There has been a lot of debate lately among Christian Spec-Fic authors about the Christian Spec-Fic market, how it relates to the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers), the secular market, and the market in general, and how the genre as a whole is failing. There are those who, as Ben Wolf detailed in this post, and Mike Duran discusses here, feel as though the Spec-Fic genre is badly under-represented at the ACFW conference and other similar conferences. The discussions on Facebook that led to these posts, and the following discussions in the comments cover virtually every opinion on the matter. There are those who are all for conferences like Realm Makers and the opportunity it provides for like-minded writers to converge and learn. There are those who go into how much benefit the ACFW provides for writers of all kinds, and those who point out that it’s a business, and businesses go where the money is, and the money isn’t in Christian Spec-Fic. That is one point on which all agree. The market for Christian Spec-Fic is exceedingly small. There are many opinions on why this is, ranging from lack of quality books produced, to lack of interest in Christian Spec-Fic, to people who might be Spec-Fic fans not realizing that they are, to any number of other things. In some ways it’s a chicken/egg sceario: if larger conferences promoted more Spec-Fic, the quality of submissions would get better, but until the quality of submissions gets better and people are looking for more of the same, there’s no market for it. Realm Makers, I think, is a great way to bridge the gap and help Christian Spec-Fic authors find a voice and improve their craft, but I can’t help but wonder if part of the lack of a market for Christian Spec-Fic is because we’re looking in the wrong places. We’re wanting ACFW to open up and embrace us. We’re wanting Realm Makers to swing wide the doors for a new wave of Christian Speculative Fiction. And while I don’t think those goals are bad, I wonder if that’s the wrong thrust for us. I decided long ago that ACFW was not the place for me. I went to one conference, at which I learned a lot and made a number of really great connections, not the least of which was meeting Ben Wolf, a happenstance that has literally changed my writing career. But I quickly realized that I was on the outskirts of that crowd. The books I write are not “Christian” enough for the Christian market, and yet not smutty enough for the secular market. I’m right smack in the middle of this fringe group of Christian Spec-Fic authors looking for a voice, but the conclusion I have recently begun forming is that there needs to be a third category. Let me explain. Christian Spec-Fic authors love to talk about C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien in Christian Spec-Fic debates. There’s the one side who says, “See! Those books are classics! There IS a market for it!” And then there’s the other side that says, “Those guys wrote for the mainstream market and didn’t even believe in a Christian market!” I was in a Facebook discussion where someone brought up that point, while they were talking about how Christian Spec-Fic is full of bad theology, and this was my response:
Lewis and Tolkein didn’t write for the “Christian” market because there was no such thing in their day. They were Christians who wrote, and of course their faith influenced their writing, just as Hitler’s beliefs influenced his writing, as did Nietzsche’s did his, as Marx’ did his, etc. There was no “Christian market” vs. “secular/mainstream market.” Lewis wrote Christian fiction because he was a Christian who wrote fiction.
That is not the case anymore. Christian fiction has specific parameters, and much of the speculative fiction by Christian authors does not fit into those parameters, so I agree that those authors (myself included) probably should not try to market their work as “Christian fiction.” They are trying to accomplish a different goal than what “Christian fiction” is trying to accomplish.
I’d like to emphasize that last point. We’re trying to accomplish a different goal. Over the last fifty years or so, Christian fiction has become a “thing.” There are certain parameters you have to meet in order to be labeled a “Christian” writer. There are certain story elements that must be included or shunned. There is a very specific set of expectations that a reader has when they pick up a “Christian” novel. And, for the most part, Spec-Fic does not fit into that box. Nor should it. We’re spending so much time debating the confines of ACFW and the Christian market, lamenting the fact that we can’t get our books into Christian bookstores and Christians aren’t reading our stuff, and we want the Christian market to expand. But, as I’m starting to think, what if that’s the wrong approach? Mike Duran quoted an agent who said we’re expecting the ACFW to be something it just isn’t, and I have to say, I completely agree. I think she’s right, and I think we should stop trying to convince them to be something they’re not. See, the thing about Christian Spec-Fic is that it pushes boundaries. It explores the unknown. It asks the hard questions. Many times, the themes of the story are totally contrary to what is expected in the “Christian” market. As it should. But it shouldn’t, then, expect to be accepted by the “Christian” market. The “Christian” market is there for a reason. It meets a specific need, and it does so very well. It has specific guidelines and expectations, and when you walk into a Christian bookstore and pull a book off the shelf, you have a reasonable expectation of the content. And I think that’s exactly the way it should be. I don’t think we, the Christian Spec-Fic crowd, should try to worm our way into that niche. It’s their niche, and they’re doing a great job filling it. We’re a different niche. We’re filling a different need. We’re doing a different thing. We’re writing allegories that are more obscure. We’re looking into the darkness to see what’s there. We’re challenging our theology with unorthodox ideas. We’re writing things purely for the value of having clean entertainment and not always for the spiritual implications. We include things like magic and wormholes and spaceships and monsters, not because we’re heretics, but because they’re fun and they help us explore new worlds. My personal belief is that the reason we can do this is because the Word of God is True, no matter what. It’s strong enough to take on the challenge of unorthodox questions. It’s not going to bend or break under scrutiny. It’s not going to be disproved if we include science, because God created science. Ultimately, it all points back to Him, and exploring science will, ultimately, prove Him, not the other way around. It won’t lead people astray when we include magic, because God created creativity and wonder and miracles and other things we can’t understand. (Assuming, of course, that as we’re writing we’re allowing God’s Truth to shine through us and we’re not intentionally trying to subvert the Gospel.) We don’t always have an overt message. We don’t always have a squeaky-clean story. And we shouldn’t. I think that is why conferences like Realm Makers and publishers like Enclave are so important. Not because ACFW is bad or non-inclusive, but because the doors are opening to a new way of thinking about Christian Spec-Fic. My comment on the above thread helped me to think through what I have been feeling and trying to articulate for a long time. We are Christians. We write fiction. Like Lewis and Tolkien, our faith influences our writing. But we don’t write “Christian fiction”. “Christian fiction” has it’s place, and we have a different place. And that’s okay. Part of the beauty of breaking out of the mold is that we get to decide what our mold looks like and where it’s headed. As plenty of people wiser than I am have continually noted, it’s not an easy path. Finding–or creating–that market is going to require a lot of effort. But once we figure out that our path isn’t the same path as ACFW, I think we’ll have an easier time carving it out of the rocks.