Sunday, July 25, 2010

Eric Wilson's Open Letter to Readers, Writers, and Publishers of Christian Fiction

After nine books and well-over a decade as an author in the Christian Fiction industry, Eric Wilson is throwing in the towel. Why? Is it because he has forsaken the faith? Is it because the grass is greener in the general market? No.

Eric Wilson is leaving the Christian fiction industry because of what he perceives that industry has become.

In a recent post entitled Is It Time for Christian Fiction to Die?, Eric expounds upon the reasons for his decision. Subtitled A Challenge to Readers, Writers, and Publishers, the article serves as a window into one Christian artist's struggle to write the story of his heart within "the parameters of a 'religious fiction' market" that have increasingly narrowed.

If you haven't read Eric's Facebook post and ensuing discussion, or the original article, you must. In it, he expounds upon his journey:

By the time I was 19, my own faith had faced more obstacles than I found in most “inspirational” novels. I hunted for stories that dealt with real issues from a Biblical perspective, but found offerings that were mostly trite and poorly written--with Bodie Thoene's books being an exception. Did it have to be this way? Even those who love Jesus struggle with doubts, depression, sexual and financial issues, addiction, and disease.

If the Bible truly offered the Answer, I wondered, then why did these stories seem so afraid to ask the questions?

Hoping to be part of the solution, I read, read, read, and wrote, wrote, wrote. I studied the craft of fiction. I earned a Bachelor’s degree with honors from an accredited Bible college, got married (faithful for 20 years now), and published my first novel in my mid-thirties. I have since written nine more novels, with over a million words in print. One of those books spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list.

Trying to be part of the solution, I have also reviewed and endorsed hundreds of novels—the majority of them by Christian brothers and sisters. I've done my best to open doors for up-and-coming authors. I've invested the past decade in broadening the reach and readership of this market, and in reclaiming genres that had been hijacked by immoral and/or humanistic worldviews. Despite my efforts, and many incredible yet relatively unknown writers who have bettered them... this market’s recent influence and parameters seem to have narrowed.

Of course, Eric Wilson is not the first or the only Christian artist to express concerns about the "narrowing parameters" of the Christian market. Some would say, no doubt, that Eric's growing frustration and eventual exasperation are his own doing. The titles are a reflection of what Christian readers want, the argument goes. If you don't like it, then go publish in the general market.

But at stake is a larger issue, one that threatens to permanently caricature Christian fiction and force the exodus of many other talented Christian authors. He writes:
If our own writings fail to also wrestle honestly with life’s difficulties, it seems to me that we gloss over the bloody, earth-shaking war that Jesus fought on the cross—and we undermine the triumph of His resurrection.

True, the publishing number-crunchers feel the need to meet profit margins. Yes, we writers of the faith are called to honor God in our storytelling. Does this mean, though, that we should censor all the raw elements? Isn’t the Bible itself filled with depictions of violence, sexual misconduct, deceit, and bigotry? Some of its stories have happy endings. Some are dark cautionary tales. Few, if presented as modern fiction, would make it past the industry’s “gatekeepers.”

...I know there are authors who desire to write more than scrubbed-clean, rose-scented fiction. Must all Christian novels be “inspirational,” or can’t some be challenging, daring, even ironic and unresolved? (emphasis mine).

Eric's query is the crux of the issue -- What should Christian fiction look like? Should it be "scrubbed-clean, rose-scented fiction,"or can it be "challenging, daring, even ironic and unresolved"? Must it target a narrow swath of conservative church-goers, or can it discard traditional guidelines in order to address a broader "seeking" audience? If Eric's decision is any indication, the debate may be already over.
The Christian-fiction market, if it remains myopic, could very well die. I hope it does not. It has done many good things and produced some quality novelists, both commercial and literary in nature. Before we settle into mediocrity, I pray we'll see godly writers of all genres, all ages, all races, ready to raise the bar even higher and impact the world around them. Some are already published but struggling. Others are waiting for their opportunity. The question isn’t whether the market will die, so much as whether it will push aside fear and allow its authors to live.
If you've been around for a while, you know about Eric's passion for Christ, his love for the lost, and his desire to encourage other Christian writers. He is not grinding an axe or thumbing his nose at us before splitting the scene. Nor is he down on Christians who write exclusively for other Christians. This is a veteran of the Christian fiction industry, not a bitter, unpublished author. Which is all the more reason we should sit up and take notice. And ask questions.

Is our industry forcing writers like Eric Wilson to go elsewhere? Have we "narrowed the parameters" of our fiction so tightly that they have become shackles, a Pharisaical system of our own making? Must Christian authors with a heart for the lost leave the Christian fiction industry just to follow their call? And can we afford to keep closing our ears to this issue?

Whatever the answers, I'm a fan of Eric Wilson! Thanks, Eric, for fighting the good fight! Godspeed and wisdom to you, blessing and provision as well. And consider me part of the next wave of troops...

* * *

Mike is a monthly contributor to Novel Journey. He is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary. Look for Mike's debut novel, "The Resurrection," in stores Spring of 2011. You can visit his website at


Jennifer Lyn King said...

Excellent piece, Mike and Eric, on what happens when the raw elements of story are censored out. Thanks for having the courage to stand firm. -Jennifer

Kathy K said...

An interesting article. However, I see no reason to lament a Christian author leaving the exclusivity of the Christian audience. Instead, I rejoice! We need more Christians willing to write for the general populace and we need Christian readers to be shaken out of their safe little sub-culture and learn to live and interact with the rest of society.

Paul's discourse in Athens was fill with references to Greek writings, theatre and even a hymn to Zeus. He didn't quick look up some sources on the internet to help connect with his audience. He was fully familiar with the culture of the day.

It's time to get out of your foxholes, Church. No one can see your light down there. Get up on the hill.

Mike Duran said...

Kathy, my real lamentation (and I think Eric's) is that in order to write for "seekers," Christian authors are forced to look outside Christian publishing. That doesn't make sense. Can't we broaden our understanding of Christian mission and art to the point where it includes both discipleship and evangelism? Thanks for your comments!

Gina Holmes said...

I don't really understand the argument. I adore Eric for his Christian heart but I don't agree that the road is narrowing. He just read my debut which deals with a pregancy out of wedlock, with feelings of lust, anger, unforgiveness, etc. There are plenty more that deal with the tough subjects. Yes the Amish books are dominating and romance may always but there are books for every taste and every struggle.

Ane Mulligan said...

Some Christian publishers are breaking out of the mold. The one thing you miss in this, Eric, are the readers. A good portion of the Christian audience wants light, entertainment which carries with it an inspirational message. And in times like these, those are needed.

At the same time, we also need to present those other issues, however, I'm seeing them daily. Gina rightly said her "Crossing Oceans" deals with unwed pregnancy. Christa Allen's "Walking on Broken Glass" deals with alcoholism. Lisa Samson's "Resurrection in May" illustrates finding our purpose and shattered faith.

So I believe the CBA is opening up those old traditional boundaries. And I say bravo!

BK said...

I do think CBA is slowly expanding to cover more and more styles and preferences but I don't believe it has yet reached the stage where it offers fiction for every taste.

Mike Duran said...

Gina, the argument is that even though "certain" topics CAN be addressed, many can't. As Eric mentioned in his post, some biblical stories would probably have a hard time making it past today's censors, especially if those stories were literally re-enacted. (Rahab's "business" for instance, when Abraham "pimped" his wife out, or Elijah commanding bears to maul the boys who taunted his baldness (II Kings 2:23-24), to name a few.)

Our industry is PG-rated at best. Of course, a good story can be told without graphic elements. But must all graphic elements be scrubbed? The guys I work with (in construction) find it rather humorous that my characters -- even the bad guys -- can't say as much as "crap" w/out getting their mouths washed out with soap. So while we may be able to broach tough topics, we are really limited as far as how explicit we can be in "showing" them.

Nicole said...

I'm sure within the parameters of what Eric wants to do he has encountered these staid obstacles. And much of what he said has merit because he's lived it. But I'd have to agree with Gina on this. Authors have gone a whole lot farther than even Gina's novel in tackling difficult or unwelcome struggles without doing "sweet, tidy, and simple conversion" moments. (Steven James, Lisa Samson, Robert Liparulo, Ted Dekker)

I do think it's fair to point out the weaknesses and the places where the parameters have been unnecessarily narrowed. I think it's good to be that voice when it's done with the experience and respect that Eric has garnered with his writing.

Nothing wrong with feeding the Amish monster while the frenzy is rabid. To the neglect of other types of literature? Once you lose some readers, you'll have a terrible time trying to pull them back.

It seems publishers would want to gain readers and not be content to feed the current dominant trends, but a lot of professionals maintain they have become totally risk-averse in today's economy.

The ABA has parameters in certain genres as well which is often left out of the discussion. Not that this would apply to Eric.

The shaping of CBA seems to be ongoing. What it is and what it might be can depend on these kinds of discussions.

(And, Mike, PG is a farce. Read Redeeming Love, Comes A Horseman, The Patrick Bowers Series by Steven James, The Passion of Mary-Margaret, or even The Famous One to name a few. They would be R-rated if made into films as written.)

Gina Holmes said...

Are you sure your characters can't say "crap" Mike? Or are you assuming they can't? I got away with "horny" and a man saying a woman's "on the rag". I'm not saying you will get away with it, but I think we assume a lot by not trying.

patti said...

Oh, Eric, I feel your pain. You were such a cool refreshing wind of hope and inspiration when we meet at SOKY this year.

The cool thing is that God is in control of both the ABA and CBA. Wow! His stories can change lives, change WRITERS, in both markets!

Wherever and however you write, I pray that God will lavish His intent, His hope, His love, most of all, His miraculous plan of salvation in every word!!!

Blessings, Eric,
P.S. Now that my daughter and s-i-l live in Nashville, just might run into you at Fido!

wilsonwriter said...

Why is it that those who want to leave the bunkers, as it were, and go into the battlefield, can find so little support? They are called rebels, fools, lone rangers, but if they try to find a covering or backing, they are told to get back inside the bunkers.

I have worked with two of the larger CBA publishers, and the parameters narrowed quite a bit over the last two years for subject matter, dialogue, and situations. That's just my experience. Though I can say, I've heard from at least ten other published authors who are frustrated with the slicing and dicing of their contracted stories with different CBA houses.

I am not calling CBA to change. They have made their position clear, to provide an alternative and do so for a profit. I am calling Christian authors, editors, readers, and publishers to broaden our view of art, evangelism, and purpose in a fallen world.

Gina Holmes said...

I think you'll have lots of support, Eric. We are, after all, on the same team. May God richly bless you in your endeavors. Your heart is surely for Him. You can't go wrong.

wilsonwriter said...

Oh, and if you'd like to read the article in its entirety (which also mentions some quality CBA authors and calls upon the words of a great Russian novelist), it's available at my website:, under "The Latest" section.

wilsonwriter said...

Gina, I love what you did in your book, and that's all the more reason I wish our market would broaden its appeal instead of being separated from those very readers your sort of story could impact.

Keep up the great work. I have nothing but respect for you and many others in this industry.

Tina said...

I'm behind you, Eric. Thanks for speaking out and being honest about what many CBA writers are thinking and feeling, but haven't found a way to express. I hope you reach a ton of readers in the general market.

Gina Holmes said...

I think the broadening of the appeal is going to come from individuals. Charles Martin moved to ABA and is doing quite well there. Even hit the NYT list. There's a market for us but it takes word of mouth. We keep doing our part to let people know that all of Christian fiction isn't what they've got in their minds. Shattering the sterotypes. It will take all of us doing our part. Speaking up in interviews, particularly in secular media.

wilsonwriter said...

The argument isn't over PG- vs. R-rated material. The issue to me is taking stories beyond our own pews and walls, using our God-given talents to impact and shape culture, not to simply remain "safe."

I respect those authors who feel called to something different. There's more money to be made by toeing the "safe" line--as I personally experienced with my biggest seller.

There is also a world that is drowning, while we read beach books on the shore and figure "They should've paid attention to the warning signs." Sorry, but I'm diving in.

Whether or not I ever have another contract, I know I am called to the lost, dying, and "unlovely." I can only be faithful to what God has put within me.

E. Stephen Burnett said...

If Christian authors, passionate to explore tougher themes and stories, desire readers who share this, it is not the industry that must change first, but readers.

In churches, families and Bible study groups, professing Christian readers (many of them women) have been taught automatically to favor shallow, "inspirational" stories.

They may love their Jesus. And He may be the real Jesus. They are certainly saved and in His family.

But are they aware of the real battles going on in His Kingdom?

Does "go into the world and make disciples" actually mean "stay at home and make safe environments for yourself and your family"?

Pastors, study group leaders and lay Christians must teach about and live for a bigger God, sovereign and loving, Who does all according to His will and for His Own Name's sake and glory. Without this, all attempts to persuade people to read deeper fiction will seem at best unnecessary, and at worst, moral legalism or license!

So for those older ladies ("bless their hearts!") who only want to read about the Amish: we might ask, why? Do these stories reflect God's glory in the best ways? Do they more or less imitate God in His role as Creator, and show the entirety of His Gospel?

Let us lovingly teach the Gospel, all of it -- tough parts included -- as the foundation for promoting new, God-exalting epic fiction.

David N Alderman said...

What a great post. Being a self-published, 'edgy Christian sci fi/fantasy author', I can totally relate. I just recently made the decision to stop marketing myself as sci fi/fantasy and to narrow myself as what I described above.

I have a heart to reach others for Christ, to entertain, but not to shy away from those topics that God wants all of us to face at one point or another. The first chapter of my latest novel has a rape scene in it that is essential to storyline and I felt afraid at first of putting it in the book because of how I was raised, that these issues shouldn't be discussed, let alone written in a book.

Walking out of my comfort zone, I have learned to write about topics that everyone can relate to. I have members of my church and unsaved friends of mine praising my edgy spiritual fiction. I think it is time we step up as Christian authors and write what we're led to write, not what we feel would be accepted by the Christian fiction market, our mothers or even our friends. That isn't to say we shouldn't console our Godly discernment of what is or isn't appropriate to the story or to the reader (there is such a thing as going too far) but we should all be willing to at least try and find that balance.

That also isn't to say there isn't a market or readers out there for Christian fiction that doesn't have edgy content in it. I just think there are so many authors out there that want to write edgy Christian fiction or who have written edgy Christian fiction who are too afraid to show it or to try and introduce it into the market.

wilsonwriter said...

I wonder, on a side note, how many Christians who read novels even shop in the "inspirational fiction" section of their bookstores? I'm not only concerned that we are missing those outside the church, but even a good deal of those inside.

There are many angles of this entire issue, and I've only stirred the questions in hopes of challenging us toward greater things.

Chip MacGregor said...

Sorry, but I didn't find this a compelling argument. He says Christian fiction is going to die... but the fact is it's healthy and the fastest-growing segment of publishing over the past ten years. He says the books are "scrubbed clean" "rose -scented," but there are plenty of edgy, issue-filled novels in CBA. He bemoans the fact that more simplistic books sell. Sure, deeper books sometimes get pushed aside in order to sell more historical romances and friendly Amish books... so what? That's the history of art. If you don't believe me, check out the difference in ticket sales between a symphony and a Jason Bieber concert. While it sounds cool to say "we don't want to make money, but just create great art," I think that's a tired argument. The fact is, the market calls for both edgy AND safe books. CBA provides both. If you haven't found them, I don't think you're trying very hard. If you want to do books for seekers or nonChristians, then I'd argue doing a CBA book might be the wrong venue. Consider moving to a general market house. But don't hammer the industry with pronouncements about how it's failing you or not as deep as it should be.

Mike Duran said...

Chip, I find it troubling that Christian authors who want to write for "seekers or nonChristians" must do so apart from Christian publishers. Doesn't this prove the very thing Eric is saying, that the CBA is aimed exclusively at the people in the pews and can potentially become myopic? Shouldn't Christians be the ones casting their nets and "going into all the world"? I dunno, it just seems ironic that we must seek secular houses to do that.

And as one who reads both CBA and general market books, I just haven't found these "edgy" CBA books people keep talking about. (And if someone cites Francine Rivers again in this regard, I'm gonna kick my dog.) You say, "The fact is, the market calls for both edgy AND safe books. CBA provides both." I dunno. These books might be "edgy" in relation to CBA standards, but as someone who works in the construction field and reads pretty widely, they really aren't. Thanks for your comments, Chip!

Chip MacGregor said...

Francine - edgy? Ha! I love Francine, but she's not what I'd consider edgy. A selection: Read Lisa Samson, Charles Martin, Gina Holmes, Claudia Mair Burney, Stephen James, Mary DeMuth, Mark Bertrand's "Back on Murder." That should get you started.

wilsonwriter said...

Chip, I wonder if you read my original blog in its entirety. I actually hailed some of those authors you mention. And, I know as a fact, most of them are struggling to make a living as quality writers in CBA.

My issue isn't art vs. money. My issue isn't that CBA has no place or validity. (Again, I wonder if you read my entire blog.) My issue is that those who want to reach beyond the church walls--which, really, should be something all believers have some heart for--can find no avenue to do so in this industry.

I don't want to be a lone ranger. I don't want to be a "rebel." But if I pursue the goal of helping affect my culture, instead of staying secluded from it, I am given no option but to strike out on my own. And the moment I leave the bunker to enter the battlefield, I am subject to not only enemy fire but "friendly" fire, as well.

Imagine if we told missionaries, "We are sorry, but if you want to reach those outside the church and in other cultures, you will have to do so without any help or support from us. That's just not something we do here." I think we have missed some of the very core of Christianity and Jesus' call, when we fail to find ways to help artists of all sorts to use their talents beyond our religious "safe" and "family friendly" zones.

Sue Dent said...

Too bad that CBA applies and uses the label "Christian" which is a blanket label under which many faiths fall, (some of which CBA doesn't even recognize) to promote their very exclusively denominationally targeted fiction (and have been doing so since 1950.)

Too bad that Ingram bought up denominationally exclusive (also fee-based) Spring Arbor in 1974 because of the money Spring Arbor stood to make from the thriving denominationally exclusive distributor.

Too bad Ingram continues to allow CBA to be denominationally exclusive while tagging their then newly acquired Spring Arbor "THE" Christian Publishing Industry when it isn't that at all.

And way too bad that the real Christian writers who are still writing and never stopped writing for the broader Christian market or rather general market get to sit back and watch this charade.

What is Christian fiction? Really?

It never had to be explained before. Not until one organization, designed to appeal to a very specific denominationally targeted group (and charging publishers to do so) claimed a blanket label like "Christian" and never specified that their work and audience were and are VERY targeted.

Yeah too bad. But I've been told that's good business. Hmmm . . .
Shame on you CBA. Shame on you Ingram and shame on all the authors who ever wrote for affiliated publishers and knew and still know what they are about.

My thoughts on Eric leaving? Good luck writing for general market readers, where the majority of Christian readers actually are. And oh yeah, welcome to the jungle!

And does Eric's leaving CBA mean he already has hooks in with a general market publisher or is the announcement designed to get them to perhaps pay attention?

Mike Duran said...

Wow, Sue, notch down the rhetoric. Please. This isn't an "us v. them" issue.

Anonymous said...

I have always been a vocal proponent of Going Mainstream. I come from classic SF litfandom, and after Poul Anderson and Cordwainer Smith (the latter acknowledged as a Christian SF writer by everybody EXCEPT the Christians), coming down to the Official CBA/ECPA version of Christian (TM) SF was quite a letdown. In the Eighties, we used to say "It's gotta be Christian -- look how lame it is!"

What has happened in Christian Fiction is similar to what happened in Soviet-era Russia, when the Party bureaucrats of GLAVLIT became the USSR's gatekeepers who said what shall and shall not be published. Writers and Artists either had to write Correct Socialist Realism to Edify the System or go underground and self-pub through Samizdvat.

Well, the CBA/ECPA monopoly is the Christian GLAVLIT, and Sanitized Bonnet Romances and Left Behind knockoffs the Socialist Realism.

Sue Dent has won awards for her Never Ceese series of Christian paranormal romances. Sue Dent had to go Samizdvat.

Jeff Gerke was an insider in a major Christian publisher. Jeff Gerke started Marcher Lord as a Samizdvat.

Headless Unicorn Guy

Mike Duran said...

Okay, now y'all are getting weird. If this is going to turn into an anonymous hate-on-CBA dogpile, we're closing comments.

wilsonwriter said...

Headless Unicorn Guy, I hope you get to read my entire article, since it was actually Solzhenitsyn's words on this subject that inspired me to voice these thoughts in the first place.

No, Sue, I have no announcements, no hidden agendas. My lack of marketing smarts has always been my bane.

My heart is, and always has been, to see the arts be used in creative, missional ways, and for the church to recognize and support those gifts in the family of God.

C.J. Darlington said...

One aspect of this whole discussion I've yet to see brought up is the fact that I believe that to get our CBA novels read by seekers, it's up to CBA readers to give the novels to their friends. Most seekers aren't going to pick up a CBA novel. Period. It happens, but it's not happening in huge numbers. But what is happening, and something we really can't measure, is for a Christian to read a novel with a message and pass it on. "Hey, I read this book I think you'll like..." Just because the seeker isn't the buyer doesn't mean they're not reading your books.

Just a thought...

Mike Duran said...

Appreciate your comments, CJ. I agree that that's part of the issue. After all, word of mouth is the primary mechanism for movement. However, Christians giving non-Christians books to read often smacks of "hidden agenda." It's like my Amway friends who gave me this "great book" about Jesus being a "Double Diamond." Um, I shoulda passed.

The question I'm asking here (and I think Eric, as well) is why CBA publishing houses can't / don't develop mainstream imprints that release more outreach-oriented books into the ABA as general fiction. As I responded to Chip, Christians should be the ones casting their nets and "going into all the world." Yes, that would involve giving books to our seeking friends. But it would also involving "sowing" into that reading field. So it just seems ironic that we must seek secular houses to do that.

Thanks for your comments!

DiDi said...

I didn't read all comments, because I'm hearing a very loud (screaming) voice that won't let me finish. Why not self-publish? If you believe in God and believe in your work...why on earth conform to someone else's expectations? Go where HE leads.

~michelle pendergrass said...

Really, Chip? Seriously? CBA offers books that aren't safe?

You named a few authors, most of whom I know on a personal level. I respect them and their work. I would hardly agree, though, they they offer books outside of that "safe" box.

Show me one--just one--unsafe, non-sanitized book in the CBA.