A major topic of discussion among writers of all types of Christian books is the issue of how far is too far when showing someone’s life before they surrendered to Christ, and how real you show their journey of sanctification once they exit the broad road.
It’s called the “edge.” A lot of writers want to write with an edge, with real language and situations to make it more like real life. After all, the evil guy in a novel doesn’t say, “Excuse me sir, I feel you are incorrect in your assessment of my mother.”
To explore this issue, I’ll first give a simple “cop-out” answer to why Christian publishing is hesitant about edgy themes, and then I’ll get a little deeper in an attempt to unpack the issue.
The Cop-Out Explanation
Literary agents aren’t to blame since we listen to what publishers tell us and they mostly avoid profanity and sexual situations, which might make a book more “real” in some opinions.
Publishers aren’t to blame since they listen to their distribution channels and other than Amazon, just about every place selling Christian books tells them they want “clean” books. So publishers are off the hook.
Distribution channels (other than Amazon) aren’t to blame because they listen to their customers. Complaints from customers are never related to a lack of profanity and sexual situations. But when a book shows up with a mild profane word in it or a situation deemed inappropriate…the fireworks begin. Retailers want to avoid complaints.
Finally, customers are not to blame, because customers are always right.
The Complicated Explanation
Publishing is not about literary agencies, publishing companies, channels of distribution and customer segments as if they were machinery. It is easy to criticize a machine or industry.
But publishing is about the people who work at literary agencies, publishers, channels of distribution and the people who buy books.
In general, Christians seek to avoid putting things in their minds reminding them of a previous life when Christ held no influence over their life. As they cross over to the new life found as a Christ-follower, they desire to put new things into their minds.
Honorable things. Lovely things.
I recall sending a proposal to an editor on a very difficult theme…the suicide of a loved one. It was a great story of recovery. But the editor declined because it was too close to their personal experience. They simply couldn’t bear to work on a book, which mirrored their own personal pain.
So, was it a publishing company turning it down, or a person? A person of course, just like it always is. People make decisions, not companies and because people in Christian publishing in general would rather avoid the “edge,” those books with an edge will have difficulty finding a publisher in the Christian market.
In a rather sweeping generality, Christian publishers have a corporate brand, which distinguishes them from the “world” by publishing books, which are not even close to what the world considers appropriate.
Christian publishers are generally pretty conservative, so authors who want to write edgy plots with language and certain situations included for impact and realism are generally going to be frustrated by the lack of interest in their work.
Oh, well, the issue will never be settled in this life, but it is worth a lively discussion.
I recall a debate from almost 40 years ago between two musicians over the issue of what made for good Christian music. It was frustrating to watch as a much-younger version of myself who was seeking a definitive answer to the question.
Now older, I’ve observed how God allows Christians to disagree on certain topics because he knows the true answer lies somewhere between the human viewpoints. The mild tug of war is how he allows his imperfect children to set boundaries in a fallen world where the answer to a particular question needs to be painted in a color neither black or white.
This is an awesome post Dan. I have been struggling with whether to lean toward the Christian market or go over “to the dark side”. Not really, but you know what I mean. My writing definitely has a Christian worldview, but if that is all we write about, then how do we reach the lost, the broken, the ones who need to know that they aren’t alone in their experiences. When i was over that edge, i never would have considered reading a christian novel. There has to be a middle ground where we can teeter on the edge without falling over. A dangerous place to traverse I agree, but since when are we supposed to play it safe? Lives aren’t saved on the couch with the fluffy pillows, they are saved in the trenches. In the places where the lost have fallen. I think the trick is to go to those places, give the impression, but stop short of the offensive. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. But personally I get tired of the pat answers to trouble. There is real pain and I believe that some people work through it in the midst of story. Sounds like the market may be open for a publisher on the edge 🙂 nudge nudge…
I don’t think you’re wrong, Lisa. If our deepest desire is to fulfill the great commission, we have to go near the edge to throw the rope to those stuck in the ditch. The key is to find the place where you can toss the rope without falling in. How does a writer do that if ABA won’t let you throw the rope, and CBA won’t let you get near the edge?
The great irony is that if we took many of the stories of the Bible, simply updated/repackaged them, then pitched them to Christian publishers, they’d get rejected out-of-hand as WAY too edgy. And, of course, if a pastor did some of the things Jesus did, he’d be out of a job before the next deacon’s meeting!
This fear/reluctance in so many Christian circles (including publishing) to face and talk honestly about messy, real-life struggles (without glorifying them) is a primary reason so many are leaving the church (especially younger people). It’s also why many outside the church shake their heads in disbelief and disgust. Christian publishers won’t dare publish a “cuss word.” (But Christian voters will overwhelmingly and enthusiastically get behind a political candidate who does that and worse.)
Here’s a worthwhile exercise: Go to an AA or Celebrate Recovery meeting and watch and listen. Then go to the average Sunday a.m. worship and observe. The difference is breathtaking. In one place, broken people opening their hearts, talking authentically–and often in colorful language–about some pretty raw stuff–and finding grace, hope, life. In the other place, people feeling pressured to board up their hearts, live in denial, act like they have it all together, and then–if they feel super brave–haltingly sharing “unspoken” prayer requests, parsing their words like a defense attorney at a press conference. I’m painting with a VERY broad brush, I know. But how sad! Didn’t Jesus warn repeatedly against fixating on externals and thereby missing the heart of the matter?
I’ve struggle reading this and can’t let it pass without reply. More than painting with a board brush, you’ve missed the point. The issue at hand is Christian publishing as it responds to its market. And Christian publishing graveyards are littered with failed companies that ignored their customers. Troubled outsiders, alcoholics and prodigals aren’t a majority of Christian book readers, nor do they shop Christian book stores to find books they can relate to. Publishing books in the CBA for them is economic suicide.
Attacking pastors, the church and worship services is not only off topic, it’s inaccurate. I’m sorry you see you find so little value in these things. Decrying the loss of youth, the troubled and those outside of Christianity again, doesn’t address the Christian writer’s dilemma. If you want the grit and reality of an AA meeting, the ABA has plenty of such books. The question at hand is whether the CBA can publish the same thing and remain economically viable. Condemning Christians because too many of them don’t prefer such reading materials doesn’t really help.
Wow, Brad. I’m sorry you interpreted my comments as a blanket attack on pastors or a condemnation of Christians. That’s not my heart, nor was that my intent. I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer and more artful in my expression. For the record, I’m almost 58 years old and have spent my LIFE in the “Bible Belt,” engaged in church and ministry. I have also been deeply involved in Christian publishing for almost 30 years. So, it’s not true that I “find so little value in these things.” My hope is the gospel. I love words, the power of story, and the Church of Jesus. I care deeply about Christendom (or Christian sub-culture, or whatever term you want to use), and only want to see believers living as lambs among wolves–penetrating the darkness, rather than ignoring it or running from it. I could be wrong (I often am!), but I’m not convinced the state of the Church, Christian publishing, the Christian writer’s dilemma, and the condition of culture at large are separate, unrelated issues. Brad, I would LOVE the opportunity to dialogue with you further, but I’d rather not do so on a blog thread. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you’ll write back and we can talk.
I so agree with you, Dan. I think we can write about people in sinful situations without going over the edge – just like the Bible does. We see David and Bathsheba’s sin and its results and pain without getting all hot and bothered with the intimate details.
Unfortunately I am seeing too many intimate details in some best-selling Christian fiction authors. There are about three that I no longer read at all because of going over the edge, and the context wasn’t even about someone’s life before conversion or their struggle with a sin issue. I would urge publishing companies to hold the line.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
I’m thinking we probably avoid the same Christian fiction authors for the same reason. I don’t know if I’m being hypocritical or not: For many years I have enjoyed the brilliant story crafting of authors like Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum (who, I was warned then observed for myself, almost always compartmentalized his “worst” stuff into one chapter that can easily be skimmed over). I’ve learned about pacing, character development, the importance of setting to the suspension of disbelief in high action fiction, and how to have a flawed hero readers fully embrace (Jason Bourne). With them, I know what to expect, and can anticipate making the decision not to dwell on anything I shouldn’t. It’s my kind of intellectual entertainment. But when I choose Christian fiction, I’m looking for uplifting, hopeful, edifying, and spiritually challenging content written at the same high technical level as authors like Clancy write. Honestly, books like that seem to be rare these days (with a few notable exceptions). Right or not, seeing a pattern of crossing that edginess line sometimes implies to me that the author is using questionable means in an effort to seem more current or relevant. I’d rather see more masterful writing than more shocking realism. That may be grossly unfair and applying a spiritually immature standard, but I suspect a lot of Christian readers respond that way, too. Life surely does have a lot of gray areas, and we want the Christian fiction we read to be a little more “pure” and less muddied (gray mud ;-)) than real life. A bit of escapism. I read and greatly respect some of the edgy Christian non-fiction authors who write really well–Anne Lamott comes to mind; but I read her when I want to be challenged. I studiously avoid others who appear to want to “roll in the mud” or rehash every emerging aspect of their own past or present mental illnesses: too much mud for me. I think I have a similar standard for Christian fiction.
I just finished a novel by a Christian author. She is new to the field, so I was looking forward to seeing her style. In the foreword, she gave credit to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ etc. I was quite surprised and extremely disappointed to read her curse words sprinkled throughout the novel. There were also a couple of scenes that went over the edge in sexual content. None of this was necessary and did not add to the story. I read clean, Christian fiction for a reason. We don’t need to compromise our writing so we can fit in. I personally will not share her book with anyone, nor will I read any more of her works. Christian Publishers I do hope you keep your standards.
I certain agree that Christian fiction should probably be that – geared for Christians. I just think there is there is that group that is walking that line wanting to cross over. That needs to be addressed. Maybe with warnings of content? I don’t know what the answer is, I just know that if we wrap ourselves in our hidey hole we will never affect real change. Imagine if Jesus didn’t talk to the Samaritan woman about her sexual behavior. That was truly revolutionary for that day. I agree that there has to be a limit and some things just don’t need to be said, but if I hear one more platitude I’m going to scream….well probably not, but maybe….
I’m curious…do you mind naming the publisher of this book?
I guess the question comes down to intended audience. Do you have a missionary spirit, or do you want to encourage the choir? For the choir, keeping everything sanitized so someone can enjoy a story free not simply of “unchristian” words but truly lost people and disturbing situations is a fine thing to do.
But if you have a missionary heart and want your novels to speak to a reader who doesn’t know the power of Jesus to take the very worst among us and give us a transformed life, then you’re going to get closer to the edge. Maybe not with words, but certainly with characters and situations that mirror the pain of the real world without wallowing in descriptions that are too explicit and conversations that are filled with profanity.
I’m writing novels of spiritual transformation in a brutal, profane time. I don’t use explicit profanity or vivid descriptions of unsavory acts. You could say I write “clean” from that perspective, but my people move through their world as it was and struggle as they discover the better way of life with Jesus. I want a Christian to be able to say to any friend,”This is a great read. Try it.” with confidence that they will not only enjoy a riveting story but see why a character would choose to follow Jesus.
There’s a need for both kinds of writing, but where is the trad publisher home for the missionary hearts?
A very interesting discussion. I personally want to see (and strive to write) more books that are “edgy” as far as being more honest. I don’t want profanity or sex, whether before or after conversion, but I do want characters who face difficult decisions and maybe don’t always make the right choice…what should they do then? Maybe a story ends without all the questions being answered. Or maybe a character is real about their struggles and doesn’t necessarily have their problems solved by the end of the book, or they find themselves growing in their faith but, heaven forbid, still struggling with doubts. That is what I would consider “edgy.”
Dan, you mention it is actually people who make the publishing decisions, not companies or houses or anything else. It comes down to the people, especially the customers. But authors are people, too, and we know we can’t just write something because it’s what we’re “supposed” to write. It has to be something we believe in, something from our heart. Sometimes what comes out is edgy, and that kind of writing speaks to me. I believe there are others out there who feel the same.
Katie, I agree. While everyone has their own tolerance level, many readers (no exaggeration here) I’ve talked to about this ignore the Christian book section in favor of secular books because they feel they find more honesty there. I heard from a teen blogger that she reads more secular books because they better relate to the (dark) world she lives in, even as a Christian. She went so far as to say if she had known there were edgier Christian books out there, she would most definitely read them. So maybe the market for clean books does well because it’s geared for an audience with a low tolerance for grit. Unfortunately, some members of this audience tend to shame those who read/write grittier stories.
But what a great ministry the darker Christian books could be for those who need characters they can relate to, or for prodigal sons and daughters who may not wish to pick up a clean book. Or for unbelievers as well, who may unknowingly stumble upon a book that presents the gospel to them in a culturally significant way. They are most certainly people too.
Having said that, I’m a fan of the clean stuff as well, when I need a break, or just want something lighter to read.
This is a valuable discussion and I think it does boil down to who is our target audience? Writing can be edgy without using profanity or sexual situations but I think many people who want “edgy” are really saying “realistic”. Is it realistic that two adults falling in love won’t have their first kiss till the very end of the book after they’ve decided to love and get married? No, I don’t think so. Is it realistic to write a story about the death of a child without showing deep grief and the parents anger at God? Obviously not, and yet we expect our “clean” books to never show of characters feelings in a realistic way. There are Christians who look to honour God in their choice of reading but who still want to see some realistic struggle with temptation and some realistic struggles with grief and deep emotions. It is a fine line, but I believe we can walk it with the help of industry professionals – and the Lord!
The number one consideration every writer should be keeping in mind is if their every book, every scene, every word they use, is used to ultimately glorify God. When you really dig for the answer, God’s going to show you.
And every individual has a different story to tell.
But as for me, portraying “real” life can still be done effectively through a filter. I’ve had to toss Christian books before because I find them offensive. On those occasions, I often wished the author would have stopped focusing on the sin itself, but rather the effects that sin had on the character.
That’s what mattered. We all know what sin is, deep down. No one need explain it to us. But it never hurts to see or be reminded how destructive and damaging sin is. Show the bleeding heart and God’s life-giving love. To me, that’s the only reality worth portraying.
Really good comment, Samantha!
It seems to me many of today’s Christian authors are fishing in the wrong pond, as my grandfather would put it. They want to write gritty realism while their alleged audience wants clean escapism. Christian readers are looking to feed the right “dog” in today’s spiritual warfare. They want clean, uplifting materials that reestablish the right morality, have models to follow, and leave them feeling hopeful and good. They want entertainment that promotes their Christian walk. It’s no use blaming them because they don’t want “grit, realism, questionable materials” …etc. If you write for the choir, expect they want heavenly music.
Thus the complaint there is no Christian publishing house to front missionary materials falls short. It’s hard to imagine Christian publishers haven’t tried this or don’t want to make bundles of money, if gritty, troubled characters would sell. The truth is they probably don’t sell well enough to justify the effort, as Dan expressed. Christian publishers sell to Christians.
It seems missionary-minded writers should be in the non-Christian market. It’s much bigger, has those people who are looking for any hope at all, and their realism and grit would come across as tame. The only limits there are they can’t come across as obvious or peachy and they must be talented writers. But these are the very things we preach to ourselves on this site! Amazon and self-publishing are viable options. It’s just a matter of these authors jumping into the culture and being willing to get dirty in the non-Christian publishing world.
Christ couldn’t save prostitutes and tax collectors from the temple. He had to go where they were. As C.S. Lewis said, “The world doesn’t need more Christian authors. It needs more authors who are Christians.” If you want to reach the lost, fish in their pond.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
I agree, Brad. I don’t read a lot of Christian fiction (hypocrite that I am) because it is too full of sunshine and rainbows. God fulfilled my goal with my first book. A non-Christian woman who knew me bought a copy because she knew me. She read it. She said, “It is Christian, but I like it.” She bought two more copies, had me sign them, and mailed them to her friends in other states. I self-published my book, and I sold about 30 copies, so I am not trying to get a publishing contract here. (LOL) I think I am more a writer who is Christian than a Christian writer. I love to write about how Christ transforms lives, and if I took Christ out of my books, I wouldn’t have any books. But I have trouble not crossing the lines as far as content, even though I don’t have blatant sexuality or cursing. My purpose is not to indulge people’s morbid fascination with the sinful but to show life as it is and how Christ can transform lives. That is a fine line to walk, and I may never master it. However, I understand why the publishing industry is the way it is, and I am not bitter or resentful. If God wants my books out there, He will get them out there. If He doesn’t, I have a great, fun hobby that I am pursuing. I am going to wait and see.
Addendum to my comment: I do read Christian fiction, I just don’t like the sunshine and rainbows fiction. It is my preference as a reader.
Same, Catherine. I cannot stomach perfect Christians. I have hit a wall writing because it is either not Christian enough or too Christian or too edgy (? where) and won’t make the Christian market. I don’t write edgy, just redemptive. There is no sex, swearing, drinking, drugs etc. I’ve been praised on my writing but to change to this, so I do, then that, then back then this then it’s not right for the christian market. ouch but, like you said, if it’s God’s will, it will publish, if not, then it’s a great hobby.
The subjective nature of what is “edgy” and what is “profane” sets standards and limits of varying degrees to different individuals.
One of the easiest ways to limit potential offense to a maximum number of readers/customers is to set the dial on the Christian publishing “edgy meter” to “MINIMAL”. This is not without potential converse results.
Dan, you get to set the meter for your entire publishing company. Steve has had to do it for his. Each agent has to do it pertaining to what they will and won’t represent. Each author has to do it for their own work. Each reader has to do it for their own consumption.
There are many stops all along the watchtower. Discernment, another grand gift from Our Father.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Thanks for your posting on edginess. As a Christian reader, I do not enjoy reading profanity or sexual scenes, and so I appreciate the built-in accountability that seems to be present. I did find you comment interesting where you mentioned “customers are not to blame, because customers are always right.” When I worked at Walt Disney World, we would say “the guest is not always right, but he or she is always the guest,” indicating that a certain amount of respect was to be present in our comments to visitors. I think that bleeds over (no pun intended here) onto the world of books, as well.
I think sometimes, when we want to paint a picture of the ‘pre-Christ’ life, we can do it better by spending more time on the emptiness and darkness in the soul, instead of focusing on the external expressions of said darkness. When I am speaking and sharing parts of my past, especially to a group that might include people who have not found their own faith yet, it is important for me to emphasize the dark emptiness, and not to spend much time describing the actual sins. Because some people who are not entirely free can still find themselves drawn to those sins, even though I am trying to describe them as bad. I don’t need them to know how to sin in more detail, I need them to know and feel the awful residue it leaves in my soul, and the freedom that comes from turning to God. I imagine writing can sometimes be done the same way.
I agree. Well said.
Well said, Jaime! Just enough to put it in context without crossing into tempting or degrading descriptions and vocab but focus instead on the residue in the soul (love that phrase!).
One of my author friends pointed this out to me. She picked certain words out of my book and explained how they could cause temptation to others. To me, it was just a descriptive word–(I was describing a dress.); to someone else, it was a doorway to sin. I am grateful that she explained this to me because I am more careful in my wording. I agree with you, Jaime, the longing for a power greater than us and the emptiness and darkness of a life without Christ does connect with unbelievers.
True, but in writing we are supposed to ‘show, not tell.’ I’d be interested in you, or anyone else’s idea as to how we show the soul’s blackness without illustrating the sins that result from such blackness. A ticklish problem.
I think some carry that “show, don’t tell” dictum to the point of absurdity. The top novels by famous authors that include rich descriptive passages and sometime tell instead of show an emotion are still selling better than most and are loved and praised by new readers. If it takes telling instead of showing to keep it wholesome enough, then we should feel free to tell, not show.
You are right, it is not easy to do, even when speaking. But we need to view the problem for what it really is, a sickness of the soul. And in that context, what ‘shows’ up in the soul is the same, regardless of the outward behaviors. An addiction is the same at its core whether it is an addiction to drugs, to alcohol, to video games or to sex. The actual outlet only needs to be referred to in general, but what it does inside is the same. Instead of giving too much detail to a behavior that the enemy likes to glorify, spend more time describing what is lost because of it. In scripture, Paul refers to a thorn in his flesh, but he does not need to go into graphic detail for us to know how it affects him. Because that part is not relevant when his purpose is to point to God.
Peggy Rychwa/Sheryl Marcoux
This is a tough question when it comes to “show don’t tell” in today’s verbally hostile world. But if we’re really Christian writers, we need to look at what the Bible instructs us about using obscenities: “…get rid of… dirty language” (Colossians 3:8 NLT). If we’re Christian authors doing the Lord’s work, then we’ve got to do it His way. Compromising by using worldly ways is sinning, and that would cause a worldly reader to lose respect for you and for Christ.
The decision as to if a Christian writer should use vulgar language must belong to God. God says, “No.”
By the way, I received a five-star review on Amazon by someone who had stated, “I loved that it wasn’t woven with vulgar language.”
Let’s bring light into the world, not darkness into the Kingdom.
Okay, if we’re looking at neither black or white boundaries, I opt for turquoise. (grin).
There is a biblical perspective to this question.
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
Having seen some of the seamier side of life, I can understand the desire not to expose one’s mind to more of it.
Part of the genius of good Christian novelists is their ability to indicate that seamier side without indulging in the gritty specifics. When I find that, I’m in awe.
So, I guess the larger conclusion might be that people in the publishing world labeled “Christian” are writing and publishing only for readers who want someone to shelter their reading for them. While I can understand this desire at some level. I wonder if it’s always useful in shaping God’s people for God’s purposes. . . . . .?
This topic generated a spirited debate. Consensus? Not quite. But it made me consider the varying opinions. Thanks.
I typed in google- raw and edgy literary agents because I cannot go any other way then how it all actually happened with my story of redemption.
Thanks for this, it is good to know as a self published author I still have a chance at this with book #2.
Needed to read this today… thank you.