Criticizing the Reader

Since I’ve been in publishing, I’ve heard rumblings of why can’t Christian novels be “edgy” or “better” in avoiding tropes, formulas, and the like. In other words, why can’t Christians write and publish great literature?

Know that the definition of great literature varies from person to person. A Google search reveals many articles on this topic. But when an author submits what he labels “literary” fiction to me, I know right away that the story will be a hard sell. That doesn’t mean the book isn’t worthwhile. It just means that the type of deep fiction that makes readers think, study, and reflect rarely finds an audience as large as books geared to the commercial market.


I think it’s because there are plenty of Christian nonfiction works that require, well – work – to read, think about, study, and implement. These books aim to help the reader improve her life. And of course, Christians spend time with the Bible, which is not easy peasy no matter how “friendly” the version. At least, not if you’re giving your Bible reading any seriousness or ponderance.

So when a Christian picks up a novel, he may be looking for an escape. Or she may want a happily-ever-after ending after spending time with a version of characters she has come to know and love. These characters live in a Christian universe, which in itself might be a temporary exit from reality. This reader doesn’t want to think a great deal, but to enjoy a tale well told.

When we complain that we can’t publish and sell great literature, we are in fact criticizing our readers. Is this a good idea, especially considering our readers pay our bills? If we look down on our readers, we no longer serve them. As Christians, we are called to serve, not to dismiss others.

And by the way, I’d venture a guess that “literature” finds the same obstacles in the general market. General market readers are looking to escape, too, if the popularity of commercial fiction is any indication.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t even attempt to write literary fiction? No, because your novel might be the next groundbreaking book. But let’s be mindful of the prodigious talent it takes to write and sustain a career in brilliant commercial fiction, reaching readers everywhere with God’s message of love and forgiveness.

Your turn:

Do you think Christian fiction is in a good place?

Is your WIP considered commercial or literary?



35 Responses to Criticizing the Reader

  1. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson May 4, 2017 at 3:50 am #

    I needed this. Good perspective shift for me.

    One of the most common phrases cited in reviews for my debut is, “intense and thought-provoking.” Another is, “challenging.”

    The reactions have been very disparate. Makes me wonder if I should opt for less “challenging” or “thought-provoking” work, because it’s hard to have people dislike what you’re doing because it doesn’t end all happy. But I’ve come to realize that I can’t write something I don’t think is speaking truth, or that I can’t be excited about personally, and the story didn’t call for an everything-is-happy ending. It’s definitely a mix of “literary” and “commercial.” But I am trying to make my current WIP more commercial for my own sanity (and to not disappoint readers).

    But yeah, I think Christian Fiction is in a good place. I just think that sometimes readers’ expectations are strange and a bit off. For example. . . some of us expect a sermon in every Christian novel. I don’t think a novel is always the proper place for a sermon. I think it many times damages what a story is meant to be in the first place (I call it “story mold”). But I dislike allegory for that same reason, and quite a lot of the human population seems to disagree with me. SO idk.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 4, 2017 at 6:47 am #

      Brennan, I’m thinking a mix of literary and commercial sounds great!

      When a writer tells me in a query that he or she is writing an allegorical story, then to me, the purpose is lost.

      • Avatar
        Tamela Hancock Murray May 4, 2017 at 6:47 am #

        Should have added, let me see that for myself.

        • Avatar
          Brennan S. McPherson May 4, 2017 at 12:53 pm #

          Maybe I’ve had too little sleep, or too much coffee, or both, but I don’t get what you mean by “let me see that for myself.” Help! 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Gail Johnson May 4, 2017 at 5:54 am #

    Loved this, Tamela! Great insight.

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    Darrel May 4, 2017 at 6:28 am #

    Mrs. Murray,
    This is one of several recent posts from your agency regarding the reading level or literary taste of your market, all of which have left me somewhat bewildered. They seem to suggest that Christian readers have a limited vocabulary and are attracted to mindless works of fiction which allow them to escape reality, not reflect upon it. Surely I’m wrong!

    You state that, “It just means that the type of deep fiction that makes readers think, study, and reflect rarely finds an audience as large as books geared to the commercial market.” I don’t see how that observation can be taken in any way other than a criticism of your market. If that is the case, the only take away I can glean from your post is that the Christian market is, in fact, overwhelmingly filled with semi-literate readers who are incapable of appreciating a thoughtful sentence, but it’s unseemly for us to say so. Do you really want to publish fiction that does not cause readers to “think, study, and reflect.”? What would be the point?

    Perhaps I’ve misunderstood your post. I invite you to clarify your meaning, for I certainly hope I’ve misunderstood. I’d like to believe that agents actively encourage their clients to write the best work possible, reaching as high and deep as they can. The opposite of writing literary fiction is not commercial fiction – it’s non-literary fiction. Surely that’s not what Christian writers aspire to offer the world.

    Please help.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 4, 2017 at 7:41 am #

      Darrel, thank you for offering me the chance to clarify since your confusion may reflect what some others are feeling but not saying. I’ll address your concerns, based on how I am reading and interpreting the agency’s posts.

      I don’t recall any of our posts declaring that our readers have limited vocabulary, so I think we can take that off the table.

      I also don’t recall anyone here saying Christian books are mindless. Any type of reading requires thought and engagement — even an address label.

      I know none of us thinks Christian readers are semi-literate. As I mentioned, every day, most of our readers study, reflect, and ponder one of the most difficult books ever written: the Bible.

      Some people want to escape with books. Others read everything on prestigious literary awards lists. It’s all in what you want to read, and to write.

      Authors who write for readers wanting a light read are extremely talented. They must stay within an accepted genre format, but still be fresh against thousands of other titles, past and present. I’m amazed every day by these authors.

      I’m not sure what non-literary fiction is, except as a comparison to commercial fiction.

      Of course all of us here have enormous respect for literary fiction. But my points for my blog posts include these:

      1.) CBA commercial fiction is worthy.
      2.) The audience for commercial fiction deserves our best.
      3.) We are honored to serve the audience for CBA commercial fiction.

      I hope this helps! Thank you for the opportunity to expand on my thoughts.

  4. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 4, 2017 at 6:46 am #

    Intense, thought-provoking, and challenging post, Tamela. (And a bow to you, Brennan, for the descriptive adjectives I so shamelessly stole!)

    A lot of readers undoubtedly do want escape (and are not interested in being painstakingly beaten about the head by a polemic 2 x 4), but I think there is a significant proportion of readership that wants something else, something that’s hard to define. Call it, for want of anything better, paradigm reinforcement.

    We all have a certain “user’s manual” for life, the values that we hold dear and the standards to which we hold ourselves. They may be present or absent in the temporal world around us, but they’re very real in our hearts.

    These are the things that bring coherence to our world; these paradigm are the very basis of what makes life worth living, and they need to be nourished by fictional (or somewhat-fictionalized reality).

    The watchword here is neither escape nor challenge – it’s satisfaction, or perhaps fulfillment.

    Consider the Brad Pitt film ‘Fury’, which is perhaps the best Christian film of all time. It’s not a feel-good movie while you are watching it, and while the ending is positive it sure ain’t happy.

    What it is, is meaningful –
    1) ‘Fury’ shows Christian values as a basis for real selfless action
    2) It introduces characters in whom the details of life are not ‘Christian’ in the lifestyle sense, but whose choices follow Jesus far more closely than any of us would like to
    3) It sets a stage in which Christian actions have an effect in a broader context; here, the actions of a single tank crew at the end of WW2 shield a division’s support elements from German attack.

    The coherent message and meaning are what sustain the values of the viewer; they are graces that can be seen a having a reality and focus in a chaotic world.

    This comment’s already far too long, but the question of whether Christian fiction is in a good place still looms.

    It is, as long as one looks at it as satisfying the modern version of the Pauline ideal. Christ gave us raw meat, and Paul made it palatable. This is not to say there are contradictory ‘truths’; nothing could be further from the reality. But the fact is that most of us would have be happy to meet Timothy or Barnabas, while in the company of Matthew or Zaccheus we would be most unfortable indeed.

    We do need Paul’s gentler instructions that point to holiness quite as much as we need the Passion’s brutal bloodletting. A balanced diet, after all, prevents spiritual scurvy.

    And now, to the unquestioned relief of all who have made it this far, I shall close with this thought, again echoing Brennan –

    Write what you love, because if you don’t who will?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 4, 2017 at 7:48 am #

      Excellent insights, Andrew! Your closing statement reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, often attributed to Oscar Wilde. “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

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    Christina Myerly May 4, 2017 at 7:48 am #

    Very thought-provoking. I do think Christian fiction is in a good place right now. When I first started reading Christian fiction from the books my mother and grandmother had, the characters seemed perfect, with small problems. But, Christian fiction has delved deeper. I enjoy reading Christian fiction because I can see problems from new angles, feel their emotions, escape (as you said), but it’s also thought-provoking. I think you reflected this very well in your post.

    My WIP is commercial. I don’t have any desire to write anything that would be considered literary. But you never know. I write what I like to read–which is contemporary romance.

  6. Avatar
    Thomas Allbaugh May 4, 2017 at 7:49 am #

    Flannery O’Connor called her the tired Christian reader who just wants to be lifted up.

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    Edward Lane May 4, 2017 at 8:25 am #

    I have to say that I think Christian fiction is a good place to be because I just finished a Christian romance, action novel. I also finished an inspirational fiction novel. So I have already committed myself to that position. If it’s not a good place to be I have wasted a lot of time!!! Can you recommend a good agent?

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 4, 2017 at 8:40 am #

      Edward, I can recommend a fantastic agent, though she does not (to my regret) represent me.

      She’s honest and forthright, and a more vibrantly appealing Christian you cannot find.

      Her name is Tamela Hancock Murray.

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    Rebekah Love Dorris May 4, 2017 at 8:49 am #

    Two days ago I was incensed after reading an article spouting the criticism you’re describing. The writer part of me wanted to snip back at the snobbish speaker, “And where’s your brilliant masterpiece, if you’re so much better?”

    The reader part of me ahem’ed. “But what about this stack of books I can’t finish reading because of the saccharine-wet-cardboard aftertaste?”

    Just as Jesus has set different people in the church to accomplish different tasks with different gifts but all for the same mission, He equips each of us authors differently, yet perfectly, for the task to which He’s called us individually. And corporately.

    Our job is to write with the main goal of advancing His platform, not ours. Maybe that breakdown is where the wet cardboard taste appears.

    Maybe there are a few gifted with the unique ability to transmit Scriptural truths in a fiction vehicle that’s both deep and gripping. I’d bet it’s directly proportional to the readers capable of absorbing those deep insights.

    Certain prolific authors have the no-less-impressive gift of transmitting truth in a nail-biting package using everyday English so it’s accessible to people who wouldn’t otherwise care.

    A great example is Jerry Jenkins. I once caught a friend reading Left Behind on the sly who’d previously been virulently opposed to the gospel. That moment in time is now a core memory. I remember it when I doubt my decision to learn to write fiction.

    However God has prospered us, we should give. I recently discovered my voice is a bit cartoonish when I was imagining my writing to sing with the profundity of a Thoene. I can feel bummed about it, or I can dance that God’s given me a voice.

    May all I write bring my Saviour glory. Cartoonish or profound.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 4, 2017 at 11:22 am #

      Lovely comments, Rebekah. I’m sure your writing isn’t cartoonish at all — unless you want it to be.

      • Avatar
        Rebekah Love Dorris May 4, 2017 at 2:07 pm #

        Thanks, Tamela! Lovely post! And how I appreciate you answering comments. I know it takes time and energy. It’s always a perk to commenting on your posts! 🙂

    • Avatar
      Glenda May 4, 2017 at 11:38 am #

      A hearty, true that, Rebekah!

      Like you, I’m more than ready to be (and write as) myself.

      One of the reasons I love (and maybe her loyal following of tens of thousands of readers?) Jan Karon,–though she’s described
      her works as “gentle fiction”– is because she writes “to give readers
      and extended family and to applaud the extraordinary beauty of ordinary lives.”

      Though my WIP is a memoir, my prayer to extend to readers my best narrative and storytelling with excellence utilizes many facets of fictional technique.

      Only time and readers (and an exceptional agent!) will tell if it’s a literary gem.

  9. Avatar
    Jerusha Agen May 4, 2017 at 9:20 am #

    Terrific post, Tamela! I love your point about the serious study and thought that Christians already give to nonfiction books (which are extremely popular in the Christian market, if my church library usage records are any indication) and Bible study. I hadn’t thought of that being a factor in why Christian readers might be especially inclined to look for something different in their fiction reading, but that makes complete sense!

    I also appreciate that you pointed out the market is the same in secular fiction. I tell people that all the time when they’re slamming Christian readers or publishers as being close-minded to literary fiction. As someone who had a toe in the door of the literary world for a second and had friends who had a foot in, I know that the literary path in the secular world leads to starvation for authors just as frequently as it does in the Christian world.

    So, in short, I think Christian fiction, at least in regard to the subject of this post, is in a good or at least normal place. I can’t really say otherwise when my favorite novels to read are popular Christian fiction genres! (As you said, I want to enjoy and relax in that downtime reading, so I’ll pick those up above a modern literary choice almost any day. Literary classics from the 1800’s, however, are a different matter–and a different kind of literary.)

    As for me, I’ve grown away from my literary aspirations and now happily write Christian romantic suspense. Not able to completely leave my past behind or make my stories mindless entertainment, my novels fit into the “upmarket” category. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Tamela!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 4, 2017 at 11:24 am #

      You have a great handle on your writing, Jerusha. So glad you enjoyed the post.

  10. Avatar
    Nora Spinaio May 4, 2017 at 10:36 am #

    I think Christian fiction is in a better place than before. Give us a minute and I think it’ll be better still. We’re still learning to be real and unreal at the same time.

    As for my WIP, it’s commercial because it’s driven by plot and characters as opposed to ideas. Some of the characters are Christian and some aren’t. The ones who are, well, it’s just who they are.

  11. Avatar
    Carol Ashby May 4, 2017 at 11:02 am #

    Tamela, I think there are some beautiful Christian novels being written with great skill. Some closely follow a genre likely to be commercially successful, others don’t. The stories that come to me don’t fit snugly into a single commercial genre. They also ask deep questions while telling what I hope is an engaging story.

    I call what I write Christian romantic historical. Each novel includes a romance that is difficult, but the stories are more than that. They’re about one or more of the characters discovering how God is more important than anyone or anything for someone they grow to love. That faithful example starts them down the path of deciding whether they want to follow Jesus, too. Sometimes that example involves family members or friends that have nothing to do with the romance. I want my readers to always find an exciting story packed with conflict and tension that satisfies emotionally even though not every character is guaranteed a “happy” ending.

    Is that likely to be a commercial success? Maybe not at the level a traditional publisher needs, but that’s fine with me. I pray that every book I’m now selling will get into the hands of someone whose faith will be deepened or someone who might be considering for the first time why following Jesus could be the most important thing in the world to someone, no matter what it costs them.

    • Avatar
      Brennan McPherson May 4, 2017 at 12:52 pm #

      You’re a great writer, Carol. And you’re doing a great job getting your work out. I’m sure you’ll find a growing readership with each new release.

      • Avatar
        Carol May 4, 2017 at 1:03 pm #

        Thanks, Brennan. I sure hope so. I’ll soon find out since #2 is coming out this month.

  12. Avatar
    Tamela Hancock Murray May 4, 2017 at 11:26 am #

    I’m sure your readers love your stories, Carol. Congratulations on finding a way to reach them.

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    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D May 4, 2017 at 12:11 pm #

    Tamela, I have a friend who writes very “light weight” Christian fiction but she is providing a service that her readers want and enjoy and she makes a good living at it. She doesn’t have to compromise her beliefs to write the stories by adding sex scenes, and she gives them the entertainment they crave. Will her books ever be considered “great literature?” Nope, but she has loyal readers who know that her books are a safe haven from the world. It is a win-win situation.

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    Ginny Jaques May 4, 2017 at 2:36 pm #

    In secular academic circles, literary writing is often associated with obscure meanings, vague themes, and complicated imagery. It’s almost as if the work has to be incomprehensible in order to be considered literary.

    In Christian circles I don’t think this rule should apply. In fact, the best Christian fiction can be both entertaining and deeply significant (think C.S. Lewis). I suspect most Christian fiction readers appreciate significant themes, even when they want to escape into a good story.

    Readers have said my novel, Zinovy’s Journey, is a great story, but it also has literary elements, including deeper themes, complex characters and metaphorical language. I don’t think “entertaining” and “literary” need to be mutually exclusive.

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    V. Colclasure May 4, 2017 at 9:16 pm #

    This is just theory – not something that I can do and even, always recognize. I believe that great literature like Huckleberry Finn both entertains and makes readers think at the same time. Some of Dickens books do the same thing. They are great literature.

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