Where do you go for guidance in seeking out good Christian fiction? Is there even agreement about what qualifies as “Christian fiction?”
Startlingly little is available on the topic. Based on what is available, there is disagreement among “experts” as to what qualifies.
The best resource I found is from the Public Library of Cincinatti and Hamilton County, found here.
Yet, one of the reasons I find it the most helpful is because it exemplifies precisely those same kinds of peculiarities as mentioned. And thus can help us take a look at the nature of Christian fiction today.
In researching this introductory column, this list caught my attention for a couple of reasons. One was the sheer number of authors it included. Many of them I had not heard of before. Another reason the list caught my attention is the number of different categories it includes.
The third reason the list caught my attention is what I perceived as peculiarities both in terms of author’s names that the list included and even more so, authors’s names that the list omitted. All in all, I think the list both makes a useful guide, and in part does so because it illustrates the difficulties of trying to pin down the Christian fiction market as it operates today.
To give some examples of how I find the lit odd in terms of its inclusion, or lack thereof. On of the first things that caught my attention is that the list includes . . . and I think rightfully so . . . Earl Hamner, Junior, the creator of the long-running television series The Waltons; which itself is of course partially based on two of Hamner’s novels: The Homecoming and Spencer’s Mountain. to me, the Baptist Chistianity of The Waltons and forerunner novel The Homecoming is an organic element of the material. But in other reading I’ve done, I haven’t found analysts classifying Hamner specifically as a writer of Christian fiction.
Not unexpectedly, this list includes pioneer author Janette Oke, who many observors consider the founder of a viable Christian romance category of fiction. Yet, oddly, the list does not include Davis Bunn, with whom Oke has co-written more than one novel as well as Bunn having written material on his own.
The list also leaves out several authors, mostly but not always in the romance genre, who have established significant readership. Some of the omissions in this regard include Debbie MacComber, Lenora Worth, Karen Witemeyer, Francine Rivers, and Richard Paul Evans. The omission of Jason Wright, author of the memorable The Cross Gardener, also stood out to me although am unfamiliar with the robustness, or lack thereof, of Wright’s readership.
Other oddities stood out to me: why include Liz Curtiz Higgs, but not Max Lucado? While what Mr. Lucado writes is primarily creative nonfiction inspirational books, often based on sermons he has delivered in the course of this pork as a practicing minister, Mr. Lucado has delved in writing some fictional pieces. These stories are reminiscent of Ms. Curits’ Higgs ‘guided imagery works such as Bad Girls of the Bible, and we could as easily argue Ms. Higgs out of the fiction and into the crative nonfiction category as we can do the same for Mr. Lucado’s works such as Cosmic Christmas.
Other notable omissions include both the authors who have not only written Christian fiction themselves, but written ‘how to’ guidebooks in the category. The lists includes neither Gail Gaymer Martin, who wrote Writing the Christian Romance, nor does it include Ron Benrey, who wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian fiction. Somehow it seems that authors at a level of leveraging their writing experience into formulating a writer’s guide for the genre should make the cut on a list of suggestions to readers of any particular category.
Presumably, one of the reasons for this is the simple concept of “shelf life.” It may well be, at the time that the Cincinnatti library compiled this list, “shelf life” limitations meant that books from many of these authors were not at that particular time on the market. After all, much of the Christian fiction marketplace is made up of romance in some way, shape, or form and romance . . . both secular and Christian . . . tends to have a short shelf life.
Still, we can start out this column with some fundamental conclusions about the nature of Christion fiction today: conclusions that this list in some ways support and other ways might call into question.
- Christian fiction is offered in a wide range of categories, from so-called classics to science fiction and adventure categories
- The vast majority of Christian fiction today, however, falls in some form into the romance category
- Some Christian romance, however, shows a distinction from secular romance in that through the conflicts and themes it explores, in addition to entertainment — which does remain the primary objective — Christian romance oftentimes leaves the reader with something to ponder: some kind of philosophical “take away” in terms of relating to fellow humankind. This ranges from as simple a matter as better ways to communicate one-to-one, to the perspectives we take on larger issues such as social justice. In comparison to secular romance that I have read, much good Christian romance reads more like a novel that happens to have a romance setting for a larger canvas of human interaction, than it does as a romance novel in the way secular romances usually do
- Such Christian fiction as falls outside the romance category differs widely in the subject matter the books cover. In fact, most of what I have read in some form falls into the category some have called “emergent” Christian fiction by breaking one or more of the traditional rules of Christian fiction that I have seen stated (such as not specifying a particular denomination, and a laundry list of rules about how characters should not behave involving swearing, dancing, card playing, drinking and the like)
- Along with the second conclusion, themes in Christian literature suggest a possibility, at least that books on the market are driven by reader interest since many Christian fiction books are following similar trends to secular books. A current example is that ex-military or current or former law enforcement characters are, or are becoming, popular in Christian romance as they have been in secular romance for a while.
- It remains a key that a Christian fiction book takes a Christian world view, which for the most part involves an explicit profession of Jesus as Lord and Savior — usually backed up by some level of Bible awareness — expressed by at least one character. Or, alternatively, one of the main characters professes dissatisfaction in having not taken a Jesus-centric life philosophy.
- Christian fiction has, and continues to, evolve from a format that was little more than a forum for propagandistic writing, to a format in which we can find truly entertaining and engaging works: and one result is that over time higher and higher quality material tends to make its way into the market. A part of that, of course, is that as new writers enter the market, find some popularity with their first book, and continue to write books for the Christian fiction market, those writers as all writers do improve with experience.
- For those interested in Christian fiction as a market to write for, this means both good and bad news. Openness to new themes and approaches is evident within the market. At the same time, the market is getting more competitive all the time. New writers need to strive for excellence in any work they submit to agents or publishers, and take the same steps they would for a secular first novel to ensure they submit the highest quality work possible.
Beyond these conclusions, the field seems to be wide open and opening even more thanks to some unusual perspectives that authors like Francine Rivers and Jason Wright have brought to the field.
In future columns, I will look at individual books, sometimes two or three related books, in the column to talk about what the book has to offer to readers as Christians as well as as readers seeking entertainment. But for this occasion, I thought a general look at who, and what, is on the market would make a good kick-off post to this column.
For those wanting to write Christian fiction, reading good Christian fiction is of course a key preliminary. As what is on the market increases, a general guide can prove valuable.