How can we fix Christian fiction?

(Photo: Zsuzsanna Kilian)

If Christian fiction is so often a byword for poor writing, aggressive preaching, and overly simplistic storytelling, how can we fix this?

In previous explorations, we've looked at how Christian fiction's current form - with the dominance of romance and Amish narratives - definitely has a problem.

We've also looked at how this is caused in large part by an unwillingness to face the inherent ambiguities of the Christian faith and the gritty, difficult and sometimes dark nature of everyday real life.

But criticism and identifying problems isn't enough. The next question to ask is what can actually be done to make things better.

The most obvious port of call is the publishers, who many look to as the gatekeepers and therefore ultimate arbiters of what is being marketed as Christian fiction.

But as US Christian fiction editor Chila Woychik observes, these publishers may be Christian, but they're also companies.

"Of course, when books are selling, publishers keep putting them out, so the market is solid here at the moment," she says. 

Christian science fiction author and editor Grace Bridges agreed: "I would like to see the industry change, but given the industry is making so much money off it, I can't see it happening. What would those writers do otherwise?"

American Christian fantasy novelist Mike Duran agrees that publishers aren't likely to break the mould: "Should publishers run against the grain of trend? Absolutely not. They're businesses. They have to publish what sells."

British science fiction author Simon Morden argues that we should go one step further down the line, not to the publishers, but to the booksellers, particularly in America where the Christian fiction market is strongest.

The Christian Booksellers Association, in coming together and organising to unite, have presented a difficult 'all-or-nothing' scenario for publishers and writers alike.

"If a publisher produces one book out of a hundred that a significant minority of purchasers of Christian fiction take offence to, the booksellers will be under considerable pressure not to stock any books from that publisher at all," says Simon.

Because the vast majority of all Christian booksellers are under one umbrella organisation, one offended customer could cost an entire market.

"The pressure is so high, they're not going to deviate from their normal course. It's almost a vicious circle, a feedback loop between publishers and readers," he continues.

It seems, then, that it would help the Christian book market to accept diversity and understand that while uniting together in a single body has advantages, it also can cause problems too.

Duran goes further, suggesting that, like so many issues in the church, when trying to fix an outward problem, we first have to look inward, at ourselves and the culture of the church we live in.

"Publishers are just providing things that the market is demanding," he says. "This is reflective of a culture with too much kitsch, too much cliché, not enough depth."

Christian crime novelist J Mark Bertrand says that publishers won't be less commercial until the church is happy to passionately embrace commercialism itself.

"When you go to your super mega church and you see your celebrity pastor, are you getting a lot of pushback against this commercial bias?"

The answer, from his perspective, is at least in part us.  If we change, it will help the publishers to change.

"It will have to be grassroots, the publishers can't be counted on to blaze a trail. It comes down to educating Christians, talking to Christians more about what makes a good story, and why that's important, " Mike argues.

And the people who have the power to speak most directly into the lives of Christians are those leading our churches.

Duran is very blunt on this point: "It's the churches' responsibility. It's like how in politics, that the level of how moral, how spiritual and how thoughtful we are will be reflected in our political leaders, something similar will be seen in the church."

Woychik says churches must encourage Christian involvement in the arts and help Christians realise that "there are no artificial distinctions such as 'secular' and 'sacred' reading, writing or doing art.

"There is only excellence or shoddiness, mediocrity or lasting contributions to society.

"I feel the answer is broader than 'do this' or 'don't do that'. It's a multi-faceted thing, and one which won't be remedied anytime soon, but hopefully at least a few publishers and churches are beginning to see the need to foster this type of thinking and excellence."

British Christian author Sean Lambert sees another way out of the cycle.  He believes that the internet and self-publishing will open a window for more of this kind of grassroots change in the Christian publishing landscape that  Bertrand speaks about.

"The mainstream publishers aren't the gatekeepers they used to be. There's lots of independent publishers now."

Lambert wants to see more entrepreneurial publishers.

"More people need to embrace and believe in self-publishing now. You can get a book noticed far more easily now, compared to years ago," he says. 

"We mustn't write to be loved. We much write because we love writing."