Wednesday, September 06, 2006

PH: Readers, Relevance, and the Culture Gap

On behalf of all novelists, I’d just like to say that we have a tough job. We all want to write stories that are relevant. But relevance is in the eye of the reader. Relevance in modern and postmodern Christian texts often refers to a young generation. But demographics often show that a large percentage of readers fall within the category called Baby Boomers, those born between 1945 and 1957. I was born on the skirt tails of that group, so, culturally speaking, I tend to relate to the generation that follows the Baby Boomers or the Shadow and Echo Boomers. I worship well with rhythm, good acoustic and electric guitar, hands raised, no cumbersome hymnal impeding my worship experience. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, believed that when we founded our church that we were making a mistake by choosing such an irrelevant music style. “Everyone wants Bill Gaither style worship,” she said. (I love Gloria Gaither, BTW) But the families joining us interpreted what they deemed as “culturally relevant music” like they would a giant welcome mat.

You would think that writers, trafficking in mere words, would have it easier than our musical brethren. When I first started writing Christian fiction in 1993, our readership was very small but easy to define. My mentor told me, “Write for the check-out clerk at the grocery store.” A few years later an editor told me, “the typical Christian reader wants ‘her’ novels on a fifth to eighth grade reading level.” Soon after, the Christian book market (yes, I still call it that) emerged as a reckoning force, breaking away from the formulaic biblical and historical romances to include practically every genre recognized in the mainstream press. Then the popular copy-cat mentality emerged: If you like John Grisham, then you’ll like Dirk Detecto, Christian author.

But instead of making our job easier, the acceptance of all genres, of course, forced the Christian author to make tougher choices. Some writers aimed straight for genre writing for the sake of branding while others experimented with novels bearing a slightly literary flavor. Homosexuality, feminism, abortion, racism, mental illness, adultery, and fatally- flawed-clergy themes emerged—at first a bit feebly. Then, breaking away from Christian psycho-babble and easily-fixed conflicts, story characters became more deeply drawn.

Our little market was growing up. The reader mail I get now has a sense of backlash to it. One reader said this week, “I didn’t think I’d ever read Christian fiction again until I picked up your book.” You’d be surprised, though, at how prevalent this reaction is today. It could be because our old fiction is available in libraries. Therefore, the reader who hasn’t visited a retail store of late doesn’t realize that change has finally come to faith-based fiction. (Yes, that’s what we’re supposed to call it now.)

Still. We have a tough job. Now on top of the infrastructure of readers that hold to the old style of Christian fiction, we have a new readership emerging. Some readers prefer stories for escape; some want novels that “make them think”.

For the writer, it’s a dilemma.

The key word here for traversing all genres and markets is transcendence. I think about the iconic moment when NASA sent the first rocket up in space. What eye wasn’t turned upon it? When a story transcends genre and pop-culture, it rises above market becoming its own market. And why? Humanity is exposed. We see that kind of story for its truth, or its poignancy, or its ludicrous absurdity. All eyes cannot help but focus on a story that transcends. Forrest Gump. A Prayer For Owen Meany. Tom Sawyer. A Christmas Carol. To Kill a Mockingbird. Les Miserables. It’s impossible to utter any of these book titles without drawing a reaction.

To understand how to apply transcendent themes has typically fallen under the category of what not to do: don’t fall into sentimental writing or unearned emotion; avoid transitive verbs like the plague and other craft advice. But the truth is that when I’m focused on word-by-word craft over character development, I tend to lose sight of the elements that transcend such as understanding the tension of opposites in a character’s life; or giving the character the time to go from mistake to ruination or failure to triumph without deflating the plot. And then there’s the invisible minutia of culture and its effect upon character. It’s the very thing that affects us as writers, but can so easily become the overlooked elephant in the room when it comes to character development.

It’s all hard, but good. Focusing on the transcendent elements of my story gives me less room for worrying about reader age or culture gaps or whether or not my story is culturally relevant. It’s like giving myself permission to be creative again.

You can visit Patty Hickman at or blog on over to Please check out Fallen Angels and Whisper Town. Both books strive to provide relevance, escapism, and food for thought.


At 12:39 PM, Blogger Heather said...

Fine lines cross the world like time zones. I just read a book chalked with trendy language and references to T.V. shows and actors, that, though the story may be good, it will be lost in a year or so to irrelevance. In fact, though it was published only a month ago, it is already bordering on outdated.

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Patricia Hickman said...

Good point, Heather. It's funny how pop-cultural icons will "date" a book, yet a period reference such as a war or the mention of a President's name will make the theme timeless.

At 5:01 PM, Blogger Southern-fried Fiction said...

There's war within my own hosue on this. I'm one Baby Boomer who happens to LOVE the new beat and praise music. The funkier the better. I still love the old gospel music, too, but not as a steady diet.


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