Thursday, May 18, 2006

What the Fans Want, Part 1

I'm lifting this almost straight from my post by the same name on the ACFW forum, so those of you who've read that can skip this--or skim, if you like.


A few weeks ago I posted on the two Christian SF/F fanlists I belong to:

There's a discussion taking place in one of my writer's groups online about the current market for Christian SF/F within the CBA. Some feel we're on the downswing of what seems to be the second wave in about 20 years (the first wave cresting with Stephen Lawhead and perhaps Peretti). Would you all mind sharing first of all, if you follow/read CBA-published SF/F, and if so, which authors you've liked? And if not, why? (Lack of knowledge about what's there, past bad experience with sappy plots and mediocre writing, or CBA SF/F is too evangelical/preachy/not s-f enough/etc.) Whatever your reasons, what do you feel makes a good--or great--story? What "works" for you as a reader?

Many of us feel there's a solid market for quality SF/F stories with an openly Christian message, despite what we're being told, so I'm trying to get a feel for where Christians who are long-time fans of the genre stand.



I got some great responses. For some, it was lack of knowledge or interest--for many of these, certain early CBA sf/f offerings were sappy or not very well written. For others, it was the element of "too preachy" or the famed CBA requirement of "a conversion every book." (One reader even felt that Kathy Tyers's Firebird series suffered from being too evangelical, especially the third book.) What resounded overwhelmingly through them all is that the message should not overshadow the story-crafting--deal with Christian themes in an interesting way, but don't beat readers over the head with truth. Don't be afraid to show that "good" characters sometimes do "bad" things. (I didn't say "Christian" characters because I know some have different theological beliefs about that ... and I'm sure we'd all have varying opinions on what this would actually mean. ) It was pointed out (at last!) that non-Christians can be as guilty as "preachy" as Christians, and Orson Scott Card's later works (more overt Mormonism) and Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara (anti-nuclear sentiment) were pointed to as examples. (I could have thought of more, but, I was strictly there for observation. )

Others complained about lack of research, characters acting out of character, ethnocentricism, romance masquerading as action/adventure (a whole thread grew out of the discussion of romance in SF/F), editors who are willing to "try" the genre but don't seem to really understand it (which leads to books being accepted that are thinly-veiled sermons rather than "real" sf/f), and a lingering section of believers who tend to think that SF = atheism and fantasy = magic, and thus shy away from it, just as many shy away from "Christian rock" because much secular rock = sex, drugs, the occult.

One thing I observed: most longtime fans of the genre also seem to be stronger-stomached when it comes to offensive elements ... they seem to be able to see past all the junk to the redeeming elements of a story. Obviously, or there wouldn't BE such huge fans of authors like Lois McMaster Bujold, George R. R. Martin, or Anne McCaffrey, to name a very few. But, as I've mentioned elsewhere, not all Christian "fen" (the self-styled term for collective sf/f fandom) come from strictly evangelical backgrounds, either. And not all believers have a calling to walk in the same sort of ministry ... some people are led to be a light in places where I feel I'd be too sensitive to be very effective.

Another interesting thing was the shock expressed that Christian sf/f is experiencing a "downswing" ... and the caution given by at least one poster against listening too much to so-called "market trends."

More tomorrow ...

6 comments:

  1. What a wonderfully thought-provoking post. May I add that many readers didn't even think to look in CBA stores for sff books? I'd quit reading CBA books in the early 80s and have recently discovered that they're not as stuffy as they used to be. And in small town Christian bookstores, you'd still never know the genre exists beyond Ted Dekker. You have to ALREADY know the books are there to find them. We need to get the word out!

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  2. Great post! This is a question I've been pondering, and which I posted about recently: http://clawoftheconciliator.blogspot.com/2006/05/where-are-evangelical-fantasists.html

    I've always shied away from CBA books, for all the reasons you mention above. It's nice to see that people have fought to improve CBA's literary standards, and that higher-quality material is being produced.

    My own overview of (mostly) non-CBA Christians in sf/fantasy begins here if you're interested: http://clawoftheconciliator.blogspot.com/2006/03/science-fiction-fantasy-and-faith-part.html

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  3. Great post Shannon. I'm looking forward to part 2. That romance masquerading as action/adventure thread sounds interesting, too... care to consider posting a summary?

    As a sort of side comment, I have been told -- by an editor, no less -- that folks who read fantasy and SF tend to be more "discriminating" (demanding?)than the general run of readers. From the comments I have seen on the various SF/F fan lists over the years, I have some reason to believe this may be true. And once burned, it's hard to come back and try again.

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  4. Hi Shannon! Nice to 'meet' you too!

    So what do you mean by 'tap' in connection with the Christian Fandom site? Want me to contribute?

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  5. I am writing a full-out romance in my story, but I don't think of it as a masquerade. It's intergral to the plot and the growth of the "super" heroine.

    But then, I like romantic subplots, in anything. :D

    Mir--hopeful romantics R us

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  6. BTW, I'm stronger stomached or maybe just not hypersensitive about "offensive" elements. I live in a world where I deal with the offensive daily--the guy wearing his S&M gear down by the beach and being walked by his "keeper", or the women practically naked at the supermarket, or the foul-mouthed patron at the diner I frequent, or the blaring gangsta rap as a car rolls down my street, etc and etc.

    Sexuality and violence seem to be key elements of human existence, so their presence in a versimilitudinous experience (ie. reading) doesn't bother me unless it seems to be there for strictly prurient or vicious reasons. And I think most discering readers understand the difference between the emotional, romantic scene there to advance characterization or the plot or a theme, and the one put in cause "sex sells".

    I know that when I started reading SF in the mid-seventies, boundaries had been pushed for many years, and there was usually an agenda (political or personal). Delany's overt and perverse sexual elements came out of his own existence (as his memoirs make evidently clear), and his coming to terms with his own desires, ones we'd call deviant. Feminists like Russ and Tepper and LeGuin had their own philosophical and socio-political ideas to foster.

    We as Christians have our ideas and ideals to foster. And I figure if so many secular authors can write artistically and lobby at the same time, there are artistic ways to write and promote morals and a Supreme Being at the same time.

    As long as we don't start with a propagandistic mindset. I start with a character who gets a hold of me, and that character or others in the story will model my idea of nobility and honor and solid faith, even if it's not word-for-word gospel, as I think it's weird for non-Earth cultures/worlds to do that in fantasy. But I also feel free to allow an author to include elements that some might term offensive. I don't discount a story because it tries to depict people as they really are and human experience as it really is. I may not be an envelope pusher as much as some, but I don't want others to have to conform to the dimensions of my envelope. I may simply be inhabiting too small an envelope world, and that's not their fault.

    Mir

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