19 Comments

Safe or Interesting?

boring bookI recently read a story by a well-known author who is highly acclaimed in the Christian market. And, unfortunately, I was underwhelmed. The writing was clean, some (not all) of the characters were well-rounded and interesting, and there were some moments of good tension, but I felt like it had a lot of unmet potential. Some of the characters could’ve used a much deeper arc, and there was a lot of setup that didn’t really go anywhere.

The plot was decent, but it felt more like the characters traipsing from here to there and having obstacles fizzle out before they really got going, rather than a struggle to complete the objective.

In thinking about it and discussing it, I came to the conclusion that the reason this author is (and other authors are) acclaimed in the CBA is because they’re safe. On my personal blog a couple weeks ago, I talked about magic systems in Christian fiction and how a lot of Christians have a hard time with that.

This author and most in the Christian market are very uncontroversial. The higher power is an overt reference to God. The magic is a gift from that entity. The ultimate goal is sharing knowledge of that entity with the land. It’s very safe and very predictable and very straightforward.

But does that mean it has to be boring?

I think a lot of times, Christian fiction misses the mark because it’s so concerned with being uncontroversial that it doesn’t explore deeper themes. Characters are flat because they’re flawless and can’t struggle with ungodly issues. Storylines are bland because they’re so concerned with putting God in control that nothing truly bad can ever happen. Conflicts are resolved because in the family of God, everyone just gets along.

Everything works out beautifully, but it’s not a very satisfying reader experience. But the CBA has made it clear by continuing to publish these bland stories that this is what they want. And CBA readers want to feel safe, too, so they rave about how good these books are, even when they’re not.

And sometimes, there’s a layer of hypocrisy, because the Christians who jump on board with the critical acclaim of a boring book because it’s “Christian” are secretly preferring Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, but they can’t admit that and be a respectable Christian reader.

So is it even possible to be both safe and interesting? Can you write a good story without crossing any ambiguous lines?

Absolutely.

But I think the bigger issue is the notion that it has to be safe. And this is probably why I haven’t had much luck in the CBA market. I think safety is boring. I want to read about real struggles. I want failure to be an option. I want to relate to the dark emotions that real people, even people who are striving for godliness, struggle with.

No, you don’t have to step out of the realm of “safe” to achieve “interesting.” But I think the CBA is, in a way, lazy, and they’d rather have a clean, safe, reliable product, even if it’s boring, than risk being unsafe.

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About Avily Jerome

Avily Jerome is a writer and the editor of Havok Magazine. Her short stories have been published in various magazines, both print and digital. She has judged several writing contests and is a writing conference teacher and presenter. She writes speculative fiction, her ideas ranging from almost-real-world action/adventures to epic fantasies to supernatural thrillers.

19 comments on “Safe or Interesting?

  1. Reblogged this on Guts on the Page and commented:
    Wise and honest words from a friend of mine.
    Christianity isn’t all about the warm fuzzies. It involves real people in real situations with real problems. Everything isn’t cut and dry, and there’s not always a happy ending. Shouldn’t our fiction reflect that? What do you think?

  2. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  3. I just wrote a blog post about why I chose to self-publish rather than conform to the standards of a secular market that doesn’t like stories heavy on the Christianity or the CBA that shies away from serious matters (abuse, addiction and recovery, in my case) because they might be controversial.

    Sometimes you have to walk in darkness in order to see the light. How can readers see a serious character arc if they don’t get a glimpse of that darkness?

  4. Too right, Avily. The publishers will keep delivering what readers want, even if it’s pap.

  5. I tweeted this. The safety factor in Christian fiction is part of the genre. And I think it hits speculative fiction the worst.

  6. And all the plots are the same, have you ever noticed that? From Dekker to Stengl, it’s always about getting somebody saved. Discipleship? Nope, we just want that gloriously saved Edmund moment (or better yet, Eustace).

    I’ve pretty much given up on CBA fiction (except from people I know), because it’s so very predictable.

  7. As an author of a tale once labeled “not safe” in a review, I can relate to the frustration and your insights, which are all true. No, my story wasn’t “safe” because life isn’t “safe,” the Christian life in particular isn’t “safe” if you truly desire to live it in practice, because there is no “safe” Christian life — this isn’t true. Truth isn’t “safe.” Many CBA tales are precisely what you describe. And in being so, they do not ring true. And if what is crafted around the gospel we present doesn’t ring true, how much less the Truth we attempt to witness!

    I am much more interested in being true than “safe” in any way. This does not mean we have to write in a gutter or deliberately be offensive. But it does mean we must align our stories with the One Truth, the Word of God. To use but one example: if that means if it is true for a character to cuss, then that needs to happen. To be true. Such things can be handled in different ways. Saul cursed his son Jonathan for being loyal to David, for example, and that’s in the Word (I Sam. 20:30 — we all know the best way to convey that in modern English). I don’t understand how “having a character curse violates God’s standards” when God’s standard is the Word of God, period. And it’s right there. Reading that sure isn’t “safe.” On any level. But it is TRUE.

    Fantastic post. Keep reminding us!

  8. My time attempting to write Christian spec fiction only was relatively short, but I ran into the same kind of safety walls. There was no liberty to explore struggles or less than formulaic outcomes. One story’s character was a follower of the milieu’s version of God, yet he suffers a particular physical deterioration and delusion. In a Christianized version, he would’ve had to realize his error and sacrifice himself for the good of many others (bonus points if he sang hymns as he did).
    Yet, that wasn’t the true point of impact in his story, and it needed to play out to its ultimate, disastrous conclusion. The horror was not in what he did in his state; the horror was in everything that led to it.
    Neither clean nor safe, but true.

  9. Thanks for your comments, everyone!

    There is, of course, a place for the simpler stories, and clearly there’s a market, but I would love to see some more edgy stories that are acclaimed.

  10. I prefer interesting over safe. It makes for a better story. I don’t mind a conversion story, but it needs to be a minor plot point and not the main theme. Bonus points if it’s really subtle.

  11. I wonder what it would take to get the CBA to recognize there’s a market for Christian writers to write stuff that’s outside the walls of what Christendom has available now, but doesn’t yet exist?

    The reason the CBA, and in fact any publishing business, produces what they do is because it keeps selling. As you said, there’s a market for what exists or they’d be forced to move on. On the other hand, traditional publishing has dictated what readers could choose from for a long, long time. It’s only now, through the indie publishing industry, that readers have a choice.

    But I would think the CBA would be interested in knowing they could create a well-supported market for “unsafe” Christian books…which, technically, wouldn’t be Christian I guess. Maybe that’s the answer? to be Christian they have to be overtly so?

    Hm. An interesting post. This is something I still wrestle with when I think about writing Christian-themed stories. Not at all easy to do, at least for me.

    • Right, there’s not an easy answer or it would’ve been done already. 🙂 I think the industry is moving more in that direction, though.

  12. Although I agree with the overwhelming majority of this post (and the comments), I’m a little leary of the ulterior motive behind the push for “unsafe.” Sometimes (oftentimes?) it’s just a guise for authors to write smut or use profanity and then hide behind, “I’m just keeping it real.”

    For me, in a Christian market that is saturated with Amish romances and end time thrillers, I consider “unsafe” anything that goes outside those worn out tropes and challenges the reader to simply think.

    For some reason fiction that makes the reader think is hard to find nowadays in the Christian market. Instead, what is offered to the masses is vapid and shallow Hallmark stories where someone always gets saved and everybody ends up happy in the end.

    The Christian fiction market is the equivalent to Huxley’s Soma, but it accurately reflects the feel-good, self-help messages being passed off as the “gospel” in most churches in America today. So the publishers are simply giving the people what they want. Too bad the publishers aren’t willing to challenge their readers.

    I want to be challenged when I read. I want to be a different person when I close the book. But I don’t need to have obscenity and vulgarity paraded before me for the sake of being edgy and unsafe.

    Thanks for the article!

    Sincerely,
    J.L. Pattison

    • People have a certain expectation when they pick up Christian fiction. I recently read a review of a book that was published by a Christian reviewer and the book was criticized highly because it wasn’t spiritual enough and there was some language. I haven’t read the book, but I understand why the reviewer was upset. There’s definitely an element of expectation in Christian fiction, and someone getting saved and no one cussing is within those expectations.
      Certainly, there are those who will push the boundaries because their personal tastes and aesthetics are more liberal than that standard Christian readers’.
      However, I think you can be interesting and color outside the lines without being boring.
      For me personally, I don’t write for the Christian market. My books don’t fit in the Christian book expectation. And those are fine to have. There is a place for Christian books and what they contain. And I certainly don’t want a reader or reviewer to hate my stories because their expectations weren’t met.
      But even if you do write for the Christian market, you should be able to write something that isn’t formulaic and predictable and therefore boring.

  13. I agree with you on not writing for the Christian market, as my stories don’t fit within the confines those expectations either.

    My debut story, The Visitor, has been well received by both believers and non believers, but I recall two particular people who were upset, or at least mildly disappointed, that I did not include a salvation message in the story.

    I explained to them that “forcing” that into a 7,000 word short story would have damaged the flow and continuity of the tale. It would not have fit within the context of the story and it would have been quite a distraction for the reader. Unfortunately they still didn’t seem to understand; they were still disappointed because the lack of a gospel proclamation wasn’t what they “expected.”

    For some people I can do no more than to point them to the following quote attributed to Martin Luther:

    “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes.”

    • Exactly.
      I think it’s those expectations that drag us down, in many cases. People expect a certain thing from Christian fiction, and if it’s not there, even if it would’ve ruined the story, they’re upset about it.

  14. […] written on several of these, from the inclusion of bad language to the use of magic systems to the struggles that our characters face. One of the beautiful things about speculative fiction is that you get to […]

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