The real reason that Christians don’t read fantasy

There’s been an ongoing discussion in the Christian speculative-fiction community about why nobody can sell books. This discussion has gone on for years. “Look at our awesome fantasy!” authors cry. “Look at our amazing science fiction! Why doesn’t anybody want to read it?”

The Christians don’t want to read it, and the non-Christians don’t want to read it. So a lot of head-scratching goes on in the community. “What are we doing wrong?”

Stephen Burnett over at SpeculativeFaith.com wrote an article about this. He postulated:
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Q. Why isn’t there more Christian fantasy?

Answer 1: There has been, but it failed.

I know many Christian editors and authors who did or do publish fantastical titles, e.g. supernatural/fantasy/sci-fi. And that effort went over like a dead drone. Not because the publishers were not willing. But because the readership did not respond.

Without exception, the Christian fantastical titles I enjoyed in the 90s and 2000s3 are now out of print at their original publishers. Some, such as Oxygen and the Firebird series, ended up being republished by Marcher Lord Press, now known as Enclave, which is now an imprint of Gilead Publishing.

Answer 2: There is, but you haven’t heard of it.

Some Christian authors who tried fantasy/sci-fi at larger publishers ended up jumping genres. Or they moved into indie or self-publishing. In some Christian circles, this means even less opportunity for the Ministry platforms a traditional publisher might afford.

Even apart from that, you likely haven’t heard of an author’s self- or indie-published works.

From here it appears that a new author must be able to  be a full-time author/marketer to work at making a living from being a full-time author/marketer. Catch-22?

3. There is, but readers aren’t there.

This question is not about the writers/publishers not giving the supply.

It’s about readers and what they demand.

That’s why I overtly push against the “why don’t Christian publishers and writers do X” line. Fact is: Christian publishers and writers have done X, and readers did not respond.

I’ve begun to wonder, among some of the “Christian fantasy” circles I know, whether some writers simply do not know of the many, many writers and publishers who have tried this, and are therefore led to conclude “Well, someone should try it,” e.g. reinventing the wheel.

After I wrote this material, an editor with a Christian publishing house commented:

It’s not that publishers haven’t tried to publish speculative fiction before, but the Christian readers didn’t respond to it. I actually have on my desk a fantasy trilogy that [my publisher] did in 2007; no one bought it and it’s out of print now.

And while Christian publishers definitely should be more willing to take risks, Christian readers (and Christian stores, even in the age of Amazon it’s actually amazing how much they influence what gets published) have often punished those who took risks. That’s why we’re stuck in a never-ending vortex of Amish Romance (and now coloring books).

So, Christians don’t want speculative fiction. I guess because speculation often looks a lot like heresy–and the church has dealt with that particular nastiness for centuries. But I noticed something different.

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Dusk by Sandara

While reading a homeschooling blog, I came across a blog for Christian homeschoolers who write books. These kids and young adults are voracious readers and writers. They consume Redwall, Narnia, the Warriors series, historical fiction (anything Little House on the Prairie), and fairytales. Lots of fairytales.

All these books have something in common: they are safe. Juvenile fiction has no sex, no swearing, and lots of adventure. Sound familiar? Why, yes–it’s all the same thing that adult Christian readers continue to read.

And thus it dawned on me: to successfully market to an audience, you have to know your audience. And the Christian readership wants children’s fiction. It’s why the church hasn’t moved past Narnia or Middle Earth (both written in the early part of the last century). Occasionally someone mentions Frank Peretti or Chuck Black. Very occasionally someone might bring up Andrew Peterson. But mostly kids are allowed to read mystery, talking animal adventure, and historical fiction. These kids then grow into adults who prefer to read the same things. They’re not interested in the darker, edgier fiction out there.

However, the Christian spec fic authors want to read and write adult books. They want sex, swearing and blood–all things that aren’t appropriate for kids books. Yet they also try to drag in the heavy-handed moralizing that is native to a lot of kids fiction. The result is a mishmash that doesn’t appeal to adult readers of speculative fiction (too heavy handed on the moralizing), and doesn’t appeal to the Christian camp (too dirty!). And let’s not even mention horror.

Mike Duran in this video blog suggests that we drop the Christian moniker and just write pure speculative fiction. That way we can hit the adult market that wants the adult content we so badly want to write. We do have to learn to convey complex ideas without moralizing, but isn’t that part of growing as a writer?

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22 thoughts on “The real reason that Christians don’t read fantasy

  1. Excellent thoughts Kessie. I can tell this is something you think about and I read this quote this morning.
    ““Regardless of the popular literary trend of the times, write the thing which lies close to your heart.”
    ― Bess Streeter Aldrich
    Think of when J.R.R. Tolkien was writing. Do you think he agonized about why his books were selling or not selling? Nope! He was writing for the love of the written word and for a good story. I know it is silly for me to try and give you writing advice, because you are far above and beyond anything I have ever done in my life, but I think right now, you are in the midst of seeing your characters being written around your feet, and they are whom will be the best books you have ever written. Just like I have, writing living books is the best. You still are the best writer I have ever known. Well except for God of course. 🙂

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  2. That’s why we’re stuck in a never-ending vortex of Amish Romance (and now coloring books)…heavens to Betsy, YES!!!! Also I’ve noticed a real snarkiness “Christian” reviewers seem to put on any “Christian” literature that doesn’t measure up to their exact moral/prudish/legalistic code. Ugh. Please, just stop. I’m writing a novel(s) and I will NOT be marketing it as Christian fiction for this exact reason. I LOVED what Mary Weber (of Storm Siren fame) said in an interview recently where she basically pointed out that teenagers (in this instance) want truth not religion. All I can say to that is amen and amen.

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  3. That’s a really interesting post. As a Christian fantasy writer with 2 novels, I chose not to publish as I know some readers just don’t take in THIS.IS.FICTION and let what they read influence their spirituality and I just did not want to in any way, be responsible for someone’s trip up in their Christian walk. I wrote sex-free, but on adult themes such as dealing with past relationship guilt. It was a heavy series.

    I know from the pulpit, our Pastors warned about series like Frank Peretti’s works (which were very much in vogue) for the same reason: Scriptural inaccuracy that can lead people from truth, even when it’s not intentional. I stopped reading Christian how-to books years ago, as the Holy Spirit nudged me and reminded me I read them (man’s interpretation of Scripture) more than the Word and that was a bad thing.

    I’d love some decent Christian fiction that isn’t romance. It’s just a really hard road.

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    1. You might be interested in speculativefaith.com. They have a huge library of Christian books (fantasy, sci fi, and everything in between). If you’re looking for that sort of thing, it’s a great place to start.

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      1. Thanks, I will stash that one for later. I am working on the life of King David, so I have a really busy headspace now… and a big reading list! 🙂 I shall enjoy having a treat stashed though. (Oh and thanks for making me feel very glad that I never published. I didn’t know this.)

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  4. Either write Christian Fiction that fits the market or be a Christian who writes. I don’t go to a Christian bookstore to buy fiction, I go for devotional material. If I want to read a good book I go to BN like everyone else.

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  5. I love finding books with Christian themes, but I do tend to avoid fiction billed as Christian. Mainly because in my experience there is a much higher rate of the story being sacrificed in favor of the reader being hit on the head with the authors worldview.

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    1. Yeah, sermons are annoying. Secular authors do it, too, though–I’ve encountered sermons on all kinds of topics du jour (the Artemis Fowl books wax eloquent on how mankind is destroying the environment). Give me an illustration (the story) instead of preaching. My motto has become, “Okay, sell me on it.” A persuasive enough illustration will get me thinking.

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  6. Great post, and I see the problems inherent in the Christian fantasy genre. I myself just finished two of Terry Pratchett’s Disc world novels, and they are amazing, but that is because they are purposefully set outside of a Christian context. Keep working at the fantasy, and keep reading. Above all-keep writing!

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    1. I’m a Christian, and I can’t read a couple of Terry Pratchett’s books again because I find them to be very bitter and hostile towards God/Gods in general (and just bitter/hostile in general in the first place), to a point that is off-putting.
      Personally, I find a LOT of fantasy works treat God with hostility, and disdain. I can name a few books where the heroes are open perverts, and one of their main allies for the story is the local equivalent of Satan.
      Soooo… there’s a reason why I don’t read SOME fantasy books.
      Others? Ones that are written well, without an anti religious undertone? I lose sleep when I get a good fantasy/sci fi novel.
      Literally.
      Also, no. Books like The Way of Kings are NOT safe kids books, so it’s a bit of a generalization that Christians want childish works of literature.
      We actually don’t want to be talked down to, or offended when another author makes God and doddering old man and has the heroes kill/reject/etc him, or makes God capricious, or whatever other dose of “Nope, not reading this book” is the issue.

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      1. that is true, been reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I feel the same impression there. A British coincidence? No, fantasy can lend one to go very far away. Still I am reading to learn, and new voices are ever interesting-especially at first! Oddly, I read the first two Harry Potter books and stopped for that reason, then read years later JK considers herself a Christian. Well, thanks for the comment!

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  7. I agree with dropping the “Christian” label. There’s nothing wrong with selling “Christian Fiction,” as long as there’s a market of readers to buy it. But clearly Christians who enjoy speculative fiction are reading secular speculative fiction (because either they don’t mind the “risks” of “heresy,” as you correctly put it, or because they have accepted that the good spec fic is being published by secular publishers).

    Bonus: if more Christian authors of speculative fiction published in the secular realms, they might be able to grow more of a Christian readership 🙂

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  8. Very useful post. I’m glad I came across it.

    I have to say for my part the thing that usually stops me on most Christian Literature is that it is unsuitably naive, or so undetectable under allegory, I got well, irritated by it. Don’t get me wrong, I love C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein as well as Frank Piretti is fairly entertaining too. But that’s all the Christian Fiction I enjoy that isn’t directly aimed at eschatology or theology like say “The Screwtape Letters”, “The Great Divorce” or “Hind’s Feet on High Places”. It’s also what drove me to take a shot at writing Epic Christian Fantasy Adventure myself to see if I could do it, and write a story that I would find interesting. What I came up with is more akin to Jack London, Mark Twain, and Robert B. Parker than Terry Pratchett or Larry Piven.

    I like imperfect, flawed, characters that are Christians like me wrestling with sin. I wanted to see the hero slip and be imperfect and show we are not perfectly in line with God and how he works with us. I want the villain to have good points that are overwhelmed with their sinful nature in the end. It is when things are too pat and neat that I close the book. Just avoid using a ham-fisted spotlight to point out “THIS IS RIGHT/THIS IS WRONG” storytelling. I like to wonder sometimes if God really did approve of something successful, and will the character be rewarded or suffer for it later, or will nothing happen. Just like in my own life experiences. As others have said, the story must not be sacrificed for the sermon. I read other many books if I want a sermon.

    Then again, I wasn’t always a Christian, and know what it is like for someone who’s had their faith broken or lost touch with God and left to flounder about till they realized how much He wants us and needs us. So that’s what I’m working with on my series at least. That is not saying that it must be loaded with cussing and sex and unnecessary violence, or other things objectionable to most parents trying to keep their children away from that stuff, but complex conflicts and personalities. One of the most powerful struggles in faith for me comes in the form of doubt versus faith.

    Well, here’s hoping my attempt turns out on the positive side of this equation and I deliver what I thought I could.

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    1. Good for you for trying! I don’t know why Christian writers mix up sermons and story. Mormon authors don’t seem to have that problem (Brandon Sanderson, for example). I hope your series turns out great!

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  9. The classics you mentioned (Narnia, LOTR, and so on) all went mainstream and are consumed by Christian and non-Christian readers a like. Also, they went mainstream before there was such an anti-Christian sentiment in our culture. Today, Non-Christians won’t touch Christian speculative fiction if it’s labeled such, and in fact will drop it like a hot rock. I agree that just removing “Christian” from the marketing and putting good writing out there is probably the better way to go if you’re trying to reach an adult audience.

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  10. Check out Cordwainer Smith and Zenna Henderson and City Beyond Time to see what brilliant, adult Christian spec fiction looks like.

    If you can find Kathy Tyer’s Firebird books both before and after she got picked up by a Christian publishing house it will also prove instructive. The book went from a great space opera to tiresome.

    And for Christian horror, check out Awake in the Night and Iron Chamber of Memory.

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