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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Should Reading Fiction Be Hard?

Last week Athol Dickson started a discussion on this blog that touched on what typical Christian readers want from novels. Mike Duran followed up with the suggestion that reading too much message-driven fiction might dumb readers down. If all we eat is baby food, will our teeth fall out, leaving us with no way to chew meat when it's served to us?

This is worth pondering.

First, is it true that the typical Christian fiction reader wants all her questions answered and she wants the answers to include a moral message? Is it true that the readers who want a clear message are usually the ones who don't like thinking much about a novel?

It is true that Christian publishers are now putting out novels in which some reviewers say they can’t find any spiritual message. I remember an Amazon review I saw a while back on The Charlatan's Boy, by Jonathan Rogers. The reviewer gave the book a one-star rating. I'm sorry, but Rogers couldn't produce a one-star book even if he were in a coma. He'd have to be all the way dead to write a one-star book. So what did the reviewer dislike so much? The title of the review was "No spiritual content" and the reviewer told us that:
"Grady is searching for truth, but doesn't ever make any kind of choice to stop deception, just finds what satisfies him and then the story ends."
I'm reading the review and thinking...searching for the truth...finds what satisfies him. Isn't that a picture of spiritual struggle and salvation?

I read Grady's story, empathizing with the little orphan boy. He was being raised by a liar who told him his parents had given him up because he was too ugly to love. This is exactly what Satan told me for a long time: Your sin makes you so ugly that your Father can't love you. Happily, I learned that this is only half the story. The Father is seeking his children and he goes to great lengths to find them and bring them home. So I read Grady's story, hoping his parents would find him. I think others did as well.

That one-star review was buried under a page full of four and five-star reviews, many of which mention the spiritual elements in the book. (One reviewer says this book gives "possibly the most accurate representation of the character of God of any since C. S. Lewis." Whew!) Still, Rogers probably isn't selling as many books as some authors who are giving readers novels with messages writ large.

So does that prove that typical Christian fiction readers want gospel flooding over them like mighty oceans and doctrine slapping them as waves slap the shore--noisily and at regular intervals?

I like to believe I'm typical. I look like the women who buy Christian novels--I'm a white, middle-classed, (past) middle-aged, evangelical woman. I'm also a reader who likes answers more than questions, and I love to find the gospel tucked away in books. OK I'll admit it: I even enjoy finding the gospel strutting right out in the open, especially if it's got shiny new shoes on its feet.

What is it that bothers me in a book, then? The lack of answers? The lack of four spiritual laws and an altar call? Am I turned off by novels that make me think? Do I just want to be entertained?

I like to think. I listen to sermons, I read nonfiction books, and I read blogs, all because I like to think and interact with the ideas of others. I bet the same is true for you. I bet that's why you are reading this blog post, in fact. I like to think when I read fiction, too, but with fiction I like to feel more than think. To put it simplistically, I think and feel when I read both fiction and nonfiction, but nonfiction more often engages my brain while fiction engages my heart.

When I read a novel, I want to love the main character. The best characters become dear friends. I empathize with them. My favorite characters often make me laugh and they are almost always generous in nature and given to honesty.

Because my emotions are so involved in fiction, when a character I love acts in a way I can't tolerate it makes me dislike the book. We all choose friends we can get along with. If a character I love becomes increasingly selfish or falls away from the faith or is in any way worse off morally at the end of the book than at the beginning, I'm going feel that the friendship was a waste of my time. If the protagonist I've loved and rooted for has struggled through the hardships in the book only to lose ground morally, I feel cheated. I've slogged along with him and I want to get some gain for my pain. I'm probably not going to buy more books by that author, because it cost me emotionally to love her character and then lose the friendship.

So I'm not looking for a big bowl of message handed to me not only skinned and roasted, but also all blended up into baby food. I'm looking for characters I can live with and grow with. I want characters who will grow in virtues I find attractive in people. I like them to learn to be honest and self-sacrificing and humble.

Am I that far from typical? What about you? Are you looking for message? What turns you off to a novel? Are bestselling Christian novels knee-deep with messages?
When Sally Apokedak was eight, she fell in love with reading. The books she loved best had messages buried at different depths, but she never read novels intent upon improving her mind. She read for the joy of meeting new friends who often lived in fascinating worlds and did dangerous things.

Sally writes novels set in worlds she wants to visit and filled with characters she likes to hang out with. Her short works have been published in various magazines, including
Highlights for Children, and her YA novel The Button Girl is currently being reviewed by publishers. She is represented by Reclaim Management. She blogs about young adult novels at


  1. Good, good post, Sally. I love hidden messages, symbolism, methaphor, but I also love the gospel presented in beautifully written stories with characters that search, struggle, celebrate, find, lose, the works. If those characters and their experiences are typical and generic, the novel loses its flavor. Give me depth in the physical, spiritual, and emotional and give it beauty in the writing.

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  3. Funny, I was talking with my mom about this just yesterday. Our favorite Christian books are ones written in the '20s, or the 1800s. For instance, my mom was reading the Ghost and Mrs. Muir, talking about what a sweet story it is.

    We followed it up with a discussion about Elizabeth Goudge, from her kids books like Linnets and Valarians, to her adult fare like Green Dolphin Street. In Goudge's books, we are shown different kinds of Christians, how they look and sound and act. They're wonderful, slow, thoughtful books.

    Whereas "Christian" fiction today seems to shy away from being sweet or cozy or comforting. You pick up Christian fiction today and it's filled with smut. Sure, the nasty characters get saved by the end, but before that you have to wade through filth. Just ... what? Is that what Christian readers really want?

    It must be, because they keep buying it.

  4. I totally agree with you about character, and I think the MC is what drives the book. I just feel cheated when I read "quick read" fiction that has tons of action and little character development. Let me rephrase: little REALISTIC character development. The problem I have w/Christian romance (most of it), is that the main guy character is unbelievable, and not representative of a real guy at all. I think running our male character's actions through a trusted male friend/husband is an important step. MOST guys don't normally know exactly the right words to say or romantic/protective gestures to make ALL the time. Also, I don't like that alot of "romantic" books are about single women. Don't married women know something about love? And I mean REAL, sacrificial love? Or are we just too boring to write about? I just wish more marriages, with their struggles, were portrayed in Christian fiction. I know there are several Christian books out there like that, but those usually aren't the ones I see touted in Christian bookstores/libraries.

    I love Gina Holmes' "Crossing Oceans," b/c it dealt with the real problems of cancer and divorce, etc. I love Frank Peretti b/c he deals with spiritual warfare in ways most of us hadn't even thought about. I love C.S. Lewis b/c he was REAL (and deep!).

    For what it's worth, I write character-driven fiction about married MCs. But I don't think it's what Christian agents are looking for right now. I've definitely thought about selling out and writing romance about some single girl going to NYC (don't they all!??) and her Cinderella story...but that's just not me, and it's not something I would want to read.

    I think alot of people who've grown up reading the classics (like Hardy, Eliot, etc) are looking for characters we can sink our teeth into, who have flaws and strengths and struggle with things we all struggle with, like death and abandonment and bad parents, etc.

    I realize I'm saying "I think" a lot, and obviously there are many people who feel otherwise. I'd just hate it if women read Christian romance (or any other kind of romance) and think that if their husbands aren't acting as romantic/thoughtful/protective as the main guy in the romance, they're falling short. This kind of thinking usually winds up in divorce--I've seen it happen.

    I'd just like it if the demand for multi-faceted characters with multi-faceted plots gained momentum in the Christian market.

    Thanks for asking, sorry to go on and on, but this is something I do feel very strongly about. How many Christians wind up skipping the Christian bookstore and reading best-sellers from the library/bookstore b/c their favorite genres just aren't represented in Christian fiction? Christian writers can change the world, and not just from the confines of the Christian bookstore. We don't have to preach, but everything we write should come from a Christian worldview, b/c that's what we have!

  5. "Whereas "Christian" fiction today seems to shy away from being sweet or cozy or comforting. You pick up Christian fiction today and it's filled with smut. Sure, the nasty characters get saved by the end, but before that you have to wade through filth. Just ... what? Is that what Christian readers really want?"

    Kessie, I find the opposite to be true. I love some of the old slow-moving sagas from the past, but I've read hundreds of contemporary Christian novels, and I've yet to read one that contained "smut". I've read a very few that dealt honestly with temptations of all kinds.

    You must remember that not every reader has the same place or background as you do, the same desires or reading tastes as you. That doesn't make them "smutty" or sinful. It can simply mean they enjoy "real" and unvarnished.

  6. When I was teaching my children to read, I encouraged them to vary their diet.

    Most of the books we read should be meat, bread and vegetables, i.e. books that require us to think, search, learn and grow.

    But then comes dessert. That's where popular fiction plays a role. It's good to read a book that just entertains us, where the message is apparent and we can relax and enjoy the story.

    So bring on the fun, easy stuff - but don't make a steady diet of it. Think about what your body would be like on a steady diet of sweets!

  7. I think every author in the Christian market has a calling and a purpose. Some write books that are just comforting and easy--books that a reader can read and just get lost in the story so that for a time real life doesn't seem so pressing. There is a market for that.

    Others are called to write stories that are more challenging, that deal with heavier issues, that speak a message about depression or divorce or addiction or whatever. Not everyone is "into" reading these types of books, and that's okay.

    Then there are some books that ask us to grow maybe not from the bottom of the valley but from somewhere along the climb. Maybe the character is simply struggling with not feeling good enough or with what it means to really forgive, etc. These books too have a place.

    So, this question does not have an either-or answer. It is a personal answer that may or may not be right for you.

    I personally don't like stories that drop the character off in a moral hole at the end. I still haven't gotten over the Kevin Costner character dying at the end of "Message in a Bottle." But that's me.

    So write what you love and what speaks to you. Read what you love and what speaks to you. And in both cases, give others the grace to do the same!

  8. i agree, staci...just wondering about the moral repurcussions of reading Christian romance. does it strengthen our relationships w/our husbands? or does it weaken them by holding them up to impossible standards? i totally get the need to decompress w/a comforting, easy read. but i just think it's bad when our head is in the clouds about some fictional hero who always knows the right things to say and ways to act. so i guess i'm just questioning the morality of the genre as a whole. after all, we probably don't read harlequin, not only for the lusty scenes, but for the lustful thoughts the MCs stir in us. we're supposed to build each other up in Christ, exhorting one another to good works. and i think that would include strengthening marriages by creating believable MCs who fail, or don't know the right words to say sometimes. but maybe the whole thing falls into the category of Christian liberty--if you can read it w/out feeling dissatisfied w/your husband, it's not a sin for you.

  9. I'm so thrilled that you all are commenting. I thought everyone was at ACFW this weekend and I'd have no interaction on this at all.

    I love long comments, too, so don't ever apologize on that count.

    I love chewing over all this stuff.

  10. i WISH i were at the ACFW conference! but it's way too expensive for me! thanks for your thought-provoking posts, sally! i thoroughly enjoy this blogspot!

  11. (Stacy Aannestad -- "Caddie Murray" is my blogfiction MC's name)

    I pretty much agree with Staci Stallings on this -- there's no reason that all "Christian fiction" needs to be the same. We're all very different people, and we all read for different reasons. I like that there's such a variety because sometimes I want escapism and sometimes I want a good, meaty, difficult story that will stick with me forever (like what Mary DeMuth writes). However, I will say that I NEVER want to read fiction that is so unrealistic as to be laughable (even good sci-fi needs realistic people and emotions). I think that's the kind of fiction Heather is talking about, where the romantic male lead is a 2-D cardboard cutout of what the "perfect" Christian man should be like. This is one reason I don't generally read Christian Romance novels, because I've been turned off by a lot of unrealistic male protags in stories that are wrapped up too easily and where all the loose threads are tied up at the end regardless of how completely absurdly they get tied. (Yes, God can do miracles, but they don't often work well in fiction.)

    Now, as for my personal preferences, I do want SOME hint of God in the book. I want to know the author is a Christian and that they're going at their story with a Christian worldview. I have read some books by Christian authors that left me cold because there was no hint of God anywhere in the book, not even obliquely (as you might find in, say, the book of Esther). I've also started books that were so heavy-handed with the altar-call type message that I couldn't stand them. I like the way Jan Karon works in "altar call" moments, so naturally, as part of a scene, part of the normal dialogue between people. If an author feels a need to put an "altar call" in the story, they should take lessons from Ms. Karon.

    In general, I want God in the story. If the MCs are Christians, I want Him to be a natural part of their lives, their dialogue with others, etc., just as He is in my own life. If they're lapsed/backsliders, then of course one would need to adjust how much God is mentioned. In my own fiction writing (not pubbed yet), God plays a huge part in the MCs lives, and therefore is overtly mentioned a lot in my stories. However, I try to do it in a way that isn't heavy-handed, Bible-thumping, hit-you-over-the-head. And that's the kind of stories I like to read.
    Stacy Aannestad

  12. I'm interested in what Christian fiction books are filled with "smut". I read both Christian and general market and nine times out of 10, what people consider to be edgy, I find rather tame. So just curious what examples you are referring to.


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