The main topic for writers in the Christian-targeted fiction space this last week or so has appeared to be “intellectual rigor”.
Everyone wants more of it, even though no one is entirely sure what it looks like, other than “C.S. Lewis!”.*
Because I’m always trying to keep at least a window open in my mind to catch a breeze I joined in the Christian Spec Fic Reading Challenge thrown down by Becky Miller and initially taken up by Mike Duran. For this challenge I’m–we’re all–reading Patrick W. Carr’s A Cast Of Stones.
It was midway through reading this book that I hit upon a realisation.
Carr’s first novel in his The Staff & The Sword trilogy reads less like the Christian-targeted fiction of a decade ago and more like something I’d pick up from Tor or Orbit. I don’t mean in terms of theology (a topic for a different post) or plot; I mean, simply, it’s written in the STYLE of those books. As I’ve followed more and more authors of Christian-targeted fiction I realise they’re all getting the same advice from the same editors at the same workshops and it is making many of their books read like the same subpar reading experience. “Don’t have a prologue!” ”Stay away from adverbs!” “Use short sentences to build suspense!” ”Don’t change character POV! [which they phrase as "don't head hop!"] Meanwhile I think upon all the true classics of literature, the BEST-SELLING classics that have had prologues, lots of adverbs, longer sentences, POV changes. And I realise that Christian-targeted fiction has been held prisoner by one specific style of writing tailored to a specific audience.
I read romance novels; I write romance novels. This is not an indictment of the romance genre. But I will say that when most readers of romance pick up a book in that category they are looking for an easy, escapist read. If they want more challenging stuff they’ll go for classics like Tolstoy or Austen. It’s not that they don’t read challenging material, it’s that the genre is shaped around easy escapism.
Since that’s the far-and-away top-selling genre for Christian-targeted publishers it’s going to stand to reason that many of the editors and successful writers are going to be seeking and writing those types of books. Hence all of those seminars with all of those pointers on how to make your book fit this market.
That’s what I realised when reading Carr’s book last night. I first read his bio** and saw that he credited folks like Robert Jordan and Guy Gavriel Kay as his influences instead of just regurgitating “C.S Lewis!” and “Tolkein!” as so many in this space do. That’s why his book sounds different. He’s reading outside the bubble and being influenced by THOSE stories, not just going with the same influences and seminars as everybody else.
And that’s when it further hit me.
Do we want intellectual rigor in our fiction? Yes. How do we get it?
BY READING INTELLECTUAL FICTION.
I’m not saying that you can only read Marquez and Salinger and those other ponderous literary works. I’m actually giving yet another reason why I think it is essential for any writer to be well and diversely read. Intellectualism is just wrestling with ideas. You’re not going to be finding many ideas to wrestle with if everything you consume has the same ideas, the same style, the same point of view.
If Christian-targeted fiction wants to branch out it has to believe that there are other books to read besides what’s on the shelf at LifeWay and it has to believe that there are other ways to write a book besides Janette Oke and Ted Dekkar.
* This is becoming the default response to ANYTHING that comes up in the Christian Fiction space. It’s like a special subset of Tourette’s where no matter what the question or argument folks can respond with “C.S. Lewis!” and feel like they’ve made a point.
**I had to know if he was old enough to grok who Martin and Lewis were when he called two of his characters Martin and Luis.