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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Trouble in a Writer's World

All of my favorite novels tell fascinating stories that explore and express fundamental truths in ways which, ironically, transcend spoken or written language. Because that’s what I love to read, it’s also a pretty fair definition of what I try to write.

Not all novelists view their work this way, of course. While I seek to focus on important questions and issues, others seek to provide a few much-needed hours of diversion from the unattractive or uncomfortable parts of life. This is an honorable goal. A novelist can quite legitimately view her work purely as entertainment, just as a painter or sculptor might see her role simply in terms of producing beauty, without giving much thought to what beauty means.

I sometimes envy writers who choose not to think about their work on thematic levels. I suspect they may have fewer troubles.

For example, when a major New York house offered to publish my first novel, they cited the spiritual subthemes as one of its most intriguing elements, but their offer was contingent on my willingness to explore those ideas in a “more generic, less Christian” way. An author interested mainly in entertainment probably would have agreed, but to me it was like asking a painter not to use the colors red and blue in sunsets. I couldn’t do it, and had to walk away. It was a very troubling choice, to say the least.

By the grace of God that novel was published later with a “Christian” publishing house. Every other novel I have written since has been published by a so-called “Christian” publisher. This was not a choice I made for Christian reasons. I did it for artistic reasons, because until fairly recently Christians were the only publishers who would let me write the way I need to write. This was not true of novelists or poets who dealt with themes from perspectives that were Buddhist (Herman Hesse) or Jewish (Chaim Potok) or Muslim (Jelaluddin Rumi) but it was true for me. So I learned an important lesson:

Novelists who explore faith from an openly Christian perspective can expect discrimination, solely on the basis of their faith.

Still, at least I was working and learning and growing, and even selling enough to keep on doing it, which is all any artist really needs. Then, while exploring the relationship between humanity and evil in another novel, I encountered another kind of trouble. The publisher objected to the violence in some of the scenes, on the basis that a “Christian” novel should not portray evil in a way that readers might find unpleasant.

A writer interested only in entertainment would have agreed with the publisher’s concerns, of course. Unpleasant things are rarely entertaining. And I have always stood against gratuitous portrayals of evil, (for more on the subject see
this and this ), but as an author interested in artistic expression and exploration, I disagree with the idea that novels should never make readers uncomfortable. Space precludes including all of my arguments here, but one of the most powerful is the fact that inauthentic art is bad art, and art, like everything else a Christian does, ought to be done well.

Although my editor was sympathetic, my arguments fell on deaf ears at sales and marketing. They believed the book would not be well received by Christian readers. So I faced an ultimatum again, this time from fellow Christians, and again for the sake of art I had to move on. I had learned another lesson, or perhaps it was the same lesson from the opposite point of view:

Novelists who explore faith in a deeply authentic way can expect to cause offense in those who cannot or will not face unpleasant truths.

That novel went on to be published by a different Christian house, and to my delight it became a finalist for Christian publishing’s most prestigious fiction award. But it did sell poorly in spite of that honor, just as the sales and marketing people had predicted.

I assumed the mediocre sales were the result of the new publisher failing to take advantage of the prestige of being a finalist for the award. Then my next novel actually won that same award plus another one in the general fiction universe. The novel after that also won awards, and the next one was a finalist, and the one after that won still another award. Meanwhile, my work also garnered many excellent reviews from sources Christian and secular alike. Clearly, some people appreciated my commitment to fiction as a thematic art form. But as the years went by, in spite of all the accolades, sales of my novels never rose above average.

Meanwhile, other authors I knew who focused on entertainment had seen their careers blossom. They might never have received a starred review or won a major award, but their novels sold much better than mine. Watching this phenomenon through the years I learned a third lesson, which is a corollary of the first two:

Most novelists who succeed in exploring Christian faith artistically can expect a limited readership.

Sometimes I feel guilty for having spent all these years pursuing deeper themes in fiction instead of writing mainly to entertain. Have I been a prima donna, interested only in my own agenda? Should I have prioritized commercial success above artistic integrity in order to be a better provider for my family?

These three-in-the-morning, tossing-in-bed kinds of doubts can be difficult to shake. But then I think about the Christian life. Just as novelists who explore faith from an openly Christian perspective can expect discrimination, so Jesus
said “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” Just as novelists who explore faith in a deeply authentic way can expect to cause offense, so it was said, “The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.” And just as novelists who succeed in exploring faith authentically can expect a limited readership, so it was said, “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

There’s nothing at all wrong with writing solely to entertain readers. Like a painter who is solely trying to produce a thing of beauty, entertainment can be a great blessing, as beautiful and beneficial in its way as any other part of creation. And while those who write to entertain may have fewer troubles in the writing world, if they live a Christian life they will have other opportunities to make sacrifices because “in this world you will have trouble.” But Christian novelists who lead their readers beyond mere diversion and amusement can expect the unique kinds of troubles I’ve described. So if you are that kind of writer, and if you are good at your work, then you should
take heart in those troubles. They mean your work is exactly what it ought to be: the natural expression of a Christian choosing to live life authentically.

Athol Dickson’s novels have been favorably compared to the work of Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner. All five of his most recent novels have been finalists for the Christy Award and three have won, including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.


  1. The entertainment stuff makes a lot of money and then disappears. The important, valuable stuff will last, even in this world. Your novels will last.

  2. It would be nice if they did last, Glynn, and I appreciate you believing that they will. The most important thing to me though, is whether my work is an authentic expression of the Way, the Truth and the Life. And I want up and coming novelists to understand that the Bible's warnings about the troubles of a Christian life definitely apply to publishing. If one writes authentically about God and man, there will be constant resistance from both within the fold and from outside. It will express itself in many ways, including censorship and lack of interest. For me the cost is acceptable, but it's good to count the cost before one fully commits to that path.

  3. Interesting, and troubling, Athol. While I can somewhat understand the secular house's request, I do have a little more trouble with the request from Christian house.

    Redemption is rarely pretty. Look at the cross.

  4. I have neither the goals of entertaining in mind nor am I intentionally concentrated on writing Christian themes (though I hope as my writing improves they occur naturally). My main reason for writing is to try and make sense out of life while at the same time exploring a time period I want to learn more about.

    And since life is messy, there is an endless fodder of stories to explore. 8-)

  5. "For me the cost is acceptable, but it's good to count the cost before one fully commits to that path."

    I agree. This was a very inspiring, thought provoking post A.D. I'm going to have to check out your books now!

  6. BK, I think you absolutely ARE writing about Christian themes, even if you don't consciously think about it that way. That's exactly what it means to "try to make sense out of life..." through fiction. In fact, I love the way you put that. It perfectly describes the end result of every great novel I have ever read. Making sense of life—showing us something fundamentally true in a profound way—is an essential element of all great fiction. And curiously, in that sense even an unbeliever can write “Christian” fiction, because whether an author is aware of it or not life is nothing less than a manifestation of the glory of the Creator Christ. With that in mind, your goal as a writer, or your over-arching theme, is as fundamentally Christian as it can possibly be.

  7. Athol, thank you for articulating what has been stirring in my own heart in increasing measure lately. I know I can't keep avoiding making a decision about WHY I'm writing fiction. The question knocks more frequently these days and I've been ignoring it like a ringing phone during election season.

    Rachelle Gardner discussed being Torn between writing for art and entertainment. The question knocks again, begging me to answer. I may be too new at this fiction thing to answer. Or too chicken to dig down and face the answer. Do I want to be a Jeremiah, a Stephen or a John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness? Do I need validation via awards and reader fans and sales? Do I need my message acknowledged? Do I desire to entertain? Can I write for an audience of One, plus about thirteen others who are touched by the threads of biblical truth woven semi-subtly into my work? Can I make people like Truth? Could Jesus? Would I keep writing if every publisher I approach deems my work and message unsaleable? Am I toying with compromise? Am I forgetting from Whom the knack to write comes from?

    Thanks again for the honest, thought provoking post. This is a topic I'm clearly not finished exploring, God help me. :-)

    (and by the way, I am an inwardly moved AND entertained fan of your work. You make it look so easy...)

  8. Very interesting post, I totally agree. I read a lot of book blogs Christian and non and your post made me think of another author's guest post I read last week. he took a similar approach --

  9. "The publisher objected to the violence in some of the scenes, on the basis that a “Christian” novel should not portray evil in a way that readers might find unpleasant."

    When I read this statement I laughed out loud. It is an oxymoron, as I am sure those Christian brothers and sisters, watch television and go to the movies where violence is part of the the story—a large part—it creates tension.

    We live in a real world of violence, and while we do not need to write scenes like in SAW . . . I think realistic writing is far better. Christians cannot pretend they live in a bubble. I feel a writer must always stay true to their faith, and write with integrity. You made tough decisions. I applaud you! Maybe one day I'll be turned down for writing the truth!

  10. A very thought provoking post, Athol. I think anyone who is a writer and a Christian has asked themselves the same questions. It's sometimes hard to make that choice but there it is, the world still doesn't want to hear what we have to say (most of the time) so the question is, do we say it anyway, and if we do, how?

  11. I couldn't agree more. As someone who writes and reads YA, there is a black hole in this genre for anything that even vaguely implies Christian values. It's as though it's been systematically removed, even though normal teenagers probably struggle with faith and values more than any other age group. Walk through the YA section in any bookstore and the vast majority of storylines are dark and troubled themes. Go to the Christian section and the YA is largely unrealistic- Amish and Elizabethan romances, or characters that are too pure for the typical teenager to relate to or be interested in. The average young adult is not perfect- most face issues of drinking, bullying, drugs and sex (sorry Christian publishers), but not to the dark excess represented in the YA section either.(Guess what mainstream publishers? They like to laugh and show kindness,too, they care deeply about their friends, family and God, respect each other most of the time, and feel hopeful about their futures.) Where are the books that represent this mainstream teen anymore? In this genre, it seems to be one extreme (the filtered, goody-goody Christian book) or the other (dark paranormal,religion portrayed as a screwed up institution,sex that's promiscous, gratuitous drug use, etc.). We need books "in the middle" that are genuine to the YA experience, but project the humor, hope, and faith that also personifies teens.

  12. Great post. I've always wanted to write a story the way the story needed to be told. In the past, that's frequently involved my faith, my quest for truth, my desire (as my husband puts it) for a place that doesn't exist, etc. Recently, it hasn't involved those themes so blatantly, but they're still there, hidden. I hope to reach people on an emotional level with those themes, though. Not on some fake, nigh-preachy book shelf and if that means I'm placed on a Christian, a secular shelf or both, I'm ok with that. Again, it's about the story and what it needs. God will sort out the rest. After all, He's the one who gave me the story in the first place! ;)

  13. Very interesting post. I'd like to throw out another side. My third novel is coming out soon. All of my novels deal with my faith, a faith in my Savior, a faith that is reflected in the Bible. But, because of my religious affiliation, Christian publishers will not even consider my books. I've been published in a small religious niche because of it, which is fine. I made the decision to be published in a small market. At the end of the day, we all have to feel good about what we write.

  14. As a Christian writer who writes in the national market, this is an issue I've constantly bumped into. I had one publisher take out a line where a father told his daughter that her mother was praying for her. Another publisher took out a line where a little girl (from a Catholic school) told a mall Santa, "Say hi to baby Jesus for me." I had to fight tooth and nail with another publisher to let my main character have a friend who was the daughter of a pastor. They only allowed it on the condition that I had no religious discussions in the book and I never said what religion she was.

    I could go on, but you get the idea.

    I went along with all of that because I felt it was more important to have good, clean books available to teenagers than it was to make an issue about any of those things.

    *Spoiler alert* On the other hand, my book: Just One Wish, not only had a religious theme, the main character has a sort of vision at the climax where she sees God taking care of her little brother (who has terminal cancer). When I wrote it, I knew there was not a chance in the world that Putnam was going to publish it, but I was determined not to change it. I'm still surprised that they did. A lot of people love that book . . . but not surprisingly the reviewers didn't like the religious aspect.

  15. I've been meaning to respond to this post since the day it popped up in my in-box but I was tied up in trying to divine just what a certain publisher is looking for before I send my MS back to them. This process has led me to ponder again why some faith-based fiction is a commercial success while much is not.

    There are two authors who have most influenced my thinking in this process. Ted Dekker - in Circle Series and you, Athol, in River Rising and The Cure. Dekker is a phenomenon among Christian writers. His writing, in my opinion, is sometimes great and sometimes, well, not so great. But he tackled spiritual themes in a way no other CBA writer had before him. His success has been fueled in many ways by the age of the group of readers that latched on to him. Your writing captured me in a more fundamental way. I have no doubt River Rising will be around long after all of us are gone. There is a timelessness and magic to it that any generation can understand.

    My point is simple: we can look for reasons some good authors are commercial successes and others are not. And we can strain for reasons some good pastors have a wide audience while others labor in virtual obscurity. When either writers or pastors began to seek to copy others in order to widen their audience the odds are they have already ceased to be who God made them.

    Thanks for being who you are. I pray I am half as successful at being who God made me.

  16. Thank you for a thought provoking post. I wasn't writing for the Christian market, but God seemed to have a different idea for me with my last manuscript. I'm told the resulting novel might be a little edgy for Christian publishers, but it's where I should consider submitting it. Your experience seems to confirm that.


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