Why Don’t I Write Christian Fiction?

If you’ve read any of my novels, you might have noticed that the characters within are not Christian people. In fact, most of them – even the protagonists – are not very nice people at all.

For example: In A DEATH OF HONOR, D.A.Payne haunts the sex-and-dance clubs of his seedy future. ANGEL’S LUCK hero James May steals his repossessed spacecraft back from its corrupt financier. His co-pilot, Duke, lies to escape from his two fiancees. The best description of PEMBROKE HALL’S Boddekker came from my wife: “He’s such a moral wimp.” And THE COMPANY MAN’S Andy Birch – well, when you first meet him, he’s not the kind of guy you’d want to bump into in a dark alley.

Any religious faith operates in the background of my novels. One of the few characters who is open about her faith – Lucy Harper from THE COMPANY MAN – is that way for reasons that are largely symbolic (but it also suits her character).

Does this mean that Christian characters boring? I know several characters in the Bible who would disagree… especially Saul of Tarsus (if you’re up on your Bible, you know where this is going. If you’re not, check out the ninth chapter of Acts).

This news would also be disappointing to the Christian bookselling industry – especially in light of successful series fiction titles like Tim LaHaye’s LEFT BEHIND novels. Likewise the characters in one of my favorite films, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, where the faith of one Olympic athlete fuels his drive for success and provides a conflict in the framework of the story.

So why don’t I deal with Christian characters more, since I am one? I mean, Robin Cook is a doctor who writes medical thrillers. John Grisham is a lawyer who writes legal thrillers. Isn’t there some precedent out there that says I should be writing Christian Thrillers?

Well, maybe.

But I can give three reasons why I’m not working in that particular genre:

Reason Number One:
The market for Christian Fiction didn’t exist when I was starting out.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There was Christian fiction out there, but it was rare. It didn’t become the burgeoning industry that it is now until the last decade or so. If it was out there when I was developing as a writer, I certainly didn’t see it (outside of one juvenile novel called THE SUGARCREEK GANG IN CHIGAGO, which I never finished reading).

Reason Number Two:
I let myself get put off by the Christian Fiction industry.

Sometime after the publication of THE ESSENCE OF EVIL, I had an attack of conscience and decided that Christian Fiction was out there, maybe I should be writing it. So without telling my then-agent, I put together a proposal for a novel, explained my background as a Real Writer, and sent it off.

It got rejected.

But that’s fine. I was a writer. Coping with rejection is a pre-requisite. Right? Of course.

What got me was that someone in the editor’s office took the time to hand-write a note on the form rejection telling me that I should not bother to make any further submissions to this house.

It wasn’t like they were on the verge of bankrupcy or something. Following the rules of submissions, I started with one of the top publishers with the intent of working my way down. And they’re still around – prospering, in fact – today.

So I said “Forget it,” shelved the proposal, and started working on FERMAN’S DEVILS.

Reason Number Three:
It never occurred to me to try and write anything but the kinds of stories I was interested in telling.

And for what it’s worth, I never had it in mind to tell stories about Christian folks. I wanted to write Science Fiction. And for that matter, I didn’t want to write SF about people who Sold The Moon or were the big Earth-shattering Newtons-Pasteurs-Einsteins-Hawkings of the future. I wasn’t interested in the people who shaped the future. I was more interested in people who were shaped by the future. People who were products of their environment.

The D.A. Paynes and James Mays and Andy Birches and Boddekkers.

These characters weren’t Christians. But all of them had some kind of strong moral underpinning. They just didn’t notice their (dare I say it?) values until they were up to their neck in alligators (never let it be said that I don’t know how to beat my characters up!).

Interestingly enough, for the first few books I didn’t even realize that this moral undercurrent ran through my novels. I had to have a critic put it in writing. He said: “Joe Clifford Faust’s moral universe is that of the idealistic movies of the 1940′s like CASABLANCA and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.” That really caught my attention because CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite film, and I had just seen (and been blown away by) BEST YEARS.

But that made me think of something else. Was there some kind of moral streak running through the books that, in my closeness and newness to noveling, I had not seen? I called a friend who loved my books and loved even more to pick them apart and analyze them.

I said, “Someone just wrote a review of THE COMPANY MAN that talked about the morals in my books. I thought I was just telling a good story. What do you think?”

Without hesitating, he said: “Oh yes, HONOR and COMPANY MAN are both very moral books. It’s real obvious.”

This taught me something very important about my writing. If you’re honest with yourself as a writer, trying to tell the best story you can, your story will be an honest one. And your values will come out, no matter how hard you try to disguise them.

And when you think about it, if you’re trying your best to walk with God, that sort of thing is going to happen anyway. Even if you’re not writing books.

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6 Responses

  1. I’m glad you don’t write Christian novels. I too am Christian but it seems that everything with the label “Christian” on it, seems to be a vehicle for evangelizing. People don’t pay to be evangelized – and that’s the bottom line. People pay to be entertained, or to be challenged in their thinking.

    Personally, I think the Christian worldview has missed out on a lot. Chiefly, the fact that, if we -mankind – are made in His image, than it stands to reason that even the most angry atheist, through no fault of his own, reflects God in some fashion. Maybe in his intelligence, or maybe in his humour.

    It’s for that reason I stepped away from the church environment and rhetoric, if only to clear my head a bit. (Ok I went off on a tangent there. Maybe I need to blog this out)

    As for writing…when I write, I write for *me*. If I can entertain myself, there’s a good chance I’ll be able to entertain others. If what gets written flows well, and draws me in, then it’s likely it’ll draw others in too.

    If on the other hand, I find myself getting pissed off by an obvious evangelical message……well, you get the idea.

    People will come to God, or not, on their own terms. There’s a reason we’re individuals, with individual methods, habits and trains of thought. It stands to reason that a relationship with God is an individual thing. I don’t believe for a second that there’s a valid cookie-cutter process for it all.

    1. I have less a problem with the evangelizing part of it. Some years ago, I was called by an editor who wanted me to submit stories to a famous Dirty Magazine. I could make the story about anything I wanted, just so long as there was a prominent sex scene in the book. Had I ended up picking up a sample copy of said Dirty Magazine and read one of the stories, would I have been surprised to find a sex scene? No. Would I have been annoyed by its gratuitousness? Depends on whether it advanced the plot or not. Same with the “come to Jesus moment” found in a lot of Christian fiction.

      What annoys me is the lack of quality in the writing and plotting, although things are better than they were. For a while there, the Christian Book Market was booming so much that editors were taking anything written in complete sentences that a) was about the same people at the end as the beginning, and b) had a C2J moment. The market has since settled down a bit as the genre began to shake off some of the old conventions and better define itself. Some of the hacks got better, and some better writers have come along.

      Re: writing for yourself. Good!

      Re: Atheists reflecting God somehow. Great point. Of course they do. They just don’t see the reflection.

      And I’ll send some prayers your way for helping you to find a suitable Christian family (as opposed to Christian environment)

      1. I think if Christian books were marketed as Christian books, I’d have less of a problem with finding, as you hilariously put it, the C2J portions of it. Some of them are being marketed simply as novels. For those of us who know the Christianese code, it’s annoying to find out halfway through that that’s what we have in our hands.

        As for your offer of prayer: thank you. Unfortunately I think I’m out of the running on that one, and am not really interested in attending church anywhere for the moment. Some old friends thought that this meant I had fallen away. However, I beg to differ, big time. :) (I kind of imagine that you, being an elder, have seen this sort of thing before, this mindset. I’m told there are quite a few people who have opted to still follow God but outside of church)

        Hmm. I think I really do need to blog this one out.

      2. Yes, blog it out. Or even just write it out if you want to keep it private. It’ll help you sort your thoughts out.

        And, as the song goes, I don’t need your permission to pray for you. But I’ll keep it low key and respectful. ; )

  2. I came across one of your posts a while back, but never looked much further, but on finding my way back I’ve read through some of your essays about your Christian beliefs. I have to say that I really appreciate a lot of what you’ve said, and feel that it is in many respects applicable to me, as someone who would like to get into the publishing industry, specifically Christian fiction (because so much of it is horrible – like you said, bad writing, poor plots, little to no character development… I have a silly idea I’ll be able to help get better stuff on the market…)

    Anyway, sorry about the ramble, but I wanted to suggest (if you haven’t already heard of it) a book called “The Christian Imagination,” in particular one of the essays contained within called “Christian Fiction: Piety Isn’t Enough.” It really helped to clarify some of the problems I already felt were there, and why they are in many ways worse for Christian fiction than secular.

    And again, I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read on here so far, so thank you and God bless.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. It looks like a fascinating book. I put in a request to get it in Kindle format, but I may have to break down and get a Dead Tree version.

      Good luck with your mission to bring a better quality of work to the Christian Fiction genre. Somebody needs to do it. I once had it in my head to do that sort of thing, but the people in the industry that I had contact with apparently didn’t see it that way. So I wrote a book about a witch who has a crisis of faith as a mainstream novel.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment and the book title. Here’s wishing you the best in your writing. Let me know how it goes.

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