I may have to write a novel

My library. Photo by me.

I think of myself as a non-fiction essayist and journalist. But I read three chapters in a “Christian” historical novel last night and nearly cried myself to sleep.

It was that bad.

Take this dialogue, for instance:

    “Then, in 1814 I was born,” said Allen.
    “I want to say this, fellows,” Will said. “In the short time we have been members of this church, we certainly have learned to love the Kanes a lot. We think a lot of Alex and his wife Libby, and Able and his wife Vivian.”

Really? These two guys go to the same church and work on the same dock, but Will has to tell Allen who his own brothers are? And their wives?

Almost all the dialogue in the first chapter tells us what the characters already know. And what we, as readers, have no interest in yet.

The dialogue is stiff and the prose is wooden. But the action is, well, unbelievable. And I don’t mean that charitably.

Allen, Able, Adam and Alex have a dad named Abram who also works at the dock. He gets in a fistfight—one of three that day— because one of the dock hands calls his wife a “sickly old lady.”

She is, actually. But this supposed insult justifies slamming the guy. It’s OK though, because he witnesses to him after he helps him get back up. So much for being reviled and persecuted for righteousness sake.

And those 19th century dock workers. The language!

Even the sinners can’t think of anything worse than “sickly old lady.” And the boss thinks it’s a perfectly good reason to start a fight, for a man who, with his sons, uses every Christian cliché I can think of.

Maybe they were original then, but I doubt it.

The really sad part, however, is that the author has over 100 Christian westerns and historical novels to his credit. And over 2.5 million books in print.

It’s not clear if anyone ever finished one. Maybe some of them were good. But 100?

For several years I helped judge the Christie Awards, for best Christian books. I read several novels each year in speculative fiction (think sci-fi), but it was discouraging then and depressing now.

I don’t expect genre fiction to be great literature, but I didn’t expect it to be so bad.

Good fiction requires the willing suspension of disbelief. A lot of Christian fiction just requires belief. And no suspense at all.

We’ll tell you everything you need to know, one cliché after another.

Comments? Recommend a novelist. Or warn us.

Not interested in this topic? Here is a popular
post from the past about a web of grief.

20 thoughts on “I may have to write a novel”

  1. I’m chuckling because your post reminds me of Tolkien’s essay On Faerie Stories, where he quotes a review, of a play I think, that said “disbelief had not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.” I always loved that quote — and have stolen it on a few occasions. When we were young and foolish, a friend and I once decided to write a Harlequin-style novel, on the premise that we, both of us aspiring writers, could do better than that (under a pseudonym, of course) — and maybe make some money. We didn’t get much further than a book outline and a first chapter, though, because we kept collapsing in gales of laughter while trying to write dialogue.

  2. This is why so many fundamental Christians are against fiction– because they had to read the almost-always crappy Christian fiction.
    I’ve never understood the genre has mostly faltered but agree that it has.

  3. There is nothing I loathe more than a “bonnet book.” Amish faith in literature is often used as a shortcut to removing bad language, frowned upon activities and all thing secular. But they also do a good job of removing all plot.

    As the director of three book clubs with a faith basis, I have to choose five non-fiction and five fiction books each year. Finding five fiction books that don’t make me gag is a Herculean feat. I often lean towards discussion generating books, rather than Christian fiction. (The Red Tent, The Life of Pi, People of the Book, Pope Joan, etc.) It is always eye opening to explain to my groups that many of the authors are not Christians–but rather atheist, Jewish or agnostic.

    Two quality Christian fiction writers who steer clear of the bonnet (and the trite writing) include Susan Meissner and Philip Gulley. I appreciate their real world writing while working the accepted confines of Christian fiction.

    Excellent post.

  4. Haha, we totally have that book at Baker… I think I shelved it yesterday. I really don’t remember, they all look the same to me.

  5. Absolutely! I think these authors have forgotten that Christ lived in the real world, not a sanitized haven of goodness.
    I sometimes have the same complaint for Christian music. Besides all starting to sound the same after a while, they suffer from the same problem. There’s no room in Christian music for the person who doubts, who is angry at God, who is hurting, or who simply sees more shades of gray. It’s all praise, all the time.

  6. Great post. Haven’t read any Christian fiction for a very long time–for this very reason. It is too bad that Christian fiction has so little to recommend it. We could have so much to say and in a way that would intrigue even the non-Christian. Well developed characters and plots, interesting dialogue, and deep faith overcoming the challenges of life: that I would read!

  7. I love Christian fiction and obviously –Wally & your other commentors are not reading the authors that I’m reading. About 3 books per week is my average. And now that I have my Kindle, I can get the next book in a series at midnight if I want. I would love to read a novel that you write Wally, but I beg to differ— there are hundreds of excellent Christian fiction authors and books. I own over 500 and have them cataloged in a library software program and lend them to friends and family AND I especially like to lend them to non Christians who “get hooked” and want to borrow more….which opens many discussions and I’ve helped several women stop ready sleezy romance novels after they’ve read a romance that is truly a romance and not just filled with lust! Though romance is really at the bottom of my list as my favorite type of Christian fiction–there are times when I’ve reallyenjoyed them. Here’s a list of authors who elevate the name of Christ while allowing me incredible enjoyment!
    Brock & Bodie Thoene
    Francine Rivers
    Dee Henderson
    Randy Alcorn
    Julie Klassen
    Louise M. Gouge
    Ronie Kendig
    Kristen Heitzmann
    L.A. Kelly
    Jan Karon
    Lynn Austin
    Ted Dekker (earlier works–his later works are too dark for me)
    (I loved the Martyr series)
    Karen Kingsbury
    Mel Odom
    Terri Blackstock
    Randy Singer
    Brandyln Collins
    Angela Hunt
    Kathy Herman
    Michael Phillips
    Coleen coble
    Joel Rosenberg
    Judith Pella
    Bill Meyers
    Robin Parrish
    Steven James
    Irene Hannon
    Craig Parshall Just to name a few of my favorites who I look out for their next book so I can read, learn, be inspired, enjoy and share.

    I agree with Thoreau, “I cannot live without books.” Let me know when your novel is finished, I’ll be one of the first to buy it and you to my list of favoritess–I’m sure!
    Sherrie Attila

  8. Wally, that’s funny. From your opening line I had a hunch exactly where you were going. I’ve read some pretty horrid Christian fiction in my days…and I’m completely turned off. I think Christian authors today are right about where Christian musicians were 15 or 20 years ago…their art could not hold the interest as could the secular artists. Maybe it’ll come around. Maybe you could try your hand at it. After all, Christian music answered the call, why not fiction literature?

  9. Honestly, this is one of the biggest burdens on my heart. it seems like too many writers (and musicians) are trying way to hard to SEEM Christian, rather than just BEING Christian. Creativity always glorifies the one who invented it, and im excited to see people allowing their hearts to slip out into their writing rather than having them explain to me their own biblical parallels. Christian Athletes don’t play Chrisitian Football. Christian writers and musicians dont necessarily have to write in christanese. what comes out in their writing should come from the creativity that the Lord put in them and their heart for the Lord should come out naturally. even if they don’t cite their bible references. i find i trust it more that way.

    that being said, i agree with Sherrie. the world isnt without hope. there are quite a few authors and musicians out there that are starting to get it. praise GOD! try The Circle series by Ted Dekker. i thought it was incredible. and try listening to a little John Mark Mcmillan and Jonathan David Helser. (theres something about these three named guys and making good music). great post.

  10. Not much to add that hasn’t already been said (how’s that for a cliché?). The books that have most moved me over the past few years have not been of the “Christian” genre but they have included themes such as grace, redemption, forgiveness, the battle between good and evil… And done so in a fashion that’s been refreshing and entertaining, not boring and trite (which is how I’d describe 90% of the faith-based literature I have read). I haven’t read all the authors Sherrie mentioned, but of those I have, some of them I honestly didn’t think were that great — okay, approaching good in a few rare instances, but definitely not great (IMHO). To me a book worth reading more than once is the standard, and I can only think of a handful of Christian authors I’d want to read again.

  11. I couldn’t agree more. I have, for the most part, given up on Christian literature. Usually they are so lukewarm and predictable.

    Someone commented that these books are an improvement over secular romance novels, but I think in some ways they are incredibly unhealthy. I have Christian friends who grew up reading Christian romance novels, and were extremely disappointed when real life came along. Not everyone met a man at the grocery store who just so happened to share all their beliefs and dreams, is handsome, has no baggage, and is a strong spiritual leader. Or, if he doesn’t, he is miraculously converted somewhere in the story and suddenly loves Jesus with all his heart.They set people up with unrealistic expectations for love, marriage, and relationships. (Secular romance novels do this as well.) I’m getting irritated right now thinking of all the promises of “happily ever after” presented in these books.

    I just wanted to say I agree with you. I have read a few books that I enjoyed but they are usually historical. The Mark of the Lion series by Francine Rivers is the only one I can think of.

  12. As always, you say it so well! For the most part i agree with you heartily, however; I agree with Sherrie Attila’s comments. One author she omitted (unless overlooked) is Deborah Raney. God has used her fiction writing to touch my life in several of her books. Check her out for yourself…..Titles include A Vow to Cherish and Under a Southern Sky.

  13. Better not read any book than reading a book and blindly believe in it. Some book is total rubbish, some book read to know some facts, some book to read again and again. And each time you read that book, you realize a new thing.

  14. A few months ago, I donated a box of partially read Christian young adult novels to my library’s used book store (I probably should have recycled them since they’re all still there). They had all the stiff dialog and Christian cliches you mentioned mixed with “cool teen slang” from the 1960s. The books were all published after 1997.

    Since my Christian high school told me I would be sinning if I didn’t write Christian books, teenage me seriously considered not studying writing at all because I didn’t want to have to write stuff like that.

  15. christian fiction. gag me.
    usually it’s nothing more then a horrid romance novel with some christianity thrown in. ugh.

  16. Well put. I hope to write fiction that engages and challenges non-believers rather than stiffly “preaching to the choir.”
    Bill Myers and Ted Dekker: definite quality there.

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