Jumping into the Christian Speculative Fiction Discussion

I’ve been blogging about Christian science fiction and fantasy for four years now—that and a few other topics. 😉 Early on I gave an apologetics, of sorts—why Christians should be writing fantasy. Later I explored why the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association (ECPA) side of the book industry seemed hesitant to jump on the fantasy bandwagon that gripped the rest of … well, pretty much, The World.

Consequently, when friend and soon-to-be published author, Mike Duran, broached the subject on his blog, (“Why ‘Supernatural Fiction’ is Under-Represented in Christian Bookstores”) I didn’t jump into the discussion with both feet, (OK, I made one tiny little comment. You didn’t think I’d remain completely silent on the subject, did you? 😛 ) After all, I’ve said my piece, over and over and over.

Well, the discussion is escalating. First Mike posted a similar article, “Why is ‘Speculative Fiction’ Under-represented in Christian Bookstores?” at Novel Journey. His comments got picked up and discussed at the blog i09 in an article entitled “Christian readers demand more science fiction books. Why won’t Christian publishers listen?” Then blogger J. Mark Miller joined the discussion in a post today: “Christian Speculative Fiction?”

In reading the various posts and comments, a couple things jump out at me.

  • Many of the people who voice opinion about the health of Christian Speculative Fiction apparently haven’t read much of it. The fact that they don’t know how much ECPA houses have branched out is evidence of that. I won’t take time to make a list—though that would be a worthy project for another post. For now, note that ECPA houses Tyndale, Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, Bethany, WaterBrook, Harvest House, Crossway, AMG, and Strang all have speculative titles coming out this year—and most have multiple titles.

    Suffice it to say, comments about a lack of science in any Christian science fiction show an ignorance of books like Austin Boyd’s Mars Hills trilogy and Karen Hancock’s Enclave. Lumping all speculative in with supernatural shows an unawareness of books like Sharon Hinck’s The Sword of Lyric series and Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia’s Thread series. And belittling the quality of the writing shows unfamiliarity with authors such as George Bryan Polivka and Tom Pawlik and Tosca Lee and Athol Dickson. (Yes, the last two aren’t exclusively speculative fiction writers, but their speculative titles shouldn’t be ignored, either).

  • The idea that Christians don’t want to read speculative fiction is archaic. In a post four years ago, I quoted from a Barna Group of Ventura California study that surveyed teenagers from thirteen to eighteen over a three year period. The findings indicated that 77% of this group identified as church-going and 78% identifying themselves as born-again Christians had seen or read at least one Harry Potter book or movie.

    Since the survey started in 2002, that means those eighteen year olds would now be twenty-six. Are we to believe that in these ensuing eight years those who read or viewed a Harry Potter fantasy now are closed to the genre?

    And what about those of us who grew up on the Star Wars movies? I don’t have stats, but I know in my circle of Christian friends, the majority saw all six. Do we have one standard for movies and another for books? I don’t think so.

  • Then why don’t publishers report better sales for speculative fiction? Why are insiders continually repeating the mantra that Christians won’t buy speculative fiction?

    First of all, Christians do buy speculative titles. As a number of commenters noted, some of the best selling Christian fiction (beyond Lewis and Tolkien—and the fact that those authors still sell well only adds to this point) was speculative. Frank Peretti opened the door to Christian fiction beyond prairie romance. Ted Dekker mixes speculative with thriller, but his more speculative titles such as the Circle Trilogy have better Amazon rankings than some of his more recent works. And anyone remember the Left Behind phenomenon?

    For some reason, these best-selling authors don’t count. I don’t know why. Some say Dekker could sell anything, so readers don’t like him for his speculative titles—they just like him. And Left Behind was … something no one understands.

    In other words, there are reasons not to throw in these authors’ numbers with other speculative writers.

    But here’s the thing, not all readers enjoy all speculative fiction. I don’t. I have a strong preference for fantasy, and not for dark fantasy, not for science fiction, not for supernatural. But how is a reader who enjoys a particular kind of speculative fiction to find the books they want to read?

    Not even Christian book stores consistently do a good job of stocking speculative titles. In one local Christian book store, I had to order a Karen Hancock book, despite the fact that she had won three consecutive Christy Awards.

    Could it be that we can still improve when it comes to telling readers about Christian speculative fiction? Of course, we might then be in danger of adding to the impression that we are merely a vocal group. 😉

    In my opinion, two things have moved Christian speculative fiction forward. One, ECPA houses are getting more and more titles into general market stores. Granted, they are still shelved in the Christian fiction section, but Christians who don’t go to CBA stores will be more apt to peruse works at Target or Borders, even when they’re in the “special section.”

    Two, Bryan Davis has marketed tirelessly and sold his fiction well. So did Donita Paul. The industry insiders, then, concluded that YA fantasy would sell and a host of titles have cropped up. Some writers for adults even added fantasy for middle grade and YA—notably Ted Dekker and Robert Liparulo.

    I say it’s time to end this false idea that Christian speculative fiction doesn’t sell, has only a small niche audience, isn’t well written, won’t be tolerated by Christians. Let me end with this quote from one of my previous fantasy rants:

    Last point, and perhaps the most important. If selling is most affected by word of mouth—and most people who hang around long enough in this business seem to agree it is—isn’t it reasonable to conclude that those with the most influence have the biggest affect when they say something? In other words, don’t editors [or agents], when they say sci fi and fantasy don’t sell well, actually create the negative buzz that insures the truth of those statements?

    I don’t know if I’m saying this clearly. What I’m thinking is this: The people who are most in a position to know things, by saying “We don’t think this sells well,” create the very buzz that causes the genre not to sell well. Because certainly editors have a bigger platform than some wanna-be blogger who rants about how Christian publishers are missing the fantasy train. 😉

    16 Comments

    1. I am not as eloquent as you are, Rebecca, regarding this Christian genre.

      But let me tell you, I tell my friends–moms who have school aged kids–about Wayne Thomas Batson and Donita Paul and Jeffrey Overstreet and they say, “Who?”

      Christian speculative fiction is alive and well and well done. But the people who would buy it, homeschoolers, Christian moms, don’t know a thing about it.

      As Jeff Gehrke has said, Christiam moms probably won’t buy it for their kids and their kids do not go to Christian bookstores.

      For now, it has to be word of mouth.

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    2. As someone who joined into the discussion on Mike’s blog, I think a lot of it has to do with getting the word out.

      It’s true. I don’t have any “mega” Christian bookstores near me. When I hear of an author in Christian fiction that I may be interested in it’s because I’ve perused the Christian section of my local Barnes & Noble or Borders OR, more recently, come across a title as I am discovering more blogs about Christian fiction.

      As Chrisd said above, the response has to change from “Who?” to “Oh yeah I saw/heard about so and so at xyz.”

      Sure, many of us have heard of Dekker after a casual investigation but all those other names you and Chrisd mentioned? I’m searching Amazon right now 😉

      And I’m disheartened to find, even Christian authors with several books under their belts and easily available from sites like Amazon etc, aren’t available even for request at my local library (since, in this economy, I most assuredly need to try before I buy).

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    3. Thanks for the link, and thanks for mentioning Bryan Davis. I thought about bringing him up, and some things he said at a recent talk he gave at an area bookstore, but I thought my post was getting too long-winded.

      I’ll be the first to admit ignorance of the overall state of Christian spec-fic. I’m sure a great deal of that is my own fault since I tend to keep my head down and like a hermit and only come up for sunlight once a season or so. I appreciate your knowledge on the subject.

      As proof, can you believe this is the first time I’ve been to your blog? How have I missed it? I’m glad that problem’s solved. I’ve got your feed in my reader.

      Like with Bryan Davis, if we hadn’t heard via word of mouth from a friend he was in the area, we would have missed a great treat. We’d never heard of him before, especially since most booksellers in the area, both Christian and non, don’t carry his novels. He gave a great talk on the use of fantasy in literature. My kids are all writers and gleaned a lot from his wisdom and experience.

      Thanks again!

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    4. Thanks for your post on this Rebecca. This is a discussion that seems to run in circles around itself every few months. I can’t remember how many times I’ve hear all of this before. Thanks for challenging all the assumptions that people are making.

      I’ve posted my own challenge related to this over at my own blog. Basically challenging people to stop asking why, and start looking for where they can find it, and begin telling people what they have found. Not nearly as eloquent a post as yours, but hopefully it will help push this discussion out of the usual cycle. 🙂

      http://galacticlore.blogspot.com/2010/07/round-and-round-mulberry-bush.html

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    5. Becky, I hope you don’t mind this plug, but for anyone looking for a good site on Christian science fiction and fantasy, check out http://www.wherethemapends.com. It has a list of almost every known Christian speculative novel out there (including the authors Becky mentioned); interviews with Christian speculative writers; and a wonderful forum where you can discuss anything related to science fiction and fantasy.

      So there’s my word of mouth 🙂

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    6. Becky, thanks for the mention. The reason I chose to (basically) re-post that topic on Novel Journey is because the readership over there is so different from the folks that visit my blog. In fact, I think the NJ crowd is probably more representative of the typical CBA demographic. It’s a bit subversive, I know, but I really don’t see the average Christian reader as having much of a clue as the larger issues facing Christian spec authors and the genre of Christian fiction at large. I see this latest round of conversation (especially its inclusion at the io9 website and also TheoFantastique) as the widening of the ripples of an increasingly relevant discussion. Keep carrying the torch!

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    7. Chris, thanks for your input. You add a much needed perspective to the discussion. The fact that A. J. and J. Mark, who are highly motivated and want to read speculative fiction, don’t know about the quality work that ECPA houses have produced in the last five years is evidence that more word of mouth needs to happen.

      Because of the Clive Staples Award, I’ve dubbed July the Read Christian Speculative Fiction Month, as Stuart mentions in his blog post. This is a good time to start talking up the genre, starting with the nominations for the Readers’ Choice award to be voted on next month.

      Becky

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    8. Mike, I do understand that the Novel Journey regulars aren’t informed about the genre, but I’m questioning if it does any good to tell them Christian speculative fiction doesn’t sell. Isn’t that more apt to cement their opinion? Won’t they conclude that they aren’t missing anything, that nobody else is reading it, so they can just keep on as they have been?

      And as I said in this post, when people who haven’t read the genre comment, it invariably passes on misinformation.

      ECPA is making steady, steady progress. Consequently, I think this discussion is unproductive, especially on the non-Christian sites. They are regurgitating untrue ideas about the writing, about Christians in general, about Christian publishing, and it’s all from a point of ignorance. Yet they’ll come away from reading the comments reinforced in their own false ideas.

      I think talking about Christian speculative fiction is fine. Like Stuart, I just don’t think it’s helpful to cover territory already covered. The industry is inching past this issue. Sure, I wish it would inch faster, but I don’t know as it’s helpful to say, Why aren’t you sprinting forward? I’d rather give recognition to the accomplishments they’ve made and encourage others to find the books that are already on the shelves and in the on-line stores. Why request more when we aren’t reading what’s already there?

      Becky

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    9. Becky, I believe that most Christian readers want to see Christian authors and biblically-based stories gain ground, not languish unpublished or be suppressed. The discussion over there isn’t intended to “cement their opinion” that spec-fic doesn’t sell, but to make them aware of (negative) dynamics that may exist in the Christian market. Secondly, I don’t agree that the “discussion is unproductive.” In fact, much of the progress, albeit incremental, has probably been accompanied by discussions such as these. Furthermore, I found the observations on the non-Christian sites insightful, reasonably astute, and not at all too hostile. I think we spec writers (especially those writing from a religious perspective) can gain a lot by listening to the response of all readers of the genre. Blessings!

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    10. Mike, I agree with you. I don’t think publishers have a secret desire to see certain books fail and I don’t think readers want to see certain genres under-represented. I understand that the discussion was never intended to cement a negative perception. I think it was a genuine attempt to inform blog visitors of a concern. I’ve written many similar posts, as I said in this one.

      Over time, however, I’ve come to believe that the real problem is “insiders” repeatedly saying the same old unverified statement about Christian speculative fiction and sales.

      I think we differ over the cause of the incremental progress. From what Karen Ball (now editor at B & H) said in response to an open letter to her which I posted here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction four years ago, I finally got it that sales talk. We can discuss all we want, but until those of us who want Christian speculative fiction start talking with our dollars, the publishers won’t be inclined to produce more CSF titles.

      Since there has been an increase in the number of books since that time (some might even say, a dramatic increase, given that there weren’t enough books entered in the Christy Awards in 2007 to have a Visionary category), I’ve concluded that, yes, Christian speculative titles are selling.

      So what does it accomplish to say they aren’t selling, especially when reasons are floated that the books out there are bad—either limited in their scope or poorly written? Especially when it comes from people who are not reading in the genre?

      And as I said, I don’t think those kinds of statements are fair representations. Sure, like all classes of books, general market or ECPA, you’ll find some that aren’t that great. But you’ll also find some good stories, likable characters, thought-provoking themes, and some total-package gems.

      As to the non-Christian sites and the comments there, those are the worst, as far as I’m concerned. I could probably name thirty titles I’ve read in the last four years, and I believe not one of those commenting would have read a single one. Yet they pontificate on how bad the genre is and how awful the publishers’ standards are and how narrow Christians are. Why is that helpful? I don’t understand your thinking on this one.

      Yes, I think it shows non-Christians have a low view of Christians, but I already knew that. I don’t agree with most of the statements there, from Christians or non-Christians because they haven’t read what I’ve read. I don’t think I can do a defense of the genre in a comment and don’t think it would be helpful anyway.

      I just think people who haven’t read much of what they are criticizing have a weak position. Should I jump in over there and challenge them to read some of the best CSFF? Maybe. Do you think that would be helpful?

      Becky

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    11. I agree Becky,

      So often we see these discussions go around, but they are all generalized. I think they would be more productive if in the main posts talked about the books that are available and why they should be in stores (and where you can find them when they aren’t) as opposed to taking the negative tone of focusing on just the scarcity of the genre.

      As far as looking at non-Christian comments… it all boils down to one thing. If you want to reach a secular audience all you really need to do is drop the Christian from the label. I think one of the commentors over at i09 kind of made that point.

      The fact that Jill Williamson’s “By Darkness Hid” and my “Starfire” both won their categories in the EPIC Awards, a secular contest for ebooks shows that just because it’s Christian doesn’t mean that it will be defacto rejected by a non-Christian audience. But labeling it Christian upfront just tends to say “This isn’t for you”.

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    12. But labeling it Christian upfront just tends to say “This isn’t for you”.

      Stuart, that’s a good point, one I suspect Mike would agree with.

      Becky

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    13. Becky, I do agree with Stuart that the “Christian” label scares readers off. However, I don’t think it’s that easy. Like it or not, to cross over we must adjust, refine, or even tone down our “message.” I know you’re familiar with the controversy surrounding Jim Rubart’s book “Rooms” that was offered as a free Kindle download. Many readers felt deceived by the story’s Christian content. Likewise, just removing the “Christian” label from a book and getting it into the hands of non-christians will not guarantee its success. In fact, the attempt could backfire.

      Like I recently commented on my blog, The burden is on Christians to reach across the secular divide. How else can we do that but by clever marketing and tweaking our message and approach? Yet this poses a fundamental dilemma for advocates of Christian fiction because “message” or biblically-themed elements are what typically defines Christian fiction… which is why it remains outside the general market.

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    14. Mike, Jerry Jenkins makes just the opposite argument. He said (and I have to take his word for it because I haven’t read them) that his Left Behind books were full of all things Christians. He wrote them with Christians in mind. Yet they crossed over in a big way, and he now has a large fan base outside the church.

      Wasn’t it you who posted about the fake $20 bill that was actually a tract? That’s what I think “secret” Christian fiction is like.

      That being said, I don’t write overt Christian fiction, simply because that’s not the story I envisioned. I’m not writing allegory either. My thinking reasoning is this: I think Christians will see a good deal of symbolism in my stories and non-Christians will see a story. My idea of “crossing over” is for Christians to engage their non-Christian friends by giving them the books and discussing them together. That, I think, is the best way Christian fiction can impact non-Christians.

      A pipe dream? Maybe. God only knows.

      Becky

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    15. Excellent article. Your insights are spot on, and your literary voice is clear and engaging.

      Well done.

      Regards,
      John Michael Hileman

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    16. Извините за то, что вмешиваюсь… Мне знакома эта ситуация. Давайте обсудим.

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