Wednesday, November 15, 2006

AH: What is Christian Fiction, part I

Angela Hunt was recently invited to speak at the Dover Book Festival in Dover, Delaware. This is the first part of her presentation.

Since you'll be hearing from several authors about process and procedure, I thought I'd talk about Christian fiction, faith fiction, inspirational fiction, or whatever term you'd like to use. I’ve written over 100 books for this market, of which seventy-something are novels for children and adults, so I have looked forward to this opportunity to explore this genre with you. Until a few years ago, inspirational fiction was only available in Christian bookstores, but today you can find it at Wal-Mart, in airport book shops, and even at your Barnes and Noble. It’s being read by all sorts of people, many of whom don’t consider themselves evangelical Christians.

I recently found a review of my book, The Novelist, in an online blog. Someone named “Dy” wrote: “As an agnostic I expected to be turned off . . . when I realized, early on, that [the book] was going to take a strong Christian bent. I was pleasantly surprised at the authors' (both Ms Hunt & her protag) ability to express their faith in their Faith without driving me off. Overall, it was okay, not great, but I give it kudos for not putting off this agnostic.”

Despite the disparaging tone of that last line, I consider Dy’s comment high praise because it disproves the commonly-held assumption that faith fiction is "preachy."

What is Christian fiction? Is it a book in which the protagonist is a Bible-thumping, bellicose preacher? One where the characters were robes and travel on donkeys? Or one where the main characters are engaged in constant war against the antichrist?

When I say the words “Christian fiction,” some of you may immediately think of prairie women in bonnets or red-eyed demons lurking in shadows, eager to possess the unwary. You may assume that all the characters go to church, pray three times a day, and quote scripture in dialogue. You may have heard that all Christian fiction has to be “safe” for even a child’s consumption.

You’ve heard wrong.

I recently read this description of my chosen genre: “Evangelical fiction has become a genre unto itself, with conventions of its own. One-dimensional characters contend against one-dimensional villains. The style is preachy. The theme is moralistic. The plot is characterized by implausible divine intervention. While the convention demands a conversion, the characters are never allowed to do anything very sinful, or, if they do, the author is not allowed to show it. At the end, all problems are solved and everyone lives happily ever after. It is all sweetness, light, uplift, and cliché.”

I don’t know what that reviewer has been reading, but it’s not the fiction I read—or write. God never solves the problems in my novels—which seems rather unfair to him—because as a beginning writer I learned to avoid deus ex machina. Likewise, in my early years I learned to avoid one-dimensional characters and shallow problems. My protagonists don’t always meet their goals, and some of my endings are far from sweet.

Are the conflicts in inspirational novels of the “what color shall we paint the vestibule” variety? Not hardly. I’m active in a group of multi-published Christian novelists who recently compiled a list of some of the issues we’ve addressed in our novels. The list includes abortion, alcoholism, drug abuse, cancer, domestic violence, homosexuality, AIDS, infertility, infidelity, divorce, mental illness, suicide, pornography, unplanned pregnancy, rape, incest, sexual abuse, sexuality, racism, and loss. Whatever affects humankind can affect our characters.

So . . . what is Christian fiction? Let me offer an analogy:

The leaders of a small town wished to honor one of its fallen heroes, so they commissioned a life-sized statue of the man. But the statue seemed unimposing, so they set it on a marble base, not realizing that the base was so tall few people could see the statue from street level. Realizing their mistake, the town fathers called the sculptor and asked him to create a replica of the statue—a bronze miniature they could mount at eye level.

That’s what Christian fiction is: a novel that presents a spiritual truth, one a reader can experience at eye level. Christian fiction recognizes that readers are not bipartite, composed only of hearts and minds. We are tripartite, with hearts, minds, and souls. By sharing in the experiences of the characters, our readers are moved emotionally, they learn new truths, and their spirits, if they are open, are enriched by the experience.

Those who read inspirational fiction want what all readers want—good writing. Fascinating stories. Surprising plots. Believable characters. Multi-dimensional antagonists. Accurate details. Unique settings. And a spiritual element that is woven into the fabric of the story, not tacked on like the tail of a cardboard donkey.

There are now so many genres of faith fiction that I doubt I can list them all. If you visit the religion section of your local Barnes and Noble—if you can’t find it, look back by the restrooms--you’ll find novels that could easily be shelved in sections reserved for romance, historical novels, mystery, suspense, science fiction, fantasy, and women’s fiction. Those categories have sub-categories, and those are multiplying every month.

To be continued tomorrow.

Angela Hunt lives and writes in Florida. Latest release: The Nativity Story.


At 3:07 PM, Blogger Dan Edelen said...


Yes, Christian fiction has come a long way. Yet in many ways, the writing doesn't reflect the reality of those reading it.

Publishing houses still prefer a certain tone in their works. Stories that bubble up out of the gutter into the light are still rare. This doesn't mean that gritty subjects aren't discussed. But they're discussed in a way that seems sterile or hands-off, as if the writer were an alien from another planet trying to describe to his otherworldly readers how human beings act.

In most of the Christian fiction I read from current authors, I'm consistently stymied by the characters. They're not like anyone I've ever met. They've arisen from a Christian subculture unfamiliar with the very subjects being discussed. Or they've been sterilized so as not to offend the reader. That forces a certain tone and character development that doesn't track.

On my own blog, I mentioned a perfect example of this. A recent Christian novel had a storyline written from the wife's point of view. She suspects she's been neglecting the needs of her pastor husband. So she plans a seduction using some tight jeans and a bottle of sparkling apple cider. Meanwhile, her husband is in a cheap hotel having sex with a pornstar.

While some would give that novel points for addressing pastoral infidelity, the porn industry, and so on, it still rings false because the POV character acts so restrained. I've had a few authors protest my suggestion, but we're all adults here. If a Christian woman seriously suspects she's neglected her husband in the intimacy department, even to the point of worrying he might be straying, wouldn't she pull out all the stops? Would pulling out all the stops be some tight jeans and a bottle of apple cider? Hardly. For that reason, the whole thing rings false. Yes, it's perfectly safe because we don't get an image of the pastor's wife lounging on a leather couch in lacy lingerie with a glass of brandy in her hand waiting for her man to come home. But then her husband's in a hotel room with a pornstar--not very safe. But also not from the POV of the lead character. The publishers will allow that "gritty" off-camera encounter in the hotel room, but they can't stomach seeing the wife's seduction through her own eyes.

Christian fiction dances that strange line all the time and it's not for the betterment of the craft.

As for genres, leery publishers favor certain genres almost to a fault. You won't find much men's fiction or speculative fiction, for instance. While many Christians rave about Narnia or Middle Earth, publishers act as if they're unfamiliar with science fiction and fantasy. They'll allow supernatural thrillers with angels and demons, but if a novel's main character's an elf, forget it. Meanwhile, Christian readers of those genres are still going to secular sources.

So yes, many of the things you say are true. However, to what extent they are true is the better question.

At 5:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Angie, with much clarification as to what Christian fiction actually is. I especially liked this: "Christian fiction recognizes that readers are not bipartite, composed only of hearts and minds. We are tripartite, with hearts, minds, and souls."

A novel--any novel, Christian, inspirational, or general--that fails to take this into consideration has failed as a *story* on at least one important level: realistic characterization.


At 10:59 PM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

You're right Angela...Christian fiction os not longer your grandmother's christian fiction!

I'm glad it has stepped into the real world, where we as christians need to affect change!

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Marcia Lee Laycock said...

Thanks for posting this, Angela. I agree that Christian Fiction has coma a long way and is continuing to evolve. Like the proverbial butterfly trying to break free of the cocoon, it is a struggle and it isn't over yet. I agree with some of what Dan said, but I also take great heart in books like Bad Ground, Peace Like a River, and Levi's Will. All three won awards within the CBA and have been praised by readers.
And one other point - are all the books published in the ABA characterized by deep themes, well rounded characters and realistic events? Hardly!
Blessings as you carry on! :)Marcia


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