‘Christian Fiction’–a Stepchild?

“It’s too bad,” says my wife, “that whenever you see the label ‘Christian’ attached to anything, it means an imitation of something in the popular culture with some Christian stuff just tacked on to it.” Hence “Christian rock”, “Christian rap,” etc. But what about “Christian fiction”?

Is this just regular fiction that’s not quite as good as the secular stuff, but which has a special market because it’s labeled “Christian”? There are special best-seller lists for “Christian fiction”– but when do the top books on those lists wind up on the real best-seller lists?

Just skimming over some of those “Christian” lists, I see what appear to be a lot of goopy love stories, tons of ’em, with sprinklings of fantasy, adventure, science fiction, and whatnot. It made me wonder, “Is this the best we can do?”

Don’t get me wrong. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the best fantasy anybody ever wrote, and their work was “Christian” down to the ground–because they were Christians! And if you like mysteries, there’s Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton, Brother Cadfael by Ellis  Peters, and Father Dowling by Robert McInerney. The lead characters in these books could not be themselves without being thoroughly, deeply Christian. These also happen to be crackerjack, award-winning mysteries.

We are probably better off without the label “Christian” on our books, and maybe even better off without “Christian fiction” best-seller lists. The label sort of says, “A substitute for the real thing, so you, the Christian reader, can read this stuff without feeling like a sinner.” All of the writers mentioned in the previous paragraph did just fine without the label or the lists.

Do we not believe that Christianity, that God’s word, is the truth? And should not the truth inform everything we write, even our most imaginative fiction?

If “Christian fiction” is perceived as inferior to the regular stuff, shouldn’t Christian writers be working overtime to do away with that perception? And how do you do away with it? By writing fiction that can compete successfully with the secular stuff, overtake it, and pass it.

In case you hadn’t noticed, our popular culture is desperately in need of Christian influence.

6 comments on “‘Christian Fiction’–a Stepchild?

  1. Lee,
    my wife has written 3 novels in a series and is working on a new one. My daughter has wrote a young readers novel ( Which I illustrated) and she is working on a second which is a continuation of the first one. You mentioned rip off self publishing outfits recently. My wife started her own publishing company to do her books . BUT no one is buying them. I am a voracious reader , as is our kids ( all adults now) I know good writing, and I’m not just saying it’s good because my wife wrote it.Her stuff is good. But she doesn’t do sappy perfect June Cleaver type characters that most “Christian authors are cranking out . There are no curse words or sex in her books , but the characters do sin and not everybody is a Christian, and everybody doesn’t get saved in the end. It seems to me that people want sappy unrealistic stuff . Why is this?
    Ron Hoy

    1. Ron, there are several reasons why no one is buying books written by your family members.
      1. People generally don’t take self-published works seriously.
      2. They expect self-published books to be inferior, and this turns about to be true about 99% of the time. After all, they reckon, if it were any good, some real publisher would have paid the author for the right to publish it.
      3. I have a real publisher who pays me, but even I have a lot of trouble selling books. If people don’t know your book exists, they can’t buy it. This blog is about the only advertising I get: the publisher has no budget for it. Also, my books are not distributed to the bookstores; you can only order them online. This practically kills all hope of anyone making an impulse buy because they like the cover. Again, if people don’t know a book is available, they won’t buy it.
      4. I’ve read a number of self-published books recently, and found them remarkable for poor grammar, spelling errors, random punctuation, poor sentence structure, and poor choice of words. Why haven’t these writers learned the rules of English composition? Okay, it takes time and lots and lots of practice. And some people think they don’t need to do that, if they want to be writers. It’s like someone who just learned how to strum two or three chords on the guitar expected to cut a hit record. Artistic vision is great, and you can’t write anything worthwhile without it: but if you really don’t know how to deliver that vision in well-chosen words, you go nowhere.
      Your stories may well be a lot better than that “sappy unrealistic stuff” that passes for a lot of “Christian fiction.” It seems the standards for professionally published books are going downhill fast. But when I read a sentence that winds up making no sense because the writer lacked the technical skill to express his thought, I’m gonna be mighty mad if I paid for it.

      You mustn’t be surprised that people are not buying your wife’s books. Mostly they’ve never heard of them.

      If the books really do have lots of merit, you must find a professional publisher who will make them easily available to the public.

      And that quest, believe me, is another trail of tears.

    2. Lee
      Thanks for your reply. This is Ron’s wife, Peggy. I really think my husband’s point was that we have been in over thirteen states this year in church meetings with Christian readers who do not buy my books when they are set out on our tables. They look at the back and see there is a lack of sap, look at the price (just a bit over printing cost) and say they don’t want to take a chance, and buy the Amish books instead. They know what they contain. They don’t see the need in having an FBI mystery book, I guess.

      I admit that when I published my first book, I was so excited to get it finished that there are more errors in it that I would like. However, I will also say that I have read books published by “real” publishers – that have “real” editors – that have as many mistakes as my first novel, or more.

      And as far as good writing is concerned, we should ask what’s in a name? lol Well if you’re a best selling author, I guess you’re name is worthy enough to cut and paste characters, juggle some moving parts, and get a beach house where you can sit and stroke your muse! That is what happens. Same bat time, same bat channel – same plot – over and over. Those best selling authors are not really great writers sometimes. Agree or disagree, it’s the same as politics. The biggest, brightest name gets the vote. Some people buy books because they read one book by one author, and they want more. Some people buy books because they read one genre, (maybe fantasy?) and they want more. I say it’s the luck of the draw in a lot of cases.

      If you want to take a chance on my books, they are available on Amazon in print, and Kindle. Father’s House Publishing also has a Facebook page. My books are also available on Audible.com, which is an awesome venue. If you haven’t thought of having your books read aloud, you should check that out. (I also have a recommendation for a narrator. He did my books.)

      The deals I found through (insert publisher here) were ridiculously overpriced and they did not guarantee marketing, so exactly which ‘real’ publisher are you referring to that would do more marketing than I have done for myself in my own little self-publishing, home business?

      I say it never hurts to work hard at whatever you do, and give God the glory. He will promote you in his time. Have a reason for everything you do, and do it better than the competition. 🙂

    3. Peggy, if I knew how to sell books without advertising, I’d tell you. As to why people aren’t buying your books at conferences–well, I just don’t know. The price seems about right, and the covers look good.

      I would like to make it clearer, what I mean by a “real publisher.” I mean a publishing firm that pays you for the right to publish your book; you don’t pay them, they pay you. I would never, never pay anyone to publish my work–no more than I would pay someone to let me stack shelves in his store. The laborer is worthy of his hire.

      Yes, I know a lot of really lousy books are published by real publishers. I’ve reviewed enough of them! It really can’t be helped–there are a lot of people working as editors these days who wouldn’t have been allowed in the door, years ago. But it’s still true that the bigger the publisher, the more books you sell.

      I had four novels published, back in the late 1980s. No one ever heard of me; but it was a major publisher, using nationwide distributors, and I wound up selling some 100,000 copies over a span of years. (No, I did not get rich. My royalty was something like 25 cents per book, minus the advance.) On the other hand, the bad news was that, when the publisher was through with me, he tossed me overboard without even a goodbye.

      My fantasy novels are published by the Chalcedon Foundation, an international Christian ministry. The bad news is, they have no advertising and the books are not in the bookstores. The good news is, I can trust them. All the way.

      Maybe Father’s House Publishing will take off someday–who knows? If there’s any quality a writer needs above all, it’s persistence. We might even call it “stubbornness.” This is why, for all my life, I never paid anyone a dime to publish any word I ever wrote. I see it as an integrity issue. Starting your own publishing house is a different matter altogether–something that simply wasn’t feasible until after the Internet came along. Maybe someday that will be a profitable way to go. But not yet–it’s too new.

      At this point, the only suggestion I can offer you is to try to get guest spots on assorted Christian media, maybe get yourself onto youtube, and see what you can do to talk up your books. There may be a way to liven up your table at the conferences you go to. I would not advise you to hire a publicist. All they seem to do is send out unsolicited emails to a lot of people like me. You can do that yourself, for free. You might also set up a blog like this one.

      If I had more promotion, I’d sell more books. Chalcedon manages to sell my books at conferences. If they put them in the bookstores, they’d sell more. But for the time being, I’m stuck being my own promoter.

      Anyway, it looks to me like you should be able to sell some of your books: so stay with it, and good luck.

      Lee Duigon

  2. I’ve thought about that. A lot, actually. It does seem like so much ‘Christian’ fiction (book or movie) tacks Christian stuff onto a regular, low-quality story. Or else the preachiness and good guy = Christian, bad guy = non Christian message overrides the actual story.
    (We read in the Bible of quite a few non-believers who, though they weren’t right or God-fearing by any means, were honorable and in some cases were much better people outwardly than God’s own people.)
    But then I’ve read plenty of non-Christian fiction which is just as preachy for atheism, evolution, whatever. It’s just that people tend to overlook that because things like that have become so common. So in these books, or movies, the ‘good guys’ are the broad minded, rational thinkers, while the ‘bad guys’ are the narrow minded prejudiced ones who need to be converted.
    So in the end, I think that Christians and non-Christians alike have a pretty fair amount of talent and non-talent spread between them. Some write wonderful books, most write mediocre books. Just because something has the label ‘Christian’ on it doesn’t mean it’s going to be good, nor does it mean it’s going to be bad.
    And a lot of what goes for a bestseller nowadays, in my opinion, isn’t worth the paper its synopsis is written on.

    1. Back in the late 1980s, early 90s, I got in on the horror boom and got four of my horror novels published. But do you know what happened to the horror market? Because the demand was high, and competition for the readership so keen, the publishers started cranking out all sorts of crummy junk and labeling it “horror.” Readers soon learned that a book advertised as “horror” usually just meant “horrible.” And the horror market crashed, imploded, burying the good (including yours truly) with the bad.

      The regular publishing was bad enough without getting diluted by self-publishing. But then writing a novel is the one and only form of art that absolutely everybody thinks he can do, just rolling out of bed. I don’t understand why that’s so! I mean, we don’t get “Oh, sure, I could dance ballet if I wanted to–I wouldn’t have to study it for years and years, and practice every day.” Maybe I’m some kind of simpleton because it took me some 40 years of work to learn how to write a decent novel.

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