Where are we now? Sex, death and Christian fiction revisited
As promised, here is the text of my talk at this year’s Greenbelt Festival. The talk wasn’t recorded, so you don’t get my witty ad-libs and asides (for which you’re all eternally grateful, I’m sure), but this is the entirety of my notes.
This essay is published under a Creative Commons licence: usual rules apply, and comments welcome.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License.
Where are we now? A Greenbelt 2011 talk by Simon Morden
Blue pill – red pill
I like the film The Matrix. And yes, it is a shame they never made any sequels. In The Matrix, a young computer hacker called Neo starts to realise that reality isn’t quite what it’s supposed to be. He ends up being offered a choice by Morpheus.
“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
I’m going to offer the writers in the audience a similar choice: you can listen to what I have to say, and decide it’s not for you. You’ll wake up tomorrow, and the world won’t have changed. Or you can decide I’m on to something here – and it could end up changing everything.
How did we get here?
Back in 2005, in an act of either misplaced bravery or extreme hubris, I took on the Christian fiction industry. I delivered a – the kind word to use would be polemic – in a tent located pretty much where the Jesus Arms is. I wasn’t expecting to bring down the temple in one mighty shove, but I did want to let people know that I was as mad as hell, and I wasn’t going to take it any longer.
What brought me to that point was partly my own experiences with the fringes of the Christian fiction world, but mostly a growing realisation that there were grave artistic problems with writing what Christian fiction publishers wanted. I was frustrated by the blind alley I felt I’d led myself up, and then frustrated all over again at others making that same journey.
By 2005, I’d been a published author for six years: I’d written a host of short stories, enough for two collections, a small press novel, and a novella that later went on to be shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award. None of these had been published by Christian publishers, but a decade earlier, I’d been in negotiations with Lion. We’d just about malleted out a publishable manuscript, when they decided to stop publishing adult fiction completely.
What I discovered afterwards, was that this publishable manuscript simply wasn’t up to scratch, according to every agent and SF publisher in the UK. And yes, I did try. Something was clearly wrong – was it because the story was too Christian, or because it wasn’t good enough?
The answer, slowly won over the next few years, was both, and the two were inextricably linked. There was something about my creating Christian fiction that degraded the story’s worth – and after that, I realised that it wasn’t just me thinking that way. There were other Christians who wanted to be writers, but somehow couldn’t quite mould the stories they wanted to tell to fit inside the strictures that the Christian publishing industry imposed.
So when I stood up in front of all those people – and it was quite a number, considering I was very much a Z-list author without much past success, a current publishing contract, or at that point, an agent – it was with real, heartfelt indignation but with very little else. I would encourage you to read the original talk if you haven’t already, but the argument boils down to essentially this:
“[For Christian fiction publishers], the criteria are not based on either literary merit, or commercial success. There is another whole area of concern which overrides even the commercial one. Does it fit into our doctrinal basis? Does it have Christian characters at its centre? Does it avoid references to sex, drugs, drink, violence? Does it communicate God to the reader? Will it strengthen Christians? Will it save souls?
The publisher and the bookseller are no longer filters for artistic or commercial concerns. They become controllers of the content of the story. They are the gatekeepers, and their criteria for publication dictates what shall pass.
We, the writers, are faced with the proposition that if we do not write to their criteria, there is no chance of publication – no matter how good our writing is…
… This is what causes Christian fiction to have such a bad reputation: it is simply that good writing is rejected because it does not say what the publishers want it to say.”
I finished the talk, and waited for the audience to smack me down. It didn’t happen. There were questions, which I fielded more or less competently, and then it was over. Except that it wasn’t. I put the text of the talk on my website, and people started reading it, and quoting it. People used it for academic research and teaching fiction writing courses. Six years later, and it still pops up whenever the subject gets mentioned.
Has anything changed?
So, in those six years, has anything happened to make me change my mind? I hadn’t given the question much serious thought in the intervening time, so this has been an opportunity for me to revisit the subject in hopefully a more measured and objective way.
In those intervening years, I’ve had another four novels published – three of those in the last year, though that’s not normal by any stretch of the imagination. But yes, I now write books and people pay me for them.
I hope I’ve grown as a writer in that time. Hopefully, I’ve grown as a person in that time too, but that’s probably a different talk. The last three novels are worth discussing, though, because I have, more or less unconsciously, taken almost every single taboo in Christian fiction and given them a thorough kicking. My protagonist is a violent, sweary atheist scientist with poor impulse control and a very suspect past. He drinks vodka for breakfast and thinks Christians are idiots. And when I say sweary, he swears both in Russian and English, and its about as far removed from gosh-darn as you could possibly get.
It gets better, or worse, depending on your point of view. Most of Europe has been destroyed by terrorists using stolen nuclear warheads. Those terrorists were Christian fundamentalists trying to force the Second Coming. The United States of America is controlled by conservative evangelicals with policies not unlike those of the Tea Party and, as a consequence, the US government is one of the bad guys. The good guys are mixture of Catholics, communists, anarchists and traitors.
Not only did I have a fantastic time writing these books, a lot of people are having a good time reading them. Even American conservatives.
The question that immediately arises from this is: how can I possibly justify writing these irreligious, profane, blasphemous things when I am supposedly a child of the living God? It’s pretty much what a Christian fiction publisher would ask, let alone a Christian fiction reader.
Time, then, to look at Christian fiction. Why do we have it and what is its purpose?
Why do we have Christian fiction?
Again, it’s one of those things I could spend the whole talk exploring. But essentially, we have Christian fiction because there’s a market for it.
Christian publishing is predicated, like its secular counterparts, on producing commercially successful writing. It produces Bibles, study guides and other educational material, biographies, life-style guides, as well as fiction. So Christian fiction sits in amongst this industry, as part of it and as a small part of it: not insignificant, but a publisher that produces ten fiction books a year may well publish a hundred other titles as well.
This is also why Christian fiction is overwhelmingly North American, and more specifically from the USA. It’s difficult, if not impossible to sustain a separate commercial Christian art industry in isolation or opposition to secular art in the UK because the market is too small even if Christians exclusively consumed Christian art. That market doesn’t really exist because UK Christians tend to use secular art by making their own choices about it, and furthermore UK Christians are actually suspicious of art labelled as Christian. The exception is liturgical art to be used in churches and as worship – but that need not be produced by Christians!
What is the purpose of Christian fiction?
Christian fiction will necessarily have the same purpose and the same sensibilities as the non-fiction produced by that publisher. That is to say, if all the other output of a Christian publisher is to either teach Christians how to be better Christians and reinforce the Christian worldview as True, or teach non-Christians the Truth of Christianity, those purposes will also apply to the fiction that publisher produces. To expect anything else would be asking them to deny their reason for existing in the first place.
To illustrate this point – and I’m in no way picking on the particular publisher here, just that there is a lot of documentation about this incident – the year after I gave that first talk at Greenbelt, there was some editorial ‘tidying up’ done by Thomas Nelson, one of the big Christian publishers in the US. At the time they were expanding fast, and had lots of different imprints, each with their own editors and authors. Those in charge began to realise that things were starting to get away from them – to quote the CEO, Michael Hyatt, there was an increasing tendency to “color a bit outside the lines.”
They looked at themselves and decided what it was they wanted to be: and out of everything, they decided they wanted to be a Christian publisher. That’s hardly surprising, but they felt the need to set out what they were, what they were going to publish, and who they wanted to work with. There was some controversy at the time, because it was reported that assent to the Nicene Creed and Philippians 4:8 would be written into author contracts – in the event, this wasn’t actually true, but the truth was stranger than that.
Firstly, Thomas Nelson defined their editorial standards. Like other Christian publishers, they wanted all their books written from a Christian worldview, but they also wanted their authors to explore any subject they wished. So there would be books on spiritual and devotional topics, but also business, culture, politics, entertainment, cooking, family, and fiction too.
Secondly, they stated that the editorial standards focused on the author, not the content. Thomas Nelson explicitly stated that “content flows out of worldview and, ultimately, out of a writer’s heart”. So – they wanted to publish those authors who professed “a personal faith in Jesus Christ”, who embraced the central truths of historic Christianity (as summarised in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed), and who sought to live according to the standards of biblical morality.
Thirdly, they said that beyond those standards there was “great latitude”. They used Philippians 4:8 not “as an editorial standard per se, but as an inspiration for how broad and expansive our publishing program could be.”
So – time to take stock. I’m a Christian, I hold to the historical creeds of Christianity, I genuinely make an attempt to live out the teachings of Christianity. So far, so good. Because their editorial standards focus on the author, there’s the reasonable assumption that whatever I’ve written, I’ve written from a Christian worldview. Outside of that, I have “great latitude” in what I write. My last three books are well-written enough to be published by a large, successful publisher, and they are on the way to being commercially successful too.
For those of you who haven’t memorised Philippians 4:8, this is what it says:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (NIV)
Thomas Nelson use that verse to arrive at eight (count them – eight) minimum criteria for content. They state you are “free to think or write about anything”, as long as these criteria are met. I am merely going to flag up the incongruity of being free and having eight minimum criteria, then I’m going to read them to you in full.
1. It must be true. This means that it must be authentic or corresponds to reality. We want to publish books that embrace reality as God created it, not books that “sugar coat” reality or try to make reality something it is not.
2. It must be noble. This means that it must raise us up and make us more like God. The opposite is to debase or degrade. We want to publish books that ultimately motivate people and call forth their best qualities.
3. It must be just. This means it must be righteous or consistent with the commandments of God. It also means it must be fair. We want to publish books that promote righteousness and godly living. By the way, this doesn’t mean that novels can’t have evil characters. (There are plenty of them in God’s story.) But it does mean that in the end righteousness is rewarded and evil punished—if not in this life, the next.
4. It must be pure. This means it must be chaste, modest, clean. We want to publish books that promote holiness and offer a necessary corrective to the current trend to sexualise everything. This does not mean that we are opposed to sex, of course. But we want to make sure that our books advocate a view of sex that is consistent with Christian morality.
5. It is lovely. This means it must be aesthetically pleasing or beautiful. We want to publish authors who are committed to beautiful writing. Both what is said and how it is said are important. Beauty is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself, because it reflects the beauty of the Creator.
6. It is of good report. This means it must be commendable or of high reputation. Again, the emphasis is on that which represents the best, that which anyone could read and agree that it is well-written.
7. It is virtuous. This means it must affirm behavior which is consistent with the highest values. Values that don’t manifest themselves in behavior are merely platitudes. We want to publish books that challenge people to live lives of moral excellence and virtue.
8. It is praiseworthy. This means it must be worthy of recommendation; something you can personally endorse. At the end of the day, we want to publish books we are proud of, books that we are willing to give to a family member or friend with the confidence that they will enjoy it and grateful that they took the time to read it.
How have I done? Have I embraced reality? Have I avoided sugar-coating the world I describe? Does it raise readers up? Does it motivate people and call forth their best qualities? Is righteousness rewarded and evil punished? Is it sexually chaste? Is the writing aesthetically pleasing? Is the writing of a high standard? Does it challenge people to live lives of moral excellence and virtue? Can I recommend the book to others? Can they recommend it to their friends?
I don’t think I’m a million miles from the mark in being able to say a tentative yes to all those things. Given all that, why didn’t I or my agent consider Thomas Nelson when selling the rights to the Metrozone?
Mostly because neither of us are insane enough to try. It would be a cold day in Hell before a Christian publisher like Thomas Nelson – whatever their stated editorial principles might be – would ever publish a book like Equations of Life, because their editorial practice has not changed from when I gave the first talk, back in 2006. They would not publish the book then, and would not do so now because the central character is not a Christian, he drinks, he swears, he doesn’t get saved. It doesn’t tell a story they want told. That’s their prerogative – but I think they need to make that clear, rather than throwing up a wall of spiritual-sounding words that obfuscate, rather than clarify.
After reading Thomas Nelson’s editorial policy, how much clearer are you as to what they actually want? They say they want books that don’t sugar-coat the world, but you’d never get so much as a “bloody hell” past them. The same with a Christian character who drank beer. They’re not lying when they say what they want, but neither are they telling you the whole truth. Which is sad.
So what is the truth here? I think it is this: Christian fiction, dominated as it is by big US Christian publishers and driven mainly by the preferences of a certain section of Christian America, is simply the cultural expression of that brand of Christianity. These values are not Christian values per se, but there are enough people who reflect those cultural values who want to buy books that reflect those values. Christian fiction is essentially Conservative Protestant Evangelical American Christian fiction.
That means we need to take a look at the cultural markers that come up in Christian fiction.
There are behavioural mores regarding:
Drinking and smoking – it’s something that non-Christians do.
Swearing – not just irreligious blasphemy, but all forms of invective – sexual swearwords, and bowdlerised versions of both – are taboo.
Sexual behaviour – all sexual/sexualised behaviour is allowed strictly only within marriage between heterosexual partners, and even then, must not be talked about in anything but the vaguest way.
Violence – acceptable to a large degree, as a corrective and as retribution for unacceptable behaviour. This seems to have become much more used in Christian fiction recently – possibly due to the wars that the US have recently fought/are fighting.
There are also deeper cultural differences between the US and the UK regarding:
Patriotism/nationalism – taking a wild generalisation, Britain’s patriotism is backward-looking and rooted in the past, while American patriotism is forward-looking and rooted in the present. US evangelical Christians are usually patriotic and nationalistic, UK evangelical Christians much less so, if at all.
Political views – America has two political parties, one which is very right wing, one which is moderately right wing. In the UK, most of the Conservative party lies to the left of the Democratic party. US evangelical Christians are predominantly Republican supporters, while UK evangelicals don’t even all vote for the Tories.
Isolationist outlook – American poet Ambrose Pierce quipped that “war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”. The UK, and UK Christians in particular have a much more global outlook.
Tolerance to the secular world – the plural of anecdote is not data, but I perceive a much greater tolerance to the secular world and especially its art, amongst UK Christians than US evangelicals.
So while conservative cultural values like no drinking, no smoking, no profanity, and no sex outside marriage are paramount, violence is not an American conservative Christian taboo. As to why this is the case is probably beyond the remit of this talk, but it’s certainly useful to identify it.
To illustrate this point, I found an online discussion about whether swearing should or shouldn’t be permissible in a Christian novel. The example I’m going to read was highlighted as an exemplum of how to handle bad language, given by a poster who maintains:
“… there is no reason whatsoever to use swear words. I believe the Bible is very clear that it’s sinful. Literature is no exception. I also disagree that writing out these words “enhances” or “is necessary” to any story. Swearing can be skilfully written without using the actual words themselves.”
This is from Angela Hunt’s The Novelist, published by Thomas Nelson 2006:
In this scene, the twenty-one year old son, Zack, goes on a tirade against his parents, Carl and Jordan. Their son has been exhibiting behaviour that they’ve never seen before. (Please note that Jordan is the novelist of the title, and “Tower” is her protagonist hero.)
“Helpless, I watch as the son curses and threatens to pummel his father; the father red-faced, dares his son to “bring it on.” I stand to intervene, but when I step between them, Zack moves closer and calls me a word I wouldn’t put in the mouth of Tower’s most nefarious villain. As automatically as I would smack a spider that has just inflicted a painful bite, I slap my son’s cheek.
Zack’s hand curls into a fist, ready to strike. I refuse to back down; I’ll slap him again if that’s what it takes to knock sense into his head.
“You will not threaten your mother!” Carl roars, and suddenly his arms are around our son. Zack is screaming, kicking; Carl locks his elbow around Zack’s throat and is choking the breath out of him. Zack’s face grows red, and I am about to scream for mercy when Zack goes limp – he hasn’t passed out; he has given up, and not a moment too soon.
My son is weeping when Carl releases him.”
(Angela Hunt, The Novelist, Thomas Nelson 2006)
This excerpt was presented entirely without irony, or it seems, any self-awareness at all. The poster, and presumably the publisher, thought that a scene depicting parent on child domestic abuse was okay, but in the same scene, it was beyond the pale to read any of the words Zack called his mother. The violence – a mother slapping her son, a father choking his son – was explicitly described. The swearing was deliberately excluded.
There is no rhyme or reason for this, except that these are specific cultural norms promoted and guarded by a specific culture. In the UK, the cultural expression of Christianity is significantly different. The US culture is not mine. No wonder I had such difficulty fitting within it.
UK Christian fiction?
Of course, I do have a culture, and that is middle class, professional, left-wing, white, male, Radio 4, Church of England, English. Given that market isn’t huge, a British writer will be necessarily writing books that appeal outside of their immediate culture. So can we say that we have indigenous Christian fiction in the UK, and if we do, what does it look like?
It looks like what it is – Christians writing fiction. If you write fantasy, it looks like Tolkien, Lewis, Charles Williams, David Gemmell, JK Rowling. If you write crime fiction, it looks like Dorothy Sayers, PD James, our own Ruth Downie. If you write science fiction, it looks like Paul Cornell, and it even might look like me.
Is this a problem, though? Is lacking a distinctive label detrimental to either our witness, or our art?
I’d argue it’s actually healthier, not just for us, but for everyone. The Christian artist has to be ‘in the world’. Their art has to compete for attention, as there is no ready-made market. Their art has to be commercial even when it is discussing Christian things, because we are not simply speaking to ourselves. It stops us being insular. Christian artists mix in the same commercial and artistic environments as everyone else.
What your publisher will be looking for from you is good, commercial fiction. That’s actually all they’re concerned about – is it good, can we sell it? They’re not concerned about doctrinal tests, or whether your lifestyle comes up to scratch. They’re not concerned about the amount of ale quaffed, curses uttered, drugs consumed, virgins deflowered, or shibboleths spiked. They care about the story and the craft used to tell it.
They’re not going to bar you because you’re a Christian. They’re not going to stop you having Christian characters. They’re not even going to stop you having Christian characters who behave Christianly. I recently read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead – not my usual fare as it doesn’t even contain so much as a hint of a giant fighting robot. However – it came recommended, and I discovered it is a quite astonishing book. It is not published by a Christian publisher, and I challenge you to find me another book that is that equals it in its art and its story, and yet is so Christian.
A while ago, I posed the question of how could I, a Christian, write such violent, sweary stuff and still call myself Christian. After all, I must have all those things in my heart, because that’s where the author writes from. I can’t have used my imagination, or my skill at creating characters and staying true to a plot arc, because writers don’t use any of those when they make up stories. The story is a mirror of the author, according to the tenets of Christian fiction.
Bollocks. That’s not just nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense. It’s deeply damaging to both the art of storytelling, and to the individual storyteller. Let me tell you what some reviewers have been saying about the Metrozone books.
Because the Metrozone series has been published pretty much everywhere in three months, I’ve got a lot of reviews, and in the nature of reviews, some are brilliant, some are good, and some not so good – which is one of those things, and my skin is now considerably thicker than it was in April. One particular reviewer had issues with the first book, but carried on to the second. They had issues with that one too, but carried on to the third. This is what he had to say at the end of the third book:
“It’s not that often I come to admire a fictional character, but Petrovich is a truly admirable creation: a self-sacrificing hero, an idealist who refuses to be seduced by power and fame. Petrovich is the kind of unwilling leader we wish for in the real world: someone with the wisdom to exercise power nobly for the betterment of society before standing aside to let everyone else do their part. He’s a character of sufficient complexity to experience guilt about the consequences of his actions without feeling remorse for doing the right thing. He gives a speech toward the novel’s end about how he’s changed because of the events described in the trilogy, how he’s learned to be unselfish, to value his friends and to be a reliable friend to them, but it’s clear that Petrovich had integrity from the start, and it’s his integrity, his consistent refusal to take the easy path when he doesn’t feel it’s morally correct, that makes him so interesting.”
So this is the strange thing. My violent sweary atheist protagonist turns out to have a moral core after all, and not only that, but he has qualities that make at least one person wish he was real. More than one, because another reviewer has said:
“I’d totally date Petrovitch. In a heartbeat.”
Which is all kinds of wrong, but she liked the books so I’m not going to complain. I’m highlighting this, though, because I’m genuinely moved by some people’s reactions. When you write books, it’s a very lonely process. You put every bit of skill and artistry you can into the words you use, and you just don’t know if you’re going to succeed in creating something that’s good. Only when it’s out there do you get to find out.
Petrovitch, as another reviewer pointed out, is a bit of a rubbish hero. He’s about as far removed from the classic strong-jawed, capable killer as you can go. But he is the one you need. I’d never go as far as suggesting that “what would Petrovitch do?” is an acceptable way to live your life, but if his example does inspire small acts of honest tenacity or unwarranted generosity then good. It’s not why I wrote the books – I wrote them because they were fun stories and I like blowing stuff up – but I’m reliably informed they’re more fun because of the compelling characters. I don’t do didactic fiction: when I want to preach I book a slot at Greenbelt, then everyone knows what they’re getting.
Christian fiction, as we understand it, is the cultural art of socially and politically conservative American Christians. This is not to say whether it is right, or wrong, or good, or bad. But it does mean that the label ‘Christian fiction’ does not belong to them. I’d argue further and state: we should not need a separate category for Christian fiction. That some do is, I think, a failure of vision and courage on the part of publishers and consumers and authors.
At the start of this talk, I said I was going to offer you a choice: a blue pill or a red pill. If you take the blue pill, you’ll keep on trying to write Christian fiction for Christian publishers. You’ll keep on having to change your manuscripts because it doesn’t say what they want it to say. You’ll feel the pressure of having not just your work scrutinised for heresy, but your life as well. And as it was in The Matrix, you’ll have this constant nagging feeling that somewhere out there, there is a reality that you can’t quite see.
So here’s the red pill. Take that one and yes, you might well start by waking up in a tank of slime attached to a vast machine that’s using your body as a battery. Which is not a bad analogy. The journey is still hard. The odds of you succeeding are still small. I can’t tell you where you’ll end up.
But, if you fail, you fail with your integrity and your faith intact. If you become successful, it will be because your story-telling ability was good enough and for no other reason. That, to my mind, goes to the heart of what it means to be a Christian writer.
I was going to end there, but I heard something else just recently, and it is this:
“A ship in harbor is safe – but that is not what ships are built for.”
(John A. Shedd, Salt from My Attic, 1928)
What can be said for ships can also be said for novels. If we stay in harbour, our ships are of no practical use. We need to steer out into the night, through the storms, to uncharted destinations. When they return they will be full of treasure. Because that is what ships are built for.