Christian Fishbowl

Preface: I wrote this with full intent of posting it on my new regular Tuesday spot, but I read it to Diane to get a second opinion and she has been pushing me ever since to post it early. Yes, that Diane. 😛 For the record, I’m not posting now because I gave into her peer pressure. Nope, it’s because her momma said,  “Pleeeeeeeeease.” hah!

Oh, and make sure you read Tymothy’s post from this morning–it’s his input on this topic and he’s got some wonderful things to say.

All right, here goes….

I’m not one for dragging things out, but I was a bit blown away by the reaction to my last post, “Put Down Your Sword…and Write.” Apparently a few people even brought it to author Mike Duran’s attention because of his blog post, “Why Christians Can’t Agree About Christian Fiction.” Mike discussed the idea that there are two basic “camps” of Christian writers: the holiness camp and the honesty camp. He got quite a lot of responses (151 comments as I write this).  Go check it out and see what he has to say. He’s got some really good points and things to ponder in there.

In a second post, Mike discusses the reactions to his other post and includes a link to, and a few quotes from, mine. He ends this post by saying, “All that to say, this ‘conversation’ may seem tired, divisive, pointless, and unresolvable. But if the amount of heat it generates is any indication, the topic appears to remain relevant.” I have to say I agree with him on that.

My original intent was not to say we should completely abandon discussing this division. I think both sides have relevant points. I do think, however, some writers spend entirely too much time griping about not being accepted by the CBA and complaining that the Christian bookstores don’t contain enough “realistic” Christian fiction. Some point out that the happy-happy-joy-joy-everyone-is-so-perfect-and-Jesus-is-a-tame-little-lamb books are a giant turn-off to the world at large and are giving the rest of us Christians a bad name. (I address that farther down in this post, btw.) While some of the more conservative Christian writers—the ones Mike would put in the holiness camp—are pointing fingers and calling the more gritty writers heathens.

I want to address this because I think too many of us have gotten trapped in a Christian fishbowl. I think I see this differently than some because I’m a math person. Bear with me…

Find a Christian bookstore and take note of how it’s divided into nonfiction and fiction. But the fiction is all just mixed in together. It’s mostly sweet romance and mainstream novels. You want gritty, realistic Christian fiction, though. You find a bit—some thrillers, a few sci-fi/fantasies. But the selection of what you want feels pathetically small.

Go forth, my friends, and enter the secular bookstore. Let’s say that sci-fi/fantasy is your favorite genre. You see the high percentage of good books in your section and think, “Why can’t the Christian bookstore be like this?” You temporarily forget that the section you are standing in is bigger than the entire Christian bookstore you were just in.

Now go to the romance section. Look at how many books are there. What percentage of those do you think you’d like? Probably a pretty puny number, huh? Yet, there are far more of those books than in “your” section—all books you, as a spec-fic lover,  would most likely consider fluff writing.

Now look around at all the other sections, all the other genres that you walked right past without noticing on your way to the sci-fi/fantasy section. Look at the square footage and think about the thousands of books you probably wouldn’t like.

Imagine if you had to scale down Barnes & Noble to fit into the square footage of a Christian bookstore. (The actual book section of one, that is.) Hm….you’d probably end up with shelves of romance, some mainstream, and only a handful of thrillers and sci-fi/fantasy. Just like there is now in a Christian bookstore.

Ah, but the ones in the Christian bookstore are so poorly written! They are so corny! The blatant disregard for craft!


The problem is this: You are not thinking in percentages. The Christian book world is small. If 10% of the Christian books are really good, you have enough to fill a tabletop. You are going to read through them in no time, and be forced to turn to the crappy ones rather quickly.

But the secular book world is gi-freaking-normous. If 10% of secular books are good, then you are going to spend the rest of your life reading awesome books and never even come close to reading them all, and you may never have to read a badly written book.

Do you see now? We’re like this fishbowl floating around in a vast ocean, screaming, “They have more pretty fish than we do! Not fair!” But all we see is what jumps out at us. There are miles and miles of murky water we ignore. We’re not looking at the percentages, and the scale of our space vs. theirs.

And speaking of fishbowls…One thing I notice over and over again is writers claiming that we have to write edgy, secular-world-oriented Christian fiction to “reach” the people who “need” it. And then they want that fiction accepted into the CBA. Well, if it does get accepted there, guess what? It’s going into the Christian fishbowl and the people who are supposed to be “reached” by it are going to swim right on by.

In my personal experience, non-Christians don’t even know the Christian section exists. And if they do, regardless of good writing or poor, they’re walking right past thinking, “I ain’t reading that. I don’t wanna get preached at.”

I’m not unreasonable. I know there are two major markets—the ABA and CBA—and we’re being forced to choose between the two. If we’re “too Christian for the secular market, but too secular for the Christian market” (the battle cry I hear so often, and have used myself) we turn to our brothers for support…only to have a chastising finger wagged at us. It is frustrating. I am right there with you, folks. Seriously. The system is far from perfect. But I don’t think the answer is fighting for space in a fishbowl.

So, let me set the record straight. I don’t like most Christian fiction. But my guess is, I’d dislike most secular fiction if I had 10,000 lifetimes in which to read it all. Also, I think what sells is what sells and that is what publishers publish. I think “Christian publishing” was spawned for the “holiness camp”—people who wanted “safe, clean” Christian fiction—and if that’s what they want then let them have it. I will not beg to be part of the CBA. I am a Christian, and I write from that worldview, but I see no reason to demand the CBA’s seal on my work. I think a new generation of publishing is arising….a place that bridges the gap between secular and Christian, and that is where I want to be.

About Kat Heckenbach

Kat grew up in the small town of Riverview, Florida, where she spent most of her time either drawing or sitting in her "reading tree" with her nose buried in a fantasy novel...except for the hours pretending her back yard was an enchanted forest that could only be reached through the secret passage in her closet... She never could give up on the idea that maybe she really was magic, mistakenly placed in a world not her own...but as the years passed, and no elves or fairies carted her away...she realized she was just going to have to create the life of her fantasies. She shares that life with her husband and two homeschooling kids. Kat is a graduate of the University of Tampa, Magna Cum Laude, B.S. in Biology. She spent several years teaching, but never in a traditional classroom--everything from Art to Algebra II. Her writing spans the gamut from inspirational personal essays to dark and disturbing fantasy and horror, with over forty short fiction and nonfiction credits to her name.

21 comments on “Christian Fishbowl

  1. Ha! Ha! Preach it, sister. 😛

  2. My Dearest Kat,

    Where you want to be, where you are, and where the Lord puts you are not all the same,but—————- If your blessed,they could be close missy! LOL THANK YOU!

  3. PSH. Greatness.<–left unsaid.

    You in that fishbowl? Because I'm not.

    Many years ago I read that Rowling was a Christian. I do not have the link or source of where I read but I assure you, I saw it. Point is: Christians worldwide either were happy about this, or denounced it. The fact remains, I, personally don't know whether or not she is or isn't a "Christian". God knows. That is there business. But we can see the attitude the Christian community at large took. One side or another. "That's not MY kinda Christian!" some may have said. While others may have shouted, "Yes! A Christian can write enormously successful stories!"

    I'm the type of guy that "grew" up with Christians who were "gritty", loud, tatted up. They shouted. They danced. Literally. They performed rallies. All in the name of Christ…and His redemption.

    Then…I visited, once, my brothers church. Quiet. Subdued. The chorus's sounded like lounge singing. You know "old school" "church". Which I did not judge. BUT, when the pastor said "We don't have to be loud and have music and have rallies for God to bring people in. Those people do that."-I TOOK OFFENSE.

    Those were MY brothers. I lived with them. I ate with them. prayed with them. Sang…and danced the Lords DANCE with them. That is the Christ I know. Ex-gang members. Ex-drug addicts. EX. EX. EX.

    I compare my Homeboys with the grittier writer…and the quiet as a church mouse with, well you know. Now this is just an example. But I'm saying there is a striking resemblance.

    I'll end with this. That church is what made me think of this "test".

    Read these words:

    We will not die this way, in unification

    {{{They cannot break these chains of faith
    Let them do their worst (let them do their worst)
    Never slaves to iniquity

    We will not die this way (this is absolution)
    Death claims us no more (no more)
    Do not grieve, end the suffering
    We will live, live eternal

    Will you take the stand among the dead?
    Bury your fear, and hold fast to life

    We will not die this way (this is absolution)
    Death claims us no more (no more)
    Do not grieve, end the suffering
    We will live, live eternal

    Anchor yourself to the foundation of everything you love
    Believe you have just become to live

    Don't let the world deceive you
    Don't let their words betray you
    Don't let their lies deceive you
    Lead them to their graves

    We will not die this way (this is absolution)
    Death claims us no more (no more)
    Do not grieve, end the suffering
    We will live, live eternal}}}

    Powerful? Inspiring? I believe these ARE Gods Words.

    But now listen to the song. Some will denounce it. Some will call it demonic. It's not for ever body. But the words are. They should be.

    Bring it. We must change the way "we" are seen. That tiny section? Not for me.

    • I most definitely do not see YOU in a fishbowl, dear Tymothy! No way :). And glad of it! Awesome reply. Love it!

  4. Thank you, Kat.

    I guess I should finish, aye? Heh.

    The people I prayed with, etc…those were a “kind” of Christian. That is what they loved. That is the Christ they saw. The latter? That is the Christ they knew and loved. Same Christ?
    I must honestly say…ah. I don’t think so. But I’m only human. See, even I have my “opinions”.

    Okay. Yes, their God was my God but we saw Him differently. Which must be wrong BECAUSE HE is the same, correct? Our upbringing, our teachers, our taste in music and yes in reading makes a difference. God is the same. We are not. Must this change? I believe yes.

    Again, writers? As different as the people of God.

    • Yes, Tymothy, HE is the same. But He is also infinite, and we are finite. We can’t comprehend the “all” of Him, so we see him this way and that way…but it is always still Him.

      There are times when I need the quiet Lamb of God, and times I need Him to get knock-down dirty to reach me. And He does. He is both. He is all.

      • My Dearest Kat,

        There are times that I have rejoiced in the Lord with jubilant song and dance, but there are also times that I have sat in quiet reverance, but neither felt any closer than the other. I believe that the Lord let’s you know whether it be black tie or informal. Either way, I’m just happy to be invited.

      • “I believe that the Lord let’s you know whether it be black tie or informal. Either way, I’m just happy to be invited.”

        Love that :).

  5. Ah, an excellent follow-up post! I find no fault with your math. Not that I could. I’m terrible with math. My two plus two rarely equals four unless an adding machine with tape and a real account are involved.

    Your topic got us all thinking, and I’m thinking I’ll be thinking about it until Monday when I share those thoughts about your thoughts with the rest of the thinkers.

    Now I think I’ll mosey over to Mike Duran’s site and read a bit of those thoughts as I arrange my notes. Thanks for the link.

    Side note from the animal-loving turtle: folks, putting two fighting fish next to each other is just mean. Don’t do it, except for dramatic effect in your blog post images. Thank you. 😉

    • My Dearest Turtle.

      Ya think? LOL

    • Well, Turtle, I am anxiously awaiting your thoughts on my thoughts that followed Tymothy’s thoughts on my thoughts, and the related Mike’s thoughts.

      And I think the fish bowls are actually books ends, so in “real life” they wouldn’t be able to see each other :D.

  6. Thanks for some objective analysis to throw into the bubbling cauldron that is holy vs. gritty, Kat. It is true…the Christian market is a very small percentage of the world of publishing, which is why some gurus would advise even Christian authors to think outside their typical circles when it comes to publishing. Why limit your sales by only selling in the arenas where CBA books appear? At first, when I started writing, I was afraid of the big, bad, messy world, but the more I look into crossing over with my work, the more I realize, there ARE places that will publish clean work. Sure, there’s a lot of irreverent, filthy trash out there. Nobody says you have to query the people who publish it.

    So anyway, this discussion is far from over, of course. It all comes down to your goals as a writer. We all would do well to at the very least, agree to disagree with those who stand on the opposite side of the fence as us.

    • Thanks, Becky. And very well said. I agree that it’s about audience. When I started writing I didn’t know that Christian fiction as a separate genre existed. I actually thought Christian bookstores and Christian sections of bookstores sold only nonfiction and Bibles. I had intention of publishing in the secular fiction market because I knew of no other thing! When I did discover the CBA including fiction, I thought, hm, maybe I should go there. It’s safer. I won’t be rejected for having Christian world-view ideas. But the farther I’ve gotten into it, the more I’ve realized how limiting that thought is. I like the safeness of not having to constantly justify being a Christian, sure, but I don’t want my books labelled. BUT, I think that those who DO should be allowed to.

      That said, the debate rages on because both camps feel judged by the other–and judged based on the other’s standards. The gritty writers don’t want their writing to be assumed “safe” because of a “Christian” label, and the conservative writers don’t want their safe little world tainted.

      Earlier today I responded to another comment on Mike’s blog with this, which I think sums up my feelings:

      I understand the frustration. I really do. I wish there could be a gradient. That fiction was fiction and you could have holiness camp Christian at one end and purely secular at the other end, and all shades of gray in between. But the publishing world has divided itself–and I think that division started with the holiness camp, and I don’t think it is going to just disappear. Maybe, though, eventually, all those “separate rooms” will at least give the appearance of a gradient.

  7. Your logic is perfect-I must say, I’ve never thought of it that way. Next time I enter a Christian bookstore (or the Christian fiction aisle), I won’t mutter so much about the endless lines of Amish Romance novels.

    • Well thanks, Mary :). It’s something that has always bugged me. I heard at a writers meeting once, where the guest speaker was a secular romance writer, the romance takes up something like 60 to 70% of the secular fiction market, so why would the Christian market be different?

  8. I work in an indy Christian Bookstore that has been owned by the same family for 30+ years and I have to say I’m shocked. Where in the world are you poor readers going to find all this sub-par fiction?

    Our romance fiction section is the smallest part of the fiction section and it is led by Rachel Hauck, Charles Martin, Camy Tang, and Jenny B. Jones are fantastic authors. There’s serious meat in their romances. Mystery far outpaces it with Steven James, James Scott Bell, Randy Alcorn, Mindy Starns Clark, and Terry Black stock marching right along.

    In fantasy we have Bryan Davis and Wayne Thomas Batson and Ted Dekker (I am not a fan but we carry him) and have had Alton Gansky, Donita Paul, George Bryan Polivka, Sharon Hinck, James Byron Higgins, Harold Myra and *groan* the Left Behind series (also not a fan)

    In Historical fiction we have Francine Rivers, Lynn Austin, Bodie and Brock Thoene, Davis Bunn as well as some new hard hitters that escape my memory at the moment.

    Everyone keeps griping about Amish fiction and I just don’t see why? I mean we have maybe three series and four writers that we carry in that genre. Some of which are yeah, romances and light fluffy stuff, but Beverly Lewis is NOT a safe read. I mean whoa, that woman will knock you sideways with what she writes, in an amazing way. She touches on witchcraft, immorality, corporate sins, religiousness, and the crushing oppression that artists and writers face in the Amish communities. She makes the skeletons dance.

    I wonder if the readers griping about the Amish fiction have ever read any?

    Definitely don’t judge a book of hers by its’ cover.

    Maybe I’m just spoiled because we cull and balance the fiction section on three month basis (and every other section too) but it sounds like in comparison we are the place to come and shop.

    I wonder if it is the CHAIN stores that are perpetuating the imbalance.

    In any case, I challenge you to not remain silent about this. To talk to your local Christian retailer. Tell them you want a broader selection of your favorites. Tell them you will spend money on books if they bring them in. And then make good on your promise when they do. If enough people ask, they’ll start carrying other titles. Really. They want your money. 😉

    Christ’s blessings from the other side of the counter!


  9. Michelle–thanks for chiming in!

    I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t read Beverly Lewis or any Christian romance. But then, I simply don’t like romance as a genre. At all. Based on your comments I believe I’ll go read a Beverly Lewis book and see what you’re talking about. We may still not see eye to eye–you say you don’t like Dekker and if it’s because he writes dark and scary, then we might be coming from different places. But still, I’m very glad to have that pointed out about Lewis. I knew nothing of her beyond the bonnet covers.

    And I think you may have something with the comment: “I wonder if it is the CHAIN stores that are perpetuating the imbalance.”

    That may be exactly it. A small, indy bookstore has more say about what is on its shelves. The chains don’t get to make those decisions. I know Lifeway stores do not. A friend of mine who is published through a small press is good friends with someone from a local Lifeway store, and they would not put her book on the shelf because the decision has to be made at corporate.

    Good thoughts, Michelle. Thank you very much for joining the discussion!

  10. […] the other hand, although I dove into this “fishbowl” as Kat called it, I have no intention of being confined to […]

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