When it comes to Christian literature, the genre of speculative fiction – sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. – is one of the most difficult to understand. While spec-fic titles comprise a significant chunk of the general market, Christian alternatives are noticeably scarce in religious bookstores. Why is this? Some suggest demographics, others point to a socially, theologically conservative readership. The opinions are many and varied. In order to further explore the subject of Christian Speculative Fiction, I’ve asked some of those "in the know" to help us get a better perspective.
A lifelong speculative fiction fan, Frank Creed founded the Lost Genre Guild as a community of Christian speculative fiction artists and fans. His 2036 Chicago cyberpunk novel Flashpoint: Book One of the Underground keeps winning awards and nominations. Frank is the head literary critiquer for The Finishers manuscript evaluation service. War of Attrition: Book Two of the Underground, and Join the Underground: the Role Playing Game are due for release in 2009.
Jeff Gerke, a.k.a. Jefferson Scott, is a published Christian novelist and professional book editor living in Colorado Springs. He's published six Christian novels of his own and co-written two Christian nonfiction books. He has been on staff at Multnomah Publishers, Strang Communications (where he launched the Realms imprint of Christian speculative fiction), and NavPress. He has done freelance editing for Howard, Barbour, WinePress, and more. He teaches at Christian writers conferences and has been an acquisitions and developmental editor for several years. He maintains two Web sites: Jefferson Scott and Where the Map Ends, and is the founder of Marcher Lord Press.
Rebecca LuElla Miller works primarily as a novelist, but also has covered high school and college sports as a correspondent for a Los Angeles area newspaper group and has published short stories and articles in a variety of publications, including Victorian Homes magazine. In addition, she does freelance editing, most prominently, three books in the Dragons in Our Midst series for AMG Publishers/Living Ink. She is the managing administrator for the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour, a contributor to the team blog Speculative Faith, and the founder of the CSFF promotional newsletter Latest In Spec.
There are some differing opinions as to the state of Christian Speculative Fiction. While some laud increased quality and more ezine and indie publishing options, others bemoan the lack of shelf space and lukewarm interest by mainstream Christian publishers. How would you assess the state of Christian Speculative Fiction? Should we be encouraged, concerned, or just plain frustrated?
JEFF: For over two years I've been doing my monthly interviews with movers and shakers in Christian speculative fiction publishing, over at WhereTheMapEnds. Every time, I ask the interviewee to give his or her evaluation of the current state of our genre. I've asked this of authors from Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti to agents, forums leaders, and other pioneers in this area. The answers are always either "It's going great" or "It's terrible." To me, that says things aren't really changing. Because those have been the two opinions people have been saying since I got into Christian publishing in 1994. Certainly we'd have to say that there have been great advances and successes. But we'd also have to conclude that the industry itself--more properly, the demographic reached by Christian fiction through traditional channels--hasn't changed.
I launched Marcher Lord Press largely over my frustration with this situation. I saw that traditional CBA houses were not reaching the people who desired Christian speculative fiction, and indeed those people weren't even looking for this kind of fiction from CBA houses anymore, much less going into Christian bookstores hoping to find it. The solution, it seemed to me, would be to bypass those stores and that industry and try to reach those readers directly, where they are. Which is online.
So I think we can be encouraged that more CBA houses are giving Christian speculative fiction a chance. Writers should start there first. But I wouldn't hold my breath. We can be encouraged on the other side too because indie efforts like Marcher Lord Press are springing up to try to meet the demand of this wonderful, creative, and loyal niche.
BECKY: I’m encouraged. The publishing industry is notoriously slow, so positive movement gives me hope that more is to come.
Like others, I’ve been somewhat concerned that, while CBA has apparently embraced YA fantasy, there aren’t more adult offerings. But even in this area, I think there’s hope. For instance, Bryan Davis is contracted by Zondervan for two adult speculative novels. Coupled with George Bryan Polivka’s upcoming sequel to his Trophy Chase Trilogy (Harvest House), Jeffrey Overstreet’s Cyndere’s Midnight (WaterBrook), Karen Hancock’s Enclave (Bethany) due out this summer, there are some stories for adults we can look forward to.
I’m also hopeful that Marcher Lord Press, Double-Edge Publishing, The Writer’s Café Press, Tsaba House, Capstone, and whatever other independent presses are producing Christian speculative are going to generate wide enthusiasm for the genre.
FRANK: I study this question and see a series of truths, no differing opinions. The short answer is that the present state and future of Christian sci-fi, horror and fantasy has never been so bright. But as a lifelong fan, that’s because things have been so dim for so many decades.
On the reading end of books, the long sci-fi, horror, and fantasy drought is over. Gone are the days of literally no new titles for genre fans. The free-market has opened the doors because computers, the Web, and outsourcing changed publishing. Free and not-for-profit e-zines feature short fiction online. Small Independent presses have risked the niche and targeted genre fans who tend to have other common interests: gaming, heavy metal music, and X-games thrill sports.
On the business end of books, Christian spec-fic has long been too Christian for mainstream publishers, and too niche for Christian publishers. Because of this, the genre still lacks both religious titles and shelf space. The lack of market has frustrated artists with real passions for the genre into waiting, writing, polishing our precious. As a result, literary quality has festered. There is more hope now than ever for readers and artists.
On the writing end, there is finally hope, as all the major Christian houses have a few spec-fic authors. Many artists have published with Print-on-Demand companies. The first Christian Spec-Fic only publisher, Mr. Gerke's Marcher Lord Press, is free-market cutting edge. He uses PoD technology over the old-fashioned warehouse-full-of-books method. Paradigms have shifted, the artists are thrilled, and the fans are gathering on the Web to watch for their favorite sub-genre titles in places like Where the Map Ends, the Christian Science-Fiction & Fantasy blog tour, and the Lost Genre Guild.
Speculative themes are prominent in popular culture. For instance, of the 50 highest-grossing movies of all-time, more than half contain speculative themes (The Dark Knight, The Sixth Sense, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Spider Man, etc.). In literature, there's Stephanie Meyer's Twilight epic and Rowling's Harry Potter series, which have sold gazillions of copies. Nevertheless, spec titles comprise a relatively minuscule portion of the religious fiction market. Why the disparity? Is the niche really a lot smaller than most fans are willing to admit? Are publishers constrained by demographics unique to their industry? Or is Christian Speculative Fiction somehow inferior to its secular counterpart?
BECKY: I’ll take those questions in order.
1) Why the disparity? I know many will say it’s because of the female demographic in CBA stores. I say, balderdash! We just finished a blog tour for by D. Barkley Briggs. The book was well-liked by both men and women (there were few “rave reviews,” and as one of our bloggers pointed out, balanced reviews are often the more trustworthy ones.) So if it’s not demographic, what is it? I say it is, in part, the small selection. I know from offering books on the CSFF Blog Tour that some of our readers only take the science fiction books, others opt out whenever we have a supernatural suspense, others only take YA or middle grade while another group never takes those.
For a long time, there was no significant choice in speculative titles. In addition, few stores organize their fiction by genre. Some are beginning to, and that should draw more attention to speculative titles.
Not so long ago, a fan of speculative literature could walk into a CBA store and buy Karen Hancock or Ted Dekker. That was pretty much it, and Hancock wasn’t even a for sure. Compare that to fans of romance. They can choose from Wick, Kingsbury, Lewis, Austin, Snelling, Oke, Gist, Hatcher, Rivers, Mills, Hill, ad infinitum. So what were the chances a romance fan would walk out of the store with a book to her liking versus the chances of a speculative fiction fan finding just the right book? But as I noted, slowly more speculative authors are joining the ranks, which gives readers a better chance of finding ones to their liking.
2) Is the niche smaller than what fans are willing to admit? The speculative genre is broad. Within that catch-all phrase are some small niches. But the (re)popularity of Narnia shows me that Christians still want good fantasy—the kind that includes spiritual truth.
3) Demographics – see #1. Let me add something Mirtika Schultz taught me. People may like speculative fiction without realizing it. Mike, you named some movie titles that people don’t often think of as “speculative.” Add in older movies like ET and Princess Bride—big hits, enjoyed by the segment of society who isn’t supposed to like speculative fiction. I believe it just takes the right story.
4) Is Christian speculative fiction somehow inferior to its secular [I assume by this you mean, non-Christian worldview as opposed to Christian worldview published by a general market publisher] counterpart? Not inherently. In fact, because the Christian worldview is true, we have a chance to write more powerful, life-altering fiction than someone writing from a different worldview. Do we pull it off? Well, there hasn’t yet been a Christian speculative blockbuster (unless you classify the Left Behind books as speculative – I haven’t read them to know if they are). I think the quality has improved, certainly. I see some books that come very, very close. But whether they start too slowly, have convoluted story-lines, weak characterization, improper or weak motivation, predictable plots, transparent symbolism—something—I think we’re still waiting for the breakout book.
Of course, there’s lots of discussion about what creates a breakout book. If we’re talking about sales figures, the quality of writing doesn’t seem to be a necessary ingredient.
FRANK: You mentioned demographics; here’s one to further confound your question. Shoutlife.com is one of the few Web communities one can join as a literary artist, like musical artists can join at many others. The Shoutlife authors’ page is broken down by genre. If you add the number of fantasy/ sci-fi writers to half the mystery/ suspense writers—who write spiritual thrillers—the total number of spec-fic authors surpasses even romance. Of course there are fewer authors published by traditional houses in the spec-fic categories.
In our culture, movies have become fiction’s most popular vehicle. I believe the top grossing films don’t lie, and the majority of those have been speculative. These box office successes have been credited with opening the doors to major houses for spec-fic literary artists.
The people who finally master reaching the Christian spec-fic fans, who don’t look for their fiction on the fiction shelves of Christian bookstores, are going to make a lot of money. One man you’d think would be able to answer this is Jan Dennis, literary agent for Ted Dekker, and Stephen Lawhead. Like no other, Mr. Dennis has heard that build-it-and-they-will-come voice, calling out from a cornfield somewhere.
JEFF: In my years of championing speculative projects at Christian publishing companies I have noticed that success in secular publishing has little bearing on the decisions at CBA houses. Christian publishers even sometimes bear it as a mark of pride that they're not bowing to the pressures of secular publishing.
I believe there are two main factors that come into play here. First, leadership at CBA houses and at many bookstore chains is still often suspicious of speculative fiction. (And using Tolkien and Lewis as examples doesn't help; they're considered classics that probably wouldn't sell if published new today.) Pitching anything magical or supernatural gets their shields up. Kind of like when a millionaire is chatting with someone who suddenly brings up a financial need he or she has. Suddenly he's wary. Same with spec fic in CBA publishing committee meetings.
Second, the demographic CBA houses sell to has no overwhelming interest in speculative fiction. As a group, the subset of white, American, evangelical women of child-bearing to empty nest ages doesn't want to read speculative. This group--and I love this group, by the way!--is more interested in chick-lit and cozy mysteries than in mutant alien vampires who will eat your brain.
CBA publishers know their market. They are wise to provide products that will appeal to their market and to not provide products that won't. The market for CBA fiction is not the same as for ABA fiction, and that's why publishers don't just follow what happens in secular publishing.
Of the Speculative Fiction being published by Christian houses, the majority is YA. Why is adult spec-fic lagging so far behind Young Adult in the religious market? Is this a good or a bad thing for Christians writing “adult” speculative?
FRANK: Young adult books outsell adult speculative fiction because of business. This is all about crossover potential and profitability. Adults can still enjoy books that are written for a younger audience, but younger readers can’t enjoy fiction for more mature readers. The writer of complex or heavy adult spec-fic is at a huge disadvantage. Marcher Lord Press gives such artists hope.
The psychographic of Christian bookstore shoppers and Christian bookstore buyers in general, are mothers and grandmothers. While women are a minority of the spec-fic genre, only twenty percent of men read novels at all. This means many spec-fic titles are purchased in brick & mortar Christian stores as gifts for young adult family and friends—not to be read by the buyer. YA spec-fic has huge well-intentioned birthday present potential.
BECKY: Jeff mentioned that using Tolkien doesn’t help to break down resistance to speculative fiction because his work falls in the classics category. How odd that we would deliberately steer away from anything resembling a timeless piece of literature.
Regarding your question: I think Christian spec-fic is lagging behind because Harry Potter sold well and now the Twilight books are selling well. These successes in the secular market have convinced ECPA houses that there is a market for YA fantasy. One thing I wish we would see—but I know it’s easy for me to talk because it isn’t my money on the line—is a publisher who wants to set the standard rather than dutifully follow along after the general market houses. I would like to see Christians leading rather than following.
JEFF: Adult spec-fic is lagging behind YA mainly due to the home schoolers. Many of these kids are voracious readers and are precociously brilliant. And they all dream in speculative stories. Ask any group of Christian teen novelists what they're writing and 9 out of 10 will say "fantasy."
This is the generation that's going to save us. They're growing up desiring Christian fantasy and other speculative fiction, and they're going to create a demand for more of that, and more adult stories, as they mature. So it's not necessarily a good thing for Christians writing adult speculative fiction right now, but it will be in the future.
Incidentally, Marcher Lord Press is one of the few houses that is publishing Christian speculative fiction but rejecting YA fiction. MLP is for adult Christian speculative fiction only. (However, one of my new authors thought her book was YA but I thought it was great for adults, so never fear!)
Part Two of the Christian Speculative Fiction Panel will be posted next month. Until then, we are interested in hearing your thoughts.