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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Thoughts on Writing Accidental Erotica

I might be in trouble. Today I got a letter from an author I respect. I had asked him to consider endorsing my upcoming novel The Opposite of Art. He wrote to say he couldn’t do it. There is, in his opinion, too much “sex stuff” which would offend his readers.

Uh oh.

It’s true this is something of a crossover novel, my first attempt to dip a toe in the general fiction waters, but even so I would never write an erotic scene on purpose.

Could it be I’ve done that accidentally?

Could I be that out of touch?

Usually in this column the idea is for me to offer you advice, but this month is different. This month, I’m the one who’s flummoxed.

Befuddled.

Discombobulated.

And here’s why:

There’s no sex scene in The Opposite of Art.

To the best of my recollection, the only places in the novel where having sex is mentioned is in conversations about a woman’s breakup with the protagonist. She leaves him because of her conviction that their premarital sex is wrong. Conversations about that, it seems to me, are a good thing.

Right?

In the interest of full disclosure, there is a scene where the protagonist thinks about this woman’s body, but he thinks of it as a painter would, using terms an artist might use, landscape terms (hills, valleys), not as a lover would, using sexual terms.


He thinks of her as a painter might think of how to paint a nude because he's, you know, a painter. Also, that scene is intended to say something about the artist in the early going, about how he thinks about all the people in his life, so it really is there for a good reason; it’s not gratuitous.

And it seems to me the language in Song of Solomon is much more suggestive than that scene. Any reader who finds such a scene titillating would probably object to nudes in paintings at the Louvre.

But of course my friend is right to think there are such readers.

Just as even the sight of a woman's ankle can be titillating if you're Amish, or a fundamentalist Muslim, or an ultra-orthodox Jew, there are also evangelical readers (a fringe element among us I hope, but very vocal, as fringe elements tend to be) who also think of sex and the human body as something that should not be spoken of, written of, heard or seen.

And now, a brief aside having nothing to do with writing fiction:

Such people always say their attitude is based on respect for the female body.

But it seems to me people who take offense at merely observing (or reading about) the human form are living out of balance. Ironically, their point of view leads to much the same mistake as some pornographers who claim to appreciate the female body while actually objectifying it.

Question: who is more reduced to object status: a Playboy centerfold, or a woman in a burqa?

Answer: it's a distinction without much of a difference.

And now, back to writing.

I hate that term “edgy fiction,” don’t you? I’ve certainly never thought of my own work that way. But here I am, up against it, possibly. Or possibly not. All I know for sure is this: I respect the author who warned me, and many of his readers are also my readers, so here I am, wondering if The Opposite of Art will have trouble in the Christian market.

The novel's coming out in September. So why not just wait and see?

Well, it's always fun to watch a train wreck in slow motion, and if this book is going to kill my career anyway, I might as well help folks have fun. Also, while it's way too late to stop the presses, it occurred to me that we could have a teachable moment here, (for you, if not for me), a classic example of an author misjudging his readership.

The only question is, which author has misjudged the readers: me, or the author who wrote to warn me?

To get to an answer, it does no good for us to talk in theory. We need actual examples, because one person’s “edgy” is another person’s “mainstream.” So with apologies in advance to anyone offended by what follows, here are some excerpts from The Opposite of Art which I suspect my friend has in mind.

Scene One: a painter and model, former lovers, in the painter’s studio. The painter says . . .

“Well, as long as you’re here, how about taking off your clothes so I can paint?”

“I told you I’m not going to do that anymore.”

He tried to hide the disappointment. Over the last few months, Suzanna had become his favorite model. He had painted her so often he already knew how he’d have her pose this time. Naked on the bed she’d lie almost on her belly, her left leg and left arm straight down, her right arm cocked underneath her chin, and her right leg bent so that her ankle lay upon her calf. He imagined how the open window’s draft would raise goose bumps to cast tiny shadows in the oblique bedside light, her brown curvatures assuming surrealistic forms, a mountain range, a field of dunes. His eyes would roam across the shapes and masses as they would across a landscape, the slightly upraised shoulder as one peak, the buttocks as two others, the graceful spine curving between them like a hanging valley. The play of light would impose intriguing shades upon her dark skin. Shadows within shadows. Something beckoning, that same elusive quality he had almost seen within the streaks of black across the bricks.

“Please, baby,” he said. “I really want to paint you tonight.”

“That’s not all you want to do to me.”

He smiled. “Well, that too. But first I want to paint.”

“Only if I leave my clothes on.”

He sighed. “Oh, all right.”

Scene Two: the same characters later on, breaking up because she has begun to view sex differently . . .

She touched his arm with the back of her fingers, lightly, and then removed her hand. “I can’t stay.”

He felt his jaw set with a sudden rush of anger. Turning, he strode out of the bedroom into the little sitting room. He leaned against the white enameled kitchenette and lit a Marlboro, knowing that annoyed her almost as much as marijuana. She followed him, stopping in the middle of the sitting room, one foot on the edge of the tarp beneath his easel.

“Please don’t be mad,” she said.

He took a deep drag on the Marlboro and stared at the ceiling. “I’m not mad.”

“Of course you are.”

Still looking away from her heartbreakingly beautiful face, he exhaled a cloud of smoke. “Whatever you say.”

“It’s not that I don’t love you.”

“Who said anything about love?”

“Danny, please.”

The tremor in her voice broke through his resolve. He looked at her and immediately regretted it. It was hard to be angry when she stared at him all doe-eyed, but still, he had his pride. “I just don’t get you. Sex is beautiful.”

“It’s not about the sex. That’s just the way it comes out between us.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“It’s not that hard to understand. I love you, Danny. I fell really hard for you. But I lost myself.”

“Lost yourself?” Flicking the cigarette butt into the kitchenette sink he said, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Making love and not being married . . . it isn’t who I am.”

“Oh, I see. It’s not you. So who was that other chick?”

“I’m just trying to—”

“Seriously, who was she? I’d like to know, because she seemed like she was having a great time, and I’d like to get her back in here.”

“Please, I—”

“I remember a couple of weeks ago she was over on the bed screaming, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ and I sure got the impression she meant every word.”

“It’s not that we weren’t—”

“In fact, I remember a few times when she couldn’t seem to get enough.”

She stared at him with those eyes which were the only thing he had ever doubted he could capture on canvas, and he basked in her beauty, and he longed to get down on his knees and worship her, beg her to reconsider everything, just be with him without conditions, but he knew it wouldn’t work. Something in him fought all that.

End of Scenes

Obviously this is tame stuff for a general fiction readership who are accustomed to constant barrages of F-bombs and clinical descriptions of sex acts, but if you’re reading this blog, then chances are you’re either a Christian fiction writer or a fan of Christian fiction. That means you fit the demographic profile my friend is worried about.

So what do you think? Is this too much for the Christian fiction market?

And if it is too much, should it be too much?

And why?

Or why not?

Go ahead: have at it.

And don't mind me while I lie here on the tracks.


Athol Dickson is a novelist, teacher, and publisher of the DailyCristo website. His novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher's Weekly) and Flannery O'Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.

34 comments:

Aimee L. Salter said...

Okay, so here's the thing: I'm an American (Christian) who grew up in New Zealand. New Zealand is FAR more liberal both politically and 'religiously' than America. I tell you that by way of explanation that I'm not (by American standards) squeamish or touchy when it comes to 'sex stuff' in books - though i do try to be careful.

But, I'll admit, I have different expectations of Christian literature, media, etc, than I do of secular.

When I read or watch something secular I figure the onus is on me to be careful. When I read or watch stuff that's identifiably Christian I guess I kinda figure the onus is on them. Because that 'tag' says somethings specific in my mind: Aims for purity. AKA 'safe'.

I don't have any issue with what you've written here, but have a suspicion that what you're risking is surprise or shock from Christian readers. I know a lot of Christians I respect who would put it down when they got to the part where he describes her calling out during sex.

I'll admit, I wouldn't expect this from a book I bought in the Christian Bookstore - but then, that doesn't mean I wouldn't enjoy it. Only that I'd be surprised.

See, it's all about expectations. If people have read your books before and haven't hit this, they might feel blindsided.

What does the blurb say? Will the potential reader be forewarned that you've written a story about a woman who's off-track initially? Will they have an idea that this is what they're getting into?

I don't think 'sex stuff' in Christian fiction is a problem - but I do think breaking your brand is risky. If people pick up books because they have your name on them and expect them to be safe, you might get hurt by this one.

Then again, you might pick up a whole crew of new readers.

All that said, if you wrote this with God's involvement, I don't think you need to worry. He knows the time and place for this kind of stuff and if He okayed it, no one else matters.

Dina Sleiman said...

I'm a fairly "edgy" author. However, the fact that I have a teenage daughter who devours everything I write has kept me in certain boundaries.

Would I want her reading this? Now that she's sixteen I'd be okay with it, but a few years ago, maybe not. So that's something to keep in mind. Teens do read adult novels. And parents do tend to trust Christian adult novels for their teens. My rule is anything Christian or secular YA.

I agree with Aimee in saying that this is "surprising." Sort of pleasantly surprising that you would take this risk, though. The writing is beautiful and the subject important. However, I'd have to say that it is undeniably sexy. I'll be curious to hear about the reactions if you would be kind enough to update us.

Jim O'Connor said...

I found the scenes somewhat stimulating, so I can understand why some religious folks would object. It's very subjective.

When writing my novel, I was concerned that my two sex scenes were too graphic, so I went to "spicy night" at Romance Writers of America. I was my scenes were lame! As one 72-year-old woman told me, "If your man doesn't perform, you don't have a book."

Normandie said...

I thought about Dina's comment. Would I want my daughter to read those scenes?

I think my answer would be yes. And why? Because no matter how I would have liked to cocoon each of my children in wool so that they never had to deal with the world's attitudes and the dilution of all that God meant to be beautiful, I couldn't. In these scenes, you have created just the sort of tension our children will experience (or have already experienced) as your characters confront their behavior and their attitudes toward it.

The female protagonist's scream doesn't bother me either. Our children (unless wrapped in that wool) are going to see sexual images and be told how wonderful sex is, attitudes that will make them wonder and question. The Bible clearly points out the beauties of form and love: as an artist, I sculpted the human form for years and delighted in the contours and shadows of various models, male and female. The author doesn't present the sexual as gratuitous, to titillate, but to provide a picture of growth and change. For the character's change to be meaningful, for her sacrifice to be especially poignant, the author shows how much she enjoyed the sexual encounters...and therefore, how much she has changed in her attitude: she chooses what she thinks is right instead of what makes her feel good. And isn't that what we'd like our Christian children to consider? Because won't others be telling them how great sex or drugs or alcohol can be...while we're trying to teach them to choose wisely and well?

Marcy Kennedy said...

I don't have a problem with these scenes, but I think there will be people who will. My co-author and I recently began shopping our novel to agents, and were told more than once that while our writing was fantastic, they couldn't sell our novel in the CBA. One told us she'd be willing to represent us if we were willing to re-write it for the ABA.

On the flip side, I think there are other readers out there who are willing to read a book that pushes the CBA boundaries, who want books that push the CBA boundaries. If you can appeal to that segment of readers, you'll be happily embraced as a trendsetter.

She Wrote said...

There is a difference between sex and erotica. Even Christian readers realize that without sex there would be no Christians (we do not self-propigate like an amoeba, do we?).

I think a writer needs to remember the audience s/he is writing for. No, I wouldn't expect to find sex or visions of anyone nude for readers under 14-15.

There is a different level of thoughts and communication appropriate for over 16. And there is quite another for adults.

If one cannot understand that a character who is artistic would and could look at a nude woman without sexual thoughts, then that person has never looked at or studied the work of some of the greatest artists in history.

Glenna

P.J.M. said...

Fist, I have to admit I don't read based on labels. "Christian" is a very meaningless term to me when categorizing fiction. I want a good story that is written well, and I really don't care who wrote it.

I subscribe to this particular blog because I am a Christan who is learning how to write fiction and working on a novel.

What has been shared here today makes me wonder what is acceptable in "Christian" fiction. Since we are obviously supposed to turn a blind eye to the sexual problems plaguing our culture, are we supposed to ignore drugs as well? What is the purpose of a story that doesn't say anything important? That doesn't challenge sin, or apathy, or snobby Christian attitudes?

Dina, I hope this doesn't further restrict your daughter's reading, but the average secular YA book has a lot more sexual content than the bits Athol has shared with us.

Kristin Cashore's books for example (marketed YA) have a good amount of sexuality- all "premarital" between people who never intend to get married. She has made me squirm a couple times getting close to where I'd draw the line for my adult reading, but I would not say that she has yet offended me, and don't expect her to- she gives enough to make what's going on clear, but vague and short enough that it is not hard to read. By-the-way, I think her stories are fabulous.

Am I comfortable with kids reading this? I'd rather they read this than watch the R rated movies they are watching, or the things they see on the internet. Parents should be aware of what your children are reading (and watching, and doing on the internet)and use it to educate Christianly. Talk about the attitudes that you don't agree with and WHY, or how well a particular character handled temptation, or broke a sinful habit, or whatever redemptive change occurred in the story...

If our kids are not trained while they are still in our homes to have discernment in what they read- training that has involved experiences to let them know what they need to guard their minds from- you are setting your children up for failure. The sinful world will swallow them because they don't know how to guard against it. Released from your woolen protection into a den of vipers.

Lastly, Should "Adult Christian" books set their standards to not address the real issues in the world that our kids- I said KIDS- are bombarded with by our culture everyday? SO- if we write fiction that is safe for the elementary school child with precocious vocabulary- why is it even labeled "Adult" in the fist place? Let's just stick that "E for Everyone" label on there and be honest about what it is.

Nicole said...

This. Is. So. Good. This is some of your best writing, Athol.

Yes, it will offend. Yes, it will be criticized using all the "proper" words. Will the criticism leave a mark on the ears of some publishers, agents, etc.? Yes. Too bad.

Finally we have a story and dialogue that deals with the way things really are, can be, without condemnation. Kudos.

I love this. Would I let my teens read it (they're way past that age now)? No. But I assume it's written for adults as are my novels which use similar prose and depictions of the world, and they're not for kids either.

Gina said...

Athol, I recently struggled with something similar. My second novel, Dry as Rain, has a scene very close to the front of the book, where the main character is lying in bed with the woman he's just cheated on his wife with. I had him pull back the covers and view her, wondering what it was about her that had made him lose control. My publisher had me tone it down so that it wasn't as visual. They were concerned it would titillate and when I reread it with the male reader who struggles in this area, I had to agree. I toned it down and it still got the point across. It's a fine line that we'll always have to teeter on.

Dina Sleiman said...

Following on what Gina said, I have a very forgiving publisher, and they still asked me to blur out some details like that.

Tim George said...

I think “edgy Christian fiction” is a cop-out used by those who need to blame someone for the fact they can’t get published. They throw in blood and guts or the F-bomb or a juicy sex scene and then become indignant when agents and editors say it won’t sell to the Christian market. Would a milkman complain because he gets no takers in a bar?

Recognize those words? That was from the first interview you ever did with me, Athol. Since I know your heart I would simply say, "Don't worry about it." Of all authors in the world, you are not a man with an axe to grind. If some are turned off by it, so be it. If it speaks to another segment of readers who are being spoken to, so be it.

I might have to agree about the CBA angle though. The rules of engagement are different in that realm. I am still waiting to see someone break out as a recognized author in both fields of literary battle. Perhaps that person will soon be you.

This leaves me with only one burning question; "So where is my review copy of The Opposite of Art?" May God bless this phase of your writing journey.

Christine Lindsay said...

I too struggle with that in my own writing. While I want to be realistic in the things my characters go through, in order to show the honest wrestling they are having with God, it's hard to know where to draw the line. I try to touch on the issue of temptation without being graphic.

PatriciaW said...

Would I read it? Yes. Would I allow my 16yo to read it? Yes. But I can see the problem. It is not explicit but it is suggestive in some ways. Some Christian fiction readers will have trouble with that.

I'm not a fan of the "edgy" label either because I think it puts a box around some really good writing--and some not so good--that readers would enjoy but don't allow themselves to. Still, I can see this being more ABA than CBA, at least most CBA publishers. There are a few exceptions.

Margo Berendsen said...

Yes I could see this rattling some Christian readers, esp. since it is from the point of view of a man who doesn't see anything wrong with what he's asking. If it were from the point of view of the girl struggling with her convictions, it wouldn't be nearly as edgy.

You will define and possibly polarize your audience with these two scenes. 10 years ago, if I'd read this - where I was in my faith and discipleship, the type of church I was attending, I would have read the book guiltily and not recommended it to other Christians (or maybe secretly recommended it to a few close friends). Now, as I've grown in my faith, I think REALISTIC writing like this is important. People need to know they are not alone when they face situations like this, and almost everyone does.

I assume that the book deals with consequences and repentence and forgiveness, the hallmarks of Christian faith.

This is definitely not Karen Kingsbury or Francine Rivers kind of Christian writing, though both of them aren't afraid to tackle tough sin issues. It reminds me more of Lisa Samson's the Church Ladies. It is powerful writing, but it is edgy (even though you used non sexual terms, it still has an extremely sexual feel to it). You will definitely have an audience for it, but it will more of a crossover type of audience.

I plan to buy it.

KristenAC said...

I am commenting as an avid reader. Regarging all literature, fiction, non-fiction, Christian, or secular, the validity of a 'sex' scene depends entirely on whether or not the entry is gratuitous.

Like every other scene in the novel, the scene(s) in question should have a point, or a purpose, and should either move the story along, provide clues, heart, feeling, depth, or show character dimension.

If I'm standing in line at the grocery checkout and I see the mere word SEX in large typeset on a magagizne cover next to the candy and gum rack (and my little sister is standing next to me) I'm quite offended. These supersized headlines provide very little meaning within the literature world.

However, if I'm reading a novel and a scene (like the ones you've described) pops up, I would less likely be offended, assuming the scene has purpose. I would rather read a novel that is realistic, than one that is safe. But, like I said before, every scene, whether safe or risky, must have a purpose that goes deeper than surface reaction.

Marcia said...

Having read and endorsed the whole of Athol's book I can confidently say this is a book that will help move the CBA out of its "lets put the blinders on" attitude. It's a book that is needed and a book that will last. I hope everyone reads it - I hope sales are through the roof. And I hope it does generate controversy. Because we need that too.

Athol, I know the balancing act - like Gina and others, I've had to walk that tightrope myself as I wrote the sexual abuse scenes in One Smooth Stone - not easy to do but we must do it. We are writing about a world polluted by sin and trying to show a world that is confused that there is a better way. If some people don't get it, well, it's their loss.

As a writer struggling to get my own words out there I want to thank you for writing The Opposite of Art. Keep doing it. Please.

Marcia

Jessica Thomas said...

Oh, wow. If that's too much, I'm in trouble. My question will change from "Will the Christian market accept my honesty" to "Will the secular market accept that my protag is a Christian who prays." I've been pondering both questions as of late. I might have better luck with the latter.

All that being said, what you've written is not too much for me. Sexuality is part of the human experience, and if we're going to try to play that Christians never think about it, or mess up in that area, we're a bunch of liars.

I'll be interested to see what others think.

Carrie L. Lewis said...

I didn't find the scenes themselves offensive. I DID find the artist's attitudes offensive, but that attitude is offensive in anyone who exhibits it.

The issue is legitimate and needs to be addressed. In a society in which abstinence is thought to be a dirty word and virginity is smirked at, we need to engage the discussion.

By the way, I'm a painter as well as a writer. I don't paint nudes and don't particularly enjoy nude paintings even though some of my favorite classical painters did paint nudes.

Why?

I just don't see the need. And, yes, it is a moral decision on my part. Just like not drinking alcohol, not smoking or not doing drugs.

Athol said...

Wow. This sure struck a nerve. I'm encouraged by the fact that almost everyone so far has said basically two things:

1) It will offend some readers.
2) It doesn't offend you.

Apparently the readers who will be offended don't follow this blog, or else they really have become a "fringe element" as I hoped, and no longer define what can and cannot be written in the world of Christian fiction. Or else maybe both.

Thanks to you all for your thoughtful comments. Thank you Tim, for trusting that my heart is in the right place, and a special thanks to Margo, who plans to buy the book, and to Marcia, who thinks everybody should. :)

Also, for the record and without giving away too much, the artist’s story may not end as you would guess, but I promise will end as you would hope.

Katherine Scott Jones said...

This conversation makes me happy and hopeful for the future of Christian writers trying to shine light into our dark world.

I resonate with what P.J.M. says: “What has been shared here today makes me wonder what is acceptable in ‘Christian" fiction.’ Since we are obviously supposed to turn a blind eye to the sexual problems plaguing our culture, are we supposed to ignore drugs as well? What is the purpose of a story that doesn't say anything important? That doesn't challenge sin, or apathy, or snobby Christian attitudes?”

I asked these same questions recently when I put my latest manuscript out for critique. I heard from at least three reviewers (respected CBA pros) that my novel might not fly in the CBA marketplace because of its themes of rape and sexual trafficking. Huh? Aren’t these precisely the kinds of injustices that Christians—of all people—should care about? Because, if we don’t care, who will?
I also appreciate what Nicole says: “Finally we have a story and dialogue that deals with the way things really are, can be, without condemnation.”

That’s it. Athol’s story is real.

When I first started reading Christian fiction about twenty years ago, I was drawn to the novels of Brock and Bodie Thoene, who weren’t afraid to write vividly, even graphically, of violence and sex. Their novels appealed, not only because they were exceptionally researched and written, but because they evoked reality. Not in a gratuitous, merely titillating way. But because being in touch with reality made their stories relatable. I could identify. I could feel.

Today, a lot of Christian fiction lacks this kind of soul-deep resonance because it’s out of touch with reality. Why are we so afraid to go there?

Thank you, Athol, for going there.

Katherine Scott Jones said...

P.S. I'm not saying that gritty, edgy subjects are all that Christian fiction should be about. But I do think there should be a place for them, just as there's a place for all kinds in secular fiction.

Yvonne Anderson said...

As you know, I've read this book. I'm a Christian and quite conservative in my thinking --but I loved it and found nothing sexually scintillating about it. Honestly, the story and the writing were the loveliest thing I've read in a long time. If it offends readers, that's their problem. Not yours.

Jenna said...

I found these scenes refreshingly real and truthful (not scintillating). I would love to read this book. I'm not sure I'll ever understand how many Christians can deal with reading the Bible (full of death, murder, rape, theft etc) and not be able to deal with a transformational story. A story that deals with the harsh reality of life without God and then glorifies Him absolutely by showing how He can change us. Bravo, Athol. I think it's fabulous that you're tackling this issue and helping the rest of us consider it, too.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to play devil's advocate to most of the other commenters, if I may. I do agree that CBA fiction should be realistic and not candy-coated. However, as someone who struggled sinfully with erotica and lyrical pornography in the past, I'd have to avoid your book. Not because it's not realistic but because for me, and others like me, it would be a stumbling block.

That is no judgment on your content--my weaknesses are my own, but I thought I would add this as it might be part of the reason another author/editor may think it objectionable.

Kelly Klepfer said...

I'm halfway through your book, Athol.
It's beautifully written and very visual....it's about an artist who is struggling with the meaning of life and experiences life as an artist.

When I review it I will mention that there are adult themes and that this novel isn't "the type your Grandma used to read."

People will be offended.

People have complex lives and most of us carry some baggage. What stirs me up may not faze my best friend. And what drives her to the edge of frustration or fear or into a struggle may not even show up on my radar of insecurity or fear or squeamishness.

And the craziest truth of all...the times my reviews or articles have offended people is often something I've written that is misinterpreted or twisted. And other times I've been in your face offensive because brutal honesty was called for and have not received a peep of protest.

You wrote it. You sent it to your editors, you have done what you could to produce the book that was on your heart. It is out of your control, you can trust the rest of the process. For your friend to not endorse it because of his readership is right for him, too. He has to listen to his own heart and soul and that still, small voice that tells him the direction he needs to turn.

Brenda said...

That fine line between good writing and expected conventions never seems to get any better definition. In my local writers group are some people with the same concerns/convictions mentioned. They have no problem with death, gore, or other graphic violence--either in their own works, or in others. We were critiquing excerpts a few months ago, though, and I had a scene where a male character becomes aware that another female character is present. Nothing physically graphic about his reaction, but these fellow aspiring authors reacted so strongly that we never got to the rest of the scene. No matter how many times it was pointed out that this wasn't an intimate scene, the readers insisted they were too traumatized to continue.

Part of this issue, I think, comes down to the trust between a reader and an author. Some readers completely trust all authors, and so accept whatever level of intimacy or violence the author provides. Some readers wish to remain in complete control of themselves at all times, and so anything in a story that creates a visceral pull is going to be labeled dangerous. There are many stages of in between. The question is--If the author don't establish that he/she is worthy of the reader's trust, then how can the author's inclusion of sex, violence, witchcraft, etc. be seen as anything other than a violation of the reader's imagination?

Brad Whittington said...

Frankly, I'm surprised it made it into a book expected to make a profit in the CBA market. Unless things have changed radically since I was writing for that market, I would expect problems.

On the other hand, I expected some blowback from the ending of the last Fred novel, but I guess it's hard to generate controversy when you're practically invisible to the market. ;-)

Anonymous said...

To be quite frank, I'm disappointed. Athol, you have been placed on a pedestal as one of the pillars of Christian literary fiction, and held up to new Christian authors as a giant in the industry. I've respected you and your writing. However, while reading these excerpts, my heart sank. You're selling out. Your characters don't need to be perfect, but you're lowering your standards. You're writing for readers of secular fiction. Why? To make a buck? What so many Christian writers are doing these days is burying the Christian threads of spiritual truths so deep inside the story it's difficult to find them. Inside characters who live worldly lives and then wrap it all up neatly at the end. I haven't read your book, and I don't plan on doing so. Shame on you. I expected more.

Katherine Scott Jones said...

I am dismayed by this comment--not because of the view expressed, but because it's a below-the-belt criticism. To make such cutting remarks publicly and anonymously is not taking the high road. And to say, "Shame on you" to a fellow believer who is writing from his heart...who of us has the right to judge?

Gina Holmes said...

I agree, Katherine, shame on Anonymous. If you're going to put someone down publicly, you should be willing to make yourself public as well. And you don't know Athol's motivations are "to make a buck". You can't know another person's motivations. Grrr...

Erin Rainwater said...

In response to Athol’s invitation to express our thoughts on his scene and sex in Christian fiction overall, allow me to enter a dissenting opinion here. Please know that I am commenting not just to Athol but to all those who commented before me.

I agree that these scenes are tame compared to secular books out there, but are we Christian authors to use the ABA as our standard of comparison? I have absolutely nothing against a Christian author doing a strictly ABA book, just like I have nothing against a Christian music artist writing and performing secular songs, as long as they remain within the boundaries of Biblical values. But I don’t believe we should have our characters—whether Christian or not—act or speak or have their bodies described in any type of erotic manner in the “sight” of the reader. And I do believe these particular scenes are too graphic. In my opinion, the fact that body parts are not named, but rather referred to as “mountains” and “valleys” and “peaks,” actually makes it MORE descriptive, because if you just call the body part what it is, it’s more biological or mechanical, but this way it’s more subtly erotic. The “maybe couples shouldn’t have sex until they’re married” element doesn’t justify this scene for me. Although we Christian authors do want to make life “real” for our readers by discussing such issues as drugs, alcohol, abuse, premarital sex, etc., sometimes I wonder if it’s done in such a way that may actually tempt a reader to experiment in these areas. Which is more attractive to a young, single reader: “seeing” a woman screaming “Yes! Yes! Yes!” while having phenomenal sex, or hearing that same woman meekly admit later “Maybe we shouldn’t have done that”? (although from the sound of things I’m guessing she gets more adamant about it further on in the story, which is good).

Yes, everyone—including teens—sees and hears this stuff in various forms of media every day, but isn’t that why we’re to be the salt and light in this world? To show them a better way? Are we doing that by writing in such a way that they may be “stimulated” as one commenter here stated, or that could be a stumbling block to someone with a previous struggle as stated by another? True, the language in the Song of Solomon is suggestive, and describes the God-given attraction between a husband and wife. I’m not certain that anyone who reads that God-breathed book of the Bible comes away feeling stimulated. As Christian authors we struggle to make our characters and stories jump right off the page and into our readers’ hearts and minds, do we not? Do we really want their minds and hearts imprinted with even what would be considered “mild” erotica by ABA standards? My answer is No. And let’s never forget that sexual sin is different from any other (1 Cor. 6:18), so we must be especially careful in that area.

We Christian authors can get the point across that our normal, warm-blooded American characters certainly do look and lust, but we should do so without creating the very temptation in the reader that we’re working so hard to rid from our characters. This is one area where I believe the rule should be “tell, don’t show.”

You all can call me a prude if you want to. I’m not. I’m not “living out of balance.” I’m not on the “fringe.” And please don’t accuse me of making similar mistakes as pornographers. I’m just another Christ-follower trying to glorify Him in all areas.

lkayjohnson said...

Wow. This is obviously a hot topic (no pun intended.) I find it kind of amusing, actually. I have just two words for those who wonder if sex can be in a book that also has Christian themes: Diana Gabaldon.

That said, the points of several wise writers here are well taken. Know your audience. Or...consider explore new audiences.

For my part, these scenes are pretty darn mild...but they are at least real, the lack of which is why I have a hard time reading Christian fiction. The Bible is far more graphic and gruesome.

Rachel said...

I'm a week late on this, but it really strikes a cord with me. It's beautiful! I think it conveys your point while not being graphic at all. Artists do view things differently.

It also resonates with me because the sub-plot in my current WIP involves adultery. In 1857. It destroys their lives. Both characters used to be committed Christians, but circumstances in their lives have convinced them God doesn't really care. I know I can relate to that. So they do the unthinkable and he comes very close to losing his life because of it. He's a half-white French Creole slave and she's all French Creole.

I'm not going to pull back on this subject or the way I plan to depict the first time they cross that line. It's something that needs to be done and needs to be addressed in Christian fiction. We deal with it in real life. Pretending it's not there helps no one.

Erin Rainwater said...

In response to Athol’s invitation to express our thoughts on his scene and sex in Christian fiction overall, allow me to enter a dissenting opinion here. Please know that I am commenting not just to Athol but to all those who commented before me.

I agree that these scenes are tame compared to secular books out there, but are we Christian authors to use the ABA as our standard of comparison? I have absolutely nothing against a Christian author doing a strictly ABA book, just like I have nothing against a Christian music artist writing and performing secular songs, as long as they remain within the boundaries of Biblical values. But I don’t believe we in any way need to have our characters—whether Christian or not—act or speak or have their bodies described in any type of erotic manner in the “sight” of the reader. And I do believe these scenes are too graphic. In my opinion, the fact that body parts are not named, but rather referred to as “mountains” and “valleys” and “peaks,” actually makes it MORE descriptive, because if you just call the body part what it is, it’s more biological or mechanical, but this way it’s more subtly erotic. The “maybe couples shouldn’t have sex until they’re married” element doesn’t justify this scene for me. Although we Christian authors do want to make life “real” for our readers by discussing such issues as drugs, alcohol, abuse, premarital sex, etc., sometimes I wonder if it’s done in such a way that may actually tempt a reader to experiment in these areas. Which is more attractive to a young, single reader: “seeing” a woman screaming “Yes! Yes! Yes!” while having phenomenal sex, or hearing that same woman meekly admit later “Maybe we shouldn’t have done that”? (although from the sound of things I’m guessing she gets more adamant about it further on in the story, which is good).

Yes, everyone—including teens—sees and hears this stuff in various forms of media every day, but isn’t that why we’re to be the salt and light in this world? To show them a better way? Are we doing that by writing in such a way that they may be “stimulated” as one commenter here stated, or that could be a stumbling block to someone with a previous struggle as stated by another? True, the language in the Song of Solomon is suggestive, and describes the God-given attraction between a husband and wife. I’m not certain that anyone who reads that God-breathed book of the Bible comes away feeling stimulated. As Christian authors we struggle to make our characters and stories jump right off the page and into our readers’ hearts and minds, do we not? Do we really want their minds and hearts imprinted with even what would be considered “mild” erotica by ABA standards? My answer is No. And let’s never forget that sexual sin is different from any other (1 Cor. 6:18), so we must be especially careful in that area.

We Christian authors can get the point across that our normal, warm-blooded American characters certainly do look and lust, but we should do so without creating the very temptation in the reader that we’re working so hard to rid from our characters. This is one area where I believe the rule should be “tell, don’t show.”

You all can call me a prude if you want to. I’m not. I’m not “living out of balance.” I’m not on the “fringe.” And please don’t accuse me of making similar mistakes as pornographers. I’m just another Christ-follower trying to glorify Him in all areas.