Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Killing me softly?

Recently I've seen something come up on a couple of Christian websites that probably needs to be addressed, because sooner or later some us may find ourselves caught squarely in the crosshairs ... so to speak. Namely, violence in Christian fiction. Not surprisingly the subject quickly found "some agin 'em and some for 'em," as we used to say down South.

In the first group are the … well, call them the "traditionalists", for lack of a better term. Without painting these folks with too broad a brush, they're mainly women, mostly older, and they prefer romance fiction, with a likeminded readership. Violence is anathema to this group, as it should be. These ladies prefer writing--and reading--books with a female lead who is either going through a life crisis or having survived the same, the resolution of which causes them to meet Mister Right. I understand sometimes bonnets are involved. Or something. If that sounds like I don't understand chick lit, you're probably right. But God bless those that do, and God really bless the houses that seem to produce them in freight car lots.

On the other side are the Others (sounds like a Lost episode). For good or ill, I find myself in this group. We're the ones trying to push our books a bit further out. Oddly, this bunch seems (the operative word being "seems") to be growing more rapidly than the first. Is it because our stuff is better-written? Doubtful; over the years I've read some CBA novels going for "edgy" that were simply poorly-penned dreck with Jesus tacked on. Story is still king, folks.

On reflection, I think this group is trying to fill a perceived need: to wit, a dearth of hard-edged fiction that delivers a solid story without "crossing the line" … wherever that is. Sometimes the experiment works, and sometimes it doesn't. When it works, it seems to work splendidly. And when it doesn't ... well.

Which brings us to violence. What's been going hot and heavy on those other boards is the discussion of "how much is too much." In other words, if a story features a showdown between the hero and the villain, what is its logical conclusion? Does the villain suddenly drop his gun, repent his ill deeds, and vow to Walk the Straight and Narrow Evermore? Or does the said bad guy go for his gun (a fraction of a second too slow) and get drilled through the pump for his trouble? Anyone who's ever seen a John Wayne movie can answer that. I'll confess my own stuff tends to the latter resolution. Why? Because as I said upstream, the story demands it. In my world, simply put, some villains are no darn good, and will never be (Adolph Hitler, anyone?).

I'll admit the whole thing is as sticky as new paint, and I'll also be the first to admit that in my own case having a Christian hero who not only packs a gun, but is willing to use it to defend the weak and the powerless, is less than an ideal situation. But we live in a less than ideal world, and sometimes all that's left is to kill a rabid dog rather than trying to reason with it.

At any rate, it's an ongoing conundrum, a debate which has now gotten so heated even the secular press is staring take note. Where will it end? God knows. He really does, though, and about the best we as writers can do is write the most honest story we can.

So with that said, where do you find yourselves on the writing spectrum? Is there a middle ground? Are there some subjects you won't tackle, for whatever reason? Where is your "dividing line?"
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  1. I'm with you, John. I prefer to read gritty stories, and while mine aren't near as gritty as those I read, they're grittier than any bonnet book. (My MC's almost always pack heat, too!)

    I honestly can't think of any topics I wouldn't be willing to try to tackle. They may be a challenge to me, something to stretch me as a person or as a writer. One of the projects I've been working on for 3 years is like this.

  2. Give me grit any day. Most of my stories are about hard-hitting heroes with dark pasts, violent presents, and uncertain futures. I appreciate that not everyone shares my view, but I believe the light shines brightest when there are shadows to dispel.

  3. Then we've got the Crusades. Seems I recall they were a Christian endeavor. Plenty of other violence in the Bible. Sweetness and Light in literature/fiction isn't much fun, actually.

    Most people think of violence as physical. Well, how about the mental effects of false lawsuits, hazing, gossip, and the like?

    Just 'cause you might be a Christian doesn't make you immune. If you don't pay your taxes, the IRS will beget some violence upon your financial life.

  4. I write fluff, but I read grit. Among Christian authors who write suspense/thrillers, I haven't been disappointed--especially with the established authors. They don't feel obligated to include minute detail of the violence, or step-by-step sex scenes, or F-bombs every other word, but their novels are still realistic, tense, and exciting.

    Which means, I'm beginning to wonder what Christians mean when they want to write "edgy" books. When I see excellent authors in the Christian market putting out the same things as excellent authors in the secular market, without the gore, explicit sex, and language, then I assume "edgy" authors want to write the gore, sex, and language. If they do, why can't they be Christian authors in the mainstream market? Why would they want to be included in the Christian market?

    Maybe that's the thing: maybe we need to differentiate between Christian authors and Christian fiction. Not all Christian authors write Christian fiction. Some write mainstream fiction within the confines of their consciences.

  5. I would say the Crusades were a Religious endeavor.

    I prefer to write violent encounters where the actual violence is off-camera (so to speak). One can evoke violence without actually assaulting the reader with explicit description.

    For instance, my favorite vampire novel never directly invokes that term. Steven Brust's Agyar earns lavish praise for the restrained, lyrical type of storytelling.

    The San Francisco Chronicle wrote "Packs more of an emotional wallop than any verbose gore-fest served up by less imaginative talents." And Kirkus Reviews wrote "Compact, understated, and highly persuasive... Brust accomplishes more with a wry turn of phrase or a small flourish what others never achieve despite hundreds of gory spatters."

    There are two issues here, whether violence should be written about at all, and if so, how explicit should it be. I think violence occurs in life and should be reflected in fiction, but strongly feel violence is more effectively portrayed with a deft touch than by (heh) beating people over the head with it*.

    (* See also sex.)

  6. I think this is a healthy thing to go rounds on. We, as Christian writers who are ever endeavoring to reach those who need to hear the good news, need to thing through what the best ways to do that are. Yet, I have to admit it concerns me to see people in the CBA writing more and more like the ABA with the message scrubbed clean. If the light doesn't shine, how will they see it?

    That said, however, I don't feel that every book needs to be a bonnet book. In fact, some of them are so benign and unrealistic as to make me want to chuck the book across the room.

    Let's give people real stories, with real scenarios, with real solutions. And if that means a bad guy needs to get a bullet in the chest, then so be it! Our country didn't come about (nor is our freedom maintained) because people sat back and refused to stand up to the bad guys. People make choices in life. Let us be in the group who chooses to be on God's side. And let us portray that in our writing with the light shining brightly against the shadows.

  7. I've spent the last two years reading copious amounts of Christian fiction of many genres from Amish to suspense to fantasy. There is a lot more than bonnets going on in Christian fiction today. Those may be grabbing a lot of the headlines (and the grousing) but they are not the be-all-end-all of Christian fiction. I've read about child abuse, rape, murder, divorce, and many other real life issues (yes - some of those even in the bonnet books!) throughout the past two years.

    Stereotyping Christian fiction as as being all bonnets is like saying secular fiction is all F-bombs. Neither is true. There is a lot of great secular fiction being printed and a lot of great Christian fiction as well.

    I do believe that Christian books should be free of explicit sin. That doesn't mean there isn't sin - of course - but does the reader need his/her nose rubbed in it to understand it? No. Portray the sin as what it is, absolutely. Trotting out each gory detail serves no purpose other than exploitation.

    And for the record, I've read 4 of John Robinson's books. He does an excellent job of walking "the line" to create stories that are believable and enjoyable.

  8. As everyone else has already said, real life isn't neat and tidy. It is messy. I prefer realistic stories with some grit, but I don't want to be hit over the head with excessive violence ie: detailed description of a man being chainsawed to death. Nor do I want a lot of profanity. The suggestion of either can be done to further the story without turning your stomach and your sens of taste inside out. Great post, John. Very interesting thoughts and comments.

  9. Good grief. I'm all over the map on this one. First of all, I'm one of those old ladies John mentioned, but I'm publishing my first novel and blood is a major theme. Blood outside of at least seven bodies, in fact. My characters let slip the odd swear word, though I don't even say "gosh" because it stands for...well, you know.

    I've written the book for a secular audience, but the Gospel is presented as graphically as the blood and gore, so I've probably managed to offend every target audience in the reading world.

    I have covered my bases as best I can, though. I've put a message on the back of the book, like on the back of cigarette packs. Warning: some scenes in this book contain violence, strong language, and religious ideas. That should about cover it, I think. If anyone asks for their money back, they won't have a legal leg to stand on.

    I'll probably give it to them, anyway, though, because I'm a sweet little old lady. Sigh. I'm so confused.

  10. Lynnette said, "some of them are so benign and unrealistic as to make me want to chuck the book across the room." AMEN--especially in Christian romance. I once read a book where the 30-something MC was wondering if it was okay to kiss her boyfriend! Puh-lease!!! I think Christian romance is the weakest of all the genres, but I guess I'm particularly picky because it's what I write.

    Pegg: "Portray the sin as what it is, absolutely. Trotting out each gory detail serves no purpose other than exploitation." My thoughts exactly.

    Ginny: "I've probably managed to offend every target audience in the reading world." How funny. Who knows? Being a controversial author may be a good thing! I think this really is a dilemma for authors who want to include graphic scenes. Unless you self-publish, how do you find a publisher?

  11. *I had a typo in the previous comment and I couldn't find an edit button.

    I'm sort of in the middle. I'm not a big fan of "prairie romance" but I wouldn't touch a graphic scary R-rated horror movie with a ten foot pole.

    I don't like swearing, gore, or immodesty, but I'm okay with some violence, or kissing (as long as it's not crazy).

  12. Great thoughts all, folks (and thanks for the kind comments). To further throw a monkey wrench into the mix, consider this: while females make up most of the readership in both CBA and the general market, the latter has many more males reading novels than the former.

    Given that, if a person was to set out to purchase a book for a male Christian reader, would you look for a general market novel, or CBA? And do you think the choices in CBA novels that would fit that reader is growing, diminishing, or about the same?

    Tell all! *G*

  13. You can certainly find Christian authors in both worlds. Thomas Nelson publishes Ted Dekker and Tim Downs, Zondervan pubs Mike Snyder (not exactly "gritty" but Mike does have light-weight swear words in his works), Baker/Revell pubs Steven James. I don't think I'd be shy about purchasing any of these. I've never read Jim Bell's fiction, but he's published by Hatchette group.

    These guys aren't Frank Peretti, Jerry Jenkins, or Tim LaHaye types. Their works aren't evangelistic, and I believe they'd be competitive in the secular market.

    Question is, if a guy discovers he received a thriller written by a Christian author, would he be willing to read it, or would he prefer a Joe Finder or James Patterson?

  14. Linda, I did self-publish. Created my own publishing company and went the whole way myself. My story didn't fit any of the market niches traditional publishers were after, either CBA or ABA. It just fell through the cracks. And I didn't go with self-publishing boutique companies because my novel was too long. Adding in the extra middlemen would have forced me to charge more for my book than I wanted the general reader to pay. So I'm selling through my website. We'll see how that works. I've got some kinky online marketing ideas.

    John, I'm amazed that the non-Christian males readers I know seem open to reading Christian books if they're interesting enough. They all seem to have eclectic tastes. Ted Dekker, Joel Rosenberg, and even the Left Behind series are okay with my non-Christian male friends, because they're curious. Especially if the story idea is a little different. I think non-Christians are interested in speculation about the future, which is what mine is about. Again, we'll see.

  15. Agreed, Jenny. Men won't admit it, but we're as curious as cats. I think that's why your male non-Christian friends are reading those writers you mentioned. Something in the description, or perhaps in the writing itself, pinged their sonar, and caused them to give those books try. Which is very cool.

    Now somebody give me some catnip. And a sock. *G*

  16. John, your comment stimulated my thinking on this topic so much that I wrote a reply that should really be a blog post, not a comment. I think I'll blog it instead of putting it here. In short, I do think catnip for men has to 1) have a very strong smell, and it has to 2) lure men into taking risks (at least vicariously) that will destroy at least eight of their nine lives. I'll let you know when the post is up, if you'd like to continue the conversation. It may be awhile. I'm behind on what I should say on the writing blog. Thanks for the stimulation. I need to think about things like this.

  17. I'm going to speak here as a reader rather than as an author because as an author, I write what God gives me to write. As a reader, when I first found Christian romance, it was about beige-dull. The first three I read had the pastor showing up at the door at the first sign of trouble. I think the push-back against unrealistic happened shortly thereafter.

    I'm not an R-rated kind of gal. Gore, violence, and graphic anything are not what I want to put into my mind. So much of the "edgy" stuff now just goes too far for me (not for everyone, for me!). But I'm also not a G-rated girl in reading tastes. I can handle kissing (not the R-kind, but the PG or even PG-13 doesn't bother me). I do like thornier issues, and I love something with a subtle message of hope. Not necessarily out-right, in your face religion.

    But again, that's just me. I think in the end, write what you most like to read. There will be others out there who want to read what you write.

  18. It's a big world and I think it's big enough for bonnets and bullets. That said, there are both bad bonnet books and bad bullet books. With the former, it's forgetting to put real, multi-dimensional characters in their books and the latter it's sin for the sake of sin.

    As a reader I'm willing to read some things -- as long as it advances the story. But when, say, Thomas Harris wrote "Hannibal" it seemed mainly for the purpose of making his readers throw up their collective lunch. (Even when your MC is a cannibal, there's way to get it across that he's Beyond Deviant without every last thing being so explicit.)

    As an author, I aim for the middle ground. No profanity, no "on screen" sex, and violence only if it's going to be a major plot point. But that's just my thing -- I'm certainly not going to judge authors who write differently. There's plenty of room for all of us in Christian Fiction as long as we keep the faith, pun intended.