Thursday, July 28, 2011

Secular Novels and Christian Novels

I read a blog post today called "The Myth of 'Secular Fiction'" which encapsulated a lot of what I've been thinking about lately.

I'm plotting my next novel and one of the problems I'm running into is that I'm not sure whether I want to aim it at the Christian fiction market or the secular fiction market.

And it really is a marketing issue. As Mike Duran points out in the blog post linked above, lots of Christians write "secular" books. And any good secular book written by anybody is going to have some truth in it that any Christian can recognize, simply because the world we live in was made by God, and good art is built around truth, and, as the old saying goes, all truth is God's truth. (Duran makes this point in the classy way: by quoting C. S. Lewis.)

But when you publish a book, you have to market a book. That is, you have to try to get the book in front of the sort of people who'd be likely to buy it. Labeling it as "Christian" is one way to do that. It lets the reader know (a little bit) what he's in for.

And it's not wholly a bad thing. It's good to give the reader an idea of what he's in for.

But there are limits to what you can do in a book labeled "Christian fiction", because CBA-associated bookstores have rules on what the fiction they sell can & cannot contain - rules having to do with sex, alcohol, etc. And there are some really good stories that can be told within those limits. But there are also really good stories that can not be told within those limits.

The book I'm reading right now, "The Year of the Warrior" by Lars Walker, is an example of a good, Christian book whose content falls outside of those limits. War, murder, rape, fornication, drinking, demons - all of those things are present in the story. But it's also one of the most Christian stories I've ever read - the theme might be said to start with "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" and build from there to a towering fanfare of "Who is the King of glory? the Lord strong and mighty!" And it's published by Baen.

Suffice it to say that I think the Christian/secular division doesn't necessarily hold past the marketing aspect (the marketing aspect is real).

But that doesn't really make my current decision easier. The novel I'm plotting is a romance, and so the main plotline could easily be written for a secular publisher or a Christian publisher (since both publish books about people falling in love). But one of the subplots involves an ethical dilemma that I know my character is going to approach from a Christian worldview. In fact, the ethical dilemma is what's really compelling me to write the book: I'm honestly not sure how he's going to solve the problem and I'm eager to watch him do it.

(In my mind, the only good reason to write a book is because you want to know how it's going to turn out too.)

But because I'm not sure about how my hero's going to solve his problem, I'm not sure which market it's going to be fit for. Also, knowing which market I'm aiming at will, in part, determine my hero's characteristics. Which will have an effect on how he solves the problem.

The circle is just a little vicious.

How am I going to solve my dilemma? Well I'm pretty sure the key is just to write the story whichever way makes for the strongest characters and the biggest possible disaster for those strong characters should they fail to solve the problems I set them up for.

Since I'm not sure which market that's going to leave me in, I guess that just adds another layer of suspense for me while I write. Game on!

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell



MomCO3 said...

On top of the book itself, there is the crazy idea that publishing one book requires you to make yourself into a brand... so that if you commit to the CBA world on step one, you're starting over from scratch if your next book breaks one of the rules (or vice versa). The pressure of that wraps me in knots.

Booklass said...

I chose to not write for the CBA market directly. While Christian fiction has improved in recent years, I still often come away feeling that I am being talked at rather than being drawn into the story to discover some truths myself. A good secular story, in my opinion, can reach a much wider audience in a much more positive way than many stories written solely for the Christian market. My hope is that my story will be able to exist in both markets, but I feel that the people I WANT to reach will probably not be reading a Christian book. Do you know what I mean? There is no right answer in this, I do not think, only right motivation. Best of luck.

Jessica Snell said...

I do see what you mean. And I think you're right: there's no one answer that's going to fit every author. I certainly see the appeal of reaching a larger audience - both for evangelical reasons and for more practical ones!