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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Why Christian Fiction Writers CAN'T Cross Over to the General Market

I left the ministry for a job in the “secular” world. And it was the best thing that ever happened to my ministry.

You see, all those years huddled around Christians, entrenched in evangelical culture, interacting mostly with those who thought like me, those who shared my beliefs, values, and terminology, those who rarely challenged my opinions or forced me to evaluate the nuances of multicultural interchange, left me out of touch with the larger world.  Leaving that cloister was a shock at first. Yet eventually, working alongside those of, sometimes, radically different religious and philosophical persuasion, was revelatory. And much needed. All those Scriptures about being Christ’s witnesses, the salt of earth, the light of the world, being wise in how we act to outsiders and making the most of every opportunity, always being ready to give an answer to those who ask us about the hope we have, and going into the world and making disciples of all nations, seemed to come to life.

In a way, the Church had insulated me against the very thing Christ had called me to do!

So when I joined the Christian fiction community, I was rather shocked to see the same insular calcification I’d witnessed in church.

  • Christians,
  • writing for Christians,
  • agented by Christians,
  • published by Christians,
  • reviewed by Christians,
  • sold in Christian book stores,
  • given Christian awards…
  • and very defensive when it came to their Christian industry.

Yikes! Didn’t these folks realize we were called and commissioned to reach the culture, not isolate ourselves from it? Had they skipped those verses about letting their light shine (which can only be done in the dark)? I mean, why worry about “how we act to outsiders” if we rarely interact with them? Weren’t we just talking to ourselves?

Literary agent Chip MacGregor touched on this in his regular Q&A column recently. He asked Is crossing over from the CBA to the general market possible? and veered this way:

…from an agent’s perspective, many faith-based writers simply don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to writing for non-Christian readers. They aren’t part of the non-faith world, they don’t hang out with non-Christian people, they don’t watch non-religious TV or listen to radio programming that’s antithetical to their beliefs. In essence, they CAN’T speak to that group, because they don’t know the language.

And then Chip goes on to illustrate this using a Christian writer who, apparently, needs to get out a little more.

I was in a meeting a few years ago with a well-known Christian personality who wanted to “write a book for the general market.” She was big news, so we were all excited… until we saw her idea. It was basically an outline drawn from the book of James, with verses to support every point. When I tried to explain to her why that book would NEVER be picked up by the general public, she didn’t understand me. “But it’s TRUTH,” she argued. “It’s GOD’S truth, and people will see that if they would pick it up and read it!” You see, she just didn’t grasp the fact that the majority of readers won’t listen to that argument… The general book culture isn’t interested in books from a strict evangelical viewpoint. Other Christians are, but the general reading public are not. And that’s an issue I face regularly with faith-based authors.
So no, for most religious writers, “crossing over” is a very, very difficult task.

As usual, I appreciate Chip’s candor. His observation that Christian authors’ inability to speak to the “world” is a direct result of them not being enough IN the world, is incredibly important. So in many ways, the CBA is reflective of our insular evangelical culture. But sadly, I’ve learned that this is an observation many Christian authors bristle against.

Christian authors CAN’T speak to general market readers because they don’t know their language.


And the reason is because we’re too busy talking to ourselves.

In the “secular” world, you don’t have the luxury of demanding that everyone watches their language, dresses appropriately, minds their theological Ps and Qs, and follows the Gospel program. In the “real world,” the impetus for “adjusting” is on us. We are the ones who need to season our conversation with salt and be wise in how we reach and speak to “outsiders.” However, as Christians, writing to Christians, published by Christians, speaking in Christianese, we never have to worry about that.

In a way, Christian fiction culture has insulated us against the very thing Christ had called us to do!

Your thoughts? 
 

* * *

Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at www.mikeduran.com.

36 comments:

Geoff Wright said...

Nice article Mike. I'm sure some people are called to write for their brothers and sisters. but that has not been my experience. My wife and I owned a Christian bookstore for some years. The main aim? To outreach to the community. Thanks. Geoff Wright. Australia

rachelallord.com said...

This stirs up something in me... I agree with you and I think it's time we break the bubble and tear down the insulation. The highest compliment I've received for my book is from very "secular" high school friends who said they they got lost in the story and loved it. If not to be salt, why are we writing? Thanks for sharing Mike.

Normandie Ward Fischer said...

Amen. What more can I say? We speak the language (or languages) we hear, and if we only hear one sort, then that's what will form our vocabulary. No, I don't advocate tossing curses around to fit in, but if we limit ourselves to church-speak, no one outside the church will listen. Salt should flavor, not take over.

Horton Prather said...

I have to agree with you Mike -- from an Evangelical viewpoint. In fact this is a point I bring up often in the seniors Sunday School class I teach. I'm writing my first novel (suspense), and my protagonist dealt with the secular world of alcohol consumption, crime, and brutal poverty. I was informed that that was a no-no in the CBA world. I shouldn't to "bring people down" -- they wanted an inspirational, uplifting experience. I also planned for it to address some touchy issues (homosexuality, rape) from a Christian perspective. One of my friends who reviewed the first draft asked, "Why do you want to put that in? You have to remember your target audience. They might just quit reading the book when this stuff comes up." He is probably right, so I toned it down. I could publish in the secular market, but then to be accepted, I'd have to tone down the Christian message --but I still might touch someone on the fence, struggling with some tough issues.

Ane Mulligan said...

It's a conundrum, all right, but I think if God calls a Christian to write for the secular market, they that's what he/she should do. Yes, it takes a bit of extra work to avoid Christianese, but then being a light in the darkness is never easy.

I think some CBA publishers are changing on some of the tough issues. Christians deal with many of the same ones the secular world does. We can't hide our heads in the sand and pretend we/they don't.

Berks1964 said...

I am in quite another boat. I am writing a book with the Amish as a central part of the plot and it is not a CBA book but as soon as “Amish” is mentioned as a plot point, agents and publishers think this is a “bonnet romance.” Once I do get past that I get consideration but it's a huge barrier. Once critic sent me feedback saying the fact that there was a naked man would rule the book out for the CBA audience. I was laughing because 1) the editor didn’t realize -or forgot- that this was for the general readership and 2) IT WAS IN A BASEBALL TEAM'S LOCKER ROOM. Does that mean in CBA books, ballplayers shower with their clothes on (sorry I mentioned it, LOL). I think that locker room mention might be the raciest part of the book (still smiling). I am writing the book to dispel the myths of the Amish and using them as a backdrop for the novel which is essentially about baseball.

It is hard to paddle upstream.

Steph said...

I find the concept of "crossing over" a difficult one to grasp as far as the content goes. Fiction from a Christian worldview is not the same as "crossover," is it? By that, I mean there is no clear "gospel" impact in a worldview story--or is that not the aim of "crossover"? Personally, I find most Christian lit too smack-in-your-face evangelical, but I can't figure out how Christian lit can be secular and yet evangelical. If you simply mean no Christianese language, no obviously evangelical/gospel impact (i.e., message), but only a Christian "worldview" or "good versus evil," I get it. So I guess my question is, exactly what is "crossover" lit, its purpose, and can you give me some examples (okay, that's three questions!)? Thanks!

Susan F. Craft said...

I've had a very different problem with my inspirational historical romantic suspense, The Chamomile. It was published by Ingalls Publishing Group, a traditional non-CBA publisher. Because Ingalls isn't CBA, although they wanted to nominate the book for an ACFW award and for the Christy, they were refused because they aren't on the accepted lists of publishers. Ingalls publishes some excellent inspirational novels and some quality books, some of which are secular. Christian bookstores won't carry The Chamomile either because it isn't CBA, despite the fact that it won the highly coveted Okra Pick award from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance and has gotten 20 five-star reviews. Two homeschooling moms (who I don't know) who discovered The Chamomile let me know through my website that they were having their children do book reports on it. Bottom line, I went through a secular publisher, and it's the Christains who are giving me a difficult time. I wrote a sequel to The Chamomile which is represented by a Christain agent with Hartline Literary Agency,who is proposing it to Christian houses. I'm about half-way through the third in the trilogy.

Deeanne Gist said...

I'm in the process of crossing over. But I firmly believe there is room for both types of books on the shelves. Feeding our Christian brothers and sisters is very important. Being salt to the earth is also very important. I think the crucial thing is to do what God calls you to do. And if He's pleased, well, then, there you go. Just my two cents worth. :)

Margo Berendsen said...

Definitely a post that gets me thinking. As a writer who has worked on several books - one aimed toward CBA with that sort of Christianese, and a couple others aimed toward the general market, and not sure which direction to go when it comes to publication yet, this good food for thought. I love CBA because there's times when I (and I assume other Christians) need to read the uplifting, forthright messages of redemption and salvation in fiction to balance the worldviews in general market fiction. But I also want to let my light shine in the darkness; I'm curious to see just how much general market publishers will accept hints of light. Like Steph above I'm very curious about crossover potential but haven't yet really seen any examples of it... except from older works by Lewis and L'Engle.

Mike Duran said...

Thanks for sharing this, Susan. Have you inquired as to why Ingalls is not on the accepted lists of publishers? What exactly is the criteria for inclusion?

Mike Duran said...

Steph, by "cross-over" I mean (and I think the common understanding is) a book written by a professing believer, with varying degrees of faith-driven content, that sells in the general market. Books like "Peace Like a River," "Gilead," "The Shack." There's actually quite a few. The rub for CBAers is, in my opinion, our definitions of what constitute "Christian fiction." I write about this subject quite often at my blog. For instance, you might want to check out this older post of mine "Christian Fiction: Box or Continuum"in which I put forth an idea about broadening the parameters of how we define faith-driven fiction. Frankly, Christians would have MORE crossover possibilities if we discarded some of our more narrow, dare I say, legalistic, conventions regarding what Christian art is.

Bonnie Doran said...

I would love to cross over into the general market with a science fiction novel. My first novel, a science thriller, is being published by a CBA publisher. I read a lot of secular science fiction. Either the author ignores religion completely or makes up his own. I'd like to write one that reflects a Christian worldview and presents a Christian message without beating the reader over the head with a giant Bible. I believe this is where God will eventually lead me, which is why my tagline is "Where Faith and Science Fiction Collide."

Ane Mulligan said...

First, the publisher has to apply to be on the ACFW recognized list. Then they have to have a separate imprint of Christian fiction.

Normandie Ward Fischer said...

Margo, I write Southern fiction that shares my worldview but seems to be crossing over, mostly because my tribe comes from the secular world. (Granted, the first book just released, so the test is yet to come.)

One of my early readers, who wouldn't be caught dead reading CBA and told me so when she asked if she could be a beta reader (she found me on a women's fiction group), wrote a review on Goodreads where she says "The author did not intend for this book to be a religious book, however, the characters pray to God and have a high moral standard. No specific religion is discussed other than having respect for God and hope that there is someone greater looking out for us all."

She gave it five stars, which seems rather nice from someone I don't know. An atheist reader said she loves it and didn't mind reading a story that has folk praying as long as no one hits her over the head with religion.

Maybe that's the key?

Susan F. Craft said...

Ane is correct. When Ingalls applied to ACFW, they were told that they would have to develop a separate imprint of their Christian fiction. Ingalls decided not to. I'm not sure how much trouble that would have been for them, but it was their decision. I still felt the book should have been considered on its own merit, not on whether Ingalls had a separate division for its inspirationals. I understand that because Wild Rose publishing got complaints from Christian readers who were uncomfortable with some of their covers, they created White Rose imprint. I get it, but I'm still disappiointed.

Susan F. Craft said...

Deanne,
I have read several of your books and have loved each one. When friends ask me for recommendations for authors to read, your name is always on my short list.

Jennifer said...

The best thing I did was work on a manuscript when I first started writing with a "regular" person. It really gave me a different perspective...

Jennifer said...

The best thing I did was work on a manuscript when I first started writing with a "regular" person. It really gave me a different perspective...

Sandra Stiles said...

I agree with what you are saying. I left teaching in a private Christian school to teach in the public system. A pastor at a school I was applying to recommended I do this. I assured him I would be fired for witnessing and I HAD to work in the private system. He said, "Don't you think God needs teachers like you to witness to those NOT in a Christian school?" That was 20 years ago. If we can't hook readers and draw them into the book where we have our message we can't reach them. I have my book on my shelves at school. Two schools are using it. They don't see it as a "Christian" book but a book where one of the characters shares her faith to get her through her situation. That is real world.

Leticia said...

As a young woman who wanted to be a journalist, I was advised by a Domnican priest to be a light in the secular world. But how does a young or not so young woman of faith get her work published in the secular, sex-saturated, anti-life media?
I have had very limited success getting published in secular outlets. The only exception is I had a story published in "Chicken Soup for the Soul; Inspiration for Writers".

Debbie Clark said...

As a reader and not a writer, I can see problems with morality. I read a review years ago on Amazon from a reader who commented on a popular secular novelist author that if she wrote all of her books from now on without the graphic sex scenes, that she would no longer be buying her books. This author actually did write one book with Love Inspired.

I am a person who has read all of the scuzzy books and vowed years ago to only read that which is moral only. I have heard it described that women's novels are to women what pornography is to men and believe me, that is so true.

We can be "in the world, but not of the world". Please, authors who are crossing over, do not go against your Christian convictions. The world may like graphic sex, same sex marriages, and other stuff, but don't compromise your own convictions. And yes, us Christian women to appreciate all of you for writing books that we can read and appreciate.

Heather Marsten said...

I just gave my testimony for Just Say So (they have a Facebook page of testimonies). I was careful to use words that nonbelievers could understand and my interviewer asked me to clarify what i meant by hearing by God, how did I hear. My pastor is big on speaking common language to communicate with others. He wrote a book called Christianese - which is for sale but can be read for free here :(http://pastordonmoore.org/files/Christianese.pdf

There are so many terms we use that we don't even think are Christian specific, and this book defines the terms.

I'm editing my memoir and I'm hoping it is helpful for the secular world - In sharing the abuse I received, I also share some of the cursing that was spoken in our house and details that are more than a Christian would want to read.

I'm a huge advocate of a rating system for Christian books - Some Christians do not want anything to pollute their mind. I came to Christ when I was 48, and my journey to Him covered areas that some Christians would not want to know about. At the same time, my pastor's wife told me I should add more details of the occult studies I did, the abuse I received, and other things I experienced. She told me she lived a sheltered life and what my book shares gives her facts to help her minister to others.

Heather

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Good point, Debbie--it's just as much a sellout for a Christian to go secular and then insert all the scuzzy stuff, just to sell, as it is for a Christian author to write Amish so they can get pubbed in the CBA. We have to know what we want to write, and what outlet is best to reach our intended audience. I personally appreciate Christian authors who talk about the hard things and issues (like the Bible does), yet don't wallow in it or write for shock value.

And I think some are just meant to write to edify the body, and some are meant to write in a more evangelistic manner--not preaching, but bringing truths to light for other audiences. It's really hard when you feel you're meant to write for both audiences, CBA and ABA...but you do have to choose a side, choose an agent, and try to get your writing out there.

angchronicles said...

I'm just saying thank you. I've been feeling like a lone wolf, lately. Thank you Lord, I'm not in this cross over genre alone.

Debbie Clark said...

Heather, I agree with you about a rating system for Christian books. I also agree that there are those who can reach others on the outside that many of us cannot reach. I myself would not read anything about the occult. However, if you feel that you can warn people by your experience, that is a great idea. The abuse that you suffered, the words, etc. can encourage others to get out of their abusive situations and get help. I also agree that especially those of us who were born and raised in Christian families have a lot of Christianese speak that we don't even realize.

Meredith Resce said...

Brilliant, well said, and couldn't agree more. Let's get our head out of the sand, people!

HGlick said...

I worked for many years outside the home, and God opened my eyes to nonChristians. What I mean is that God gave me a better perspective of where they were coming from. You cannot expect someone who doesn't know Jesus to think like someone who does know Jesus, because they don't know Him yet! It doesn't mean that God can't open their eyes to truth, but don't expect a nonChristian to have the same worldview as a Christian. Sounds simple, and yet, I hear so many Christians say, "Why would someone do XYZ." Um, because they don't know Jesus. Plain and simple.

Ron Estrada said...

I read Chip's post and it certainly made me think. I'm a late blooming Christian, saved at 30 at a PK rally at the Pontiac Silverdome (saved in the end-zone...the Lions weren't using it anyway). That was 16 years ago, and not when I'm around non-Christians, I feel like they're speaking a foreign language. I commented on Chip's post that some were called to evangelize, some were called to encourage. Perhaps that's our role--to encourage. I fear working too hard to write for the world as the temptations are there for me, too. I suppose my mysteries are "non-preachy" enough to reach a secular audience, but I think most would be turned off at my lack of "real" language. I can live with that. If I'm called to encourage, I'll write to encourage. If someone can pull off a crossover without falling to temptation, God bless them.

Maxine Thomas said...

I read the title of your article and my immediate response was, Why should any Christian writer WANT to cross over to the general market? And then I read the article.
You make a good point regarding our being somewhat insulated from the real world. Have you thought that we might have CHOSEN to be separate from the real world? Isn’t the world already teeming with language, behaviors, policies and situations that challenge, even condemn, the Christian worldview? It seems to me there would need to be a downward shift in the subject matter of the work produced by crossover writers, and a tolerance for ideas and practices that are contrary to Christ’s teaching. My own writing goal is to provide a safe alternative to the world's entertainment, a venue in which Christian and non-Christian readers can meet people who face and triumph over life's challenges while holding to their faith. Frankly, I think we would be better served if Christian fiction writers did NOT ATTEMPT to cross over to the general market.

Karen Nolan Bell said...

I agree it is commanded to us to be a light in the darkness. That is why I am so confused about whether to go through the Christian or secular market for the book I am now fine tuning. My first writing group was not Christian. It was a few Jewish ladies, a Hindi, an agnostic, and a former Catholic. To survive in this group, I had to learn how to write what they were willing to read. As a result, four years later, we are still together and they are beginning to ask questions about my faith. I made it a rule to never "preach" or use Christianese with them. When I get together with a Christian writing group, I find that even I find it difficult to listen to the preaching. Some of them feel everything I write should have the gospel message and lots of scripture. They don't understand that doing so would cause walls to go up with the non-churched and ruin their witness. My target audience is the non-Christian. It takes hard work to present the gospel in a way they will be open to it.

Karen Kyle Ericson said...

Thanks Mike this is how I feel to a "T". Christians have a great book already, the Bible. I want to show faith in action in a crazy world like ours. This was quite inspiring as to how I'd approach it : ) You know bring hope to the hopeless, faith to the faithless that stuff. But my characters need to be non-Christian, maybe an atheist, and Christian. Would be fun to throw in a Muslim. I have a wonderful Muslim friend. I've been in Christian environments at times like college. It was a bit stuffy for me. I know the secular quite well. My husband and I are Christian.

Dale said...

Yep, I agree too. We need to get out of our holy huddle. otherwise how will we reach the world.

Dale said...

So agree Mike.Gilead is a favourite book.

Carol Baldwin said...

I came to this blog post because I googled something about Christians writing for nonChristians. It was a superb article and all the comments were illuminating too. Thank y'all for thoughtfully dissecting this thorny issue.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Karen Nolan Bell, your story is powerful. I so agree. I write for middle graders in the general market and don't feel I need to compromise my values. But, it would be more challenging if I were in young adult or adult.