Tuesday, February 13, 2007

BC: “Safe” Christian Fiction—My Take: Part 1

Recently I received a furious letter from a reader who felt utterly betrayed by me. This reader let me know in no uncertain terms she no longer “trusts” me and will never pick up another of my books. “I know bad things happen to good people,” she said, “but I don’t want to read about it in my pleasure reading.”

Surprisingly, this woman wasn’t talking about any of my suspense novels. She was referring to one of my women’s fiction titles in the Bradleyville series, published a number of years ago. She was mad at me because of a turn of events that happened to a likeable character, which changed everything in the story after that. The whole ending was wrong, wrong, wrong in her eyes. She cared so much for the characters that this upset her terribly. She wished she’d never read the book. She even went so far as to suggest that this was a deliberate “power play” on my part, done merely to make readers feel miserable.


This person—I’ll call her GR, for Gentle Reader—is absolutely right. She can’t trust me to not upset her world. If she couldn’t handle my women’s fiction, no way is she gonna handle my suspense. My books for her will never be “safe.” I am happy to know that I can recommend to GR many very competent Christian writers who write for her type of audence. Those books she can read and enjoy—and feel safe while doing do.

GR’s opinion is one I respect and honor. Each reader brings to a story her past experiences, her personality, the sum of who she is. This is why each reader responds so differently to the same novel. While I disagree with GR’s opinion about my book, I do think her opinion is spot-on right for her. Further, I respect this desire of hers: “I don’t want to read about it in my pleasure reading.”

Unlike nonfiction, readers don’t pick up a novel to learn something. They pick up a novel for entertainment. A reader has every right to “not want to go there” regarding certain subjects that may upset him or her.

There’s a club of folks who can’t read my suspense novels. I’ve teasingly dubbed it the Big Honkin’ Chickens’ Club (BHCC). Many of them read my personal blog and are friends of mine, but when it comes to scary, intense fiction, they say, “I don’t want to read about it in my pleasure reading.” Why should they? If they find a story truly upsetting, if it gives them nightmares and makes them queasy—I’d hardly call that entertainment for them. Of course they shouldn’t read my suspense.

Definition #1 for safe Christian fiction: A story that includes content and events that will not emotionally upset the reader beyond his/her boundaries.

Sure, my suspense might sometimes scare my core readers—but they like that. Sure, a women’s fiction title might move a reader to tears—but she likes that. I’m not talking about being emotionally impacted by the story—that’s a necessity in good fiction. I’m talking about stepping into territory upon which readers don’t want to tred.

Readers have a right to expect the fiction they choose to read to be safe according to Definition #1.

When we write about some of the more difficult subjects, we need to understand that some people won’t want to “go there.” This not only applies to suspense that contains murder and other forms of violence. It also applies to subject matter that’s hard to read about—sexual abuse, child slavery, physical abuse of the elderly, graphic drug use, etc. In this sin-ridden world, we are bombarded with stories about horrible happenings. We hear about child abuse and murder and rape and drug overdoses every day. Some readers will choose not to revisit these topics in their “pleasure reading.” We have to respect that. It’s not right to say these readers are hiding their heads in the sand in regard to these difficult topics, and they need to be shaken up. We can’t judge that. In fact, a reader may be very aware of the subject matter, may have suffered it in his/her own life, or may be actively working with victims in a day job or contributing to charities who do. For that very reason the reader may not want to immerse himself in said subject during his few hours of entertainment reading.

But the readers who don’t want to “go there” aren’t our target audience anyway. I don’t write suspense for those who are too upset by suspense to read it. I write for those who gobble the stuff up. For them, my fiction is plenty Definition #1 safe. Those who wouldn’t find my suspense D#1 safe—that’s fine. I turn them away from my books, suggest something else that better suits their taste.

Seems to me that our discussions of “safe fiction” can tend to hover around D#1. And because this involves our writing—our passion—emotions quickly become involved. Those writing about the more difficult issues or events can become upset at readers who don’t want to read their books, as if these readers are simply shallow and/or are wrong not to choose to be shaken in their entertainment hours. Those who write fiction that would be labeled D#1 safe by most people can judge the other side for containing too much difficult, “unseemly” content—whether violence or some specific subject matter. Each type of reader needs to understand he is right in that private opinion—for himself. He is judging according to his boundaries of D#1. We shouldn’t judge someone else’s boundaries—because we haven’t lived that person’s life.

But all this is only one part of the equation. There’s a Definition #2. It’s a separate entity and needs serious consideration. We’ll look at that tomorrow.

Seatbelt Suspense™ author Brandilyn Collins blogs Monday through Friday at Forensics and Faith.


At 8:58 AM, Blogger Mary DeMuth said...

Great post, Brandilyn. I think it boils down to water. Water is safe. It's easy. It goes down well. But not everyone wants to drink water. If we write for whatever "water needs" our readers have, we'll water ourselves down, won't we?

If I worry incessantly about whether my read will upset someone else, I'll lose my voice. If I write in fear of the inevitable critic, I may just stop writing altogether.

Perhaps that's why passion has its place. Write what God impassions you to write. Trust Him for your career. And let the naysayers have their say. Be compassionate toward them, but continue to write what God has placed on your heart.

Not every book blesses every reader.

At 8:59 AM, Blogger Mary DeMuth said...

Oops! Should have put "book" instead of "read."

At 9:48 AM, Blogger Susan Kaye said...

I have no problem with those who want Definition 1 reads. I am bothered when they feel that to write a book defined by any other number is unchristian. (Whether you are a Christian writer or a writer who is a Christian.)

Maybe I'm mentally ill, but I enjoy reading about the tougher subjects and how characters respond.

Though, there are some tough subjects that even I avoid. Each one thinks their way is best.

At 10:21 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

"The whole ending was wrong, wrong, wrong in her eyes. She cared so much for the characters that this upset her terribly," B. said.


You achieved what all authors want to: you made your reader care. Well done, thou good and faithful author.

At 11:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My first novel was about horse racing. Some people in the body of Christ think horse racing is of the devil because gambling is involved. My novels are definitely not for everyone and most definitely are for adult readers. Sensitive issues, real people, some hardcore, are in my novels. They are absolutely and unequivocally not for everyone yet the gospel is in every one of them to contrast the ugliness.
BC, you handled this with such grace.

At 11:37 AM, Blogger Katrina @ Callapidder Days said...

Love this post, and I completely agree.

I'm one of those who loves the rollicking ride that a good suspense novel offers. And I can also appreciate a women's fiction novel that explores difficult or sensitive topics. But I know that not everyone enjoys or wants to read those things. To each her own.

I'm so glad for writers like you, (and like relevantgirl), who write from your passion. Keep it up!

At 12:09 PM, Blogger D. Gudger said...

I'm very curious to see what D#2 is. This is a topic at the forefront of my brain. Some Christian writers are called to bring hope into dark places.

I wish GR's can see the ministry there and not condemn the more "edgy" stuff. I'm excited by the turn in Christian literature overall.

off topic - does anyone else have problems with the word verification? I usually have to do it 3 or more times before I get it :)

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Karen said...

Hmm, how did Stephen King put it...beware of snowy New England towns where your car crash down a hill, where a seeming innocent "#1 fan" takes you into their house, nurses you to health, forces you to bring your "character" back to life and hobbles you. Beware of GR, be very aware. ;)

Now seriously, I'm not a big fan of thrillers or seatbelt suspence. I can bear reading or watching some of it when it's done well, according my measuring scale. I remember not wanting to see the movie "Red Eye" because it looked "too scary" but I ended up really enjoying it. Would I watch those kind of movies all the time? No way! But I can appreciate them once in a while.

Good post Brandilyn!

At 12:39 PM, Blogger Heather said...

To everything (turn, turn, turn), there is a season (turn, turn, turn). And I guess to everyone...
I do have a question, though. You wrote that fiction readers don't pick up a book to learn something. I think that is true for some (probably for most), but many do. It may not be a list of facts (although occasionally I'll pick up trivia here and there), but I learn something about social and cultural conditions and problems. I learn something about people and reality and beauty and truth.

At 12:56 PM, Blogger ~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Heather, you make a very good point. Let me clarify. I mean that people don't pick up a novel for the *purpose" of learning, as they would in a nonfiction. They pick it up for the purpose of being entertained. That said, sure, many times readers do learn things from fiction. It's great to learn about people or a culture or an area, or perhaps a certain career field (e.g. forensic art) that we didn't know, through reading a good story.

The further point to understand is that most readers won't very willingly step outside their D#1 boundaries in order to learn from fiction. No matter how well written that book might be (a completely different topic than "safe") or how much it might teach them, most readers don't like to pushed into territory they find upsetting rather than entertaining.

Darcie: I have trouble with the word verification on blogs, too. This comment included. I think it's another blogger glitch.

At 1:33 PM, Blogger Tricia Goyer said...


As you know, I get similar comments. Of course, as writers, we want everyone to love our stories (after all, we do). But it so true how everyone brings their own experiences into their reading.

I've written about a young Jewish woman impregnanted by a Nazi, concentration camps, children born out of wedlock. Not everyone wants to read about these things, of course.

I have a friend who calls me numerous times when reading my novels. "You're such a nice person," she tells me. "Why do you write about such horrible topics?" I'm not sure why God has placed these stories on my lap, but I do know that even in settings of war and destruction, hope in Christ can be found. And that is something worth writing about!

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I do pray that readers will care so much for my characters that it upsets them when those characters fall into hardship (like multiple gunshot wounds and death). I feel her pain, though. I've lost plenty of fictional friends. One of them was even a rabbit. Those are the breaks.

At 5:36 PM, Blogger Southern-fried Fiction said...

Bless her heart. We'll invite her to join the BHCC. ;)

At 10:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read it, Brandilyn, and as usual, you made immenent sense. I've yet to get one of those flaming emails, but given the subject matter of my books, I know it's only a matter of time. I trust when it happens I'll be able to extend as gracious an attitude as you gave this lady, acknowledging where she is at this point in her life. God bless.

At 2:30 PM, Blogger Eden said...

I absolutely love this post Brandilyn, and I agree with your points.
I'm definitely not a BHCC. I like books that keep me thinking and don't always end happily. I like books that are more realistic, I guess.
Everybody is different and just think how boring it would be if we all liked the same types of books and things.

At 10:23 PM, Blogger Deena Peterson said...

I totally agree with you...and when I recommend fiction to friends and to others via my review blog, I always mention areas that might offend or upset individuals...
I have a friend who was a victim of abuse, and she cannot handle reading any novels dealing with that topic. Sensitive to that, I steer her away from ones I know contain that kind of material.
However, we live in a world bombarded by evil, and we have to know how to respond to it. Fiction is a great avenue to discuss these topics from an objective point of view, and these powerful novels will educate us to help heal the wounded souls that come our way.
I applaud authors like you, Brandilyn, who are not afraid to tackle these tough subjects thoughtfully, carefully, and with great wisdom.
We need to choose what we read wisely, but we also need to address the wounds of the world...and be sensitive to those who cannot handle the written words that tackle what they have struggled with.
Hope that makes sense!!


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