Thursday, November 13, 2008

Who Are You? (pt. 2)

So what were the editors' answers to the question "What makes a Christian book Christian"? Some answered as follows:

  • Written from a Christian world view
  • Story offers hope
  • Core of the story shows importance of faith in Christ

Similar to the things you all wrote in your comments (thought I think your responses went far deeper.) But I was also peppered with the following:

  • It's safe
  • It doesn't challenge the status quo
  • It doesn't leave anything unsettled, everything's resolved
  • Quality doesn't match that of ABA fiction
  • Easy answers
  • Doesn't make readers think
  • Affirms readers beliefs and perspective

Notice a trend here? Now, before you get upset or think these folks are totally out of touch, let me point out that this view of the reader comes most often from what we hear from retailers rather than from the readers themselves. And, be honest now, there are some readers who fit those descriptions. But even more don't.

So listening to what was said, writing down their definitions on the white board, I came to a conclusion. I turned to those gathered and offered the following: "You really don't like this consumer much, do you?"

No response. But I could tell that, indeed, they weren't crazy about this person. This simplistic non-thinker who only wants books that offer a kind of pablum to the masses determined to hide in their safe churches and faith, never questioning, never facing real life.

Can't say I blame them, can you? I wouldn't care much for that kind of person, either. But here's the thing: I don't know many Christians like that. And I sure haven't met many readers like that. From the reader letters I get, it's clear those who read Christian fiction are looking for books that not only make them think, but that challenge them--even PUSH them--to go beyond themselves and what they think they know. In the letters and emails I receive from my readers, I've found people who are facing life's ambiguities and inequities full-force. Yes, they long for something to give them answers. But even more than that, they long for something to tell them, quite simply and honestly, they're not alone. They're not the only Christian out there who:

Wrestles with God and living a life of faith in an insane and hostile world
Doesn't appreciate easy or pat answers
Wants to KNOW God. Intimately. Even when it's scary or uncomfortable or painful. Which, as anyone who's walked a hard path knows, it is. Often.

Cool thing, though, about that workshop discussion is that it didn't end there. In fact, it led us all deeper. And I'll tell you how and where.

In a minute.

First, I want to know who you think today's Christian fiction reader is? Why do you think s/he reads fiction? What are you hearing from the readers around you about the books they're reading? And, if you care to share, what novel have you read lately that lived up to your expectations?

So share your thoughts...and stay tuned for Part 3.



Deena said...

I can honestly tell you that the Christian reader you described above is the kind I don't like to talk books with or hang out with. They make me uncomfortable in my messy Christian life!

I like the second type of Christian fiction you described, although like is a strange word. It's more REAL to me, though I would LIKE life to tie up in nice neat bows...I know that isn't realistic nor healthy.

So keep publishing the latter, and tell the former reader that some secular imprints are sticking their toes in the deeper waters of struggle and doubt and God...though they shall remain nameless lest you ask me:-)

Linda Kozar said...

Karen, I agree wholeheartedly. I think part of the problem is writing a formula and something that writers in any genre fall prey to. Christian fiction--especially love stories, are so predictable. Girl meets boy but doesn't like him at first. He comes to her rescue in a crisis. They kiss (in a very wholesome way of course!) She changes her mind--falls in love and wedding bells ring out!

Movies books--same thing. Yet movies make money on the same tired old themes and I'm assuming the same for pub houses. So do people like these formulas? Or are they just used to them--complacent? Movies and books without a happy or satisfying ending are not popular. Maybe the answer is writing the formula, but adding some extra ingredients to make it taste better. Kind of like buying a jar of spaghetti sauce and doctoring it up with our favorite spices so it tastes just the way we like.

Thanks for letting me air my thoughts.

Cara Putman said...

personally as a reader, I want a book that helps me escape. It may be to a scary place -- cause I love suspense, or it may be to a historical setting, but then the history better be accurate. I want to be challanged by how relatable characters handle issues and faith.

Readers I here from like the integration of faith that is a seemless part of how the characters live. They like honesty -- my characters deal with real life: unwed pregnancy and its fall out, dreams that turn to dust, finding God when life doesn't go according to plan, miscarriage, etc. It's real life, but it's still laced with hope. There aren't easy answers, but life is lived.

And readers seem to respond to that.

photoqueen said...

I recently read "Suspicious Minds" by Christy Barritt, and I was pleasantly surprised to realize her main character is not a believer yet. And this was the second book of the series! That's unusual, but I liked it.


ForstRose said...

What are you hearing from the readers around you about the books they're reading? And, if you care to share, what novel have you read lately that lived up to your expectations?

A reader is anyone who picks up the book and if authors, publishers, other readers and bookstores can encourage people who are not "christian" to pick up these books and really read them then we are not only seeing God glorified through the author's gift of words we are seeing that gift being used to carry out Jesus' great commission.

I can't speak for others who choose to read fiction but for me books have always been a combination of entertainment and escape. I want and need to spend time separated from the realities of life when it overwhelms me and reading allows me to do that. A good book is like a mini-vacation without leaving home and spending money I don't have to get there.

Again can't really speak for other readers but I want to be able to experience things through the characters in a book. Not just a statement of feelings, setting, surroundings and such but truly experience it as if I were there myself. Good authors can and have done this for me and continue to do so in the books I have come to love. If I can't identify with a major character the book gets buried in the half read pile and may or may not ever be picked back up. A good book where I can really identify with someone (or more than one) often not only makes my favorites list but I want to reread it. These are also the books that take my emotions on a ride more often that not a rollercoaster and I'm rather exhausted by the end but they are worth the fatigue because I know I've found a gem and hopefully will have more to look forward to from that author.

In the last year my faves include:
Time Masters Book One: The Call by Geralyn Beauchamp
A Passion Most Pure by Julie Lessman
It's Not About Me by Michelle Sutton
Auralia's Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet
Beyond the Reflection's Edge by Bryan Davis
The Falcon and the Sparrow by ML Tyndall

I'm sure there's others I've read that would also fall into the books I love category but then the list might not ever end either LOL.


jamie carie said...

Boy, some tough questions. To be honest, I don't know very many "readers." A lot of my friends are too busy and tired at the end of the day and would rather be entertained by the TV for an hour than pick up a book. Sadly, the true book lovers have shrunk in the middle and younger generations, I think, giving way to other types of media. But there are still a lot of books being sold every year, so readers must be out there. As to what they want? I guess we could look at bestseller lists? I don't really have a clue.

My favorite fiction in this last year was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It's written in a free form prose that reminds me more of a very long poem. He breaks the rules but the result is so compelling, gripping, hauntingly beautiful that I had to put it down at times to emotionally recoup so that I wasn't walking around the house like a shell-shocked zombie. It truly plunged me into another world.

Whether light and funny or dark and dangerous, I want to get lost in the story and fall in love with the characters. That's what I look for in fiction.

Nicole said...

Karen, I know you like gut-level, so here are my thoughts in response to your questions.
Today's Christian fiction reader comes in all shapes, sizes, and desires. They're the readers of short fiction, sagas/epics, clean/safe romance, prairie romance, fantasy, spec faith, sci-fi, literary, mystery, suspense, thrillers, horror, lits, etc. All of them are out there. Not all of them are being "fed".
I concluded after reading a few novels recently that there is a portion of CBA who views their readers as unintelligent, possibly even dumb and un or under-educated, easy to please with--forgive me--slop and predictable stories with amateur (and this has nothing to do with platform) writers.
However, on the other hand, there are some brilliant novels coming from CBA by talented, exquisite writers. Every audience should have books to read, so it's a publishing quandary.
One thing I think is way over-the-top unimportant for fiction is "platform". The "average" reader doesn't even remember an author's name: they remember the story. They could care less if the guy/gal has an MFA or was the first to sky dive from the space capsule. I recently read two CBA novels from different houses whose authors boasted fairly impressive pedigrees as far as their professional accomplishments. The writing was atrocious, one plot unbelievable, the other grade C romantic flick content. To be fair: there were some who loved both novels. And that is precisely the conundrum: some hate them, some love them.
The "better ABA/inferior CBA" conflict nauseates me. In proportion the ABA produces far more inferior writing than CBA, equally commercially driven. You might have to search beyond the hype of writers in CBA to find those exceptional writers, but they are so there.
Recently, Tim Downs' latest less than DEad was tremendous and included more "Christian" content than all of his other Bug Man novels combined. To see a list of the novels I think were exceptional, you can read my post "Reasons . . ." (one of yours is there, Karen) here:
People I know wish novels were longer as do I. These short pieces often showcase the lack of depth in some stories and their characters, not the opposite. As usual, JMO.

Rel said...

Making me think at this hour of the morning, Karen - LOL!!

I love a book that challenges me either spiritually, intellectually or entertains me with a laugh, amazing characterisation or terrific plot.

Here's a few:~

Field of Blood by Eric Wilson
Splitting Harriet by Tamara Leigh
What Lies Within by You Know Who!
Wind Dancer by Jamie Carie
Havah by Tosca Lee
The Restorer's Journey by Sharon Hinck
Forsaken by James David Jordan
Embrace Me by Lisa Samson
Healing Promises by Amy Wallace

They are not the same genres but provided me with escape, encouragement, a giggle or a kick up the pants!

Running a book club I am always on the lookout for a book that has meat on it, some issue we can grapple with. Some of this year's selections have been:~

The Restorer By Sharon Hinck
My Hands Came Away Red by Lisa McKay (amazing book!)
Surrender Bay by Denise Hunter

and some from my list above.

Listening to my book club members most want a book to challenge and engage them, something out of the box. BUT there are one or two who simply want a nice story that they read purely for an idyllic escape - who am I to criticise their choice of reading pleasure.

On another note, my Grandma is 92 and has dementia. One of the few pleasures left to her is reading. It gives me joy to be able to give her a more simple, neat romance or "light" story that is not my preference and may be totally predictable. She loves it and to see her smile and talk about such a book is something I treasure!

Lalycairn said...

Ugh. Is that REALLY what they came up with for the readers of Christian fiction? Those are the kinds of books I HATE - because life never gets tied up in neat little packages, its not neat and tidy, and I personally don't read for that type of escape.

I WANT my preconceived notions challenged! I love books that make me think, stretch my mind and take me in directions I haven't gone before.

The book that blew my mind recently was Tosca Lee's "Demon". I found it thought provoking, it made me go down roads I hadn't gone down before, things weren't tied up in neat little packages and yet there was a sense of hope, even in the most hopeless situations in the book.

marci seither said...

People (readers) in and out of the church have become accustomed to being told what to think. Anything , fiction or non-fiction that gived readers the opportunity to think for themselves is a breath of freash air. Any book where the reader has an "Aah haa moment" that brings them into a deeper relationship with the Lord or a better glimpse of who they are in Christ is considered Christian and fit for CBA. As writers it is our calling to creativly set the dots on the page for the reader to connect for themselves.
Marci Seither

Lynn Squire said...

Unfortunately I think many of today's readers are those who want to escape to a safe world and not deal with real issues.

However, I'm not one of them, and I've met a few other readers along the way that feel the same. I thirst for books that will drive me into a deeper relationship with my Lord Jesus Christ. I want to come away from a book moved to a higher plane - a better person for having read it. It's been a long time since I've read a book that has met my expectations - I guess the last one would be Fair is the Rose, by Liz Curtis Higgs. Most novels I've read lately have greatly disappointed me - but then my standards are pretty high.

Cara Putman said...

Books I loved lately?

Tamara Leigh's book about the PK -- can't think of the title right now, but it was pointed and funny at the same time.

Have to agree that Less than Dead was AWESOME. Tim's a great writer.

Randy Singer's By Reason of Insanity was AMAZING - twists and turns from the first chapter to the end.

The Measure of a Lady by DeeAnne Gist. Just got around to reading it and loved it while being challenged.

Martha A. said...

Today's Christian fiction reader tends to really vary. I know I read Christian fiction because i want to be challenged in my walk with God and i find reading a fictional story helps because the author can get a point across without having to stick to facts of one person's life. My aunt reads christian fiction, but she likes happy stories, not true to life, historical only and refuses to read contemporary stories. My mom reads them, but she wants them to be like they could be true, most of them she says they are too fake, my sister wants them to have a happy ending. they can struggle, but have a happy ending.
I enjoy Karen Kingsbury's books as they usually have a point to the book and make you cry as they draw you into the character's life. Francine Rivers books all have a point that you can read the book and at the end there is no question in your mind what it was. I tend to sometimes get tired of newer fiction and turn to old books as they were more real to life, but i like a variety!

Stepping into Sunlight was a book I read recently that really stuck with me. It was such a great book of a struggle a woman faced, admitted and conquered and so many of us have those we don't even want to admit we have.

Lady of Milkweed manor was really good, sad, but good as it was historically factual.

Sisterchicks go Brit was great because it dealt with some issues women face in a lighthearted manner that was not preaching, yet you could sit and deal with them in your own heart

Yada Yada prayer group books were another series I enjoyed as they were lighthearted, yet dealt with tough issues.

Anonymous said...

I want to be challenged when I read a book written by a Christian. I want to go away from it inspired to live better, but not because I've been preached at.

When I hear from my readers, it's not because they found it easy to struggle with the characters. They write to me because they have identified with those struggles and the book reminded them they don't have to go through things alone.

In the past year I have read many good books, but I haven't often been deeply challenged. Apparently I need to read Gist! I think that The Shack and Auralia's Colors challenged my thoughts as a believer more than any books I've read.

Michelle Sutton said...

I think I found the post you twittered about. I read about 8-10 books a month and I talk to people who love to read a lot, too. They want a story that will sweep them away. So do I. They want a story that will make them think. So do I. I finished Havah by Tosca Lee yesterday and it was so amazing I'm telling everyone I know about it. I feel sorry for the other author I'm reading right now because it comparison her book is so stereotypical of what people think Christian fiction is. The story is simple, the plot predictable, the romance safe, and even though I have read it almost straight through it's not "deep" in my opinion and the character development is poor but this author has best-sellers. Probably because she wrote what the alleged target market reads. I want something that will drag my heart in different places. I want a book full of passion that isn't safe. I love those authors who push the limits because it's expanding the borders for Christian fiction. Plus, it seems more non-Christians are discovering great Christian fiction lately. So if the goal is to minister to the existing market the status quo books may work. But for the younger crowd 18-34, they want something that is real, genuine, not fluff, and that will minister to them. They don't like fake Christianity. Neither do I. That was my long answer, and thanks for the mention Melissa. :)