A Christian-Shaped Hole in Literary Fiction

This photo was re-used from totallycoolpix.com

This photo was re-used from totallycoolpix.com

I’ll tell you a secret.

I don’t like reading Christian fiction.

That may sound strange to hear from an author who just released a collection of short stories riddled with Theological undertones. But it’s true. I find most of today’s Christian fiction somewhat cheesy and predictable.

In the last few years, I’ve checked out very few Christian novels from the library, and I didn’t finish reading a single one of them.

The last Christian novel I actually finished reading was “The Visitation” by Frank Peretti (my wife had bought it for me as a gift). It was very well written, don’t get me wrong, but you could tell that it was designed more to entertain (with the unlikely visitation of a reincarnated Jesus to a small town in Washington state) than to enlighten. There were some wonderful moments of faith in conflict, but they served only as a subplot to the larger supernatural powers at play in the story.

Recently, a friend of mine, emailed me a New York Times article about the lack of Christianity in today’s fiction. The author, Paul Elie, never once mentioned mainstream Christian fiction in his article. Instead, he focuses on some of the literary greats and Literature with the capital L.

Why such disregard for Christian titles released by name-brand publishers like Thomas Nelson (which is totally devoted to Christian books)?

Probably for the same reason I’ve stopped reading Christian fiction myself.

Most Christian fiction out there is more entertaining than it is though-provoking, and I think that’s a problem. Meanwhile, today’s Literary greats are dismissing the real intellectual challenges of Christianity and the value it offers to good story-telling.

During my years studying fiction and literature at Pitt, there was little mention of Christianity in any of the books we read. And when it did make unto the pages of an assigned reading, Christianity was either treated as a nuisance or an outdated form of mysticism. Only once or twice was it revered with a bit of wonder, but even then the sense of awe faded quickly.

That’s in part what motivated me to publish “Amidst Traffic.” I wanted to write fiction that was Literary first and Christian second. Why? Because I wanted to prove that fiction with theological undertones didn’t need its own category. I believe that Amidst Traffic should be rated with the rest of the Literary works, and not sub-divided for “those Christians who want easy answers.”

I believe that quality Christian fiction can still exist. But who is to step forward? There’s a ton of money out there for books that are oriented toward entertainment, but meanwhile those books won’t satisfy readers who want to be challenged with a good story while reading fiction that contemplates on the reality of and the struggles that Christianity faces.

Today’s Christian fiction is maybe a little too cookie-cutter, and any attempt to break through that norm morphs into other genres such as sci-fi or the supernatural just to find an audience.

Ok, so there’s tons of supernatural events in “Amidst Traffic” sure (with characters who hear voices and people seeing visions of the future), but never at the expense of creating realistic characters who fight authentic, internal battles. The personal struggles come first, and the supernatural stuff just sets the scene, not the other way around.

The story should always come first. Only then will Christianity really shine in fiction and be taken seriously by the Literary world.

 

Want more?

Here’s a telling article on a blog called Cerulean Sanctum that addresses some of the main problem of today’s mainstream Christian fiction.

 

What about you?

Have you read any works of Christian fiction that were intellectually stimulating, or have you given up on the genre of “Christian fiction” yourself?

 

About Michel Sauret

I'm a independent and literary fiction author and Pittsburgh-based photographer

20 comments

  1. Michel, this post proved to be a very inspiring and a challenge to me. From this post I’ve been challenged with a desire to improve the quality of my own Christian fiction. I’ve always approached christian fiction as primarily an effort to write outstanding fiction in which a sub plot is the protagonist’s spiritual growth. However after reading this article I now have a new point of view.

    You stated in the article: “meanwhile those books won’t satisfy readers who want to be challenged with a good story while reading fiction that contemplates on the reality of and the struggles that Christianity faces.” Reading that conjured up in my mind the notion of writing outstanding fiction which also challenges the reader to seek God with greater passion. This would need to be conveyed through the novel’s characters but could be done well with practice.

    But to clarify further I send the ball back to your court with this question “How should my christian fiction impact the reader?” “What should my Christian fiction do for the reader?”

  2. Hey Gary,

    I want to begin by saying that I’m not familiar with your writing yet, but I intend on checking out your blog more in the future.

    The answer (in theory) is simple, but in practice it becomes rather challenging:

    The key to quality Christian fiction writing is quality FICTION writing first. Character, tone, style, rhythm… Theology is incredibly important, yes, but readers come to the book for the quality of story telling first. I think maybe that’s what most Christian fiction authors forget. They’re too quick to get to the Christian conversion or setting up for it, that they fail to set up believable characters with compelling struggles.

    When I want to learn theology, I turn to the Bible or my favorite authors: C.S. Lewis, R.C. Sproul, Timothy Keller…

    But when I pick up a Novel, I want a good STORY. And I might even forgive imperfect theology as a result.

    When I come up with story ideas, I’m usually motivated by a character who WANTS something. It begins there. Once I figure out what the character wants, I try to discover what he’s willing to do to GET it, and what stands in his way. What is at stake?

    If the character doesn’t know what he wants, or worse yet, he doesn’t want anything, the story doesn’t exist. If the Character wants something but there’s nothing at stake, then there is no story.

    You begin with those two principles, read a LOT of top-notch literary authors who thrill you (mine are Richard Bausch & Cormac McCarthy), and implement what they do into what you do.

    The rest is hard.

  3. Another thing that helps is to be honest about the struggles we faced in our own conversion to Christianity. Let’s not ignore the doubts (that maybe still linger). Use those doubts to drive tension and character development.

  4. Hello Michel,
    I have got a theme much like Benhur and after sharing my idea with some of my friends, they all said the story as a good one worth to inspire and motivate people. Can you share your views on how people of today will accept a story like that of Benhur?

    I believe this story has got the potential to even become a Hollywood movie, but what would you say about writing the book first rather than a script.

    This will be my first book and I have little experience with it but if it is worth doing, I think I can manage it. To be frank I want to know how many will buy such a novel if it is worth reading (I mean the figures).

    • Hey Karia,

      Your question is actually very difficult to answer for many reasons. For one, the success of a book is entirely dependant on the author’s talent in writing the story and his commitment in promoting and marketing it to a large audience who can appreciate that particular story.

      But to answer your question a different way: Don’t write anything just because you think it will sell. Write it only if you want to write even if NOBODY were to read it. If you want to write something just because you hope it will be a big success, then it most likely won’t be because you’ll be writing for the wrong reason.

      If you write a book, write it for yourself first, then worry about who will read it only after it’s finished.

  5. Hi Michel, I Googled Christian Literary Fiction and came up with very few references, which confirmed my suspicions. I agree with all your points. As it is, the audience for literary fiction is limited. I suppose the answer is to write for that audience and do a masterful job of presenting theological themes that serve the story. I faced this dilemma in choosing a genre for my novel The Sheep Walker’s Daughter. In truth it is literary fiction but it went into the Christian market so the best my publisher and I could come up with was Historical Fiction. That seemed to be a good compromise.

    When I think of good writers who weave theological themes into their work, John Updike comes to mind.

    • I definitely need to start reading some Updike. I haven’t read him at all, I don’t believe.

      How have you enjoyed working with your publisher?

      • I didn’t read the Rabbit series but his short story series My Father’s Tears is classic and Gertrude and Claudius (back story to Hamlet) is a treat. He really displays his talent and appreciation for the classics in this lesser known (I think) novel. BTW, I just downloaded your short story collection on my iPad and am looking forward to delving in on an upcoming road trip (I’m not driving!)

        I really like working with Lynellen Perry at HopeSprings Books. I am a novice at publishing so I’ve learned a lot from her. We have worked through some interesting disagreements over the role of language, sex, and alcohol in a book going into the Christian market. She proved willing to take some risks and I was willing to pull back a little in some scenes.

        • I’ll definitely have to check him out.

          I haven’t had the privilege of working with a publisher. I’m self published, and in a way, that’s a plus because I get more liberty, but it’s definitely a minus when it comes to knowing the market, audiences and promotion.

  6. My prayer is that we will see a rise of Indie publishers who will bet Christian work for quality, present it well and collaborate with writers on marketing. I’d like to see pioneering work done by Christians to employ artists in book cover design. People with passion and the means to fund an effort like this could leave a spiritual legacy of small quality publishing houses. A dream.

  7. I agree completely. I can’t finish a single book of Christian fiction: they simply don’t hold my interest. And none of my dear reader friends can either. This is an issue with the new generation. We need strong faith-driven narrative in a way that’s not over the top and unrealistic.

    • Amanda, thanks for dropping by. I’ve given up on so many Christian novels because the writing and story-telling become so trite so quickly. Hopefully the novel I’m working on now won’t produce that same reaction in other readers.

  8. Sometimes….just sometimes as a reader we really do want to just be entertained 😉
    And picking up certain Christian novels is to me like watching a g-rated movie….you are pretty certain you won’t find anything objectionable and if you are lucky you just might find a real gem! (Toy Story comes to mind

    • Shelly, I agree. We need to respect that reader tastes differ and offer books all along the spectrum (G rated to R rated). The faith builder is to refrain from branding those whose tastes differ from ours as more or less Christian. That happens at both ends of the spectrum. I would love to see more of the rare books you mentioned–those that entertain but have that touch of genius that make them classics.

  9. How about discussing the problem of finding a publication that is willing to publish hard-hitting, honest, truthful, stark, original, christian fiction? The kind of fiction that Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Andre Dubus or even Chekhov might appreciate?

  10. Hi Michel,

    I haven’t read Christian fiction for years for all the reasons you mentioned above. I have spent the last 2 years doing research for my first novel, and now on the verge of actually putting pen to paper, I find that I am second guessing the work before it has even begun. The novel is historical, based on an epic journey made by six Americans to Zululand as missionaries, in the early 1800’s. Though my major themes are mostly subversive in terms of racial and gender issues, it obviously carries a strong Christian flavour (though I’m sure most will say that it is subversive in it’s slant).

    I desperately don’t want to be published as a Christian author, or for my work to be lumped in with the rest of the evangelical-type Christian narratives that are on bookshelves right now. Sad because, well… I AM a Christian.

    I don’t believe for one second that writers who are Christian are poor writers. I do believe we live in a time when the vast majority of the western church want a certain message (both in fiction and non-fiction), and so, the same stories have been rehashed over and over again, having lost all of their flavour and power along the way.

    Anyway, rant over, I will just ask that those of us who are writers with a Christo centric worldview, take notice of the craft, (what about a beautiful sentence or two in our stories?!) and publishers not lump us all on the same church pew.

    Thanks for a great blog post.

    • Natalie,

      How has your writing been going? It’s tough slugging. I hope it’s going well. I admire anyone who invests the time and effort to write a book. Even if the book itself doesn’t sell well, it’s such a great opportunity to strengthen a person’s character and thoughts/intellect.

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