2/28/2008

Simon Morden: On ECPA/ CBA fiction

There have been several discussions at the Lost Genre Guild, on Shoutlife, on blogs, and in email about the limitations of Christian fiction published by the Evangelical Christian Publishing houses and sold by the CBA. Writers of sci-fi and fantasy, in particular, have been left out in the cold unless they've written, or are willing to write, within the guidelines of what is acceptable to the CBA. Now, we have found that many publishers are more than reluctant to let you know exactly what their guidelines are, and in fact, some even go so far as to say that they've no guidelines. However, I believe that the proof is in the pudding -- pick up one of these books and see for yourself.

Again and again, I refer back to a comprehensive essay written by Simon Morden. Do check it out sometime -- it is well worth the ten minutes it takes to read and days to ponder.

These excerpts are from a speech given at Greenbelt Arts Festival (2005), by Morden. In "
Sex, Death and Christian Fiction" Morden laments the lack of artistry and craft allowed in fiction sold via the niche market of Christian fiction. He is careful to point out at the beginning that his references to the Christian publishing industry are strictly about the ECPA and CBA.

Introduction


"Christian writers, for the past 20-30 years, have been sold a lie: that there is one way to write, one message we need to communicate, that we’re only here for one reason. It’s led to the ghettoisation of Christian writers and a subsequent lack of artistic integrity and craft. We need to think very seriously both about how we got here and which direction we need to take next."

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The publisher and the bookseller are no longer filters for artistic or commercial concerns. They become controllers of the content of the story. They are the gatekeepers, and their criteria for publication dictates what shall pass.

We, the writers, are faced with the proposition that if we do not write to their criteria, there is no chance of publication – no matter how good our writing is. We could send them the Chronicles of Narnia, and have it rejected on the grounds of smoking, drinking, violence and a nasty outbreak of Universalism in The Last Battle. We could send them Lord of the Rings and have it rejected on the grounds of – again, smoking, drinking and violence, the fact that God doesn’t get a mention and no one gets saved in the third act.

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The word dangerous isn’t often associated with Christian writers or for that matter, Christian readers. It’s certainly not a word associated with CBA fiction. One of the reasons that CBA fiction exists is that it is a safe alternative to secular fiction. I should be able to read it without being tempted or scandalised. It is fiction which is pitched at adult audiences, but that my kids should be able to read. It is a place where Christian readers can escape to where they have nothing to fear and know before they start that everything will be all right in the end.

CBA authors and editors censor fiction not just because of its potential to offend, but because it offers vicarious experiences that may be seen as sinful. If we believe that sin occurs in the mind as well as in behaviour, any vicarious experience we read about might give rise to sinful feelings or thoughts. If I write a sex scene, which might be entirely necessary to the story, I have to find a way to write it that does not encourage lustful thoughts. A description of a murder must not encourage murderous thoughts, and so on.

There’s a problem here. A hallmark of good writing is that it changes the way people feel. Writers are supposed to offer vicarious experiences, the more intense the better. A book which does not engage a reader’s emotions is dull and lifeless. I don’t want to write a book like that anymore than I want to read one. And yet, CBA fiction censors the vicarious experience, quite deliberately.

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The sum total of the effects that I’ve been outlining is to foster conditions where it is very difficult -- not impossible, but very difficult -- to write good fiction. The quality of prose is not the primary concern of the CBA. I’m not arguing that it isn’t a concern, just that it isn’t their first concern.

As a reader or a novelist, does anything Morden wrote jump out at you? At the Lost Genre Guild, many novelists have resigned themselves to finding Christian publishers outside of this group -- but only after a history of turndowns and rejections, then lamentations and valiant statements about changing the so-called CBA guidelines.

Morden ends his essay/ speech with this thought:


As authors, there’s very little we can do to influence the CBA. Pressure to change has to come from within the industry itself. I am aware of tensions beginning to build, but this is very much the hand on the tiller of a supertanker. It might turn, or not at all. Waiting for it to do so is a fools’ errand. But there’s plenty we can do to influence ourselves for the better.

--Simon Morden is the author of "Heart", "Another War" and the forthcoming "The Lost Art", as well as the short story collections "Thy Kingdom Come" and "Brilliant Things". He is editor of the British Science Fiction Association’s writers’ magazine, "Focus", and is a judge for the 2006 Arthur C Clarke Awards.

11 comments:

Sue Dent said...

Well, darn, I'm just . . . speechless!!! And that's a tough thing to pull off.

:)

Grace Bridges said...

If vicarious experience is a no-no, that would wipe out most any CBA romance. Once in my teens I got given a whole box of them. I read them. They were clean, never offensive, well-written (though predictable) ... and boy, did they mess with my mind! Kinda made me lovesick for my own partner, who to this day has not shown up. Not a good influence. Maybe married gals do better? Romance is the wrong kind of escape for me.

XDPaul said...

I have read Morden's notes on this subject before, and have found them to make a very winning argument. I still am amazed at the fact that this is that much of an issue. ECPA/CBA is a very defined niche that possibly hasn't spoken clearly for itself, or has potentially mislead authors prior to submissions (i.e. "we have no guidelines").

But if I were to take a stack of the last fifty books (fiction) I've read, I'd bet that three of them were published under ECPA/CBA auspices.

Of those three (or so), two of them were outstanding works, comparable to if not better than material, secular or sacred, from any other house.

But fiction in general, and spec-fiction in particular, very simply is not a core business venture of CBA houses.

Should it be?

Maybe, but when the chief advocate of spec-fic WITHIN CBA publishers decides it is time to set up his own shop*, that should be a good indication that any growth in pallette within CBA publishers and stores for weird fiction is, very likely, going to remain modest.

Jeff Gerke has numerous in-depth, insider stories about the challenge to Christian writers of the strange at www.wherethemapends.com and his personal (money where his mouth is) solution at Marcher Lord Press.

Sue Dent said...

But if I were to take a stack of the last fifty books (fiction) I've read, I'd bet that three of them were published under ECPA/CBA auspices.

It's a good thing no on here is inferring there isn't good work to be had by ECPA/CBA publishers.

(look I switched the acronyms around. I usually put CBA first - note random thought.)

And with all the books they dump into their niche market, (debut author alomst always talks of thier next three books coming out in like the next year. BAM. BAM. BAM) it isn't any wonder three out of five of your books are published by CBA/ECPA affiliated publishers.

I do so think it's abohorrant(I really should learn how to spell) the way they NEVER say they have content guidelines and consider themesleves THE gatekeeprs of ALL Christian Fiction.

Any author who is a Christian gravitates towords them and feels almost violated when they're rejected and told to go "secular."

They're a niche. They should say so! IMO

Sue Dent said...

it isn't any wonder three out of five of your books are published by CBA/ECPA affiliated publishers.

YIKES! XD I didn't mean not to read your post slowly. I don't think you wrote the above the way I inferred you didn. I think you wrote 3 out of 50. *embarasssed Sue slinks off* Sorry.

XDPaul said...

Yeah, I guess that's my point. I'm a Christian of nearly 20 years, an avid reader, a weird fiction guy (to the extreme) and a writer who simply never considered the ECPA/CBA contribution to the art as anything above a small one.

I had no idea that those booksellers are any sort of gatekeeper, or see themselves as such, until I've started to hear the chorus of wiser folks than me insisting that they are.

The problem is that my all-time favorite Christian fiction authors (save one) are all published through ABA bookseller members. Of course, all my favorite authors have been dead for some years (in many cases, centuries), so my knowledge is probably quite useless for writers reading this blog today, the vast majority of whom, I can only assume, are still living.

There goes Sue Dent, forcing me to exercise my brain cell again.

Anonymous said...

At the Lost Genre Guild, many novelists have resigned themselves to finding Christian publishers outside of this group -- but only after a history of turndowns and rejections, then lamentations and valiant statements about changing the so-called CBA guidelines.

I've been into going mainstream from the start, to the point the Christian Genre Writers' list I'm on is sick of it.

Incidentally, you didn't include the link to Dr Morden's essay.

o/~
Sex and Death and Christian Fic,
Doo dee doo dee doo doo...
o/~

Ken Pick
Co-author, "Mask of the Ferret"
in Infinite Space, Infinite God
(Which I am proud to say not only breaks all four taboos Dr Morden listed as to why Lord of the Rings would be rejected, plus the additional four that Christian SF inherited from PMD Christian Apocalyptic.)

Sue Dent said...

Let me push your braincells some more! Ewwwwwww LOL

Did you mean to say that all the other authors you've read and enjoyed were Indpendently published and none were published by larger houses because . . . ya know, bookstores who belong to the American Booksellers Association are just a handful of some Indpendent publishers.

Arrrgghhhh! It's all so confuing! LOL

Hey, did you ever catch the link that takes you to the site that talks about CBA/ECPA's gatekeeper mentality?

Deb said...

I've read Morden's comments before, and I think he's spot-on. He did leave out one important issue, though:

In CBA fiction, better to show a murder than lovemaking.

And don't believe the whine that "it's all off-screen!" It isn't. A lot of the time it's very much in your face (see Kristin Heitzman - sp?- if you doubt).

This creates a very off-center mindset, to my way of thinking. Better to scare us into cowering under the covers while reading about a serial killer, than get us thinking about an activity the Lord God created, for His reasons and in His love.

My take, anyway. I don't read the murder stories.

Frank Creed said...

As authors, there’s very little we can do to influence the CBA. Pressure to change has to come from within the industry itself.

Indeed, and who are we to tell the CBA (so-called) what they should and shouldn't publish? how their conventions (since they are so vehement about saying: "we've no set guidelines") should read? Perhaps we grumble and complain and blog because we see the CBA market as the market to which to aspire?

I do admire the efforts of people like Rebecca Miller who devotes much time and energy to demonstrate that there is an audience for speculative fiction.

Faith,
f

Anonymous said...

If vicarious experience is a no-no, that would wipe out most any CBA romance.

Very interesting observation Grace. I'd not thought of the vicarious experiences on the no-no list to include romance. You have made a valid point.

The v. experience of romance can have very negative effects on one's psyche, come to think of it. When I was a teen I also read a lot of romance books -- true be told I was probably hoping for some tasty bits; alas, these weren't part of the Harlequin formula in those days!

What I did notice is that I became increasingly critical of myself and in particular, of the young men who asked for a date. As well, when my knight in shining armour did not come along, I became very insecure and my self-confidence plummeted. One day I awoke and said: no more. These novels do nothing but damage (and that's not to mention my artistic sensibilities).

So, the ECPA/ CBA vicarious experience taboos must draw the line somewhere. Is it okay to damage oneself but not others? or is a save the soul, spare the psyche line drawn?

--cyn