Why I bother putting religion into my writing
October 29th 2013
It’s not a secret that I’m a Christian – those two essays on Christian fiction and my ongoing relationship with the Greenbelt festival are a bit of a giveaway – and I can’t deny my faith (here, loosely defined as what I believe my religion is telling me about the world we live in and how I ought to live my life within it) has an effect on what I write and how I write. Neither would I want to deny it. I have a PhD in geophysics: that also affects what I write and how I write. I have a political stance, which etc… Writers are people, and people are complicated.
And if anything, being a “Christian writer” should have an effect – it’d be a weird-ass religion (or I a very poor adherent) if it didn’t. It means that I should keep to deadlines, or explain early enough why I’m not so that alternative plans can be made. It means that I should honour contracts, not try and wriggle out of them if a better offer comes along, and generally behave like a professional in a professional business. It means that I should keep appointments and engagements, or give people timely enough warning that I can’t make it – and not just because I can’t be bothered. It means that my interaction with fans, reviewers, other writers, publishers, agents and such like should be polite, calm and reasonable. (Because there’s more than enough drama in real life without putting it on the internet… oh, wait…)
If you’ve read any of my stuff, you’ll have probably noticed a couple of things. Firstly, what I write isn’t exactly “Christian fiction”. This is deliberate, for all the reasons I set out in the essays. It could be said that the Petrovitch books are almost the antithesis of Christian fiction: everything that shouldn’t be in there, is, and everything that should be, isn’t. I’m more than content with that – they are the stories I want to tell. Secondly, I do write about religion. I have characters who are religious. I have plots and sub-plots involving religious practice and belief. I do it a lot.
What provokes this post is a comment left on Mike Duran’s excellent blog, deCOMPOSE, by someone attached to Lion books in the UK – Lion are a Christian publisher, now owned (I think) by Baker publishing, a big US Christian publisher. This is the quote I picked up on:
“Lion Hudson (Oxford, England) represents the Baker Publishing Group in the UK, where there is considerable resistance to ANY religious element in a novel in the ABA (general) sector”
Okay. At face value, this is a fairly sweeping statement to make. I don’t have enough time or energy to compile a statistical analysis of all the fiction published by the Big 5/6 and rank them for their inclusiveness of religion – I’m busy writing books, which takes up most of my time. What you’re going to get instead is a data point.
I have never, ever, been asked by any UK publisher to tone down, diminish or otherwise remove any single religious element in any of my books.
“Ah, but what if you had?” you ask. Well, I haven’t, but if I had, I’d consider it along with any of the other editorial suggestions that make up the give and take of the editorial process. Because I’m not perfect, and the thing about editing a book is to make it better, not worse – kill your darlings and all that. I refuse (see above for behaving professionally) to throw a wobbly because a trusted reader is telling me “Simon, this bit just doesn’t work.”
And the reason that I’m provoked by a comment that there’s “considerable resistance” to ANY (note the caps, comrades) religious element in a mainstream novel is that I’ve, if anything, made that strand more, not less, significant in Arcanum. The differences in the religions of the main characters is a significant part of the plot. It’s in the backstory, it’s a driver for the action, it’s central to the motivations of some of the protagonists, and no one remains unaffected by the interplay of those beliefs. Furthermore, the two religions I describe aren’t simply made-up fantasy-book religions (quiet there in the stalls), but attempts at actual Germanic paganism and actual Judaism.
So why do I it? Why do I describe lives that have religion front-and-centre? Simply this reason: people sometimes do. By ignoring or downplaying the importance of faith in their beliefs, their practices and their interactions – good and ill, warts and all – they’re not fully rounded characters and less believable. That’s it. That’s why. Because it’s better writing.
I’m going to finish with this thought: if publishers are resistant to the religious element in your book, it’s not the ‘religious’ they’re objecting to. They’re objecting to the fact that the way you’ve done it makes your book suck. Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-prizewinning Gilead is currently published in the UK by Virago. A more “religious element” novel is hard to imagine, yet … well: it does rather undermine the assertion.