The dilemma of labelling Christian fiction… or not

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Last week agent Rachelle Gardner posed a question on her blog that has generated almost two hundred comments, and the discussion is still ongoing. She asked, “Should we label Christian fiction?”

“There has been a controversy brewing underground for awhile now, ever since publishers started promoting books by offering a limited-time free download. Many of the Christian publishers have done these promotions, but whenever Christian novels are promoted on Amazon as free downloads, many people download them without realizing they’re Christian. They start reading and when they realize it’s “Christian” they become enraged. They feel like they were hoodwinked somehow. And then they leave 1-star, angry reviews on Amazon….These responses are leading people to ask whether Christian fiction needs to be clearly labeled as such, maybe in the “Book Description” on the Amazon page.” [Rachelle Gardner]

My response was that I like to know what I’m buying, so I favour labelling, but I foresee great difficulty in labels accurately reflecting content.

Since making that comment I’ve had conversations with two people who hold widely differing opinions. When I look at some of the faith-based novels on my shelves I find only one that admits to being Christian. The others are listed as History/Fiction or not labelled at all. I’ve come to the conclusion there isn’t an easy yes or no answer about labelling that would satisfy every reader and writer. I had no idea it was such a controversial subject!

What’s your opinion? Indulge me. I’m curious.

Do you check back cover blurbs and labels, or perhaps research writers or publishing houses for clues about what to expect before you buy a book from an unfamiliar author? Would you steer clear of a book labelled as Christian fiction? Would you be annoyed if you picked up a book that was not identified as having Christian content, and later discovered it did?

And if you haven’t already read Rachelle Gardner’s post and ensuing comments, I highly recommend it.

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7 thoughts on “The dilemma of labelling Christian fiction… or not

  1. Carol, I love Rachelle’s blog. My rule with “industry” or agent blogs is to read and rarely comment. This can be a touchy subject for those of us who feel more spiritual than religious. The general public has been harboring resentments against a RIGHT wing that labels itself as the Christian Right. In politics, I believe this is an oxymoron. Personally, I don’t like labels. So to answer you without offending yours, or your readers sensitivity … let me say … I love reading your blog. I love reading Kely Gwyn’s blog. Do you write Christian books? I suppose I might believe you both do. Are Rachelle’s blog and World Serve; also ACFW Christian based. One could assume they are. I love good books. If they depict culture and beliefs of a group different than myself, then I learn something more about another culture or belief. You said: When I look at some of the faith-based novels on my shelves I find only one that admits to being Christian. What is there to admit or label?

    If like Keli, you write good romance or general fiction it doesn’t matter what personal ethics are woven into the story … I’ll read it. Is this blog based on your Christian ethic? Perhaps it is. It is also done with love and awe for nature and all it provides :)

  2. lauradroege says:

    Honestly, I rarely read “Christian fiction” even though I’m a Christian. Since I’m writing for the general market, I read almost exclusively general market work (to see what the competition is, to read the latest award-winners, etc.)

    As far as labelling goes, I’d say that it should be labelled. Here’s why. There are many people who avoid “Christian fiction” because they dislike it. Ideally, if you’re in that category of people, you’d know who the major Christian publishers are and avoid buying books from these publishers! But realistically, most people (that I know, at least) have no clue who any major publishers are. If a person wants to avoid Christian-y type content, then I think they should be given a head’s up that, yes, this novel has Christian content. I mean, what if the shoe were on the other foot: the Christian trying to avoid sex scenes in a romance novel, for example, will stick with romance novels that are published by Christian publishers or ones that don’t have risque/provocative covers.

    That’s my take on it.

  3. I think this is a tough call. But I tend to line up behind Madeleine L’Engle myself. She said that she does not write “Christian fiction.” She called herself a Christian who writes fiction (and non-fiction). That difference is huge in my book. Writing out of integrity produces things that are intrinsically ‘Christian’ if one holds a Christian worldview. The finished product does not need to have church lingo interwoven to make it a truly Christian piece of writing. I cannot imagine anything L’Engle wrote ever being labelled Christian, as such. But then, the most deeply Christian writers I have read would not have that label. (Think Marilynne Robinson, Fred Buechner, Leif Enger, L’Engle). But if the book takes the reader into territory that would be familiar to a church-going audience and not to the general public, then it probably does need a label. Does this make any sense??

  4. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I read Christian lit sometimes, though most of my reading is general audience. It doesn’t make me put the book down if I suddenly realize, partway through, that it’s Christian fiction, but I think I prefer to know that going in. One role that genre labeling serves is to let readers know what to expect.
    On the other hand, I’m not wild about pigeonholing books too much. If the religious aspect is an important part of the book, it could be mentioned in the jacket copy, even without any other labeling.

  5. careann says:

    Thanks for the great feedback, everyone! You’ve all made good points. There’s also a good discussion on this subject happening at http://bit.ly/zW46Px

    Florence, my earlier novels were typically mainstream, although written from my Christian worldview. I’m currently writing an inspirational romantic suspense. When it comes to blogging, my posts originate from whatever happens to cross my mind, but yes, they are probably influenced by and/or will often reflect my beliefs. I would hope people read my writing because they like it, not because it’s written by a Christian, and conversely, wouldn’t avoid it because it is.

    Laura, what I don’t appreciate is the author who has a thinly veiled agenda of proselytization wrapped in a story marketed to a secular audience. It seems dishonest to deliberately “hide” a Christian message … and I wonder how effective it is anyway, when readers resent being duped into buying something they wouldn’t otherwise have chosen. In that case I see labelling as a benefit to the secular market.

    Diana, I expect I’m a fence-sitter on this topic, because I’m not really influenced by labels, but neither do I see labelling as a real disadvantage to anyone except perhaps those who have an agenda, as I mention to Laura above. I like your description of when a label might be effective. It makes perfect sense!

    Jenn, I heartily agree with you that jacket copy, the back cover blurb, should accurately reflect the themes explored in any story. Granted, those blurbs are just ‘teasers’, but if they give readers the wrong impression all they’ll achieve is to alienate readers. If faith plays an instrumental part in a story, that’s a theme to reveal along with any others.

  6. Shari Green says:

    When we’re looking at a book, we can get a pretty good idea what to expect if we’re familiar with the publishing imprint, but if we’re not, then it sure is nice if the flap copy accurately reflects what’s inside! If it’s well-written flap copy, I’m thinking we shouldn’t need any label beyond “fiction” or “memoir”, etc.

    That book with the butterflies on it? I recognize that one, lol — it deals with issues of faith and religion from a Christian worldview, yet it’s not marketed as Christian fiction (and personally, I don’t think it should be). So… should the “Christian” label be reserved for books that are more intentional about presenting the gospel or about inspiring/edifying the already-Christian reader? I don’t know. (And I’m rambling, because I’m tired. Sorry.) ;)

    I think perhaps the real problem with labelling is lack of consensus on the definition of “Christian fiction”, and I doubt there will ever be consensus on that!

    Them’s my two cents…. :)

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