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. 😉

    Seeing Worldviews behind the Art – Should Fiction Be Safe? Conclusion


    So today I learn that in a recent sermon Pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle’s Mars Hills Church called Avatar “satanic”. Well, actually, he called it “the most demonic, satanic film I’ve seen.”

    I don’t know what Pastor Driscoll’s point was in his sermon, and I’m not bringing this up to discuss whether or not he was wise to voice his opinion in such a strident way. Rather, I want to return to the discussion about safe fiction.

    First, one more news item related to the “safe fiction” topic. It seems Barnes & Noble has added reviews from Common Sense Media Web site, and this has upset some writers: “The way the book reviews seemed to suddenly appear on BN.com and the fact that they seemed to emphasize negative subjects like sex, violence, drinking, and drugs over subject matter, raised a red flag for some readers” (excerpt from “Common Sense Raises Issues at B&N” by Judith Rosen — Publishers Weekly, 2/23/2010).

    I think these two articles illustrate in real-life settings the problem with seeking after “safe fiction.” For one thing stories are layered. On the surface are the behaviors we can readily see such as sex and violence and bad language—things the Common Sense reviews would flag.

    Below that, however, lie attitudes characters might espouse. As one commenter noted over at Novel Journey in a discussion about Avatar, a movie like Twilight shows all kinds of unhealthy attitudes toward love. Yet it’s gotten a pass from many Christian parents because the characters don’t have sex.

    But there’s another layer—that of the worldview espoused through the story. As Brian Godawa says in his book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment (IVP Books), we need to look behind the art to the worldview.

    Given all the ways in which a movie or book can go astray, can we ever really confidently say a story is “safe”? Here’s a part of Godawa’s conclusion:

    The fact is, there is nothing perfect in this life. We live in a fallen world. Everything and everyone is tainted by sin, even those with whom we agree. Even Christian media are not exempt from imperfection. No Christian sermon, book or movie is completely unstained by our fallen-ness.

    In other words, there really is no such thing as “safe fiction.” And by declaring a work of art “safe,” we are basically telling the audience they can turn off their discernment radar. No need to think about this book or movie or TV show because Someone Important has pre-approved it as safe.

    From where I sit, picking up any book or viewing any movie with my brain in neutral because what I’m about to consume is “safe” puts me at the greatest risk of undo influence.

    An author maybe withheld all the cuss words in a story, and there’s no sex or violence, but is there greed? Snobbery? Bullying? If so, then those books aren’t safe. Teens who long to fit in can get all the wrong messages about what it takes to be a part of the In Crowd from such a “safe” piece of fiction.

    We Christians need to be thinking about the stories we consume. We need to compare the values and worldviews with those of the Bible. And we need to teach the next generation to go and do likewise.

    The Value of Promotion vs. the Value of Story


    First, the announcement. After our first CSFF Top Blogger Award run-off, Rachel Starr Thomson garnered 55% of the vote to secure the April Tour honors. Congratulations to both her and Brandon Barr for superb posts during the Blaggard’s Moon tour.

    – – –

    In case you missed it, on Friday Novel Journey posted an interview with contributor Jessica Dotta and uber-agent, Donald Maass. Half way through, the discussion turned to promotion.

    Jessica noted that Mr. Maass is credited with saying that promotion and marketing play a small role in the success of a book. In fact, in Writing the Breakout Novel he calls these ideas about promotion and marketing myths authors continue to believe. When Jessic asked (in question five) if authors shouldn’t strive for the best marketing possible, Mr. Maass replied with a succinct analogy:

    Great stories are the engine. Promotion may be the gasoline but gasoline won’t propel a two-cylinder putt-putt very fast–or push a broken engine very far down the road.

    Jessica expanded the discussion, pointing to a handful of successful debut novels that snagged reviews in elite media sources and then went to the top of the best selling charts. But Mr. Maass insisted that great storytelling explained the success:

    Why does media get excited about a novel? What starts the bandwagon rolling? Publisher hype? That’s a prod, obviously, but media far more often than not take a pass. What gets them excited is the same thing that gets word of mouth going: a great story. It all comes back to that. Up and down the ladder it all starts there.

    As you might expect, Mr. Maass also believes that a writer should take the time to get the story right. Apparently this is a point he strongly makes in his new book The Fire in Fiction (which I am anxiously waiting to arrive from Writer’s Digest), prompting this exchange:

    [Jessica] One of the elements I loved about The Fire in Fiction was your encouragement to work until the book is right. As writers, we often hear that in order to survive we must be capable of producing one or more books a year—lest we lose our audience and future contracts. But what if it takes an author two to five years to craft a good book?

    [Donald Maass] Writing a great novel at a book-a-year pace is extremely difficult. I watch clients struggle with that challenge. One empowering thing to know is that the bigger the impact a novel has, the longer readers will wait for the next one.
    – emphasis mine

    I have to admit, that last line might be my favorite. Well, what do you expect from a writer of a four-book epic fantasy? 😉 I mean, isn’t it important for readers to have time to spread the word if book one gripped them? Even in this technological age, that doesn’t really happen over night. Or necessarily in three months. I didn’t read my first Harry Potter book until the third one was out, and they were not flying off the presses every six months.

    For the most part, the word builds and the promotion builds because the story demands it. Yes, there may be some mysterious exceptions. I think of G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer which burst on the scene in 2004 as another book coming out of the UK with a huge following. Americans dutifully lined up and bought the book, and it did indeed hit the best selling list.

    But today the lifetime sales on Amazon of the Creation House edition is over 450,000. What’s worse, the book that followed, Wormwood, is 250,000 places higher. Since I haven’t read Shadowmancer, I am going by the reports I’ve heard from writer friends (but the lion’s share of the Amazon reviews bear out their opinion)—this was not a good story.

    Maybe this is the exception that proves the rule. On occasion the media will jump on a book bandwagon built by hype not substance. The result may be great sales, but the public, when fooled once, won’t likely be fooled twice by the same author.

    Buzzing Kids’ Books – The Year the Swallows Came Early


    Announcements. I have an unusual number of these, so please bear with me. There is actual content below.

    First, I participated in an email discussion about Christian speculative fiction, initiated by Mike Duran. He has posted the first part today at Novel Journey. (Warning: the discussion has taken a turn on a statement I made about what CBA’s target audience—women. Evidently my remark was controversial. Well, I hadn’t intended it to be so, but I’m pretty sure the comment I left, is! 😮 )

    Second, I posted a review of an upcoming Marcher Lord Press release, By Darkness Hid at Speculative Faith which I hope you’ll take time to read.

    And lastly, you’re invited to vote for the CSFF Blog Tour’s February Top Blogger.

    – – –

    The Children’s Book Blog Tour, of which I am a member, is featuring Kathryn Fitzmaurice‘s debut novel, The Year the Swallows Came Early.

    Tomorrow I’ll give a full review of the book, but today I want to think a little bit about what makes a character draw readers in, perhaps even become memorable.

    Eleanor Robinson, AKA Groovy, is just such a character. I found she drew me into the story on the first page:

    We lived in a perfect stucco house, just off the sparkly Pacific, with a lime tree in the backyard and pink and yellow roses gone wild around a picket fence. But that wasn’t enough to keep my daddy from going to jail the year I turned eleven. I told my best friend, Frankie, that it was hard to tell what something was like on the inside just by looking at the outside. And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.

    So here’s what I learned about Groovy, even before I knew her name. She considered her house perfect. Her father went to jail. She has a best friend who evidently is a boy. She thinks about things more deeply than you’d expect an eleven year old to think and even came to a wise, truthful conclusion. And she doesn’t like coconut.

    Only that last part is a negative, as far as I am concerned. That her father went to jail makes me feel sad for her, and curious about why. That she has a boy best friend makes me think she’s not a spoiled-princess type. And that she’s likable enough to have a best friend. The coconut thing, I think she’s just wrong, but I’m willing to let that slide because I know there’s a whole set of people out there who don’t like coconut.

    A little further into the story, I learn that Groovy had a special relationship with her father and that her mother loves her. I learn that those two facts seem to be in conflict and maybe in doubt. That she suddenly feels like she doesn’t know one of her parents as she always thought makes her even more sympathetic.

    I also learn that she has One Great Desire and a particular talent. Before too long, she comes to realize that others have a similar passion to hers and this changes the way she perceives those of like mind. OK, I’m trying intentionally to be circumspect because I don’t want to give away too much of the story. The point is, Groovy doesn’t have a closed mind.

    Eventually she shows that she is also kind, that she appreciates others for their kindness. In other words, she’s aware of others at the character level.

    Is she perfect? Not at all. She makes some independent decisions that lead her into a real tailspin, and while it looks for a time as if she might get stuck, she makes another change that is probably the best of all, one that just might make her a memorable character.

    I invite you to see what others on the Children’s Book Blog Tour have to say about The Year the Swallows Came Early:

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