What’s right and wrong with Christian fiction?

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Does anyone really know what constitutes good Christian fiction? Four years ago I was invited to do several book reviews for our national church magazine, The Presbyterian Record. The books ranged from historical fiction to children’s fiction, and I chose to consolidate the reviews in one article, incorporating the reactions of fictitious readers.

Those reactions reflected conversations I’d had with people whose experiences with Christian fiction were frequently negative. They told me plots were too often superficial, with stilted characters, unrealistic conflicts and predictable conclusions.  Any romance reminded them of a television commercial where the closest lovers got to each other was running through a field of wildflowers, arms outstretched for an embrace. I have to admit their opinions mirrored my own, based on what I’d read twenty years ago.

But things are changing. After reading the designated books for the review, I realized many written in the twenty-first century were more satisfying than I expected. There were still shortcomings, but that’s just as true in books written for the secular market.

Although the guidelines of CBA publishers have relaxed a little, allowing for more true-to-life plots, and authors are writing grittier Christian fiction in ever-expanding genres, criticism of it still exists. In their blog posts yesterday authors Katie Ganshert and Jennifer Hale both discussed the question of why.

Jennifer suggested it may be in how we deal with the conversion scene. She said, I really don’t enjoy books where the character “gets saved” and everyone lives happily ever after.  That’s not realistic. And nine times out of ten, I skip reading the “conversion scene” in a novel.  Why?  Several reasons.  But mostly because there is no cheesier part of the book than the conversion scene. It’s a very difficult scene to get right.”

Katie asked, when dissatisfaction with Christian fiction is expressed, “[is it] Christianity in general that bothers these readers, or the way the Christian themes are handled?”

I’m not sure the answer can be reduced to a generalization, but I’m interested in your opinion. If you don’t read Christian fiction, why not? And if you do read it, what genre do you prefer? What do you especially like or dislike about many of the stories?

~

I hope you’ll join me here on Monday for an interview with
YA author Dave Ebright.

~

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19 thoughts on “What’s right and wrong with Christian fiction?

  1. Judith Robl says:

    Most often, in real life, conversion comes as a long process rather than a dramatic cataclysm. The books that are most satisfying to me are those that show the process, its struggles and trials. They are also the ones where the conversion is not the end of the problems, but the beginning of different problems.

  2. wittybizgal says:

    This is definitely beyond my area of expertise, however, several years ago I got into the pioneers series written by Jeanette Oake…the main character was Marty, I believe. Anyway, those were nice because they were more about people living with their faith and LIVING their faith as a lifelong process, rather than a big conversion being only goal. At least that was my impression of them.

  3. lauradroege says:

    I don’t read (much) Christian fiction because I don’t write CBA material. It makes sense to read in the general market because then I know what general market readers like and want. I’m also very picky about the quality of the work that I read, whether CBA or general market, and I’ve found some of the limitations that the CBA puts on its authors (such as banning all offensive language or sexual material) tend to make certain works seem unrealistic.

    (For example, I would be frustrated by a novel concerning sex trafficking/prostitution/pimps if there was no language/sex in it; unrealistic and tends to make it seem that the author is white-washing an ugly subject. I’m not saying make it gratuitous, but some might be in order, IMO.)

    One thing that’s weird to me is that Christians often ignore the Christian writers in the general marketplace. People like Bret Lott or Marilynne Robinson (who won the Pulitzer for Gilead, one of the most openly “Christian” novels I’ve ever read!) aren’t really well known in many Christian circles. If we really want to reach people beyond the Christian subculture, shouldn’t we support those who are actively doing this through fabulous, deep and spirit-filled work?

  4. joylene says:

    I haven’t read any Christian fiction for years, for the reasons you mention. I felt unworthy because my life didn’t measure up to their summary. I know I’m generally too hard on myself. I also stopped reading them because I couldn’t find that sense of being that was fictionalized in those books. But when “you” recommend something, Carol, I do take notice. That’s because I’ve learned to trust your judgment.

  5. A good Friday morning to all of you. 🙂 It’s great to read your various opinions. I suspect Judith may be right, that most conversions are a process, so, as Wittybizgal says, the stories that portray a confrontational style conversion followed by an immediate change of lifestyle are less realistic than those about people simply learning how to live out their faith.

    Laura, originally I wasn’t writing for the CBA market either, but from a Christian worldview. Although it’s not at all graphic, I’m not even sure my current work would be considered acceptable, but I understand there has been some relaxing of publishers’ strict guidelines so the realities of everyday life can be more accurately shown.

    I know the I-can’t-relate-to-these-people feeling, Joylene. I doubt their authors intended to be judgmental, but there was no way my less-than-perfect self could measure up to the standards that seemed to be a necessary feature of the Christian life as portrayed in Christian novels. Nobody I knew behaved like those characters, and lives didn’t unfold so conveniently. BTW, I’m not so sure you ought to trust my judgment when it comes to reading material, because everyone’s taste and expectations are different.

  6. Jenn Hubbard says:

    Truly trying to live in faith is very difficult and challenging. Turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, forgiving, trusting, surrendering your will–that stuff is hard! And I want anything I read to acknowledge that it is difficult and that we don’t do it perfectly. I also like a sense of humor.
    One reason I love reading Anne Lamott’s nonfiction is that she is trying to live a life of faith, and she acknowledges the difficulties and the gotchas and the mysteries. Consequently, her moments of transcendence don’t come off as cheesy.

    I have a bone to pick with books in which the whole point just seems to be to convert other people–i.e., every time a new character says they’ve been saved, that’s chalked up on the scoreboard. I’m looking for a deep inner change, not a recruitment drive.

  7. Eric Grimm says:

    Great dialog. Just for clarity, though, CBA is a trade association and doesn’t actually sell or publish books, and it has no guidelines and does not censor author works. CBA’s members include publishers, and each of those companies have their own criteria for what they will or won’t publish.

    • Thanks for clarifying that for my readers, Eric. I tend to use the CBA and ABA initials as a quick way of differentiating between the Christian and secular markets. But generalizing like that is misleading, and I apologize. It is indeed the individual publishing houses that set the guidelines and I’ve altered my comment to reflect that.

  8. Laura Best says:

    I’m not sure if I’ve ever read any Christian fiction just because… I do have a book I won recently that would fall into that category so I’ll see how I make out.. For me if it’s a good story and good writing I’m usually happy.

    Looking forward to your interview with Dave. BTW he owes me a guest post. I hope he’s reading this..LOL

  9. I appreciate your honesty, Jenn. I know there are those who write with the hope that their characters will set some kind of example and maybe lead a reader towards conversation/salvation, but truthfully, I always wonder how many non-Christians would even choose to read Christian fiction. Yet those books sell.

    Laura, Christian or secular, I agree an important criteria is whether it’s a good story well written. Of course, the subject matter has to be of interest to me, too. Then again, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be enthusiastic about a YA pirate/ghost story, but I am. 😉

  10. I have only read a couple Christian fiction books and that was long ago. But I do remember feeling, based on my own Christian world view, that they didn’t relate to real life. Life is messy with lots of loose ends, Christian or not. The stories I read were to “neat and tidy” – – can’t think of another way to describe it. Anyway, I should probably check out more books along this line. Thank you for making me think about new things, Carol 🙂

  11. deidrariggs says:

    Great conversation!

    Sometimes I read Christian fiction the same way I watch a movie – just for entertainment. I don’t expect it to mirror real life, and I’m usually right. However, my expectations differ when it comes to memoir…it’s the story of an actual person’s real-life journey of faith, and it usually includes unanswered questions and messiness, right alongside amazing moments of grace.

  12. Lyn Cote says:

    Well, I’m interested in this topic since I write Christian fiction. (my 35th book came out in April.)
    Why is there a separate market for Christian fiction?
    For me, the answer came from some fellow romance writers after a recent meeting. They don’t write Christian romance but have read a few of my books. They said to me, “We like your books. When we read them, we get a sense that there is still hope in this world.”

    Also I find it interesting that you have posed this question, but your readers have not read any Christian fiction or not recently.

    Lyn Cote

    http://www.strongwomenbravestories.com

  13. Maybe it’s time for me to start reading some ‘Christian’ fiction. I have tended to avoid it for a couple of reasons – one is practical – we don’t have a Christian bookstore in our town and I like to leaf through books whenever I can. Harder and harder for that to happen, so I rely more on reviews read elsewhere. But the primary reason I don’t read fiction that is labelled Christian is that I firmly believe that a Christian who writes fiction is exactly that. The need for a market-specific style seems superfluous and constricting to me. One commenter above noted Marilynne Robinson’s superb novel, “Gilead.” There are others out there as well – books that are so well-crafted, so real and so readable with a message of hope and redemption. When I did read a couple of labelled novels – maybe 25 years ago! – I found them stilted and unrealistic. They simply did not capture my heart and my imagination. So…maybe it’s time I tested the waters once again, just to see what has changed…thanks for asking the question, Carol.

  14. Brooke, I love your comment that life is messy. LOL! It’s a good description. That neat and tidy problem was one I saw, too, but once again it was long ago. I see a lot more realism from today’s authors.

    Thanks for joining in the conversation, Deidra. Your comment made me think about what I expect from a movie, and I like to be transported into the story so I’d have to say I like realism there, too.

    Hi, Lyn. Congratulations on your successful publishing career. I’m pleased to have your input here. While it’s true most of today’s comments aren’t from those who often read Christian fiction, several of my regular readers both read and write it, so I’m glad the others accepted my invitation to respond.

    As for why there’s a separate market, you and Diana have both mentioned that, but I don’t have the answer. I suspect it’s because many secular readers want the Christian element in inspirational fiction specifically identified. But, as you’ve both found, a lot of inspirational fiction does cross genres.

  15. This has been an interesting discussion! I am inspired to read some current Christian fiction. Thanks, all.

  16. I’ve only read one “inspirational novel,” and that was earlier this year. The Christian focus was more the secondary plot and was definitely the theme. I liked the main character and some of the Christian plot, but parts of that plot seemed tossed in as an afterthought to meet the criteria. More like gratuitous sex when it doesn’t pertain to the story.

  17. This is such a great post, Carol. Thank you for bringing up these questions.

    I do read Christian fiction. I enjoy the wholesomeness of the stories and lack of steamy scenes and profanity. But I do agree with you and others that most conversion scenes are so unrealistic they make me shake my head.

    I think the boundaries set by CBA in the past have been stringent, but they are slowing changing to reflect our lives more accurately. I’m very thankful for clean literature that glorifies the Savior.

  18. Thanks for adding your comments Brooke, Carol and Jeanette. I think for those who haven’t had good experiences with Christian fiction, the solution may be in finding the right authors… the ones whose writing best suits you.

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