Moms, Plastic, And Christian Fiction

My friend Mike Duran, who is also one of the members of a small writing group I belong to, periodically brings up discussions about the quality of Christian fiction. He did so again yesterday in his blog article “Is Christian Fiction Really Inferior To Mainstream Fiction?”

At times I have felt wearied by the topic because it seems like a re-tread, but actually this go round is different. For one, Mike’s views seem to have evolved (or maybe I misunderstood his earlier position). Now he recognizes that Christian fiction is not synonymous with bad writing:

Our industry used to be charged — and rightly so — with inferior craft. I don’t think that’s the case any longer. When critics suggest that Christian fiction is inferior to mainstream fiction because it is more poorly written, they are just flat-out wrong. (emphasis in the original)

Yea, yea, yea!!!

The other reason I’m not grinding my teeth or lobbing word-bombs in Mike’s direction (not that I would, Mike. No, never! 😉 ) is because a part of me agrees with what he’s saying. A part of me.

His thoughts stem from an article he linked to about Christian fiction — “Diluted Reality,” which appeared several months ago in Online Journal of Christian Communication and Culture, a periodical containing articles by students at Moody Bible Institute, developed as a project of the course “Biblical Perspectives of Media and Culture.” The essence of that piece and Mike’s is that Christian fiction needs to do a better job of telling the truth. Plastic characters and sugarcoated endings make the stories shallow.

Who can argue with that? They do. They definitely do. And, yes, I’ve read Christian fiction that could be characterized by those elements. However, I’ve read a growing number of books that are far from this description, which brings me to the points in Mike’s article with which I disagree.

He suggests that reading more Christian fiction to find out whether it is all plastic and predictable isn’t the answer because it simply is — readers want it that way.

First, I don’t believe making such a determination by reading a small sampling is accurate. I could read Nancy Drew books and conclude that all general market fiction is shallow, cliched, and predictable.

Certainly there are genres within Christian fiction that do not aim for more than sweet romance. Is romance predictable? In the same way that mysteries are, yeah! Readers don’t read a romance in hopes that the guy and girl never get together! A certain amount of predictability is built into the genre.

The stories that go beyond a genre trope, however, are the ones that take on a new dimension. Are no Christian novels aiming for more than the predictable, and succeeding? I know there are more and more authors who are breaking from the mold. Like the change in craft (and I think there are still books that need work in that area), the change in depth is happening.

Which brings me to the second point. Mike believes the publishers believe readers like bad books. Or at least bad endings. Isn’t that precisely what a predictable, cliched ending is?

I disagree that readers are satisfied with such stories. I think they would be delighted to find high quality, well-written books that aren’t “edgy” or “gritty” or whatever the latest label is for books that push the envelop of Christian mores.

Why can’t good books be about the struggles Christians face? For example, is it unrealistic to have a story about a high-profile athlete who is an outspoken Christian, and who stays true to his faith in spite of the temptations swirling around him? Since men like Tim Tebow, Drew Brees, and Jeremy Lin are living that story, I tend to think it’s quite realistic.

The skilled writer would be the one who tells such a story in a way that is not predictable, cliched, or peopled with plastic characters.

I have a hard time imagining that readers would be disappointed because the characters seemed too real or that the ending surprised them. In short, if Mike is right, and publishers are purposely putting out books that are shallow because they think those are the ones readers want, I’d say they are underestimating their audience. And no wonder their demographic seems to be quite narrow. They’re going after those most willing to give up quality for morality — moms.

That, by the way, is a compliment to moms. Moms are the gatekeepers of many a home. Because they have that role, however, they should not have to choose shallow stories. It’s not right to suggest that’s what they prefer when they haven’t been offered much else.

Fortunately, the shallow story is going the way of the poorly crafted story, and I applaud the writers, agents, and editors who are aggressively going after quality on all levels. They are out there, in growing numbers.

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