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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why is Christian Spec-Fic Mostly YA?

I suppose I should be glad that young adults are reading Christian speculative fiction. But the truth is, I’m disheartened. Why? It’s not translating into more adult Christian speculative fiction.

My friend Becky Miller sponsors The Clive Staples Award (CSA), a readers choice award recognizing the best in Christian Speculative Fiction. When she unveiled The 2010 Clive Staples Award Winner, I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed. Why? According to this readers choice award, apparently the best Christian speculative fiction is for kids. Not only was the CSA top vote getter a Young Adult novel, four of the top five winners were YA!

Before I proceed, let me clarify: I am not suggesting that Young Adult fiction is inferior to adult fiction. Nor am I ignoring the fact that small presses (like Marcher Lord Press, Splashdown Books, Port Yonder Press, etc.) are starting to publish more adult Christian spec titles. I also recognize that much YA is consumed by adults.

Nevertheless, I think The Clive Staples Award is representative of a very important trend. In the same way that women’s fiction comprises 80% of the Christian fiction market, YA comprises the bulk of the Christian speculative market. But what does it say about the state of Christian speculative fiction that the best, most popular stuff, is YA?

Some may find encouragement in this. Indeed, the fact that kids are reading is a good thing. After all, “teen” readers will eventually become “adult” readers. But if the CSA is any indication, this “transition” from “teen reader” to “adult reader” — at least as it relates to Christian speculative fiction — is not happening very quickly. If it’s happening at all.

So where’s the “adult” Christian spec-fic? And why is Christian spec-fic constituted so heavily by YA?

I have two theories: First, YA speculative fiction is simply more compatible with the Christian market's "family friendly" image than is adult spec-fic. In fact, "adult" themes often don't fit well in the Christian market. (Don't believe me? Follow the discussion thread in THIS RECENT NR POST where writers debate whether adultery is viable as a "Christian" subject.) Contemporary “adult” spec-fic not only must be free to "speculate," it must be "adult." But neither of those things come easy in today's overly-sanitized religious market. In this way, YA speculative fiction is much better suited for CBA / ECPA readers because it doesn’t need to have the “bite” that adult spec-fic does, and can more easily skirt taboos of sex, language, and questionable theology. Which is why much Christian YA spec-fic tends to involve lots of dragons, elves, and swordsmiths.

Second, parents are deeply motivated to get something “Christian” into the hands of their teenagers, alternatives to the Harry Potters and Twilights of the world. In this sense, adults may actually be behind the Christian YA movement. However, this may say as much about the type of Christian teens we want to raise, as it does about the types of fiction we want them to read.

Anyway, that’s my going theory. While I should be excited that young adults are reading, I can’t help but ask, Where’s the “adult” Christian spec-fic?

Discovering C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Till We Have Faces, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, George MacDonald, Charles Williams, and G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, were some of the most exciting times of my life as a Christian reader. Discovering that those books were 50+ years old and still have no contemporary equals, was depressing. Perhaps we just can’t write like that anymore.

It’s bad enough that speculative fiction is under-represented in Christian bookstores. What’s worse is that the stuff that IS there, is mostly for kids.

Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree that adult spec-fic is under-represented in the CBA? Is there any validity to my suggestions that YA does well in the Christian market because "adult" themes don't always fit, and that Christian parents are anxious to find alternatives for their Twilight, Harry Potter-loving kids?

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


  1. I'm ignorant on this subject, so of course I needed to speak on it.

    With one of my early, (unpublished) novels, Demon Chaser, I originally wrote that as an adult spec novel, but if I ever go to sell it will probably classify it as YA. Maybe a lot of the novels out there are doing the same. Maybe there are plenty of adult novels in the category but they're being classified as YA for sales purposes or just because people see the subject matter and assume it's YA.

    A rose by any other name . . . ?

  2. Gina, you may be right. But it begs the question. What does YA offer that Adult doesn't? What distinguishes a YA novel from an Adult novel? And why is it advantageous to market YA over Adult (other than that YA is really hot now)?

  3. I'll venture a guess. I think perhaps it's because kids love fantasy. The world of a teen is fraught with angst, pimples, unrequited love, homework, a failing grade in math, raging hormones - who wouldn't want an escape?

    Adults have to live in reality. Ugh. I won't even go into our reality. Sometimes we want an escape, but ours is more for hope in our situation ... for the divorced or widowed, hope of love again. Well, you get the idea.

    That's my thoughts. Dunno if they're worth anything. ;)

  4. Yes, I'd say adult spec-fic is definitely under-represented, but maybe the fact is...most adults don't want it. Perhaps we who do are just a weird bunch.

    This post is encouraging however, because I'm about to embark on a YA spec fic adventure. Perhaps I'll have more luck in that direction.

    One last note, I did have the opportunity to present my adult Christian spec fic to a big publishing house. They were actually seeking submissions for the genre. Just learned they said nay to mine. Too dark and depressing. *sigh* They want to start out with something lighter. Anyway, stinks for me, but for the Christian speculative fiction market in general, this could be a very exciting development. I'll be interested to see who's book ultimately wins the spot.

  5. I think part of it is that kids and teens are much more willing to believe in the supernatural. So many Christians have been trained that if it's supernatural, it is demonic. They want nothing to do with the supernatural. An unfortunate but not unexpected consequence of cessationist theology.

  6. Jessica, I am skeptical about the suggestion that adult Christian spec-fic is on the rise. Yes, more houses are publishing it, but many of them are small presses that have begun as a reaction to a deficiency in the larger market. So, in my mind, the jury's still out on spec's real appeal in the Christian market.

    A commenter on my blog recently hailed the signing of Shannon Dittemore by Thomas Nelson as evidence that spec-fic was making inroads into mainstream CBA. However, the series is described as a "young adult, supernatural, romantic trilogy." Kudos to TN and Dittemore. But it still leaves me asking, Where is the Adult spec-fic?

  7. Interestingly, while I do read some YA spec-fic, both in general market and CF, other than dystopia I don't really enjoy it. I wish more Contemporary YA books would be published but the markets are leaning towards paranormal/fantasy/spec fic .

  8. Amy, you make a very, very good point. It was a thesis I floated in my article Why is Supernatural Fiction Under-Represented in Christian Bookstores? Could the preponderance of romance and Amish lit be indicative of a dangerous worldview shift amongst Christian readers? I mean, how can a Christian claim to dislike supernatural / paranormal story elements when the Bible contains so many of those elements?

    Thanks for commenting, Amy!

  9. Having not read the other comments yet, I do ask this question, "Why does adult Christian spec have to have a bite?" I wonder if that's perhaps the problem. I love YA novels (including spec ones) BECAUSE they don't have the bite. Does that mean they aren't real and hard hitting? Not at all. I think it's possible that if the adult spec fiction would take a cue from the YA spec fiction, we might end up with more of it in the market. Just a thought. I know there are so many more variables, but ...

  10. First, I think YA and teen spec-fic is also dominant in the secular market. If you visit the YA section of a bookstore a huge portion of it is spec-fic. Take into account that the entire rest of the bookstore is aimed for adults, and the adult spec-fic section is a small fraction--you'll easily see it is disproportionate in both Christian and secular fiction.

    Second, I am an adult and I actually prefer reading MG, YA and teen spec-fic over adult. To be honest, what I have found is that MG/YA/Teen spec-fic is more creative and has more variety. I got tired of the adult "epic fantasy" novels because they all started looking and sounding the same to me. But I pick up YA books and they are all so different. There are exceptions in the adult market, of course, like Neil Gaiman--but writers like that end up being popular among teens because their books "feel" like teen novels in many ways.

    Also, while I do think that maybe Christian adults have a more conservative view on the paranormal than Christian kids, I think that even in the secular market the love of magic, fantasy and such ends up being discarded by many. Adults just kind of grow out of it. (So glad I didn't!)

  11. C.J., general market YA is often criticized for having TOO MUCH BITE. Some accuse it of being too dark or too risque. So I'm not sure the YA market is as monolithic as you suggest, nor that "family- friendly" is always the appropriate moniker.

    As to why adult Christian spec-fic should have bite, I would offer two rejoinders: 1.) Because it's both "adult" and "speculative." 2.) I would reverse the question: Why SHOULDN'T adult Christian spec-fic have bite? And, of course, this ultimately comes down to our definition of "bite."

    That's for commenting, C.J.!

  12. Thought it was amusing that the spark of this article was wondering why an award named after the world's best-known Christian children's author would choose to honor a YA book. Not knowing anything about the award, my first thought would be that it was an award FOR YA/Children's faith-based fantasy.

    But more seriously, I think YA is the perfect compromise for Christian spec. The YA aspect of it will automatically eliminate a huge chunk of the adult themes that cause most of the debate. You don't have to justify avoiding controversial topics. Readers don't roll their eyes (as often) when reading sanitized language in YA, or not going into detail about sex.

    As series like Harry Potter and Hunger Games show, you can still delve into deep topics and dark subject matter while keeping it clean and streamlined. I don't feel like either of those series were less effective for being YA. Especially something like Hunger Games, which is about children having to kill each other, if it had been an adult series, the books would have been twice as long for showing the deaths in more gruesome detail. But it WASN'T needed. If you have any sort of imagination, you can fill in the gory details yourself.

    YA used to be a barrier, but now I don't think anyone even thinks twice about choosing a book if it's YA. If it's good, it's good. Write a good Christian spec story, and if it's good, it will be good without the language/nudity/sex/gore you think it needs for it to be considered an adult book.

  13. Most Christian publishers would not publish The Bible if it wasn't "The Bible". No fiction is allowed to contain so much documented sinfulness, sexuality, violence, or be as controversial as The Bible.

    But I don't believe this particular distinction is necessarily about content censoring. We know that is huge in the Christian market, but this problem strikes me as being about the label itself.

    The "Adult" label in our society does not indicate a level of maturity. Quite the contrary it indicates the legal boundaries of hedonistic, self-indulgent, and self-destructive materials that our laws have made off-limits to minors but allows "Adults" to indulge in legally.

    No Christian should want any part of that, and so this particular label is offensive to "Adult" Christians, who do not think those materials are suitable for anyone's consumption.

    Anything a Christian could write should be appropriate for Young Adults to read. If the YA market is doing well, and we've got books written for Christian adults then let's just slap that label on there to help a book into that buyer-ship.

    Young Adults who pick up books are not ignorant fools. Reading is not the most popular past time these days, and those who do take the time to read fiction are not only able to tolerate whatever might be considered "Christian Adult Content" that is precisely the audience that most needs that kind of content-- illustrating the hard topics of sexual sin with a story showing how wrong it is, or dealing with the dangers of drugs, gambling or any other vices that ensnare our youth while we are still feeding them lollipop fiction well beyond it's usefulness to them.

    The regular market doesn't have an "Adult" section targeting more mature readers. They just don't have a YA label on those books. I can not see any reason that Christians should need to make any distinction in readers over the age of 16, because there is nothing a Christian could write with a clear conscience that would not be appropriate for anyone over the age of 16... Unless you are of the belief of sheltering youth and not preparing them to take their place in the adult world- then keep giving them the bubble gum and lollipops and see what happens when they hit 18 and have not developed a mature faith of their own.
    Forgive me if I've said too much. Maybe I'm ignorant of the proper use of the term YA, but I've always thought that meant "Young Adult", not child.

  14. Vic, I agree with you that "YA is the perfect compromise for Christian spec" because "Readers don't roll their eyes (as often) when reading sanitized language in YA, or not going into detail about sex." My point precisely. It is the Christian industry's G/PG guidelines that make YA spec a better fit. And adult spec, not so much.

  15. One of the reasons why the latest Game of Thrones book is such a huge success is that Harry Potter and other YA spec series have created a readership that never would have considered reading adult fantasy. Granted, Game of Thrones was a hit long before Harry Potter, and the HBO series certainly helped, but the latest book approached the level of phenomenon usually reserved for Harry Potter and Twilight. I have no empirical evidence, but I'd have to assume that many of those readers are grown-up HP readers who don't have any ingrained stigma against Fantasy.

    If skewing Christian spec towards YA gets more readers (both youth and adult, but especially youth), then that only helps the entire industry, including adult-oriented books for when those young'uns want to graduate to something with more bite.

    It's funny, but reading over the five finalists for the CSA, I have to say that almost all of them sound intriguing. And all of them, because they are YA, I reflexively give a LOT more leeway about some of the silly, or less logical aspects of the plot descriptions. Classifying something as YA really makes it MUCH easier for me to go into it with my disbelief already partially suspended. If anything needs that initial pop of suspended disbelief (and ultimately, actual BELIEF), it's Christian spec fiction. Maybe that's the secret...

  16. I think there are a couple reasons for this. For one thing, young adult spec-fic is some of the most popular spec-fic in the *secular* market, too--just think of the amazing sales of the Harry Potter and Twilight series. So Christians are probably currently focused on trying to capitalize on that trend and compete with it. Or maybe they're just following suit.

    Second--and this relates to what you said, Mike, about the challenge of adult themes in Christian fiction--I think today many Christians have come to equate "Christian" with being non-controversial and easy-to-swallow. I think this is mainly due to the desire to make everything Christians do more "seeker" friendly and palatable to outsiders. And so the desire is to remove anything that might make readers uneasy or uncomfortable, or might challenge them. And truth be told, maybe many Christian readers don't want to be made to think too much or to feel uncomfortable either. It contributes to a lack of maturity in the body of Christ in general, which in turn reflects a lack of maturity in our society in general. And this is probably reflected in the reading preferences of Christian adults.

    I could go on and on - this trend and the predominance of Christian fiction for women represents the increased feminization and dumbing down of the church. But that's a topic for another post, lol. My two cents.

  17. Morgan, from my experience, the avoidance of adult themes in Christian fiction has less to do with trying to be "seeker friendly" than it does with being legalistic christian friendly. It is that one person who goes into a Christian book store, finds the word "heck" in a so-called Christian book, threatens to boycott the chain that carries said novel which often carries more weight than it ought. From my experience, the seekers are drawn to fiction that is realistic, that doesn't shy away from the controversial but addresses it head on. Jesus sat down with sinners, but some think we as writers should not. To each his own. Then we go back to the old preaching to the choir vs reaching out to the lost argument.

    BTW, your last remark comes across, I hope, not the way you meant it. Women's fiction sells better because women buy and read more novels. It sounds like you're equating female with dumb.

  18. I agree with Gina. From time to time, it seems that the legalistic personality is catered to when it comes to fiction. Thankfully, I'm seeing more and more "edgy" Christian fiction on the market that isn't afraid to portray grown ups with real adult problems, be they contemporary or historical.

    As for speculative fiction, there is a growing market for it. Shelley Adina has a Christian steampunk novel called Lady of Devices. In October (I forgot the author's name), an inspirational romance featuring a vampire will be available through Barbour.

  19. I was recently talking about this subject with a couple friends—although we were discussing the lack of good Christian artists in the music industry. The same can be said for film. I think one issue is that Christians have left arts to the secular world for so long that we're having a hard enough time trying to catch up, let alone stand out. When I try to think of good, contemporary, adult Christian speculative authors, I can only think of... two. Frank Peretti and Stephen R. Lawhead. Maybe Ted Dekker, if he's classified as adult. There's got to be more (hopefully), but those are the only three I've ever read or seen.

    I think maybe a part of the answer is for Christians to 1) learn their craft, and 2) be willing to look at the hard issues of life while keeping their Godly worldview. It's almost not so much about the bad stuff as it is about how you deal with it. Yes, the Lord makes all things new and we should think about what is holy, but we live in a broken world, and broken people need stories about broken people learning to make decisions based on a biblical perspective.

  20. We are about to publish our very first YA at Splashdown (Hi, Kat!). So it'll be interesting to see how it does in comparison to the adult stuff.

  21. Gina - I'm glad you pointed that out about my last statement. I wrote my post in a hurry and when I proofed it, I thought "I need to reword that last part to clarify it;" but then, of course, I didn't. I was actually referring to two different (and unrelated) ideas: what I see as the feminization of much of the church, and what I see as the dumbing-down of the church. But I didn't mean to imply that these two separate ideas are in any way connected. ;-)

    It's often said in Christian men's circles that there aren't more men in church these days, especially single men, because the church has done so much to cater to the female mindset. For this reason men have a hard time relating in church. I was applying this idea to Christian fiction. I wasn't aware that women buy more fiction in general, but if so then I'm sure you're right that this has a lot to do with why women's fiction dominates the Christian market as well. Thanks for setting me straight.

  22. Wow, this made me excited, and maybe it shouldn't. I love the YA genre, because I can grab a book that just focuses on characters and story, and doesn't sidetrack into sex scenes every few pages.

    I hope more Christian authors tap into that genre, because it'd be great to read some more YA spec-fiction. I mean, Twilight got away with a ton of Mormon stuff. Why can't Christians get away with Jesus stuff?

    I do think Christians need to read more, and worry about writing well, crafting great characters, and great stories. But that sort of rant is probably better held elsewhere. :-)

  23. Sarah Sawyer wrote an excellent article in response to this one. Well worth reading.


  24. I agree with those who have pointed out that general market spec fic is mostly YA, too, and with those that point out that many adults read YA spec fic.

    YA is not just for teens anymore. It's for everyone. The authors know it. I wrote a YA fantasy and the women who have read it have liked it as much as the girls. Most of my friends who are writing YA fantasy are writing just as they would for adults, but their protagonists are young.

    We choose young characters because that time of life offers great conflict. There is conflict with family, conflict with self, conflict with the opposite sex and with friends and with a desire to be popular and powerful. All of those things are still present later in life, but the teen years seem to be full of it. That's why I enjoy writing about teens, anyway. But I'm definitely not only writing for teens.

  25. Sally, Kat also suggested that "general market spec fic is mostly YA." Do you know this? Or is this just based on your experience? Frankly, I doubt that general market spec-fic YA is anywhere near the number of adult spec titles (which would include sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etc.). Love to see some market stats if you can point me to them.


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