Monday Marketing: Religious vs Non

SIGH.

And then there was the day I ambled into our local bookstore and remembered that Jan Karon exists. This isn’t a snarky comment. Her books seem cosy and are undeniably popular and everything I’ve heard about her agrees that she’s basically a lovely person. But here’s the thing: she’s writing about a minister who quotes the Bible and prays a lot… and is published by folks like Penguin and Viking.

Wait.

How does THAT work?

I must know more about this.

When does a book move from “having some religious characters and/or themes” to “religious fiction”? Barbara Kingsolver wrote about missionaries in Africa, and that didn’t end up as Christian fiction. Granted, she was a bit negative to the whole endeavor. But not entirely.

Graham Green wrote about being Catholic.

So did Evelyn Waugh for that matter.

This would be a good thing to figure out, because although I am a Christian who writes fiction, I have deeply ambivalent feelings about the Christian fiction market as a whole. Also the more historically accurate my Lilies novel becomes the less it fits into a traditionally Christian market.

Here’s how that works: in order to appeal to unity and a larger audience, most Christian publishers want their writers to ignore issues of denomination, theology, and doubt. This might work just fine for books set in the present day USA.

But Lilies is set in rural 1850s England. Although Darwin was a rising figure among the smart set, to be a “Christian” person was still very much synonymous with being civilized, decent, good. All of my characters would consider themselves Christians, and those we are devout would understand devotion through the lens of the C of E.

No one would talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus.

That’s an American, post-Moody thing.

To some extent, of course, all historical fiction has anachronistic attitudes. We can’t help betraying our own ideas about regular bathing or the meaning of life or what true faith entails. But we can try to respect our characters point of view… and that’s really the best I think I can do on this issue.

Is that the difference? Does that mean my books should be marketable to a general audience rather than a specifically Christian one?

How exactly did Jan Karon get her gig?

Does it come down to some sort of basic formula like the old “you can put the religion into the fiction as long as you don’t try to take the fiction out of the religion”? That if the story has religious elements it needs to be because the characters are religious or struggling with religious issues and NOT because you want to write a moralistic book?

Or, taking a cue from Waugh and Green, is it more that your latitude for discussing faith is only as great as the quality of your writing?

I don’t know.

But these are my current insecurities.

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4 thoughts on “Monday Marketing: Religious vs Non

  1. Interesting stuff. I sort of think you’re on to something with your last statement “that your latitude for discussing faith is only as great as the quality of your writing.” As far as the Christian category goes, I haven’t read much Christian fiction, and what I have read was mostly back in middle school/high school, so it’s been awhile. But it seems like “Christian Fiction” means “fiction that Christians are likely to like, ” whether because it’s dealing with specifically Christian spiritual themes like stuff by C.S. Lewis or Frank Peretti, because it interprets the difficulties of the world through a Christian lens like stuff by Bodie Thoene, or because it’s squeaky clean and simply unlikely to offend Christian sensibilities while still telling an “interesting” story like the scores of Christian romance novels (ick, ew). It seems like Lillies could fit into the last category. I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind’s not realizing that in the setting you chose, everyone was in the C of E, and I didn’t feel like anyone was being too shocking in their doubts. But of course I am not in the publishing business, and perhaps their rules are set in stone enough to defy logic.

    • Absolutely. I didn’t mean to imply that Lilies was particularly doubt-ridden or shocking in any sense as it now stands—but I think if I was going to work on it again, it might definitely veer that direction.

      Just trying to count the cost before I put in another 2 months of work.

  2. It is very hard to get good Christian fiction. Usually I find it so awful, that I don’t read much of it. The fiction of the Scottish AJ Cronin (long dead) was about Catholic faith and doubts etc and I used to be very annoyed that there wasn’t something so honest like this on the protestant side. I think being authentic is the secret of this and of course finding a publisher who doesn’t think in cliche´s.

  3. Sorry, here I am again.
    I think a book about American born again Christians would be interesting to a wider public if it was honestly written, “warts and all”, as they say. It’s just all this “Come to Jesus and He will solve all your problems” stuff, that would put non Christians off. Wrestling with faith, dealing with human weakness and coming through in the end is interesting stuff. (Of course I believe, that a life without Jesus is not worth living, but cliches get on my nerves. Being a Christian can be very difficult.)

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