Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why We Should NOT Label Christian Fiction

Anyone who thinks the debate about Christian Fiction -- what it is and what it should be -- is getting old, should check out literary agent Rachelle Gardner's recent post, Should We Label Christian Fiction? (At this posting, the comments are at 193.) What makes that discussion so informative (and potentially helpful) is the broad swath of readers and writers Rachelle's site attracts.

By the fourth comment, one reader, Colin, asked the obvious question

"...what is 'Christian' literature in the first place?"
That's the real issue and what makes Rachelle's question so squishy. The problem with labeling / not labeling Christian fiction is that we can't exactly agree about what Christian fiction is, or should be.

So while some define (and defend) G-rated, religiously explicit, redemptive, hope-filled stories marketed to conservative Christians, others gravitate to (and defend) more subtle, ambiguous, edgy, non-preachy stories aimed at a less conservative, broader readership. Which is why we Christians have had a notoriously difficult time in labeling some of our own books. Just ask any group of Christian readers if the works of Flannery O'Connor are "Christian fiction." J.R.R. Tolkien called The Lord of the Rings "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work" (see Dr. Ralph Wood's wonderful essay Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A Christian Classic Revisited). But nowadays, LotR is rarely considered Christian fiction. Even the Chronicles of Narnia are up for debate. Point is, these books, while being written by believers and containing biblical worldviews and biblical imagery, do not fall neatly into the 'Christian fiction' label.

I think this is a good thing.

It's also one reason we should be very cautious about throwing around the label "Christian fiction."

In the comment thread at Rachelle's, Jessica Kent wrote:
"Why aren’t Christian writers writing novels that laymen readers can get in to? Isn’t that the whole point? To write a book with themes of faith, love, and sacrifice that anyone can access and be changed by? You wouldn’t dismiss Tale of Two Cities or Les Miserables as 'just another Christian fiction book.'"
Jessica is stating our dilemma: When we define Christian fiction in narrow terms, we narrow our audience. This may be good marketing, but it's somewhat antithetical to our mission. The last I checked, Christianity is about broadening its message, going into "all the world," reaching "laymen," spinning tales "that anyone can access." Sure, there's a place for preaching to the choir. Problem is when the choir is our ONLY audience. By targeting only Christian readers, we unnecessarily limit the boundaries of our own house, shrink our base, and fail to "impregnate" a second generation of "believing readers."

And our stories become decidedly... predictable. Which is why comments like the one below are wholly to be expected. From Adam:

"I generally avoid labeled Christian lit because I have little interest in reading a book that waters down its characters to appeal to folks who are horrified by contextually-realistic sex, violence or profanity (I also avoid authors who trade in those arenas). To me that creates a plastic surreality, a dystopian Disney landscape that all too often makes the plot wooden and untenable.

But the ultimate reason I avoid Christian book stores and most novels that are specifically labeled 'Christian' is that I have no interest in reading a 300+ page Chick tract ...Most people understand exactly what they mean when they say Christ-lit: essentially, clean dialogue and chaste relationships wrapped in a 300 page gospel tract. "

Before you dismiss Adam's opinion, pause to consider that he is representative of a vast number of readers who have come to scorn Christian fiction. Our knee-jerk reaction is to chalk this up anti-Christian bigotry. And it may well be. But isn't it possible that Adam is one of those "laymen" we should be reaching? Isn't it also possible that his opinion about Christian fiction is spot-on? "[A] plastic surreality, a dystopian Disney landscape [containing] clean dialogue and chaste relationships wrapped in a 300 page gospel tract."

Which brings me to my point:
The problem I have in labeling Christian fiction is that the moment we slap a label on our books we are conceding a stereotype.

  • If Christian fiction IS easily definable, then let's label it.
  • If Christian fiction IS "a 300 page gospel tract," then let's label it.
  • If Christian fiction IS G-rated, family-friendly fare, then let's label it.
  • If Christian fiction IS NOT something "that anyone can access," then let's label it.
  • If Christian fiction IS ONLY FOR CHRISTIANS, then let's label it.

But if we concede that good Christian lit can reach outside religious circles, carry a biblical worldview without being preachy, and be enjoyed by "laymen," then we should fight to keep our stories and authors from being burdened by a label that has, frankly, become dead weight.

Mike is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket. He is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's debut novel, "The Resurrection," is in stores now and his novella, "Winterland," is available in e-book formats. Mike's sophomore novel The Telling releases May 2012. You can visit his website at


Kessie said...

OUCH! What a condemning view! And sadly, it's true, more often than not. Thank goodness for people like you who dare to question the stereotype and write outside the box.

Anonymous said...

I believe something Albert Einstein once said, about how it's important to never stop questioning. And that's in general. Adam may stereotype Christian literature, yet it's not like WE Christians don't do the exact same thing. I remember reading strictly Christian fiction just because I couldn't stand swearing, drug content, sexual situations, etc. Then again, I think that made me a fairly well typical Christian reader. Now I do read secular novels. They're not my favorite, sure, but at least it helps broaden the mind from being a living cliche. Now I enjoy James Rollins, Dean Koontz, Cassandra Clare, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Jasper Kent, and others who aren't trying to reach a Christian audience and still write very well.

Ane Mulligan said...

I've always had a problem with saying Christian fiction. How can an inanimate object be a Christian? I prefer to use "inspirational" fiction. And I totally agree about writing to a broader audience. I love to see Christians who write to the secular world, laying in the elements of faith and redemption without spalling the reader in the face with them.

BUT (and there's always a but hiding somewhere) I find the stories I write are aimed at the church. I think we have to write where we feel called to write. Each of us have an audience. For some, it's the romance a twelve-year-old could read, and for others, it's the edgy thriller.

Like all things literary, it's subjective.

Mike Duran said...

Ane, I think this is kind of the sticking point. Many (if not most) have come to define Christian fiction as stories "aimed at the church." I'm not suggesting this is a bad thing. I'm questioning whether it's the ONLY thing Christian fiction should be about. Thanks for commenting!

Marcia said...

Mike, thank you. I've been saying this for 15-20 years, but I didn't hear anyone else saying it until recently, and back then no one was listening. And Adam is completely right. But just one response to Jessica's question about why writers who are Christians (I know "Christian writers" uses fewer words, but the meaning is subtly different) supposedly don't write for the "laymen." I can't speak for whether this is still true because I no longer write for CBA markets, but it used to be that you couldn't get anything else but evangelistic writing for the conservative church published, plain and simple.

Janny said...

I cannot agree with Adam enough. I, too, avoid books with gratuitous profanity and "sex for its own sake," as well as books that wallow in depravity without a sense of balance or light...but I've had it with much of Christian fiction. Not only does much of it preach to the choir, but it tends to preach a very narrow message at that--one that a great majority of even CHRISTIANS in the world can't necessarily get behind. Better our books can be infused with a Christian worldview, with hope, and with light, than be infused with little more than a regurgitated sermon. :-)

Ane Mulligan said...

And I say NO - it's NOT the only thing we should be about. Jesus called us to be a light in the darkness, but a non-Christian doesn't buy a book to read a sermon.

What is wrong with simply being a good novelist? Debbie Macomber doesn't write what we'd call Christian fiction, but it's great fiction and she's a bestseller. God's blessed her. She has her spot as a Christian writer. Her fiction is G rated, if we were rating.

John Grisham is another Christian who writes great fiction without inserting sermons. I think as long as our characters make good decisions inspiring readers to make good decisions, that's great! If they make bad decisions, show the consequences. Without a sermon.

But there is another audience who wants to see how the character uses Scripture to make decisions, and that's wonderful! I love those. I'm delighted to see all "types" of fiction offered to the Christian world.

Yvonne Anderson said...

This is an interesting question that's not likely to be resolved in the near future.

I'm a Christian who has generally been turned off by novels with the "Christian fiction" label. For many years, they were, for the most part, insipid and poorly crafted romances. Since I like a mental challenge, revel in reading excellent writing, and roll my eyes at a romance, I pretty much avoided all Christian fiction. Though recent years have seen more variety and an improvement in the overall quality, I still can't get excited about most offerings on the Christian fiction bookshelf.

Though the majority of what I read is from secular publishers, I'm selective about what I read -- I don't go for the sex and violence, and have stopped reading books that have unnecessary profanity and such. But the world has some skillful authors whose craft we can learn from. I believe we should strive for excellence and beauty in our writing and offer the world something worth reading, whatever label we have to put on it for marketing purposes.

Bottom line? I agree with Ane: we must each write what we're called to write; it should be His call, not ours. And God has a wonderful sense of humor. For many years I didn't care much for science fiction, and I generally avoided Christian fiction. So now He's got me writing Christian sci-fi. Go figure.

Gadget Girl said...

Mike Dellosso addresses this topic the best. He says Christian fiction is indeed aimed at Christians and the church. It is written so that we know we are getting a good book with no profanity and that type thing, and we know it is going to uphold our beliefs. What is so wrong with that? He also says if you want to attract non-Christians then do not write for the Christian market. I couldn't agree more. Why on earth would a non-Christian with no interest in reading Christian literature go to a Christian bookstore or the Christian section of any bookstore to pick out a book? On the other hand, what is so doggone wrong with wanting to read a clean book? I agree Christian fiction should not always preach, but it should be clean and Christians should be able to pick up a book labeled Christian fiction and know it is going to be something they want to read.

C.J. Darlington said...

Here's my question: How can I know what I'm getting if we don't label a novel in some way? I want to know that I won't have to wade through all the gratuitous violence, sex scenes, and foul language when I pick up a novel. That's what I love about Christian fiction. I can know, in general, that the novel isn't going to have that "stuff" I don't want to read. This is something that fifty years ago, when Lewis & Tolkien were writing, that wasn't a problem because writers weren't writing novels (mostly) that contained this junk. Now that we live in this time, labels have become necessary because of the depravity that comes out in so much secular literature. Not all, mind you, but enough that I can't just pick up a book in the bookstore that sounds intriguing for its plot without having to screen it in some way. I don't want to waste my money on a book that I can't read for my conscious' sake. So fine. If we don't want to call it Christian fiction I understand that. But then we need to have some sort of rating system, like we do for movies. G, PG, PG-13, etc., spelling out why a book is being rated as such.

Kessie said...

Someone remarked somewhere that Christian fiction is typically the same as Juvenile fiction. This worries me somehow, but I don't know why.

Nicole said...

Faith and/or hope "issues" can be addressed in any literature, but in secular literature they often point to the human kind or a vague new age entity (mostly self) for those things. Fine. Read whatever one thinks is necessary, satisfying, entertaining. And/or write it.

Evangelism is God's chore for us (Acts 1:8), but He directed it under the power and influence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4). No individual novel, whether general market or "Christian Fiction", is going to save a soul. He is. He can use anything, any kind of fiction or non-fiction, for His methodology. Our job is to write what He asks us to write.

Christian fiction is no more predictable, mundane, or formulaic than general market fare in the same genres. There are poor writers in both markets, good writers in both markets, writers who write with agendas in both markets.

"Christian" fiction can be found with no mention of Jesus, a hint of prayer, and nothing to point a generic reader to God. And of course it can be found with didactic writing, whether organic or not so much. Steven James, Robert Liparulo, and multiple other novelists in today's Christian fiction write with the vaguest suggestions of faith issues. And they write them well. Many other authors write the faith issues more directly and do it well while others don't.

So, although some very valid points are made in this argument and are worthy of discussion, what is the real conclusion/solution that will truly work?

CJ makes some good points too.

(Recalling Jim Rubart's review fiasco with Rooms as a free Kindle offering.)

Mike Duran said...

Gadget Girl, who says what Christian fiction is supposed to be? Is there a code written somewhere that says "Christian fiction is THIS" and "Christian fiction is not THAT"? As I've wrote before, perhaps the most neglected demographic of Christian readers are Christian readers who don't like Christian fiction. Is it as simple as saying, "if you want to attract non-Christians then do not write for the Christian market"? So that's it? Either write for "the Christian market" or the, what, "NOT CHRISTIAN market"?

Allen Arnold, VP of Thomas Nelson, was recently quoted as saying,

"God appears much more comfortable with the realism of the world than many readers of Christian Fiction. Just look at the Bible stories filled with the realities of war, sex, evil, sin, betrayal, adultery, passion. These stories deal with issues that are not G-rated or “safe”. So I wonder where some got the idea that Christian Fiction should be synonymous with G-rated stories. The world we live in – our lives – are not G-rated nor does the Bible call us to a safe, sugar-coated existence. We seek to paint evil as evil and good as good. That doesn’t make for safe stories always – but they are stories written from a Christian worldview."

Frankly, it's great to hear this from a mover and shaker. What's more scary to me Gadget Girl is that there are those who will fight tooth and nail to keep the word "damn" out of our books. After all, we all know that the word "damn" in the mouth of a character immediately makes that book... NOT CHRISTIAN.

Mike Duran said...

C.J., how is that "cleanness" has come to be synonymous with Christian fiction? (See the quote from Allen Arnold above in my reply to gadget Girl.)Is the lack of expletives really what makes a book "Christian"? This desire for G-rated fiction is more indicative of the audience Christian fiction has been marketed to than it is what Christian fiction should be. Can there be R-rated Christian fiction? If so, where is it? If not, why not?

As far as labels go, I agree with you. I just happen to believe the Christian fiction label is ambiguous and carries loads of baggage. thanks for commenting!

Mike Duran said...

Nicole, I'm not really sure of your point. Is it that Christian fiction doesn't deserve the rap that commenters like Adam made? Is it that not all Christian fiction is preachy or overt? You said, "...although some very valid points are made in this argument and are worthy of discussion, what is the real conclusion/solution that will truly work?" I'm not really offering a solution here. Simply suggesting that the Christian fiction label is polarizing, confusing, restrictive, and not representative of the Christian mission.

Kristina Jean-Conte said...

Mike, this is dead on. I just wrote about the same thing in my own blog ( I for one am trying to create a story that can be appreciated by Christians and non-Christians alike. And the purpose of that is because there is an underlying message that can speak to different spectrums - wherever your faith may be. It may be considered a Christian truth but its also an universal truth nonetheless. I do not want my novel to be label as Christian fiction for that particular reason. Because I want it spread as a great fiction story without any barriers. And if it should appeal to you in a Christian way, then my Christian mission has been complete. If not, then my mission as an author is complete. Either way, it's a win-win situation for me.

Robin said...

I love this post and all the comments. YES!! ALL of this! I am a writer and I am a Christian but I was VERY careful when querying agents to not query agents who exclusively sold to the CBA. "Christian" literature has it's place but I, for one, did not want to get stuck behind that label. I stay at home mom to three daughters and fairly conservative. I've been married to the same man for 14 years, since I was 20 years old and my LIFE is not G-rated. I want to be approachable and real. I want my writing to point to God's grace and to do that, I have to let some of my ugliness show. My problem with much of Christian lit is that it is so G-rated, so picture perfect that it makes me feel guilty and judged because I can't live up to these ideals. This is personally why I love writers like Ann Lamott who can simultaneously talk about God and having a cussing fit at a man who was trying to rip her off. (She later apologized and sent the man flowers.) But I can RELATE to that. I can't relate to Amish romance.

I also agree that we have to write as we feel led and there is a place for writing directed at the church, but for the most part? I don't want to read it.

Lorraine Devon Wilke said...

If a book is about Christianity, promotes or proselytizes the religion; if its themes are entrenched in the proselytization of Christian thinking or dogma, if it has a religious agenda, it should be clearly marked a CHRISTIAN book. If a book is written by a Christian but its simply a well-written, deeply engaging story that makes no particular statement about religion, regardless of whether or not the characters may belong to a Christian religion, then it should be labeled, simply, fiction.

As a non-Christian, I would not want to pick up a book that was NOT labeled "Christian" only to find it a thinly disguised religious tract hidden in a purportedly fictional story. That would feel manipulative and agenda-based. Such a book should be labeled "Christian" so people can choose it accordingly.

If a book, however, is a great story with Christian themes or characters woven into the text no differently than a writer may write about Jewish, Muslim or atheist themes or characters, creatively organic and simply part of the story's tapestry, then leave the identification out. We don't call Philip Roth's books "Jewish fiction" or Khaled Hosseini's "Kite Runner" Muslim fiction, regardless of themes that may include those religious characterizations. The same applies in this case.

Lianne Simon said...

Mike, thoughtful post, but I'm not sure how much it matters what I call my writing. It's the agents who bar the doors. I wrote a young adult novel about an intersex teenager. I had three offers from publishers, one of which was a small Christian publishing house. It was the agents who had reservations about subject material and told me no Christian publisher would touch it.

Nicole said...

Mike, my point may be in seeking a valid conclusion/solution. Any label can be "polarizing, etc." but few quite so much as Christian fiction. In these comments alone the bulk of Christian fiction seems to be addressed to the "sweet little romance" genre or the G-rated fluff pieces. You and I both know, Mike, that Christian fiction is far more inclusive than those references, citing your own debut novel as an example, and that many (not all) of the major contributors to this discussion haven't read enough CF to make the conclusions they've made.

Tammy Doherty said...

I have 2 comments: first, I don't want to write "preachy" but I do want to write (Christian) romantic suspense. CBA publishers don't want it unless I specifically write about Jesus, the Bible, and the characters' spiritual journeys. Labelling aside, how can we write for "laymen" if publishers don't print those books? (sure, there are some authors out there doing it, but how to you break in?)

Second, and this touches on free Kindle fiascos as well - with online and eBook sales increasing, there has to be some way to let readers know the book is (overtly) Christian. If I'm atheist or agnostic and I order a book because it's free and the plot sounds interesting, I'm going to be ticked off when the first church references start. I am not going to sudddenly have a lightbulb moment! And then I'm likely to write one of those scathing reviews everyone hates to get.

I agree, labelling fiction as "Christian" is too restrictive. But there needs to be some way of letting (online) buyers know that a book has references to the church, etc. There isn't an easy answer to this problem. Still, the more we talk about it, the more the secular world will see the broad spectrum offered.

myrtlebeachgirl said...

One of my favorite music groups, Switchfoot, says of themselves that they are not a Christian band, but a band of Christians. I love their music, but I know not all of it carries a gospel message. I have often wondered if saying what they have about themselves-- that they don't want the "Christian music" label-- was less a means of being more marketable to the general audience and more a way to leave the door open to not always having to point people in the direction of Christ (not necessarily because they don't want to, but because they sometimes like singing about other stuff.)

Which brings me to this problem with Christian fiction. Is throwing out the label truly a matter of being more appealing and less preachy to a lost world? Or is it more to leave wiggle room for the edgier, more questionable subject matter? Because hey, it isn't professing to be Christian in nature, right? I just don't know.

Like CJ said, when I pick up a book, I want to know I don't have to wade through a bunch of unnecessary smut to get to the Godly point, if there really is one. And some of it is honest-to-God UNNECESSARY. You can insinuate that a character has cursed. I don't need the F-bomb, thanks. If I want that, I'll buy something that is clearly NOT labeled "Christian".

I also agree that some of us are called to preach to the choir. But for those whose mission it is to draw a lost and hopeless world to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, it may be a true art to mingle the real dirt of life, with all its warts and stink, with the beauty of finding salvation and truth. There are effective and moving ways to do so without being offensive, and the work can still be solidly labeled "Christian Fiction." I think, perhaps, it is a slippery slope to do away with a label that, frankly, is needed to keep some authors in check. Again, it may be happening because we believe it is more marketable and appealing to the lost, but that is a greasy cliff many of us really have no business standing on.

Mike Duran said...

Nicole, I've read enough Christian fiction to validate my conclusions. If your point is that Christian fiction is NOT the stereotypical, "'sweet little romance' genre or the G-rated fluff pieces," we'd probably have to disagree. "Fluff pieces"? No. That's unfair. But "G-rated" and "sweet little romances" That stereotype holds water because much of it is true. Just look at some of the comments above from readers who do not want "gratuitous violence, sex scenes, and foul language." Which is why this is a valid generalization. As far as Christian fiction being "more inclusive" than that, I agree. Nevertheless, 80% of the Christian market is still aimed at conservative evangelical women. And the fare reflects it.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Hear, Hear! Standing O. Encore. Wild Applause. I could not agree more with Adam's understanding of the label, which is why I struggle with knowing what kind of fiction it is I write. Therefore, Mike; thank you, thank you, for finding the right words.
Cherry Odelberg

Cherry Odelberg said...

It would be so easy if I could just push a "like" button.

Beth said...

I believe most people (and that's a generalization) define Christian fiction as a book or story which has a covertly or overtly religious tone or message. (I.e. I'm a Christian and you should be one too, this is how to overcome something and live like a Christian, God is good, etc.) It might not be preachy, but the message is, from the labeled Christian fiction I've encountered, somewhat clear and in some way consistent with a Biblical truth of some kind.

I'll admit that I've given up reading most Christian fiction (although not all) because some of it feels sappy, shallow, or contrived. I focus on children's literature anyway, so except for my book club, which is made of Christians, I don't read much adult fiction. Our book choices are a combination of secular and Christian writing with an occasional nonfiction choice here and there. So far the highest rated books we've read have all been secular. (In my personal estimation, although I admire anyone who can take a book from idea to publication, the Christian choices up to this time have been comparatively lacking in depth and skill.) As a Christian, there are some contents choices I don't go for, but as a reader, I have a high standard and go for skilled writers.

I agree that the label of "Christian" is a deadweight. Although there are people who look for the label to aid them in finding a book they can enjoy without the worries of offensive content (and there's nothing wrong with this), it's not likely to be an outreach tool with that label on it unless a non-Christian is curious or actively seeking.

Right or wrong, however, I would say that the "Christian literature" label is here to stay, even with its vague definition encompassing overtly and covertly Christian books. If you're pitching your book, the agent or editor is going to want the genre. The publisher and its marketing department are going to want the genre. Many of the customers who buy it will want the genre. Some people consider the term "Christian" to be part of that genre identification, restrictive or not.

Mike Duran said...

I appreciate your comments, Lorraine. And your openness to just read good stuff, irregardless of theme. I think what we Christians struggle with in marketing our fiction is that sometimes even mild, non-preachy Christian themes can turn some people off. Any mention of God or Christ gives some people a conniption. Even stuff we consider light and non-dogmatic, gets charged with being preachy. So my question to you would be, How do think a Christian writer can portray Christian themes without turning off non-Christian readers? Again, thanks so much for your thoughts.

Cherry Odelberg said...

I say, Huzzah for Allen Arnold.
As for the suggestion to "not write for the Christian Market;" Have you ever tried, as a writer with a Christian world view and a Judeo-Christian ethic, to get a book affirmed or published in the other markets? I have. The minute the reader / gate keeper saw an allusion to a Christian tradition or a Biblical quote (even when offered purely as ancient wisdom and literature), she said, "This is Christian, take it to the Christian market."

Cherry Odelberg said...

Yes, Lorraine, I agree. That is how it should be. Unfortunately, I do not believe that is the way it is.

Nicole said...

"If your point is that Christian fiction is NOT the stereotypical, 'sweet little romance' genre or the G-rated fluff pieces,' we'd probably have to disagree. 'Fluff pieces'? No. That's unfair. But 'G-rated' and 'sweet little romances' That stereotype holds water because much of it is true." I wouldn't disagree, but you and I both know this isn't ALL that Christian Fiction has to offer. This is the standard bearer of certain publishing houses who still cater to that same audience you later described.

But this is my point: "Mike, my point may be in seeking a valid conclusion/solution." Discussing it might bring like-minded opinions or those who disagree together in print, but is there somewhere to go with it? You know how long this topic has been under surveillance in the writing community, so what is your conclusion/solution?

Mike Duran said...

Great questions, Tammy! You asked,"how can we write for 'laymen' if publishers don't print those books?" Huge question! It's a bit of a tightrope, both theologically and business-wise. I mean, there's plenty of good stuff with religious themes being published by mainstream presses. (I'm partial to Dean Koontz.) But anti-Christian biases are very real, so breaking into certain houses would probably require tact. And frankly, a lot of Christian have concluded that if they have to tone down their "Gospel presentation," they're selling out. I tend to see evangelism as occurring along a continuum. (I developed this idea in a post entitled Christian Fiction: Box or Continuum?, which you might want to check out.) In this sense, evangelism and outreach is far more nuanced than simply reciting the Four Spiritual laws.

As far as labeling, I'm not sure. My first book was about a conflicted pastor and a parishioner who performs a miracle, which forces a faith quest. There's ghosts and mad profs along the way. I'm reluctant to label it Christian fiction, but it definitely has Christian themes. And the main characters and setup are obviously "religious." All that to say, if we are just up front about the gist of the story and don't tiptoe around religious elements, the rest should take care of itself.

Tammy, thanks so much for commenting!

Mike Duran said...

Nicole, my conclusion is that this is a HUGE issue that needs to be talked about. There are legitimate philosophical and theological reasons why this subject won't go away. It may seem to you and me like "this topic has been under surveillance in the writing community" for a long time. But the Christian fiction industry, in terms of publishing, is still relatively young. So the only "valid conclusion/solution" I can give you is this: We are in the midst of change. Thanks for commenting, Nicole!

C.J. Darlington said...

I do not think Christian fiction means G-rated fiction at all. I don't think it's fair to assume that if someone doesn't want to read about graphic sex, violence and swearing they must have something that is G-rated. And I have a bit of a problem with how people, in trying to justify including things like this in their books, refer to the Bible as R-rated. I don't believe the Bible is R-rated. See, terrible things happen in the Bible, but we are never forced to "see" those terrible things in minute, graphic detail. It's stated as a fact: so and so killed so and so. David cut off Goliath's head, but the detail of that isn't described.

I'm not trying to be divisive, but when this argument comes up I always feel that somehow I'm prudish for arguing that books don't have to include all that stuff to be relevant. In my novel Thicker than Blood my main character is a chain smoking alcoholic who in the first chapter is arrested for DUI and goes home with her boyfriend.

And by the way... there's nothing wrong with sweet little romances. With all due respect, by referring to them the way you have, Mike, it's almost like you're inferring that those who read them are somehow inferior.

Carol J. Garvin said...

In a brick-and-mortar bookstore, labels (visible or invisible) define where a book is located. It would be hopeless to try and browse an entire bookstore with shelves sorted only by authors' names. I head for the "mystery/suspense", "historical romance" or assorted "inspirational" shelves if that's what I'm looking for.

Since CBA publishers have specific guidelines, I'm usually reassured that books sold under certain imprints will hold to a particular standard, but I still read the back cover blurb and author's bio. If the characters' faith is instrumental to the story I'd like to know that. If there's no reference to it in the blurb, I wonder if the omission is deliberate, calculated to draw in readers who wouldn't normally be attracted to the story. If so, the misrepresentation seems dishonest.

As a reader, if the suggested genre doesn't accurately reflect the reading experience, I'll be frustrated, regardless of whether it's Christian fiction or secular. As a writer, I believe I need to know my target market and be honest and transparent about where I expect my stories to fit. So for me, accepting a label isn't a problem. However, it's obviously a controversial subject. Thanks for this post and the comments that address both sides so well.

Kathryn J. Bain said...

It amazes me when I meet a Christian author who uses a pseudonym to write secular or erotica. Why can't you write erotica, have the couple be married, and Christian? It would seem to me you'd get people who might not otherwise know God. If it’s good writing, I can't imagine it wouldn't sell. And if I remember correctly, we’re supposed to go out in the world to reach people. That might mean that as writers, we should write secular if God is putting that on our hearts.

I actually had one of my Christian critique partners ask if I was going to change my name for my secular stuff. She said my Christian publisher might not want me to use the same name. Too bad. I pray about my writing all the time. If God points out something offensive, I change it. And my secular is only PG. It just doesn’t contain all the prayer and “God” stuff I put in my inspirational.

I have no problem having my inspirational labeled as such, and I have no problem with rating my secular. If it’s good, people will read it. If it’s not, it won’t sell.

Mike Duran said...

C.J., I don't think you're being divisive. And I don't mean to be disrespectful. The "sweet little romances" was a quote from Nicole, not me. I totally respect someone's choice to avoid viewing and reading profanity, sex, and violence. My problem is why that has become a defining characteristic of Christian fiction. In reality, much of our industry hearkens back to Fundamentalist roots, believing that writing a cuss word or showing a sex scene is "worldly" and "touching the unclean thing."

However, I disagree with you about the R-rated Bible stuff. It's far too easy to explain it away as "we are never forced to 'see' those terrible things in minute, graphic detail." The problem is, the Bible is full of ugly, crude, embarrassing, offensive things. Like Lot offering his two virgin daughters to be raped by an angry mob (Gen. 19:7-8), King David removing the foreskins from 200 dead Philistines (I Sam. 18: 25-27), and God smiting the Philistines with hemorrhoids (I Sam. 5:1-12), just to name a few. (For a more detailed discussion of this, see my post, Is the Bible Really "Family Friendly"?) All that to say, while I respect Christians who choose to avoid reading books with graphic sex, violence and swearing, making that the earmark of Christian fiction just seems... unrealistic.

C.J., thanks for discussing this and, once again, I apologize if I've come off as disrespectful. Blessings!

C.J. Darlington said...

Thanks, Mike! No worries. :)

C.J. Darlington said...

Oh, and my apologies for misquoting you.

Renee said...

What do you see as the solution, Mike? A CBA publisher having a line that is not easily recognized as coming from its house? Or ABA houses being more open to publishing stuff with a biblical worldview? Or changing the blurbs describing the books on Amazon? (If B&N goes under, no one will have to worry about the in-store labels.) . . .

Nicole said...

CJ, I refer to "sweet little romances" as a reference point not as a criticism. Critics of Christian fiction seem to use these as their focal points for criticizing the bulk of Christian fiction. I have no problem with people reading them, nor does Mike, I'm sure, but they only serve a portion of the Christian reading community. Granted the dominant percentage - and I might even say - the most vocal but certainly not the numbers that are still being catered to in this genre as well as the Amish and historical genres. There seems to be a satisfaction that they're reaching the larger demographic at the neglect to the rest of our readers.

My gripe has always been that the primary criticisms of Christian fiction have come from those who rarely read it. Now: not so much. There are a bunch of us out here who prefer a perhaps grittier (for lack of a better word; edgy is overused) approach which seems more "honest" in depicting the contemporary stories.

I would agree with Mike that the industry is "in the midst of change" and there is evidence of that in novels produced by Thomas Nelson, B&H Publishing, Realms, and others. This can be a welcome addition to the staid and generally accepted "norm".

myrtlebeachgirl said...

So what should it be called, then, that it may be identifiable as having a Gospel message? It's the same ridiculous thing as those Christians who don't want to be called Christians anymore, but Christ Followers. All because some people give Christianity a bad name. Are we going to stop calling ourselves people because some people are evil? Or maybe it shouldn't be called food anymore, since food makes some people fat. I understand the CBA has long held tight reigns on what is acceptable for print in the inspirational market. The first time I heard some houses wouldn't allow you to use the word "sex" in a CBA sanctioned book, I almost fell out of my seat laughing. THANK GOD, that's changing! People want real life "grit". It makes the part where characters surrender their lives to Jesus much more powerful. But abandoning the label of Christian because it turns some readers off? Ridiculous. Whatever you call it, that demographic of readers will just get used to the new labeling and still will not read it because they.don' They obviously don't want to read Christian/inspirational literature that lays down truth without apology! And they don't want to be trapped into doing so by picking up a book with dodgy labeling. It's deceptive, all the way around. If we can't come right out and say what we're about, then what do we stand for? Personally, I will not bow to hiding the message of Christ so I can appeal to those who want Gospel light, or Gospel NOT. They should know what they're getting into! And we should be completely honest with them!

C.J. Darlington said...

Nicole... I should've read all the comments more thoroughly before commenting. I know you well enough from your blog and other comments to know you're not criticizing. I think I got a little bristly because I felt bad for those who enjoy the sweet little romances as they seem to be dissed a lot. Actually, I gravitate more toward what you read. I personally don't read sweet little romances, Lol! Anyway... apologies if my comment came off wrong toward you. :)

Nicole said...


Nicole said...

Certainly no apologies necessary, CJ, and, no, it absolutely did not. I knew where you were coming from - and I agree.

Mike Duran said...

Myrtlebeachgirl, thanks for the sermon, er, comment. But who said anything about not calling ourselves Christians? You wrote, "Personally, I will not bow to hiding the message of Christ so I can appeal to those who want Gospel light." Uh, me neither. But you assume that being tactful about our approach or nuanced in our art is selling out to Gospel light. Scripture tells us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Might I suggest that we Christian writers need wisdom as much as we need boldness. Wisdom in how we witness to the world and share the Light and Love of Christ. You might think shouting it from the rooftop is a good witness. My guess is your neighbors don't.

Mike Duran said...

Renee, I don't think we should tiptoe around faith elements in our blurbs. If the story is aimed at a Christian audience, if it involves overt faith themes or discussion about God, we should just say so in the description. What many Amazon reviewers complain about is NOT having such descriptions available, so they (rightly or wrongly) feel tricked.

As far as a solution, that's not as easy to come by. Christian fiction remains one of the best performing sectors of the book industry. So in one sense, why change anything? A crossover line of books or an "edgy Christian fiction" line might open up new avenues, reach another audience, but it would also be risky and potentially alienate existing fans. I really don't know. The encouraging thing is that we continue to think through and discuss the issue. Thanks for writing, Renee!

myrtlebeachgirl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
myrtlebeachgirl said...

I could simply never consider the label of "Christian" on my fiction writing as "dead weight". It burdens my heart that anyone who writes stories for Christ could. That's all.

Mike Duran said...

Listen, I'm talking about a label, myrtlebeachgirl. That's it. The "Christian fiction" label carries certain stereotypes. If a book doesn't fit those stereotypes, why label it such?

Dayle James Arceneaux said...

Location: Books a Million
Date: December 21, 2012.

"Sir, you look a little confused. Can I help you."
"Um, yeah, what happened to the Christian Fiction section?"
"Oh we got rid of that and mixed them in with general fiction."
"Well how am I supposed to find the books I want to read?"
"The authors last names are in alphabetical order."
"Okay, that's great for the Christian fiction authors I know, but what about browsing new authors and authors I haven't read yet."
"Hmmm. I know, start at "A" and look for the Christian publishing house logos on the bindings."
"I guess I could do that, but I think I'll just go to the Christian bookstore across town."

As customer leaves the store:
"Maybe getting rid of the Christian fiction section wasn't such a good idea."

C.J. Darlington said...

Well put! It really is all about marketing. And I don't mind. :)

Brandon Clements said...

You've opened up quite the can here Mike:) As usual, I agree with you. I'd even be happy with keeping the label and having more room for missional stories (that aren't aimed at Christians).

Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

Mike Duran said...

Location: Books a Million
Date: Present Day.

"Sir, you look a little confused. Can I help you?"
"Uh, I'm looking for something a little different to read. Maybe a new author or genre."
"Hm. Have you tried YA? YA is really hot."
"I'm not a youth! Why would I read YA?!"
"Well then, there's a new line of LGBT fiction."
"Never mind. How 'bout Paranormal Romance? That's selling well."
"I'm not into erotica. Hey, what's that aisle over there, in the back?"
"Oh. That aisle. That's Christian fiction. But I wouldn't look there if I was you."
"Yeah? Why not?"
"Are you a Christian?"
"Well, no."
"There's the first reason. Besides, it mostly consists of prairie romances and women's fiction. And it can get mighty preachy sometimes."

As customer leaves the store:
"I wonder why they don't just move that Christian fiction aisle back where it belongs -- into church."

* * *

Hey Dayle, it's good to know I can still draw you out of the shadows. ;-)

R. Frederick Riddle said...

Mike, I kind of agree with what you are saying. I have written three novels, all Bible-based. On my website, I use the term Christian fiction, but the stories were written for anyone who enjoys good fiction.

To me Christian Fiction is just another term to let people know that my books have a Christian worldview, which does not necessarily restrict it to a Christian audience. The novels themselves are exciting adventure stories where the characters experience real life problems.

Including profanity and "realistic" actions is not a sign of a good writer. I believe that the writer should write to let his/her audience use their imagination. A good novel carries you away with your imagination at the controls.

What I am trying to say is that Christian Fiction is a very general term. If labeling books Christian Fiction means it is restricted to a Christian audience, then I think that is too strict. I want everyone to read my book.

So my conclusion is that "Christian Fiction" labeling should be restricted to bookstore sections and general marketing. Any further than that and you cut out a potential audience.

PS: For those that charge that Christian Fiction is poor fiction, they just haven't read the right books. I have had excellent reviews. Like any novel, there are good and bad writers. That is why it is important to read the descriptions, back covers, etc. But there is always the chance you'll be disappointed.

Josh C. said...

I suppose my problem with it is the idea that something with foul language, violence, sex, drugs, etc. can't be considered Christian. These things exist in the world and if we read the Bible (while also, you know, living life) we see that a Christian life is filled with these things. The message is about the struggle to overcome them, not to live in complete absence of them. "No Country for Old Men" comes to mind of books that could be considered Christian Fiction if the criteria for such a label made any sense. A very violent novel and not uplifting at all. Clearly, the criteria is a result of marketing to certain tastes and not as a result of them content.

Delia Latham said...

Labels, while necessary for the most part, are often dangerous, and should perhaps have a second label attached - where the first, BIG categorization can be peeled away to reveal what's underneath. Christian Fiction, in my opinion, is one of those things. I write inspirational romance. My goal is to provide entertaining, quality reading for people who - whether they be churchgoers or not - are looking for a clean read, and don't mind the fact that God is at the heart of the story. I try hard to deliver storylines that include an uplifting theme of hope, forgiveness, love - SOMETHING readers may be struggling with, whether Christians or non-Christians. Does that mean I don't enjoy a good Dean Koontz book? Absolutely not. I love the man. Stephen King even uses basic Bible principles in a good many of his novels. Life isn't always wrapped up in a pretty package. But it's nice to have well-written, solid stories available for those readers who prefer NOT to peek into the seamier side of things. I'm happy to provide them with their kind of reading. And many time, an individual who might never darken the door of a church building will pick up a novel for "light reading." While I make a deliberate effort not to preach (to the choir or otherwise), if a subtle message of hope can be delivered to those people in a "sweet little romance," I'm all for it - whatever the label. I don't care whether my readers call my books Christian Fiction, Inspirational Romance, or simply "a good, clean read." I've never had a problem deciding what kind of content those labels represent, and I think most readers are smart enough to figure it out, as well.
I enjoyed your post, Mike - and the comments, as well.