There’s much of interest in this week’s Library Journal piece Christian Fiction: A Born Again Genre for Christian writers and readers (thanks to Becky Miller for the link), especially the suggestion that Christian Speculative Fiction is trending. What I found most fascinating was the concluding section titled “Is Christian Fiction Crossing Over?” Here’s a snippet:
While some evangelical writers—most notably spiritual thriller author Ted Dekker—have enjoyed a crossover appeal to the mainstream market, CF publishers are changing marketing strategies to appeal to secular readers. Although Dekker’s books are now targeted to both mainstream and Christian readers, Harry Helm, VP and associate publisher for FaithWords and Center Street, stresses that the Hachette imprints create distinct messaging appropriate for each of the markets. “Many Christian writers can certainly build a readership in the mainstream, but it is essential that the publisher continue to speak directly to the Christian market in vehicles and language that resonate with that segment of readers.”
Rather than the genre becoming more secularized, Jennifer Leep of Revell notes that many Christian novelists like Steven James are simply writing excellent stories with rich characters who strike a chord with a broad range of readers. His books, she explains, don’t contain explicit Christian messages as much as they implicitly explore spiritual questions such as the nature of good and evil in a way that’s consistent with Christian faith.
Bethany House’s Oates credits the increased availability of what once had been a niche genre sold mainly to Christian bookstores for its growing success among general readers. Christian fiction is now the third top-selling ebook fiction category, and Oates believes the expanded audience has become more tolerant on content. “I would not see that as being more secular, just more in touch with the values of the readership,” he adds. (emphasis mine)
While I’m thrilled that Christian publishers appear to be seeing their “mission” in terms of a larger market — both in terms of readers’ tastes and/or worldviews — there are inherent obstacles to “Christian crossovers,” some of which this article inadvertently highlights. Let me suggest two things that keep Christian Fiction from crossing over.
#1: Implicit vs. Explicit Message
In other words, a key component to Christian fiction crossing over has to do with a less explicit Christian message.
In the article, popular thriller novelist Steven James is mentioned as an example of Christian crossover with an implicit, rather than explicit message. However, James traces this approach back to a specific philosophic approach to spiritual truth and story. Take THIS INTERVIEW with Crosswalk in which the author says:
“I’ve always loved thrillers. But most of the Christian thrillers I’ve read are thinly veiled sermons. I say, if you want to teach a message to share or a lesson to teach, write non-fiction. That’s what it’s there for. If you want to tell a good story, write a novel. Fiction explores issues or exposes things, but it doesn’t explain them. That’s not the point of a story. It’s to allow people to think and consider and explore things. It’s interesting to see how Jesus told people his stories. He didn’t tell people what they meant.” (emphasis mine)
For many, this tension between Implicit and Explicit message is fundamental. While many readers expect, even demand, a clear “Christian message,” others appreciate more nuanced, subtle, implicit concepts and questions. It’s the same reason why many readers DO NOT view Steven James’ thriller series as Christian fiction. It is not enough like a “sermon.”
If you think about it, most of the novels that have crossover appeal have broken from this traditional Christian fiction mold, both in the type of audience they’re aiming at and their aim to clearly convey a “message.”
This is the pesky philosophical divide at the heart of Christian fiction and will forever challenge its crossover.
#2: Marketing to a New Demographic
I’ve described part of the New Demographic as Christians who don’t like Christian fiction. But it’s really quite large. The Library Journal article opened by identifying the traditional target market:
With its focus on biblical values and traditionally low emphasis on profanity, sex, or violence, Christian fiction (CF) has long been popular with a certain readership, mostly white, female, and coming from an evangelical Protestant background.
Question: Do Christian publishers know how to market to anyone other than mostly white, female, Protestant moms, who don’t drink, smoke, or tolerate profanity?
And now they propose to “appeal to secular readers”???
My apologies to friends in the industry, but Christian publishers haven’t figured out how to market to Christian men yet. So how in the world are they going to market to… SECULAR MEN?
And don’t even get me started on the Christian speculative fiction reader.
All that to say, marketing to a broader audience is the right thing to do. But that audience does not just include “secular readers.” Unless publishers can figure out how to target audiences who openly share their worldview (like Christian men, Christians sci-fi/fantasy readers, Christian horror readers, etc.), how in the world can they hope to attract readers on the margins?
So of the two things that keep Christian fiction from crossing over, I’d suggest that one is philosophical and one is institutional; one involves broadening our definition of Christian fiction to include a less explicit message, the other involves broadening our market to include a less traditional demographic. While I’m at it, might I also suggest that until Christian publishing’s philosophical issue is resolved, institutional changes will lag.
As always, your opinions are welcome.