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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.