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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Why Christians shouldn’t write speculative fiction

I’ve come to the conclusion that Christians shouldn’t write speculative fiction at all. Especially not fantasy.

Pitchforks rattle in the distance, so let me explain.

I’ve been circulating around the Christian spec fic community for a couple of years now. Like any community, it has its sticking points that the community bickers over.

Magic or no magic?

If C. S. Lewis used Aslan to represent Jesus, I can use The Generic Christ Figure in MY book!

Angels? Nephilim? Demons? Aliens?

Wizards are BAD and EVIL

The Occult!!!!!!!!!111one

Bedscenes?

Swearing?

DRAGONS REPRESENT SATAN

If you have a pantheon in your books UR GOIN 2 HELL

Christians should only read things that edify our souls in Christ! Pagan authors are doubtful at best and dangerous at worst! TRUTH!

Now, go into a bookstore/library. Pick up a random fantasy novel and read the back cover. It will involve:

Dragons
Magic
Wizards/witches
Angels/demons
Other mythical creatures/monsters
All of the above

These things are standard genre tropes. It’s the same as walking into the mystery section. There you will find:

Murder
Crime
A sleuth
Guns
Violence
Interesting ways of hiding the body

Now, imagine if Christians were whining, “Reading books where people die is against my principles! I want to write murder mysteries with no murder, no weapons, and no sleuth!”

It begs the question, “Then why are you trying to write this genre at all?”

That is the question that continually mystifies me.