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On Christian Fiction, Part I: Bad Readers Make Bad Writers

April 4th, 2007 Posted in The Artful Life

There’s a debate in Christian writing circles arising out of the perceived difficulty of getting publishers under the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) umbrella to carry more “literary” work. The underlying conflict between literary and mass-market fiction has existed in one form or another long before the CBA took root, of course. The first time a caveman etched a picture of his battle with the woolly mammoth, there was probably a scratcher of intricate berry-gathering vignettes waiting to denounce his work as sentimental and derivative.

The CBA question is especially interesting (to me, at least), because it incorporates not only questions of good art, but of purposeful art, which is itself a separate and tangled thicket. Does art with a high-minded purpose run the risk of being contrived and insincere? Should the purpose of the Christian artist be anything other than to tell the truth, i.e., to be a good artist — and if not, what’s the purpose of an association dedicated to the selling of “Christian” books?

Whenever the debate is joined, it threatens to surface a more delicate matter, regarding what Christians choose to consume with their minds. Since free markets consist of sellers in service to willing buyers, our concern about what publishers print is really, in one dimension at least, a concern with what our friends choose to read. Tastes are cultivated, of course, and so we can quibble over what parents and schools teach (or more likely, fail to teach), but those dissatisfied (disheartened? disgusted?) by current CBA offerings are really dissatisfied with readers. As long as scores of readers get pleasure out of a book that can be written in a month, there will be authors turning out a book a month.

One runs the risk, in making this observation, of appearing to be one of those pedantic, precious little creative types who is convinced that the world has rejected his art because the masses have neither sense nor discernment. But some things are true even if Allan Bloom said so.

There’s much more to be said here (and I promise not to afflict you with all of it), but I’ll take it up in the next post.