Who is going to be the next great faith-based literary fiction writer?
But, with all due respect to Arthur, aiming to write the next great Christian novel may not be a worthy goal for you if you are a Christian and aspire to write fiction. It may not be worth years of your life. It may be a goal that’s too limited and too restrictive, and it may deprive a broader audience from receiving your gifts.
If you are a person of faith and desire to write fiction, perhaps you should be writing literary fiction destined for the public sphere. So, I want to “up the ante” on Arthur’s challenge and throw down a new challenge to people of faith: who’s going to write the next Pulitzer-prize-winning novel?
For purposes of this article and to contain the discussion, I’m going to remain tightly focused on literary fiction, although this discussion could easily apply to poetry or creative nonfiction as well – but, in the essence of time, I want to avoid any extra bunny trails.
Literary fiction consists of fictional works of literary merit. It typically focuses in some way on the human condition, and may involve psychological, social, political, or religious commentary. It is frequently defined by what it is “not”: It is not commercial or genre fiction, with associated conventions.
Genre fiction tends to be plot driven, which may result in flat, two-dimensional characters that only exist to serve the plot, not because they are deep, rich, and important in and of themselves. One of the chief defining characteristics of literary fiction is that it is usually more character-driven than plot driven. This is a significant distinction. Literary fiction typically has highly developed richly textured characters. Their inconsistencies, foibles, neuroses, and other deep motivations – and the tensions, situations, and conflict created by those things -- are what move the story along. As a result, character-driven stories may sometimes lead to tragic endings.
Just because a story is not plot–driven doesn’t mean that it lacks story structure. Good literary fiction can still be a “page turner,” and has to have some kind of story question, but it doesn’t necessarily adhere to conventional plot devices.
Other characteristics of literary fiction are its elevated language, which may result in slower pacing. Literary fiction is not necessarily designed to be a page turner, but rather to elicit emotional involvement in the reader. Literary fiction is usually elegantly written, layered with literary devices such as themes, motifs, metaphors.
Christian fiction has almost become its own genre, with these conventions: it’s written by a Christian, for a Christian audience, published by a Christian publishing company, and destined for a Christian bookstore, and thus follows the guidelines of the Christian Booksellers Association. Christian fiction is a category that covers a variety of genres (romance, historical fiction, thriller, apocalyptic). The guidelines were mailed to me from a publisher, who wrote: “Since we sell to CBA stores, we must follow their rules,” which were as follows:
“The stories may not include alcohol consumption by Christian characters, card playing, gambling or games of chance (including raffles), explicit scatological terms, hero and heroine remaining overnight together alone, Halloween celebrations or magic, or the mention of intimate body parts. Lying is also problematical in the CBA market and characters who are Christian should not lie or deceive others. Possibly there could be exceptional circumstances (matters of life and death), but this has to be okayed by an editor.”
Now, here’s my question. While I know there is a big market for “Christian fiction,” I don’t personally know anyone who reads it. And, with those rules, I wonder “who would want to read something like that?” While I don’t disrespect the CBA, these rules create a censorship that bifurcates the world and creates a false dichotomy: Christians write and read Christian books, and pagans write and read everything else. This false dichotomy does not create real art and I challenge people of faith who want to write fiction to carefully consider their goals.
The Cost of Sanitized Art
There is a high cost to sanitized art. First, it fails to take the aesthetic dimension of God’s creation – including the fall -- seriously. According to the rules listed above, the Bible should not be sold in Christian bookstores because, as we well know, it’s pretty bawdy! Its characters include murderers, whores, drunkards, traitors, gamblers, liars, depressed prophets, anxious people, people who commit suicide and the great king David “remaining overnight together alone” with Bathsheba. If you can’t describe the depths and consequences of fallen behavior in your writing, then how can you describe the grace of redemption, the inscrutability of forgiveness, or the mystery of the now-but-not-now kingdom of God?
Creating “rules” about what characters can and cannot do in fiction creates dishonest art. Rules rob them of their (fictional) God-given free will, and makes them dull and uninteresting. It presents a false picture of life, humanity, and our struggle as embodied souls -- spiritual beings having a human experience. All human lives are messy, and we need to be honest about that.
Sanitized art creates a vacuum. When Christians deplore the state of “secular” art as being godless, dark, or nihilistic, all I can say is, “Well, what did you expect?” If Christian artists are not encouraged to produce art for the public sphere, then it creates a vacuum and leaves that sphere to the dominion of nonbelievers – creating the very hedonistic, desperate, lost, and dark art that Christians complain about.
Rules such as those listed above artificially suspend “faith artists” in the interstices of this false dichotomy. As a writer of literary fiction, I have learned that it is generally not “safe” for me to attend “Christian” writers’ conferences because I am marginalized in a variety of ways: 1) there are no tracks or workshops for literary writers; 2) there is an assumption that every person of faith (and every person in attendance) is writing for the Christian market; and 3) nobody has a clue what I mean when I say I write literary fiction.
I plead for the day when literary fiction writers are welcomed and affirmed at Christian writers’ conferences, and encouraged, empowered, and supported in their endeavor to serve God freely and fully, according to their gifts, to help readers in a hurting world glimpse the mysteries of grace, redemption, and the transcendence of God – by writing into a secular market.
Additionally, sanitized art insults and alienates the audience. Readers want entertainment, but they want it to be compelling and realistic – and good. I have a friend who recently recommended a “Christian novel” to her reading group because it was written by “a friend.” She later related to me how embarrassed she was when they actually read the book because it was so badly written, and no one enjoyed it at all.
We need to do away with this unbiblical dualistic worldview that artificially divides the sacred from the secular, leads to restrictions about what constitutes a “Christian novel,” and thus has the potential to diminish truth and quality.
So, what is “faith-based fiction” (sometimes called “faith-in-fiction”? When I talk about faith-based fiction, I’m talking about something that is distinctly different than Christian fiction (described above). To me, faith-based fiction is fine literature that happens to be written by a person of faith or has compelling, but not necessarily overt, faith-based themes even if not written by a person who claims a particular faith. These themes can be very subtle, but I believe a writer’s worldview will shine through his or her work, without it ever needing to be overt!
When I think of faith-based fiction, I think of works and/or writers such as:
- Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
- Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle
- My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.
- The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
- Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
- Anything by Elizabeth Goudge
- Flannery O’Connor
- Harper Lee
- Graham Green
- Annie Dillard
- Anne Lamott
- George McDonald
- Wendell Berry
- C.S. Lewis
- G.K. Chesterton
- J.R.R. Tolkein
- Katherine Paterson
Most of these authors/books are not sold in Christian bookstore, but I think of them as the giants of faith-based fiction. But, as Randy Boyagoda rightly points out, many (not all) of these giants are dead. Who is replacing them? Boyagoda laments that “… serious literary fiction largely occupies its very own naked public sphere, shorn of any reference to religiously informed understandings of who and what and wherefrom we are, which represents a marked break from centuries of literary production informed by Christian beliefs, traditions, and culture."7
There is an urgent need for faith-based literary fiction that flourishes in the world outside the church door. And thus my challenge: Who is going to be the next great faith-based literary fiction writer?
I hope my fellow writers hear this call and take seriously the challenge to write the next Pulitzer-prize winning novel. For faith writers, I hope you take this challenge seriously as a valid and indispensable avenue of service.
I can’t tell you what your aspirations should be. Those are yours and yours alone. If you want to accept Arthur’s challenge, go for it! But, I hope we can develop a new culture in which faith-based literary writers are encouraged, empowered, and affirmed in their endeavors. I hope you, Writer, will be inspired to play with Christ on the page, to serve God freely and fully according to your gifts. I hope you hear that Christian fiction is not the only avenue for writers of faith, and that you do not need to be trapped by artificial conventions. Now, go out and deliver the top-quality fiction the world so desperately needs.
#defylabels #authoradvocate #amwriting
©SharonCairnsMann with gratitude to reviewers Ellen Haroutunian, Robert W. Cairns, and Patricia Long.
 I use “Pulitzer-prize” as a generic term for any national or international book award for high literary merit. There are many to aim for!
 I do not know the date of these rules, and they may have changed, but I could not find any current guidelines. This is what was mailed to me by a publisher.
 Even Arthur says, “I don’t personally read much that falls within the contemporary marketing category of ‘Christian fiction.’”
 One happy exception was the Writers on the Rock Conference in Denver in 2016 with “The Beautiful Due” led by John Blase: https://thebeautifuldue.wordpress.com/
 See also Val Comer at http://fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue29/Christian.htm.
 This is a short list. See a list called “A very incomplete list of novels that join in the conversation of faith” at http://faithinfiction.blogspot.com/2005/04/will-there-always-be-us-and-them.html.
 Randy Boyagoda, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/08/faith-in-fiction, August 2013.