This morning I pulled out an old copy of World magazine–July 3-10, 2004, to be precise. And I read this paragraph: “The bigger problem is . . . 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 cliche.”
I disagreed with this article when it came out, and I disagree with it now. Yes, like any genre (and I’m still not sure you can call faith fiction a genre unto itself, for there are many variations), there are certain things that need to be true about books published by most evangelical publishing houses and sold in Christian markets.
First, the story should illustrate some aspect of Christian faith. Why is the story being published by a Christian publisher if there is no faith aspect? More to the point, the faith is based in Judeo-Christian orthodoxy and/or tradition.
I was at a writer’s conference the other day and a woman asked me if my publisher would publish a book by a Muslim. Don’t think so, I said. She said, “Well, that’s undemocratic.” And I said, “Why? They are a private business, they can publish what they please. There are Islamic presses and Mormon presses and Jewish presses. Why can’t my publisher be a Christian press?” So–the story should illustrate some aspect of Judeo/Christian faith. That’s pretty basic.
The second convention seems to raise more hackles than anything else and I don’t understand why. Some people see it as a lack of artistic freedom, I see it as a call to be more creative: the story should avoid profanity and obscenity. Why? Because profanity is, well, profane to anyone who believes in God and obscenity is offensive to most people of faith. Does that mean that we hide our head in the sand and pretend bad language doesn’t exist? Of course not. Our characters can and do curse, but as writers, we have to be MORE CREATIVE because we have to show and illustrate this without using the actual words. Sometimes it’s as simple as writing, “He cursed.” Or “He uttered a word that made her blush.” Elementary illustrations, but you get the point.
Writing bad language without using bad words is a skill unto itself–a skill most writers don’t take the time to develop. It’s like using interior monologue well instead of just telling the reader what the character thought. It’s a point of craft.
I read Orson Scott Card’s ENDER’S GAME the other day, and you know what struck me? I don’t recall a single curse word, yet Card was able to portray life with young boys perfectly well. If he can do it, so can we. (OSC, BTW, is a devout Mormon).
Now–I’m sure you’re waiting for me to say there must be a conversion scene, a moral, a sermon, prayer, the name of Jesus, Christian protagonists, angels, or something else, but that’s it. I honestly can’t think of another convention that evangelical publishers and/or readers require in their fiction. The rest of it is as varied as snowflakes. I’ve written about talking gorillas, my characters sometimes drink, have affairs, and commit murder, they curse, they make mistakes, my believers fail, they divorce, they die, they are cruel to their children (and vice versa), and they frequently come to the end of their collective rope. I’ve written about an adulterous president, murders, the Raelians, demons, angels, yes, and heaven/hell. But not all that in every book.
Wait–I forgot one other thing readers and publishers want in so-called “evangelical” fiction–well, two more things. The first is good writing. An attention to craft. Plots that hold together. Believable characters. Accurate details. Unique settings. Believable, human villains. And a spiritual element that is woven in, not tacked on like the tail on a cardboard donkey.
Finally, in my opinion, a Christian novel should offer HOPE. Because that’s what Christ offers us. We may go through suffering on earth, but we have HOPE for the future and HOPE of heaven and HOPE for the improvement of our characters. We long to be more like Christ, and it’s the suffering that makes us like Him.
Well, I have a mastiff pushing my chair across the room, so I’d better go get his breakfast. And then it’s to work on my WIP which will avoid cardboard characters, implausible divine interventions, and any tendency toward human perfection. It may not even have a happy ending.
But it will be the story God has led me to write. And it will offer HOPE.