stories.
The latest of those, I believe, is Andrew Peterson, who had an amazingly successful Kickstarter Campaign to turn his Christian fantasy into animated films. Here are the latest numbers: Successfully raised $265,881 with 3,169 backers. What does Kickstarter give you to meet your goals . . . like, a month? Well, this amount exceeded Peterson’s first goal by time and a half. Why? Certainly not because he’s lacking readers or that readers aren’t responding.
My belief is this: publishers need to be willing to take a risk; they need to publish really good stories; the author and publisher have to have a good strategy to get the word out that their book is available.
I just recently read the autobiography of Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, and it was so interesting to see him approach Christian houses, only to get no support for a project they were somewhat intrigued by. When he managed to create the first film on his own, he then faced the issue of how to get the word out. It’s an age old problem, not unique to speculative fiction!
More thoughts later … but Peterson is exceptional. I heard about his music long before I heard about his fantasy. My guess is that if he were a fantasy author only, he would not have attained this rousing success. Christians trust music (in church, at events, in casual conversation) more than we trust fantasy — as a whole.
Thus, I think we can learn from Peterson’s example: reach people (in churches and outside) where they are, before challenging them with something new or strange.
Peretti, Dekker, et. al. also reached people where they were, before going “weirder.”
Stephen, I think that’s the general view, but I don’t believe it to be true, at least not with Peretti. His first book, at least the first I’m aware of, was This Present Darkness. That introduced the world to Christian supernatural suspense. Ted Dekker’s first series also included visions and supernatural communication, and he moved rather quickly to his Circle Trilogy.
I agree that Andrew Peterson’s status as a musician and his popularity on tour has given him a broader platform than most writers enjoy. But that’s what I mean about learning to market base on what’s worked, not simply saying, Well, that’s Andrew Peterson. Why not seek out musicians for endorsement, if not active support? I mean, Andrew is a trusted artist because his music is God-glorifying, so it’s much easier to believe his books will be more of the same. So if another trusted musician says something positive about a fantasy, I suspect their followers will also be inclined to listen.
Maybe musicians are not apt to give writers endorsements. I don’t know. And maybe publishers have tried to go that route. It’s hard for me to think, though, that it’s been tried and has fallen flat, with zero endorsements.
It’s sort of like my idea about promoting children’s books (which we are also told, don’t sell in the CBA) to moms by teaming up with an author who writes women’s fiction, and having her recommend a book to her audience for children. I just don’t think we’re thinking creatively when it comes to marketing and promoting Christian speculative books.
Let us also not forget Lawhead, before he was kicked out for too much sex/swearing/some such nonsense. His Endless Knot was a great influence on me… one of my characters is named after one of his.
Edit: actually I have two characters that were named after or inspired by Lawhead’s.
Not sure what you mean by getting “kicked out,” since all of Lawhead’s books continue to be published under Christian imprints…
Funny you should mention the musician endorsement thing… This Present Darkness didn’t take off in bookstores until… Amy Grant talked about it on stage at her concerts. Boom. Instant best-seller.
And yet, as successful as Andrew Peterson’s kickstarter was, keep in mind that he had two books in his series published by Waterbrook, and then had to create his own indie press to get the others out.
Tim, I don’t think he “had to” as much as he chose to. But I could be wrong.
Peretti and Dekker were Stephen King for Christians. They let Christians have a clean version of the biggest secular pop author of the 80s-90s generation. That’s why they reached people, and their “going weirder” kind of matches how King started to lose it too later on.
Not sure with Peterson, he seems to have a small, but dedicated core following. Some authors just inspire them, and can’t always dissect the reasons why. Jimmy Buffet effect, I guess.
I think lots of Christians who enjoy speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror) tend to be more liberal in their reading (not necessarily their theology). These Christians want an honest story, whether gritty or heroic or just fun, they are looking for characters that aren’t stifled by Christian publishing standards.
They don’t mind characters who swear, or do violence, or have sex. They read with discernment, but they understand that some stories, if told honestly, are going to have to deal with real life, even if the setting is an epic dragon fantasy.
Stephen King’s book On Writing warns potential authors about the sin of lying. I think Christian publishing standards often force writers to lie by either not addressing certain topics, or addressing them in a very restrained way. It’s a lot like many Christian movies. They lack a certain “realistic” feel. Imagine a Christian war movie version of Saving Private Ryan, then apply that to Christian fiction.
Like I said at the start, I think Christians who like speculative fiction tend to be those that are well read in the genre. I know there are lots of Christian authors here that are writing good stories that ARE realistic, and break out of the mold that lots of Christian readers have of “Christian art”.
I personally think the best route is to go mainstream, and reach everyone. Otherwise it seems like an uphill battle focusing just on Christians who are largely reading mainstream. If we publish mainstream , and also have our Christian spec fiction communities like this one celebrating the best spec fiction books written by Christians, then we’re able to impact both the culture of the church AND the wider culture we live in.
Absolutely agree with everything you say here! And BTW you don’t have to imagine a Christian war movie version of Saving Private Ryan, it’s been made! It’s called “To End All Wars” and it is brutal, violent, horrifying, AND has a thoroughly Christian core. Here’s the trailer if you want to know more….
For me, I feel the frustration of looking for speculative Christian fiction. It’s one of the reasons I wrote my own book, because I couldn’t find what I wanted to read on the shelves. The good thing about today’s publishing scene, though is that it is easier for Christian writers whose works are outside both the mainstream (“too religious”) and the CBA (“too edgy/violent/scary/whatever”) can self-publish. My big plea is, make your book the absolute best it can be, and at the very least that would include getting it professionally edited before you release it on the world. Great stories but poor execution does not help us as a Christian writing community.
“To End All Wars” is one of my favorite movies! Yes, it’s super brutal. Sometimes the violence was about all I could take. But when the Christ-theme came in… I’ll just say that it’s been a long time since a movie has made me weep like that. Not speculative fiction but… wow. HIGHLY recommended if you can handle the violence.
As a contribution to the general discussion: Is there any venue for the self-published Christian speculative fiction authors to gather a readership? Some of those books ARE good; they just struggle with getting attention. Most of the Christian speculative fiction resources out there only promote traditionally published material. I understand that that is a “safer” strategy in terms of assuring a certain level of quality, but it can miss some great books.
You’re right. And lots of good authors are leaving traditional publishing because they can do much better self-publishing. (I’m doing this).
To get noticed, you have to pay for advertising and learn how to do it well. There are a ton of great self-published authors who share this info (authors making a six figure living). The science fiction and fantasy marketing podcast is a great start.
Yes, marketing is definitely a challenge, and it really intimidates me. You can have the best book in the world but if no one sees it, it’s dead.
Agreed! And yeah, Brian Godawa’s screenplay is exactly what I’m talking about. It wasn’t put out by a “Christian” movie company.
STEPHEN — “FANTASTICAL FAITH” — MAKE IT SO. ENGAGE!
I highly prefer your suggestion too. “Speculative” smacks too much of “anything goes, let’s just do what we want, Bible be damned.”
Thanks also for laying open these questions. Many of the Powers That Be just simply do not LIKE fantastical fiction, therefore no one should. I’ve howled about that before and won’t rant now. Keep asking the questions, Keep poking with your heavenly pitchfork. And thank you.
Coloring books *shudder*
Just last night my wife was looking for her coloring book. It’s not a completely silly or immature thing. See also: video games. But for either, if your whole life (or publishing platform) has become about them, well, you may want to rethink existence a little!
Don’t knock it till you try it. It’s very meditative and calming. Unless you didn’t like coloring even when you were a kid.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I had a recent shock when I discovered that the majority of students in my home-school co-operative classes (one day a week school for home-school kids) were allowed to watch Arrow, The Flash, Walking Dead, and other comic, zombie, or vampire-based shows, but not allowed to read fantasy novels unless they were “canon” fantasy novels like LOTR and Narnia. It kind of blew me away. Apparently, gory dead people are “okay” but wand-waving, fantasy elements are not (unless it’s Gandalf). The comic book, zombie and vampire shows were seen as okay because of “possible” science. (I stifled groaning at this point.)
Tyrean, I shared your comment on the SpecFaith Facebook page, as well as on my own personal page. The responses were intriguing. But now I’m curious: What do you think are the reasons behind this parental inconsistency?
For instance, someone said, “Well, shows like ‘Arrow’ seem more realistic and thereby slip past the ‘magic’ barrier.” But then … Damian Dahrk …
One thing I love about Christian fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, etc. is that it can be gritty and fantastic in a way a lot of standard Christian fiction isn’t and it also can be real and deep and meaningful and impact my faith in a way mainstream speculative books usually aren’t.
It just can be frustrating as a Christian fantasy writer to have to be more an apologist than a marketer. In my specific community, most people hadn’t heard of modern Christian fantasy and were a little skeptical. I’ve had to spend a lot of time explaining what Christian fantasy means and how it works. The series I wrote is a very light fantasy, but it is working as a “gateway drug” to getting others to try more fantastical Christian books by other authors. I consider that a success.
1. No infrastructure.
Fantasy and SF took off in part because of the magazine market. In more modern times, you had The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog SF, and Astounding SF to publish short stories, review new novels, and generally cultivate writers who would be ones to watch later on. They also serialized novels.
You had a vibrant anthology culture, with editors like Roger Elwood, Harlan Ellison, and Gardner Dozois who had “best of” anthologies every year. You had a ton of other anthologies too. You had trade publications like Locus, and conferences like Clarion West. Fans had multiple cons to go to.
Christian spec fic doesn’t really have this. Really, all you have is realm makers and this site. You can find more of a presence for lesbian steampunk novels than Christian spec fic (I joke, but probably so.)
2. Christian major publishers don’t care.
They are all about pleasing their secular masters. That’s why we get nonstop amish romance and bad pop psychology books. All about the bottom line, pushing junk out that sells because they have a captive market. They don’t want to spend money to promote new things, or take any risks at all.
3. Christians to a large level still distrust fantasy.
It’s not as bad as the eighties, where people seriously argued the Force in Star Wars would lead you to the occult. But geekdom of any kind never found much love or support in the church, which prefers us to be Mighty Married Men of Valor, coaching after-church softball leagues and preaching every other sunday.
There just isn’t that core demographic now.
“3. Christians to a large level still distrust fantasy.
It’s not as bad as the eighties, where people seriously argued the Force in Star Wars would lead you to the occult. But geekdom of any kind never found much love or support in the church, which prefers us to be Mighty Married Men of Valor, coaching after-church softball leagues and preaching every other sunday.”
Yeah, it’s still like this. At my old church, my artist brother as asked to do art for the church once a year: at VBS. At my new church, which is full of geeks, he was asked for some of his fan art for an event. Fan art of superheroes! Everyone loved it! It all depends on the church, but that is still an expectation for men.
I’d have to agree about the lesbian steampunk, because as long as “Christian art” conjures up associations with “Fireproof” and “God’s Not Dead,” ain’t nobody outside the subculture gonna touch it except to make fun of it. (Also ties into Burnett’s previous posts about how those outside the subculture nopeing it.)
Quote from atheist blog: “Christians aren’t winning in reality, so they make movies that show them winning–even if it makes those movies unwatchable wrecks for everyone else.” – See more at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve/2016/05/25/the-yoke-is-not-as-light-as-they-say-for-a-reason/#sthash.qWWTBBxL.dpuf
As a teacher, I think this is a frustrating problem. I see so many teens who are stuck reading Mandie and Anne of Green Gables (which I love, btw), and sneaking “secular” fantasy books when they are at school, because fantasy, unless it is Tolkein or Lewis, is considered bad. Thanks for addressing the issues of legalism, theology and pragmatism. Your post gives me better words to explain fantasy/spec. fiction. I’ve learned more from the imaginary worlds/situations I’ve read in fantasy books than I have reading about realistic characters written for “helpful” purposes.
I think it’s been touched on in previous comments, but I don’t think it can be over-emphasized: It’s not that Christians don’t want to read (or write) fantasy, but that we do not go into a “Christian bookstore” looking for it. We go to Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com. We go where we have always found high quality, enjoyable fantasy fiction: mainstream sellers.
Trying to get Christian readers and sellers to embrace “Christian fantasy” (or more broadly, “Christian speculative fiction”) is a fight I’m willing to continue for as long as I draw breath, because I think it’s a worthy cause. But I don’t expect to see complete turnabout during my lifetime (except that trends are changing so much faster with online publishing that it is *possible*). Old habits die hard.
While continuing to encourage Christian readers of the value of spec fic written from a Christian worldview, I don’t think I’ll waste my time trying to convince Christian publishers to publish it. For now, I’d rather stir up a desire for it in the readers and let them nag Christian retailers (who can then nag Christian publishers). After all, if there is a large body of Christians who enjoy Marvel and Star Wars movies (which I believe there is), how much MORE might they enjoy books and movies that entertain while staying true to Christian values?
Find the readers, introduce them to the wonders of Christian spec fic, encourage the demand. Hopefully, the rest will happen naturally.
At the same time, I hope to see more and more Christians writing fantastic speculative fiction that competes well in the general market while still reflecting a Christian worldview (however subtly).
In regards to “failed” fantasy books, I’ve seen some very poor marketing of fantasy/sci-books. The market is there, just walk a few isles over from the Christian section of Barnes & Noble to the sci-fi/fantasy section. Like you said, publishers are a business, and they have made the business choice of focusing elsewhere. Maybe fantasy isn’t on the top of Christian readers’ lists, but there are many small press and indie author titles thriving. Of course, those titles don’t need the large market that big publishers want.