Thursday, 18 January 2007

Some honest words on Christian Fiction

That got your attention didn't it? But let me be honest: if you think I'm going to accuse anybody of dishonesty, think again. Naivete perhaps, dishonesty no.

Let me explain my background as a writer of Christian fiction. My first real success, at least in the United States, was under the pen name of John Haworth when I wrote a couple of thrillers (now rather dated) called Heart of Stone and Rock of Refuge. These were published by Crossway just after Frank Peretti had had an enormous hit with This Present Darkness. I can well remember that at the time everybody was getting very excited about Christian fiction. ‘Look at Frank’s sales!’ they said, ‘we have hit the big-time! Christian fiction has broken out of the ghetto! A new dawn beckons.’ Then things quietened down and book sales became much more modest again.

My second involvement with large-scale publishing has been with Tyndale, and this started just after they had had an enormous success with the whole Left Behind phenomena. And as the books were accepted and I read the press, I heard a familiar refrain. ‘Look at LaHaye and Jenkins’, they said, ‘we have hit the big-time! Christian fiction has broken out of the ghetto! A new dawn beckons!’ Here I have to say that I do not recall anybody in Tyndale saying this to me: I think they are far shrewder. But I had a sense of déjà vu. And sure enough things have quietened down and book sales are much more modest again.

So does Christian publishing go through the spasms of excitement every ten years, or is there only the most tenuous of linkages between these two cases? Here let me introduce you to what I call ‘Walley’s Theory of the Christian Blockbuster’. This simply states that ‘Enormous mega-sales of a Christian fiction title never occur because of its literary value but the only when the book is held to have some major spiritual value as well.’ So in the case of Frank Peretti it was felt by many people that his books provided an enormous insight into how demonic forces battle with God’s people. And in the case of Left Behind it was the detailed description of the imminent end of the world that had been thundered from so many pulpits. Now this is not to say these books have no literary merits (I have not read a single Left Behind book). It is just to say that the buzz around them was not so much literary, as theological. And that is what propelled them into the mega-sales league.

In a sense, I don't think we should be surprised at this. Let me ask you a question, what pre 20th-century works of Christian fiction can you name? My guess is only Pilgrim’s Progress. And there again, Walley’s rule applies. The book has some fine prose; but its chief selling point has not been its literary merits but its effective, and challenging, portrayal of the Christian life.

So my honest words basically amount to this. When people talk about mega-sales in the Christian market it would be perhaps more honest to exclude books such as This Present Darkness, and the Left Behind books, as these are not strictly bought as fiction. With those removed, the picture for what we might call works of fiction is somewhat leaner. But then at least on these criteria we do not feel utter failures when our book sales are numbered in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands.