Christian Speculative Fiction – a ‘lost’ genre?

Jeff Gerke aka Jefferson ScottWhat is Christian Speculative Fiction? Rather than speculating ourselves, we decided to ask Christian publisher Jeff Gerke for his views. Jeff has served as an editor for Multnomah Publishers, Strang Communications, and NavPress. While at Strang, Jeff launched Realms, an imprint of Christian speculative fiction. In October 2008 Jeff launched  Marcher Lord Press, an indie publishing company specialising in Christian speculative fiction.  Under the pen name Jefferson Scott he has authored six Christian novels (Operation Firebrand: Deliverance is one of the best-known) and co-authored two non-fiction books. His new non-fiction title, The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, is available now.

TCW: What exactly is Christian speculative fiction?

JG: Christian speculative fiction is a fancy way of saying “science fiction and fantasy written from a Christian worldview.” There are many popular genres in Christian fiction, just as there are in the wider publishing arena. But unlike in secular publishing, where fantasy and science fiction are extremely popular, Christian publishing has not always appreciated the kind of fiction I affectionately call the weird stuff.

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term to include the sub-genres of science fiction, fantasy, time travel, supernatural thriller, horror, alternate history, modern magic, urban fantasy, vampire/Goth, and other wonderfully weird kinds of fiction. And Christian speculative fiction is a term that designates all of those same genres when they arise from the Christian perspective. (Yes, there really are Christian vampire novels and Christian horror – we call them “chillers.”)

TCW: So what kind of market is there for this sort of fiction?

JG: It’s fairly easy to identify the demographic that loves regular Christian fiction. In North America, at least, it’s white, Evangelical women of child-bearing through empty nest ages. It’s the delightful ladies who populate our churches.

Understanding who they are goes a long way toward comprehending why speculative fiction often sells poorly when published by Christian publishers. These wonderful women love their prairie romances and Amish stories and cozy mysteries and mom-lit. They don’t especially appreciate stories about mutant alien vampires who will eat your brains. Go figure.

Likewise, defining the audience for Christian speculative fiction may sound fairly easy. For one thing, it’s simply not the audience I’ve just described. So we know where Christian speculative fiction readers aren’t, but it’s harder to find where they are.

TCW: Could you describe your typical Christian speculative fiction reader?

JG: I like to describe the core readership as Christians who love The Lord of the RingsStar Wars or Lost. Or even Christians who would go to a fantasy or comic book convention if given half a chance.

Such a definition gives us a quick idea of who we’re talking about. But where are those people? We know where they’re not, but where are they? There’s no Christian speculative fiction magazine. There’s no convention for it. There are no stores that cater specifically to them. Nor are they of a narrowly defined age, economic, or social status. They come in all ages, sizes, races, genders, and professions.

TCW:  Then how do you reach them?

JG:  The best way to find this group is to go online. Many of the core readership has self-identified and found each other in forums, blog alliances, and online e-zines. Here’s a starter list:

This hits the hardcore fans. It doesn’t include the many other fans who would join these groups if they knew about them or had the time. These are the people who love Ted Dekker’s novels but didn’t realize anyone else had written books like his. Finding those folks is harder.

TCW:  So you’ve got a market and you’ve got a product – why isn’t anyone (or hardly anyone) publishing for them?

JG: Most Christian publishing companies have basically written off the niche audience I’m describing. These houses do a great job of reaching their primary reader – the ladies I talked about above – and they are most interested in continuing to reach them. They’re not motivated to explore new markets, especially ones as hard to locate as this one.

TCW: Where would you advise writers of this kind of fiction to go?

JG: It follows that writers of this kind of fiction do not find a ready welcome at Christian publishing companies. Most agents won’t even represent a novel if it’s in a speculative category. They know they won’t be able to place such a book with any mainstream Christian publishing company.

That’s disappointing for many authors – but it’s great news for me. I launched my own small indie publishing company, Marcher Lord Press, to publish the finest in Christian speculative fiction and get it to this underserved niche audience. So when these authors get turned away by the regular Christian publishers, they come to me – and I get to cherry pick the most wonderful Christian speculative novels you can imagine.

I should point out that there are some Christian speculative novels that do get published through mainstream Christian presses. There’s Frank Peretti and Jerry B. Jenkins (Left Behind) and Ted Dekker, and more. There are even some new Christian vampire novels just releasing. However, by and large, such things are considered long shots. And when you understand what I described about the core readership these publishers reach, you can see why they’d think so.

TCW: There are many unpublished Christian writers who are told their work is not ‘Christian’ enough. Can you comment on this?

JG: I know that some Christian novelists struggle with finding balance in their fiction. Sometimes they find themselves too Christian for secular publishers and too secular for Christian publishers. That’s a real dilemma.

We’re currently living in a publishing revolution. Soon there will be no dilemma. Marcher Lord Press is an example of a small, agile publisher that can operate with low overhead to successfully reach a niche audience. Other presses like mine will pop up soon, now that the Internet and other technology allows publishers to bypass the traditional brick-and-mortar bookstore model and sell directly to the consumer.

TCW: Does this mean you don’t apply the same ‘moral’ yardstick that mainstream CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) affiliated publishers use? (For more on this see Simon Morden’s essay  Sex, Death and Christian Fiction)

JG: In Christian publishing in North America, whatever standards are applied to fiction in general are applied to speculative fiction. Perhaps more so. Christian speculative fiction is on thin ice anyway, as far as traditional Christian publishers are concerned, so if a speculative novel contains even a modest amount of sex, violence, or foul language, it can become a convenient reason to simply say no to the whole project.

Violence usually gets a pass in Christian novels, even in mainstream Christian publishing. I have a friend who jokes about the body count in my own (Jefferson Scott) novels. It’s a strange kind of arrangement for these books: you can kill people left and right but can’t say a curse word. ;-)

So to be accurate, I should maybe say it this way:

  1. Sex – almost none is allowed in CBA fiction
  2. Profanity – almost none is allowed in CBA fiction
  3. Violence – just about anything goes so long as it’s not gratuitous or too disturbing (for whoever is in charge of determining such things at any given house)

TCW: Do the same standards apply at Marcher Lord?

JG: My standards at MLP are not quite as strict as at mainstream CBA houses, but are more or less the same.

TCW: There is also a sense that only the ”right kind of Christian” gets published? What kind of Christian worldview is acceptable? Who becomes the arbiter of that?

JG: Most CBA houses are evangelical Protestant and reach an audience that is primarily evangelical Protestant, so that’s the determining factor there. These publishers are looking for Christian fiction that arises from the evangelical Protestant worldview and will be familiar to their readers.

That doesn’t mean that Christian fiction from these houses can’t talk about Catholics or Muslims or whatever else. And it doesn’t mean they don’t challenge readers to consider other viewpoints on the Christian spectrum. It just means that the thrust of the story and of the author need to be supportive of that evangelical Protestant tradition.

Note that these publishers aren’t saying that they’re judges of what Christian worldview is acceptable. They’re saying they reserve the right to publish novels they agree with and that their target audience will agree with.

TCW: Back to the new wave of Christian speculative fiction. What kinds of books might now get published?

JG: Books that don’t fit the traditional classifications, that’s what. This is great news for those authors of Christian horror, fantasy poetry, off-brand comic books, and more. It will also give rise to a certain lawlessness where you’ll be able to find any kind of depraved wackiness for sale, but that’s the nature of the Internet anyway, so I think we’ll be okay.

We’re seeing the dawning of the age of publishing in which authors can successfully find smaller and smaller niche audiences. And for fans and writers of Christian speculative fiction, that’s a very good thing.

TCW: Thanks for visiting The Crafty Writer, Jeff.

JG: Thanks for having me!

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29 comments on “Christian Speculative Fiction – a ‘lost’ genre?

  1. Dave Faulkner on said:

    Great interview, says someone who used to devour Stephen Lawhead’s work. Uncannily, I realised my wife would be a prime target for Marcher Lord Press: LOTR, Star Wars and Lost – that’s her. And she’s currently reading Twilight. Think I might be looking at MLP for some presents!

  2. Fiona on said:

    You might want to spread the word on your blog too, Dave. So glad to hear of a minister’s wife who doesn’t fit the stereotype! Speaking of Lost, how ‘Messianic’ is that becoming? (!) Still need to see if it’s for good or ill …

  3. Dave Faulkner on said:

    Oh, there’s nothing stereotypical about Debbie … :)

    Dunno about Lost. When that’s on, it’s Debbie’s holy hour in the living room while I enjoy myself in the study blogging.

  4. Penny Culliford on said:

    Jeff’s a good bloke. I wish him every success with Marcher Lord.

  5. Simon Morden on said:

    Speak of the devil…

    The problem – and it is a problem – is that it looks on the face of it that Jeff is just reapplying CBA content restrictions on a different genre. Sure, CBA haven’t really gone for squids-in-space, and it’s a good thing that skiffy writers now have somewhere else to go.

    But: it’s not going to address the basic premise of Sex, Death and Christian fiction (and that talk is now *old*). The publishers remain the gatekeepers of fiction, not based on the quality of the writing, but on another set of criteria. It’s still going to frustrate a generation of writers-who-are-Christians when an editor insists it’s okay to shoot a man in the face, but not kiss him on the lips.

  6. Tim Rowe on said:

    Simon, that talk may be *old*, but has anything significant changed since it was written? It looks to me to still be pretty much on the ball.

    In a way I think the declared CBA-type ethos of Marcher Lord is even more of a difficulty for them, dealing in speculative fiction, than it is for the publishers of prarie romances. As a keen reader of speculative fiction, I actually *want* my worldview to be challenged and tested by what I read. That’s a big part of my reason for picking up that genre, rather than a (possibly equally well-written) prarie romance. If a publisher guarantees that I won’t find what I’m looking for in their books — well, that simplifies my purchasing decision, doesn’t it?

    I wish Marcher Lord well — we need these small publishers who can pick up the good stuff that doesn’t fit the giant houses’ spreadsheets — but I wonder whether their niche within a niche — readers who want speculative fiction but are averse to new ideas — will be enough to sustain them.

  7. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Good point Simon. Why apply the ‘traditional’ CBA rules if you’re not targetting a ‘traditional’ CBA readership. Who is catering for the Christian reader who doesn’t want a morally sanitised plotline?

  8. Jeff Gerke on said:

    Thanks for your comments, Simon, Tim, and Fiona.

    One of the strengths of Marcher Lord Press is that I have a clear idea of whom I am targeting. Basically, people like me. I wasn’t attempting to be all things to all people–nor even to be all things to all people who enjoy Christian speculative fiction.

    The great thing about living in this era is that niche publishers can make it by publishing to niche audiences. Am I publishing to a niche within a niche? Certainly! And you can, too.

    I invite you to craft your own publishing outlet that will produce the kind of book you’re looking for and reach people like you.

    Now is the time to do it. With these avenues so affordable and ubiquitous, there’s no need to wait around for someone else to produce the thing you’re wanting. Why not produce it yourself?

    Simon said: “It’s not going to address the basic premise of Sex, Death and Christian fiction (and that talk is now *old*).”

    I agree with this statement, but this was never what I set out to do. You’re kindly scolding me for failing to do something I never intended to attempt.

    What you’re talking about is censorship. But all writers are censors. We all include some content and exclude other content. Why do we depict in detail a conversation between two characters but then don’t follow one of the characters into the water closet to depict THAT scene in equal detail? That’s censorship.

    Now that I’m free of the “little old lady brigade” that acts as censors in CBA fiction (and I love those little old ladies, bless ‘em), I’m able to decide what *I* want to include or exclude in the fiction I publish. It’s wide open. So I fall on my own personal codes and standards to decide what should go in.

    Others will disagree. Hey, that’s fine. Everyone is free to do what I’ve done but to do it differently.

    Simon said: “The publishers remain the gatekeepers of fiction, not based on the quality of the writing, but on another set of criteria.”

    It’s true that there are considerations in addition to writing skill that go into whether or not I’ll publish a book. That would be true even at a publishing company you might create. What if a book were beautifully well-written but personally offended you or broke libel laws or insulted your deceased mother? Wouldn’t you be at least tempted to judge that book not based on quality alone but on another set of criteria as well?

    All publishers do this, and it is right for them to do so.

    Fiona said: “Who is catering for the Christian reader who doesn’t want a morally sanitised plotline?”

    My answer: Why, you, of course! And your new publishing venture.

    Why not?

    Jeff

  9. helen fairmaner on said:

    Good question: ‘Who is catering for the Christian reader who doesn’t want a morally sanitised plotline?’

    I want to read about the stuff of life that Jesus came to save us from: we get into scrapes and bad behaviour and he gets his hands dirty sorting us out! It’s exciting stuff. Can you imagine a novel about a cleaner who goes into houses that are clean already, really boring? But a cleaner that goes into a messed up world full of the rubbish of life is full of interest.

    I love Susan Howatch novels, particularly the Christian Starbridge novels and the London healing novels. Full of sex, intrigue, death, fraud and all sorts more that ultimately Jesus leaps into the depths of peoples lives to bring salvation. But no-one mentions her in Christian circles, certainly doesn’t comply with the CBA guidelines.

  10. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Excellent response Jeff. And apologies for appearing to ambush you with the Sex, Death and Christian Fiction post – that certainly wasn’t my intention. To all Crafty visitors: that was something I added to the interview, not Jeff. He didn’t know he was responding to anything other than my question.

  11. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Helen: Ah yes, Susan Howatch! I haven’t read her in years. But you’re right, although not an example of speculative fiction, her novels do represent a Christian worldview. But note, they are published by secular publishers. Which raises the question of how ‘Christian’ you can be in a secular novel.

  12. Simon Morden on said:

    Good to hear from you, Jeff – a few points…

    You say “I invite you to craft your own publishing outlet that will produce the kind of book you’re looking for and reach people like you.”

    The thing is, the vast majority of Christian writers don’t need to. I write for an imprint of Random House, and have colleagues who are published by Macmillan, Faber, HarperCollins and others. A couple have written for an explicitly Christian publisher, but that’s a small minority.

    We don’t need to, because there is no bar to writing about Christian things that I’ve encountered in the ‘secular’ publishing industry. Certainly a bar on preaching, but I always figured that if I needed to preach, I’d be a preacher and not a writer. But there’s also no bar on sex, drinking, drugs and profanity. I can write what I want in the knowledge that – if it’s good enough – I’ll get published.

    You also say: “What you’re talking about is censorship. But all writers are censors. We all include some content and exclude other content. Why do we depict in detail a conversation between two characters but then don’t follow one of the characters into the water closet to depict THAT scene in equal detail? That’s censorship.”

    Err, it’s not. It’s craft. And there is a whole wide world of difference between a writer self-censoring because of artistic or internal emotional/cultural considerations, and an editor imposing an external framework alien to the text. That’s what the Soviets did, and I’m rather against it.

    Finally: “Fiona said: “Who is catering for the Christian reader who doesn’t want a morally sanitised plotline?”

    My answer: Why, you, of course! And your new publishing venture.”

    I’m confused by the idea that a Christian reader is radically different to any other reader. We have a radically different set of lenses to look at the world, but we are all moved by truth, beauty, pain, love and sacrifice. We critique things differently, but we can all tell when a book is badly written!

  13. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Simon said: “Finally: “Fiona said: “Who is catering for the Christian reader who doesn’t want a morally sanitised plotline?”

    My answer: Why, you, of course! And your new publishing venture.”

    I’m confused by the idea that a Christian reader is radically different to any other reader. We have a radically different set of lenses to look at the world, but we are all moved by truth, beauty, pain, love and sacrifice. We critique things differently, but we can all tell when a book is badly written! ”

    As a Christian reader I’m not radically different from any other readers. I read ‘secular’ and ‘Christian’ writing and all sorts that fall inbetween. But I do enjoy reading books where a Christian world view, similar to my own, is reflected. This does not mean I’m not prepared to be challenged and also enjoy reading books where the view is opposed to my own. Which I suppose brings me to Jeff’s point. CBA publishers are publishing for a market that wants to see their worldview reflected. Some Christians, like me, have a less ‘sanitised’ wordview than others. And that’s what I like to write about. It’s a pity there aren’t Christian publishing houses that cater for that. But as you say, Simon, and Helen points out with the Susan Howatch books, some secular publishers do take those sorts of books on – but not in my own personal experience. My writing has been described as too secular for the Christian market and too Christian for the secular. And no, I don’t preach.

  14. Simon Morden on said:

    It’s a fair point – my experience is mine alone (and I probably sold out years ago…), and I agree, CBA publishers know their market very well.

    My meta-objection to the whole idea of ‘Christian fiction’ is that it co-opts the title ‘Christian’, then applies it to something that is seen (by Christian and non-Christian alike) as something sub-standard.

    My big worry for Jeff is that his target demographic, comic-con going, SF-loving Christians, are very well catered for by the ABA press, and furthermore, are happy with that arrangement. If it’s plots involving matters and people of faith, there are any number of Christian authors already producing theologically-inspired books, all without CBA help.

    Don’t get me wrong: I wish Jeff well, and hope that he’ll put out books of genuine quality and originality. But I can’t help thinking that he’ll fall between the rock of Christian bookshops and the hard place of wider marketplace.

  15. Fiona on said:

    Yes we do wish Jeff well. As an editor with many years experience in Christian publishing he obviously believes there’s a market for this sort of speculative fiction and has evidence to back it up. What do other readers feel? Would you buy Christian speculative fiction? As Jeff has already pointed out, the success of the Peretti books and Ted Dekker shows an appetite for it. As a writing tutor I have a number of students writing this sort of material too. And as he also said, he’s not targetting the traditional Christian bookshops.

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  18. Rod Duncan on said:

    A very informative article. Insightful and detailed. Many thanks.

    Rod

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  20. Steve Miller on said:

    I’ve been following Jeff Gerke, WhereTheMapEnds.com, and Marcher Lord Press for some time now. I continue to be encouraged by what I see. I’m glad he’s getting some publicity here.

  21. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Steve. Are you a writer / reader of Christian speculative fiction? Do you think there’s a market for it?

  22. Cattt on said:

    I like what it’s about, but what a crazy name for the genre!!! Why don’t they call it Christian Science Fiction or something like that????

  23. Tim Rowe on said:

    “Christian Science Fiction” would be a sub-genre of “Christian Speculative Fiction”; speculative fiction includes science fiction but is not limited to it. Not to mention possible confusion with “Christian Science” the religion.

  24. Fiona on said:

    The term ‘speculative fiction’ is a well-used one in the publishing industry in general, not just the Christian branch of it. The root, I believe, is that authors of SF, fantasy and related sub-genre, had a tendency to push the boundaries of conventional genre in a ‘speculative’ fashion. These writers, when they first started carving out a niche for themselves in the 70s, didn’t just speculate on new worlds, but new ways of writing about new worlds – hence ‘speculative’.

  25. Cattt on said:

    okay thanks for the explaination.

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  29. Beorh Weekly on said:

    Speculative Fiction hand-picked weekly by a Christian editor.

    https://beorhweekly.wordpress.com/

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