Fiction from the Christian Ghetto

I bought a paperback from Borders’ “new paperbacks” table the other day. Not an unusual occurrence, except that I didn’t know either the book or the author. The cover and title – Comes a Horseman – looked intriguing, and a quick glance at the reviews looked promising, in spite of the fact it was the author’s first published novel. It promised violence, intrigue, and other stuff that I enjoy (at the moment I’m totally into escapism). So, needing something new to read, I took a brave step and chose this over more well-known authors.

Somewhere in the first few chapters, I began to get a bit suspicious, especially when a hard-nosed cop at the scene of a gruesome murder swears by saying, “Judas Priest.” Okay, you know as well as I do that no one says that. The plot seemed interesting, however, so I continued reading. Then the main characters – 2 FBI agents – seemed too soft and emotionally immature to be FBI agents investigating a series of beheadings.

Eventually, I went back to the several pages of endorsements at the beginning of the book, and found several were from obviously Christian sources, then discovered that the publisher was a “front” for a major Christian publishing house, Thomas Nelson. I felt ripped off, deceived. I would never have bought the book had I known it was an undercover piece of “Christian” fiction. Why do I feel this way? Shouldn’t I have been thrilled to find a good book written by a Christian? Shouldn’t I have been relieved to find that I wouldn’t have to censor language and ideas as I read?

The problem is, I love good Christian writing. I love writing that presents new ideas, challenges old ones, and engages not only your mind and emotions, but also your spirit. The problem is, most “Christian” fiction doesn’t do that. Most fail miserably at being either “Christian” or entertaining. There are a few exceptions, and some Christian authors have found success in the secular market. And, some overtly Christian writing does succeed – CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce is a perfect example. But where are all of the C.S. Lewises today?

Christian authors trying to just write fiction for Christian market tend to have some common flaws. One is that they are so steeped in the namby-pamby Christian Ghetto that they don’t understand the non-ghetto world, and are writing for a ghetto audience that shares this trait. As a result the non-Christian characters turn out flat. In fact, both the bad guys and the good guys turn out cartoony.

Another common flaw is they can’t even present Christians in a believable way. They are afraid (or perhaps conditioned) to ignore the fact that Christians have real emotions and issues. No one lusts, they just kind of like each other. It’s like reading Archie comic books. And, nearly all “Christian” characters seem completely uncomfortable being Christians, even in their fictional worlds. Contrast any of these characters against those of John Grisham, for example. His books like The Testament and The Last Juror, contain overtly Christian characters who actually seem like normal people. Of course, Grisham excels at character development and dialog, but more than that, Grisham himself seems comfortable with his characters, where many Christian authors do not.

The 3rd major flaw is that all books written for a Christian audience has to have something identifiably “Christian” in the book, whether it fits with the story or not. Much of the time the spiritual insertions are so uncomfortably done that you wish they just weren’t there.

All that being said, Comes A Horseman is not really a bad book; in fact, it is no worse than much secular fiction on the shelves. Liparulo tells a pretty good story. It does share the 3 above-mentioned traits, although rather mildly in comparison with some Christian Ghetto writing. He also assumes a certain eschatological viewpoint that is not necessarily correct, but again, it’s fiction so you can overlook that. It is, overall, an enjoyable book, and while not as compelling as Koontz or Blaylock, it holds your interest enough. The plot is fairly simple, but he manages to keep you somewhat bewildered until the end.

I didn’t write this post to review “Horseman,” or I would have done a better job. Rather, I just wanted to express my frustrations with the genre I guess I will label Christian Ghetto Fiction. Maybe some authors will read this (yeah, right…) and become inspired to write for the world outside of the ghetto.

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9 Responses to Fiction from the Christian Ghetto

  1. Quixote says:

    I make my living missing the point. Just ask Mr. Blurt.

  2. Quixote, you missed my point. I wasn’t saying that the book is good despite a reader saying it isn’t. I do not mind various interpretations or levels of acceptance of what I write; everyone has an opinion and my writing can’t please every reader. My argument had to do with using “Comes a Horseman” to make specific complaints about the state of “Christian fiction,” when the book did not support those complaints. That’s all. I had to point out some degree of “Horseman’s” success merely to establish that not everyone agreed with this blogger’s assessment.

    (I did not forget the irrelevance of intentional fallacy because I was not arguing that the critic did not get my intent, but that the example he used did not support his points.)

    This post was brought to my attention by a friend. I don’t have time to Google myself.

    Pat Labrutto was my editor. He’s a general market editor who regularly works with Stephen King, Kevin J. Anderson, etc. Of course, with hindsight, I wish I’d trimmed the book down by about ten percent. I admit it could have been tighter.

    I didn’t mean to come off as argumentative or defensive. As I said, I don’t mind people disliking my books. What got under my skin was that the complaints mirror my own feelings about “Christian fiction,” and I felt my novel should not be lumped into that category, let alone be used as an example of the genre’s problems.

    Gentlemen, I appreciate your engaging in a healthy debate. It’s always a pleasure to encounter active intellects.

  3. me says:

    For the record, I really didn’t soften my position (although I knew it would appear that way). I have the same criticisms, but at the same time, it wasn’t a bad book. I do think that perhaps a good (perhaps secular) editor could have made the book a bit better.

    Now I’m reading Neil Gaiman. No criticisms so far…

  4. Quixote says:

    First, I’m impressed (for your blog) that the author would take the time to defend his book here. (Googling himself, I see. We writers are such a narcissistic bunch.)

    Yet the very fact that he feels compelled to defend his book suggests a significant degree of creative failure. His elaborate argument for the book’s “success” is at best redundant and even ludicrous. It simply doesn’t matter what Liparulo says about his work; it’s what his work says about his work that matters.

    I give Liparulo an “A” for audacity, and an “F” for forgetting the irrelevance of the intentional fallacy.

    I give the “Blurb” reviewer a “B-” for softening his critical position in his reply to the protesting author.

    For the record, I have no intention of reading his book now.

  5. Ariel says:

    I like your thoughts here, and the hat tip to C.S. Lewis. I think aspiring “Christian” writers have a lot to learn from Lewis, who stated that he did not set out to “write Christian books.” Instead, the key is to write a strong story from within a Christian framework. This maxim is one that people like P.D. James and Bret Lott have echoed…

  6. Quixote says:

    Christian fiction. Hmmm. Is that why the library files Biblical materials under BS?

  7. me says:

    Robert, I appreciate your comments, and will apologize for the fact that your book sparked my thinking on the subject. My intention was not to attack your book, and I wouldn’t classify “Horseman” as Christian Ghetto Fiction, apart from it’s publisher. I tried to clarify that, but perhaps I didn’t do it as well as I should have.

    Most of my thoughts were very general, directed to a very broad genre of fiction. I don’t have any beefs with fiction itself; I do obviously have issues with Christians specifically writing fiction for Christians, as I think it often tends to promote both mediocrity and the ghetto mentality. I do not think that Horseman is guilty of either.

    I did pick up on some of the Christian “flavor” as I read it, which made me go back and see who the publisher was. I do have a few criticisms of the book, but not many. Especially as a first work, it’s quite good – in my opinion as good as anything I’ve read of Dekker (I’ve only read a couple of his books), and I’d recommend it far above Dan Brown.

    By the way, I hadn’t quite finished the book when I wrote the post yesterday- I was quite impressed with the twists at the end. I thought that in the final confrontation scene, you really finished developing your characters well, and I found that I understood them better than I had up to that point.

    Again, thank you for your comments. I do appreciate them and really can’t disagree with what you’ve said. There are a few Christian-published novels that I’ve read and thought, “I with they’d had them published elsewhere,” not only to escape the Christian ghetto, but also for the sake of the success of the author. I felt that way about Horseman. I am glad to see that it seems to have crossed over, and that it seems to be doing well.


  8. Interesting observations, but I don’t buy your assessment of “Comes a Horseman.” It may have been published by a Christian publisher and I am a Christian, but with all due respect, I do not believe my novel represents “Christian Ghetto Fiction.” I read mostly general market suspense fiction–Koontz, Lee Child, David Morrell, Elmore Leonard, Thomas Perry, Thomas Harris, David Lindsey, Stephen King, Michael Crichton. I know the genre. I know you will as readily find “Judas Priest” in a Lee Child novel as you did in mine. In fact, my avoidance of salty language had less to do with my publisher than it did with a conversation I had with David Morrell, in which he convincingly argued that most professional people, including cops and military people, avoid four-letter words because they are disciplined to do so. Further, I was not trying to write fiction for a Christian audience. My goal was to write for people who like the authors I mentioned, to have my books alongside theirs in bookstores. In this goal, I succeeded. If you take another look at the endorsements on the first few pages, more secular authors praised the story than did known Christian ones.

    That you identified the publisher as Christian and felt upset by that is the problem. It’s an unfair judgment of what’s inside. As Christians, we should write the best stories we can, and the company that publishes us should not matter (in fact, several general market houses–at the very top of the publishing world–have come calling since the publication of “Comes a Horseman.” They have all said they would have gladly published the book as it is, proving it could have come from any publisher).

    Since I’ve already stated that I was not writing for a Christian audience, I shouldn’t address your list of complaints about such authors. But because you use “Comes a Horseman” to launch into these complaints, let me just say that I cannot see where “Horseman” supports the problems you list:

    1. I do understand the “non-ghetto world,” and I do not believe my non-Christian characters are flat or cartoony. I have a file of general market reviews that point out the depth of my characters and how refreshing it is to find such intriguing characters in a thriller. Several have pointed out how rich and satisfying even the villains are.

    2. It is true that my protagonist, Brady, is somewhat uncomfortable being a Christian. I believe I explain this as the result of his wife’s death. This part of Brady was modeled on a Christian friend who went through a similar tragedy and behaved this way. I don’t have a problem with Christians being either bold about their faith or shy about it–I know both types. Both types are real, and I think that was your point. My only stipulation is that the character fits and serves the story.

    3. There are several elements in “Horseman” that can be identified as Christian, but when the story deals with someone who believes he is the antichrist, that is inevitable. In “Horseman’s” case, it fits the story and was not shoehorned in. (I should mention, also, that the eschatology you mention is primarily conveyed through Luco Scaramuzzi, who is deceived in many ways and may in fact be insane. I was not trying to communicate doctrine. It’s only something Luco believed because that particular version of eschatology supported his claims.)

    You mentioned a complaint specific to “Horseman,” that the FBI agents seemed too wimpy to be investigating a serial killing. I had established that these two agents were not normal investigators, but had gone to an earlier crime scene to field test a crime scene device when the killer struck again nearby, and they seized the opportunity. I’ve received several letters from FBI agents (and other government law enforcement agents) saying that the personnel and methods outlined in the book were more accurate than most books of its kind. One said it was the best he’d ever read.

    Of course, this last point is minor, and what’s more important is your perception. I must not have conveyed that information clearly enough.

    I agree with you that a lot of fiction that is labeled “Christian” has deep flaws. Here’s where I take issue: I wrote a story that was reviewed and received well in both the general and Christian markets, and yet you attacked it based on the company that published it (and I think your knowledge of that company hued your take on the story as you read). If that’s all it takes for readers to dismiss novels written by Christians, regardless of content, then Christians have no hope of breaking free of the ghetto you describe.

  9. Elliot Swan says:

    Or wipe out Christian entertainment genres all together. Yeah, that would work.

    Can anybody actually say that they own more than 2 “Christian” produced movies (and veggie tales doesn’t count)? Point made.

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