Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What Can Be Done About Christian Fiction? (Part One)

When it comes to the question of Christian fiction, there seems to be two major camps.

Camp One is perhaps the market I feel is most catered to. This is the group that wants what they see as "clean" fiction. What is clean fiction? No profanity, no explicit sex, and characters that are enormously likable and while they may fail, they do not cross certain lines. If they do cross certain lines, they are brought back to redemption by way of appropriate consequences. Additionally, this camp probably prefers a strong message about right and wrong or a strong thread about how the characters apply faith in their lives. They will also prefer the stories not be too dark, but light and everything works out in the end.

Camp Two is the camp that wants to read works written by Christians, that enjoy seeing the way faith is represented in fiction, but they don't value the same things in books as camp one. Rather they are looking for life in its gritty messy ways and while they want to see hope and redemption in their stories, they long for realistic characters and life situations they can relate to. Therefore, camp two does not often read Christian fiction, because they've found it doesn't reflect life as they know it. Camp Two would probably say that Camp One's books sacrifice the artistic elements of a story for message.

I guess I fall somewhere in between. My true sympathies lie with Camp Two, but I believe there is a place for Camp One. The problem seems to be finding how both markets can be served. I really believe Christian publishers have closed off an entire market to serve Camp One, because they're the proven customers who have been around longer. The problem is that in so doing, they are alienating a huge possible market.

I read a good deal of Christian fiction and this issue is not a new one for me to address. In fact, the creation of the INSPYs was all about trying to figure out how to serve readers in Camp Two. I believe there's a lot of great Christian fiction being published today, but there's no guide to help readers know if a book falls into Camp One or Camp Two. Therefore you get problems and complaints from both camps. Just last week, I read on Tami of Tree Swing Reading's blog about her frustration with words like "gosh" showing up in Christian fiction because she knows some people in her church will find that offensive. I have to admit it shocked me a little, as I'm on the other end of the spectrum, hoping Christian fiction authors will push the envelope just a little bit more. On the other hand, you have Heather of Raging Bibliomania in her positive review of The Mailbox, say this:
"It showed me that being a Christian is not about being morally smug and alienating others, and that's something most Christian fiction authors don't even attempt to accomplish with their books" (emphasis mine)
So in other words, she finds most Christian fiction to be morally smug and alienating!

Then there's the issue of covers. I attempted to address the issue of covers last year, and I have to admit that while I received a lot of support from readers of this blog, I had a conversation with a publisher that left me discouraged and feeling alienated from the Christian fiction world. The essential message was that the kind of covers I hated sold better, and therefore they would stick to that. It's not that I don't understand, I do. But I feel the thinking is limited and focused on the existing market and not reaching out to Camp Two at all. I was basically told that covers that looked like literary fiction were out.

Speaking of literary fiction, my heart nearly broke when I read this post on Novel Journey about writing literary fiction being a death knell. I don't even particularly like the term literary fiction--it's not very descriptive and its insulting to everything else, but I know what kind of book it generally refers to and I think it should be present and celebrated in Christian fiction. Camp Two wants to see more literary fiction.

I am not the target market for Christian fiction. Neither is my friend Deborah of Books, Movies, and Chinese Food. And this breaks my heart in a way, because if Christian publishers should be trying to woo anyone, it's Deborah! She's a voracious reader of Christian fiction, she reviews it on both her blog and Amazon and she sticks up for it constantly. She's a huge fan, but she often feels as if her needs and desires as a reader are not taken into consideration. She's probably a healthy blend of Camp One and Camp Two, she's Asian American, and she's in her twenties.

What can be done? As I see it, we have two major camps and no way of pleasing either of them. And they can both be loud about what they don't like. But I feel both kinds of readers are important and valuable.

The only solution I can come up with in my mind is branding. Publishers need to do a better job of branding themselves with readers. This may mean the creation of imprints that serve the appropriate camp. As it stands now, many people are unaware of publishers. For example, from conversation I know that Harvest House is a more conservative publisher. And Cook is more willing to take risks and publish edgier fiction. But I'm a book blogger who thinks about books a lot and has spent a lot of time on this issue. The average reader has no idea. (By the way, imprints might make more sense to readers if they could see a logical pattern behind them. The idea of imprints is good, current execution of imprints in publishing as I see it? Not really working)

I do recognize that a major obstacle is Christian retailers. Christian retailers often carry merchandise that is family friendly. This is a more important consideration to them than actual Christian content. But I suspect that with ebooks gaining prominence, this may not be a problem for long.

Deborah and I would love to open up this conversation to more of you. We think that a lot of people have feelings on this issue and would like to express them. We also think that a lot of you might have ideas. We just really believe in keeping the conversation going! So we will be having a Twitter chat on Monday at 1 PM EST/10 AM PST to discuss what can be done about Christian fiction, how people feel about it currently, and share ideas for serving both camps. Please join us on Twitter and use the hashtag #CFChat. (We considered #WhatupCF but thought it might be too irreverent :) Publishers, authors, readers, librarians -- all are welcome. Please please join us!

Finally, I just want to say that I bring this up because I love readers. I love many Christian fiction books and many general market books. It is not my intention to wound by sharing my thoughts, but rather to open up the conversation and see how we can best meet the needs of various kinds of readers. I love faith driven lit and I think that there can be a way that everyone can find books they love to read.


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