Monday, July 13, 2009

Warning Labels for Christian Fiction?

Your days are numbered--18 to be exact!--to enter the Audience-with-an-Agent Contest. Yep, July 31st is the submission deadline for your novel manuscript. Click on the "Promotions" link to see guidelines and rules. If you're the winner, one of our fabulous agents from the Books & Such Literary Agency will review your manuscript, and if your manuscript is stellar, you may be offered representation. Don't pass up this fabulous opportunity!

Letters from readers are the payoff. Nothing offers a pat on the back like hearing that a story has refreshed someone's faith or introduced someone to the Savior.

Some letters do tender interesting objections, however. For instance, an author friend of mine received an e-mail from a reader upset with the Christian content in her novel. The reader wanted the publishing industry to label Christian fiction as such so unsuspecting readers wouldn't be subjected to proselytizing.


My friend was incredibly gracious to her reader, and as a result, the reader no longer seemed offended by the content of the novel. I hope to grow up to be as nice as my friend.

This isn't an isolated issue for writers of Christian fiction. I have a review for The Queen of Sleepy Eye on that complains about the heavy-handed Christian content. True, the main character is a judgmental 17-year-old, but she learns grace the hard way.

Is this the thought police coming to call?

Are novels next on the list for warning labels?

Caution: Reading this book may expose you to ideas, beliefs, or ideologies you may not agree with. To avoid discomfort, locate the thought categorization label on the cover before purchasing. For those with a hypersensitivity to new ideas, watch television.

Forgive my sarcasm.

Here are the questions I would like to discuss with you today: Should Christian fiction be labeled as such? Is it harmful for the cause of Christ to chance drawing readers into a Christian novel unaware and having them resent it? Is presenting a picture of faith to a reader worth the chance that someone might be offended, no label needed?


Andrea said...

I have wondered this same thing many times.

I run a book club that includes Christians and Non Christians. They each want to ONLY read their type of books.

It is sad because each side can learn so very much from the other.
Should we have content labels? NO.
Should we as Christian authors be sensitive to the Holy Spirit when we write and remember that He is a gentleman? YES.

If we allow Him to use our gift towards His service, I believe He will give us the words and story lines that respect non-believers and believers alike.

Each and every seed planted is one that Christ will feed. Even if the reader is ticked, God is still working. The seed will be watered over time and could flourish into a beautiful gift from Christ!

Nicole said...

Labels "for" Christian content: unequivocally NO. Labels for "mature" content (or some such indicator): possibly, but only for the writer's "protection" from prairie romance readers (nothing wrong with them, that's not what I'm saying) who could be offended if they happened to pick up a Christian novel which deals with overt sexual issues or addictions or heavy violence (without graphics).

Needless to say, our Lord directs writers in unique ways to reach people, believers and unbelievers alike, with problems we see in the newspapers, magazines, and TV or films everyday. To ignore them in Christian literature would be short-sighted and exclusive.

Every author should absolutely subject themselves to the Holy Spirit's direction, and every reader should assume that a novel is between God and that writer in the process. It's really not for the reader to decide, therefore labeling a novel for anything other than content for "mature" readers should not be considered as long as we still have free speech.

Janet said...

Well, let's see. We've already got the Lifeway stores putting warning labels on some of their books. Christians will be badly placed to complain about warning labels.

I think it's ridiculous to propose labels at all. Any reader is always free to choose to close a book for any reason at any time. I've given up believing what "authorities" say after discovering that some of the books that were on the Christian blacklist had been judged so superficially it was ludicrous. On the other hand, I've closed books all on my own because of offensive content.

So many people are offended by so many different (and often opposing) things, bookstores would be awash in stickers if this kind of thing caught hold.

I would be really, really interested in knowing how your friend responded. I'm always on the lookout for good examples of responding to provocation with grace.

Patti Hill said...

Thank you for your eloquent responses to the question!
Andrea: Yes, the Holy Spirit is a gentleman. He knocks. He waits. He woos. Although...I'm thinking of Paul of Taursus, blinded and dumped onto the ground by the Lord's presence. Perhaps we are to write as He leads and leave the results up to Him as well.
Nicole: I've never had a problem with Christian fiction as far as labels for mature content, but then, lots of teens read adult fiction, thinking it is "safe." That's a good point. What do others think?
Janet: No kidding? Lifeway puts warning labels on books? Do they put warning labels on Bibles? I mean, a concubine cut up into 12 pieces, a bride's "attributes" adored by her betrothed, and a Savior beaten beyond recognition and nailed to a cross. Just asking.

BTW: Latayne, Debbie, and I are having a ball at ICRS. Latayne and Debbie have book signings today, and I'm signing tomorrow. I've already been anointed by oil and prayed for on the showroom floor. This is definitely not your typical trade show. Pray for us as we experience interviews, book signings, and speaking opportunities. We all want to promote Jesus first.

Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

Some libraries label books that are Christian fiction with a little sticker. At one library, when I was curious what Christian fiction authors they had, it was handy. At the same time, I recognized most of the authors names and would have found them anyways. Another library I was at had their own section for Christian fiction.

I'd say there's a little paragraph on the back of the book that gives a synopsis or teaser of book, and usually has an indication of any faith elements. Other than that, any label seems ridiculous.

Janet said...

LifeWay puts warning labels (Read With Discernment) on books that are perhaps not consistent with with historical evangelical thought. The obvious comeback, which has been made by many people, is that everything should be read with discernment, including things consistent with historical evangelical thought. They don't pull them from their shelves, mind you. I think it's a rather obvious attempt to placate customers that complain. They said something to the effect that they continue to sell them so that people in ministry (who are presumably mature enough to handle it, unlike the rest of us) can have access to a diversity of thought. I somehow doubt they require proof of ordination from customers at the cash.

Please note that I am a Bible-believing, fairly orthodox evangelical myself. I have few problems with evangelical doctrine (as much as we can use such a term, there's a lot of diversity there) but I frequently have problems with evangelical behaviour, lack of discernment being high on the list.

I'd still like to know how your friend handled the irate reader. ;o) You can make it very generic, if you don't want to reveal her identity.

Amy said...

I hear this a lot, and in my reviews on my blog, I do mention if the book is Christian fiction (and also if it has sex, language, or violence)

I think Christian books are publisher! Savvy readers will know this.

I don't think books should be labeled, I think that's what reader reviews are for. I am happy to tell my readers a book is CHristian fiction, because I would hate for them to ever feel like they'd been deceived into reading it. I don't think that's going to win over anyone. ;)

Unknown said...

Koala, in my library system (in Saskatchewan) they put a sticker on Christian fiction also. But this sticker has a cross, a Star of David, and another symbol...can't think of it - something denoting Islam, I assume - thereby labeling a book as "religious". Doesn't tell you which one, just that the book is "religious".

I've looked through the books that have been labeled this way and found most of them were Christian. Then, I browsed the "regular" shelves and found that the fiction contained there was also largely informed by religion - of all sorts.

I also found that many authors who are well known in the Christian publishing industry were on the "normal" shelves without a "religious" sticker attached.

As always, I am leery of anything or any organization that would like to name themselves at "the thought police". It is nothing more than subjective nonsense.

Amy: I agree with what you say about publishers being the branders of Christian fiction. At least in the US. And well read people know which publishing houses publish books they love. Every publishing house has a philosophy and it can be discerned by they choices of books they publish. Even Christian publishers have standards that differ from one another.

I think Janet's idea of labels as a way to placate the squeaky wheels out there is worth thinking about. Does the publishing industry (Christian or not) need to label their books like a Starbucks coffee cup (the book you are about to enjoy may have ideas in it)? I think not. I'd rather a few "offended" in the name of freedom of thought than to attempt something so utterly doomed to fail under the weight of subjectivity.

Kathleen Popa said...

Groan! I really think people worry too much that they're going to read the wrong thing. We've all been given good muscular minds, and yet we worry that an idea will assault us when we aren't looking.

I'm an avid reader myself, and very curious about a good many things. From time to time I read books by people with different viewpoints from mine, and when I do, the thing I want to know is, what exactly are they saying, and why do they think the way they do? I wish more people read this way.

It's not like we all get handed a box of rightness at the altar, and have to protect it from a wrongness infection. We are supposed to think. We are supposed to change our minds from time to time. We are supposed to question, in the same way we are supposed to use our bodies, to run and walk, to climb hills in order to strengthen our bones and muscles.

No we don't need any thought police, and we don't need any stickers. What are we, a bunch of wimps?

(Ahem.) I ask in all due respect.

Patti Hill said...

Janet, I'll have to check with my friend and get back to you. Thanks to all for your thoughtful replies. We do have the most amazing readers and writers right here.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree: NO warning labels, stickers, etc. We're not here to deceive anyone. The back cover copy of most CBA books usually makes it very clear that the story deals with faith to one degree or another. If someone stumbles upon our books by accident and reads Christian content when they aren't expecting it, and are offended...well, they can lay it aside and go back to the shelf for another book. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is an offense and a stumblingstone. Our job is to be true to our call and to the Gospel. It's the Holy Spirit's job to bring truth from the offense and pierce the unbeliever's heart with it. Otherwise, how would any of us ever come to the Lord?

Atheist Author said...

Does this go the other way?

I am an aspiring author who has written a novel that is decidedly NOT Christian fiction. It isn't actively anti-Christian -- I'm not proselytizing for the other side or anything -- but certain characters take actions that are treated as value-neutral, when an author of Christian fiction would definitely treat them as moral wrongs.

But the current blurb on the back of my draft novel would indicate none of this. The short summary simply presents a character with a dilemma. Would a Christian reader feel tricked halfway through my book? Would you prefer a "warning" or some kind? (Not a label, per se, but some kind of signal that things will not go a certain way in the plot?) Or do you simply feel that's a chance you take when you buy a book not published by Zondervan or a similar house?

I'd love to hear your insights on this.

Janet said...

AA, speaking only for myself here, I think it would be absurd to start slapping labels on books to indicate their ideological content. I think most Christians are used to the idea that the world is full of ideas opposed to theirs. Which is why I find the practice of stickering religious content so offensive. It smacks of thought police. What's next, sewing yellow stars or white crosses on our clothes? It's bigotry, pure and simple. And readers who complain to libraries about religious or anti-religious content are promoting a culture of bigotry. It is also a tacit admission of their own weakness, that their own religious or atheistic stance is so feeble it has to be protected from inadvertent contact with opposing ideas.

I read non-Christian fiction all the time. If I find it offensive, I just stop reading that author. For that, is usually has to be full of sneering hatred. A lot of stories critical of Christianity are in fact critical of Christian behaviour, which is not the same thing. The Poisonwood Bible, for example, is pretty hard on a certain flavour of Christian, but it does include some more balanced Christians, so it doesn't come across as a global smear. It's also an extremely well-written book, and I'd be a fool to deprive myself of it, especially as a writer.

Kathleen Popa said...

Atheist Author, welcome, and thanks for commenting here!

I take my chances with every book I read, Christian market or not, that, directly or indirectly, ideas will be presented that are different from mine. Whether I come to agree with the author or not, if I feel engaged by the story, if the author has put his deepest passion and most honest thought into the writing, then hooray!

If I don't feel engaged, if I feel bored or put off, then - Christian market or not - I stop reading. No problem.

I like books that challenge me. Many blessings on your writing. ;)

Atheist Author said...

Thanks for your responses! I certainly don't think my book has any "sneering hatred"... yikes!

And as for me, I have no interest in someone else labeling books in an effort to "protect" me from content. Even if we DID want such a thing, who could we trust to label these books properly? I'm sure it would be a disaster for anyone who tried.

As I think more about this, I think I'm more worried about family and friends than the rest of the world. I don't want to presume that they WOULDN'T want to read my book, but neither do I want them to feel tricked by thinking it'll just be a fun book written by someone they know, and then BOOM there's a hot-button issue in the middle...

Anonymous said...

Atheist Author, thank you for your comment and question. Absolutely it goes both ways. I agree wholeheartedly with Janet and Kathleen. I too read non-Christian fiction, never by accident. I know by the publisher whether or not a book is secular or inspirational. Readers who aren't familiar with various publishers can learn a lot about a book before they read it by the back cover copy, the cover design, and typically, the opening page.

I select a book to read for many reasons. Occasionally I'm disappointed and on extremely rare occasions will not finish a book. What's offputting to me may not be to another Christian reader, and vice versa.

The thing is, once you start labeling where do you stop? The list of things that might offend is as endless as the pool of potential readers. We have the freedom any time to stop reading a book, to not recommend it, to voice our disagreements.

Thank you for visiting. We hope you'll be back.

Alexandra said...

About warning labels...

As far as mature content. I grew up in a very conservative home, and my father went to a very conservative Bible college. Around there, when early-teen girls were tired of YA and wanted "real" romance novels (what girl doesn't) we got to read Janette Oke, Beverly Lewis, Lauraine Snelling, etc. (they were the only ones around at that time, before the Christian fiction boom) because they were "safe" (no sex, etc.) for us to read. You could pick up a book at the bookstore as a gift and know that you could give it to your friend because it was Christian fiction. Now that Christian fiction has "widened" its scope as far as all that goes, it feels like 'You never know' now. I would welcome some sort of label for that, not for myself as much as when I'm buying a gift for someone. I want to know that what I'm buying is age (or standards) appropriate. Poeple "label" films all the time and no one thinks anything of that. That's just my PO here. ;-)