Lost Genres

I was thinking this morning about the phrase “lost genre” and all that phrase implies. I mean, I know we use it on the Lost Genre Guild Blog to mean Biblical speculative fiction. But the more I think about it, the more I think that there must be other lost genres out there. We just have to realize what they are.

After all, Christian fiction has done a pretty great job exploring slice-of-life genre, romance genre, even fantasy. But there are other other genres it could explore which it frankly has not. Genres such as mysteries, for instance. Not a lot of Christian mystery writers since G K Chesterton and Dorothea Sayers. The only one I can think of is P D James. I used to like even the flaky genres: the Christian boarding school genre for instance: Tom Brown's Schooldays and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, genres that explored coming of age and spiritual growth of either children or schoolteachers. And then there are genres which no one really has explored. The only recent coming of age schoolboy stories I can remember tend to be stories of nihilism or stories where someone accepts his sexuality or alienation from society, stories such as A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye.

One lost genre I really miss is, ANTHROPOLOGICAL FANTASY. Being a minority, a person whose background is non-European, a lover of missionary stories, and someone who is always reading or watching something about tribal people, I'm drawn to this kind of fantasy. And it seems to me that with so many Christian missionaries out in the world, we Christians should really have done more anthropological fantasy than we have. Have we even done any? I can think of anthropological novels written by non-Christians --Michaela Roessner's Walkabout Woman, for example is one of many. But the only Christian anthropological I can think of is Susan Palwick’s second novel The Necessary Beggar. (The book is fairly kind to Christians so maybe Palwick is.)

We Christians have seen some missionary or other coming and we listen enrapt and look at the slides of exotice children, women and warriors in elaborate clothing... and then we leave the church and... forget.

Perhaps we just don’t like dealing with cultures that aren’t western. Perhaps we don’t connect to cultures that are too foreign to us. Perhaps we don't think they have grand noble stories, histories, and folklore. Perhaps we Christians are just insular. Perhaps we simply don’t love our far-off neighbors as ourselves.

Don Richardson’s missionary book, “Eternity in their hearts,” is a book which talks about the spirituality and folklore of pagan cultures. He describes the spiritual hooks contained in those cultures that lead people to Christ. Cultures which have prophecies of a Lost Book. Cultures where God’s name is known. Cultures which have some amazing folklore that points to God. Consider the Chinese definition of righteousness. It’s a pictograph depicting a man underneath a bloody lamb.

How much fun it would be to write a book about a person from one of those cultures finding that his religion and writing alphabet point to the risen Christ as savior. And if you don’t want to deal with actual societies, consider how much fun it is to create a whole society out of whole cloth...to create clans, religions, tribes, and a spiritual hook that will lead the characters of that society to Christ.

How much fun it would be to trust the Comforter to create a society for us with a strange religion that secretly has the gospel hidden inside it. I’m creating a sotry world now where everyone is deaf-mute. I’m so excited wondering what kind of religion a culture like this will have...and what kind of spiritual hook God would put into a culture such as this.

We’re at the end of time now. We were called to go from Jerusalem first, then Samaria, then to the outermost parts of the world. It does make me sad to think that western Christian writers have spent so much time exploring European cultures when Christianity is (and the United States is fast becoming) multicultural.

Christian fantasy is to enamored of Gaelic fairies and English lords and dukes. And Christian science fiction concerns itself only with the apocalypse....and how the apocalypse affects the western world. Is anyone out there ready to do an apocalyptical story about an unsaved tribe in the middle of nowhere? I’d like to think someone could write it.

As I said there are probably many lost genres out there that most of us haven't thought of. I heard once that there is a genre in the Japanese publishing world called The Business Novel. Oh, that sounds neat! I could see that as a great Christian genre too. All the ethics of greed versus issues of poverty versus issues of stewardship. There's the social upheaval novel. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe comes to mind. Also those novels by Sinclair Lewis. (Okay, okay, Frank Peretti tackled abortion with The Prophet but that book was way way too preachy...and..if I may say so from a secular reader's viewpoint ...very badly written.)

Will anyone write these? And write them in an exciting way? God only knows. -C


cathikin said...

Good questions. I have read many times the phrase "write what you know." Perhaps this is part of why more writers don't venture into certain areas, not feeling as if they have the background to do justice to the subject matter. As a reader, I love books that teach me things I don't know or hadn't really thought about. But I have read a few books where the author really should not have tackled the subject because he or she wasn't quite equipped for it. Maybe this is part of what was masterful in your book Wind Follower. I think it could certainly be called an anthropological fantasy. In fact, I think I might have described it that way.

Martin LaBar said...

Susan Palwick is some sort of Episcopal cleric, as well as a hospital chaplain.

Grace Bridges said...

I agree with Cathi. before I saw that you wrote the article, I was fully intending to grab the unknowing blogger by the collar and force him/her to accept that Wind Follower is in that category. Then I saw it was you :)
You also describe a reason why I'm not so crazy on fantasy. It's nearly all the same after a while (all present writer-readers excluded!) For me at least, sci-fi has more possibilities - if we will use them! Let's break the box instead of making little forays outside it.

Carole McDonnell said...

Hi Cathi and Grace:

Wouldn't it be absolutely wonderful if we broke all those little boxes we've put ourselves into.

For instance, I was looking at the television and saw a Danielle Steele movie about a poor woman making it to the top. Danielle is a unitarian, i think, but one never sees her faith in those books. How intense would it be to have a great Christian romance that dealt with greed and power! Which reminds me...I've got to see Daniel Day Lewis in There will be blood. An exploration of greed...and from what I have seen...a lot of stuff about faith going on.


Carole McDonnell said...

Wow, Martin!

I never knew that. That's why the book was so good...and so friendly toward our faith. -C

Deborah Cullins Smith said...

I've often heard the "write-what-you-know" dictum, too. And I've always hated it! I want to explore new territory, expand my own horizons, engage the imagination. I guess that's why I write fantasy and historically-based fiction. But then again, I'm one of those rare (and slightly demented) people who loves research! If you are going to write outside your own known world, you simply HAVE to be well-versed in the details. I hate reading books when it is obvious that the author did not do his/her homework.

Carole, you brought up alot of great ideas with this post! Might have to copy some of them into my "idea book" for further mulling.... And I'm reading "Windfollower" now and LOVING it! You, my friend, DID do your homework and it shows. Kudos, Carole.

David said...

I happen to like the fairies, elves, and other Gaelic inspired stories, the English dukes and such. For me, this all makes for a great background to a story.

What annoys me about this particular post is that we have a person who is not "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" (or WASP as they used to call us) telling us we should write about other cultures. If this were written by another WASP it would be a valid argument. As it is written by someone with another kind of background, one gets the feeling she would have us shift and write stories about a background she is familiar with.

Several of you have expressed hearing the term "write what you know" and "hated it" as one writer puts it. Yet this term is broad, and does not necessarily limit you to race or religion. It certainly cannot limit you to what is "real" in this physical world. There is a part of us that knows things beyond our physical world, emotions, expectations, personal world views. Why we even "know" how people will act and react if we change some of the parameters. In this sense I think stating that a writer write what he or she knows is appropriate. I wrote a story about a African American woman who was a newspaper reporter. I thought it was a good story, but how close to the truth was I in telling the story? I only have my WASP background to lean on and observations of those I've met throughout my life. I cannot possibly understand the life and trials of the African American. So rather than annihilate truth I write about what I know. And even if that story was acceptable for publication, there would be no way I could continue writing in that vain. I only have so much life experience to draw from.

The "what ifs" of speculative fiction are another story. That I can "know" on one level and not be proven right or wrong, for it is my opinion. And my opinion is as valuable as anyone else's.

Scifiwritir said...

Hi Deb:

Thanks. I don't know if you ever read the book Eternity in their hearts? It's written by Don Richardson, a missionary. That really helped with the religious concepts in WF. Plus the book One Church, many tribes by Native American Pastor Richard Twiss.

I can't say i really did any research, though. I just tend to love anthropology so it's stuff that I've kinda read all these years...so it became second nature. I can say only that the holy spirit used what was floating around in my head to come up with a sweet little story that should resonate with Christian folks in tribal countries -- stories that really connect to the lives they live.

Scifiwritir said...


I's okay to love Irish elves, fairies and the like. The trouble is that leprechauns and irish-style elves are part of the pagan culture of the united kingdom. In the world at large, a small percentage of christians come from this heritage. But Christians of the United Kingdom are so used to having their cultures be the top, the be-all-and-end-all and the primary culture that they don't allow (or are uncomfortable with) the elves etc of non-UK cultures. Basically, they have usurped the lead place for a while and they are not willing to give it up.

For one: they often say, "our culture is cute and wonderful and our heritage...but your tricksters, gods, etc...are demonic." So there's an unfairness there.

For two: the majority of christians in the world are not from the UK and not even European...In addition, many of the supernatural elements they encounter they do not consider cute but truly troublesome. But European-American Christians are so in love with their elves and so romanticizing of them that they don't understand that stuff such as elves, fairies etc do not speak to non-european-American Christians. The folks in Latin America, Indonesia, Africa, Mongolia etc are more likely to understand and connect the cultures shown in wind follower than they are to connect to fairies and elves. After all, to them the supernatural isn't cute ...and is often demonic... and is nothing to romanticize about.

Basically though, the thing is this: the european Christian world must begin to give place. They don't have to give up their fairies, but they should realize that by pushign their fairies etc onto the rest of their christian brothers, they are still somehow believing that European Culture must be pushed down the throats of all christians. It's not humble to want to be on top when one is no longer on top...and it's not Christian...because it refuses to understand those cultures unlike itself. -C

Anonymous said...

I's okay to love Irish elves, fairies and the like. The trouble is that leprechauns and irish-style elves are part of the pagan culture of the united kingdom. In the world at large, a small percentage of christians come from this heritage. But Christians of the United Kingdom are so used to having their cultures be the top, the be-all-and-end-all and the primary culture that they don't allow (or are uncomfortable with) the elves etc of non-UK cultures. -- SciFiWritr

There's also Professor Tolkien, whose LOTR became an archetype that dominates "Generic Fantasy" to this day.

(Generic Fantasy = "Elves, Dwarves, etc")

Mercedes Lackey's "Urban Fantasies" became a similar dominant archetype -- "Celtic Urban Faeries (TM)" You wouldn't believe the fanboy masturbations inflicted on me at SF & gaming cons that fall into those two archetypes.

In game rulesets at GenCon, I have come across Ancient Egyptian Elves, Dwarves, etc; Victorian Elves, Dwarves, etc; Cyberpunk Elves, Dwarves, etc; Spacegoing Elves, Dwarves, etc...

In Fantasy, publishers claim they want something fresh & new, but they also want something that Will Sell, and that means "Elves, Dwarves, etc" and "Celtic Urban Faeries".