Related to the recent posts about CBA and the general market, someone sent this: “I’m a writer who hasn’t been able to find success in the traditional CBA markets. I was told my book is ‘too message oriented for most Christian publishers.’ One house told me they want ‘values fiction, not message fiction.’ Is this a real trend? What is values fiction? How does it differ from message fiction?”
It’s a real trend. “Message fiction” is a story that gets weighed down by the author trying to deliver some sort of obvious, heavy-handed message. An example? Christian writers who want to send me their novel about the naughty 15-year-old girl who fools around, gets pregnant, then has to show me her struggle about whether to get an abortion or not, complete with angst and tears while the author hammers me with the message that “Abortion Is Bad.” WAY too heavy handed, and I see it frequenlty.
Look… I’m pro-life. But the author in that situation isn’t really trying to tell me a story — she’s trying to present me with a Major Life Message. And that’s boring. Who buys fiction to be preached life messages? Nobody. Pro-choice people won’t touch the book, and pro-life people don’t need to read it because they’re already convinced. If I want political messages, I’ll turn on MSNBC or Fox News (depending on your political leanings). If I feel a need for entertaining liberal messages, I’ll listen to NPR. But I buy a novel for the STORY. (And this isn’t limited to abortion books — there’s also the “We’re Destroying The Planet” books, the “Capitalism Is Evil” books, the “Obama Is The AntiChrist” books, and the “You Need To Fall On Your Knees And Accept Jesus Because You’re Going To Hell” books. They are all boring. Nobody wants them And they don’t work. So if you’re writing a book to share a message like that, publishers are probably going to ignore you.)
“Values fiction” is a story that reveals inherent beliefs within the context of the novel. Your values as an author are evident in the words you put on the page. Take Huckleberry Finn as an example. There are some solid American values in that text — including some that were a bit shocking to readers of that period. Mark Twain has his protagonist decide to support a runaway slave, a black man, even though Huck believes it means he’s going to go to hell for doing so. Let me tell you, THAT opened some eyes in Twain’s day. But nobody would argue Huckleberry Finn is a “message” novel. It’s not a book with the Major Life Message that “White People Need To Be More Fair To Blacks.” It’s a story about a runaway kid and the adventures he gets into… but within the context of the story, Twain reveals some great values about race and freedom and how we should all treat each other. You see the difference?
Or have a look at a contemporary literary novelist — let’s take Lisa Samson as an example. Her books reveal some strong values — the there are different ways we can live out our faith. That we need to be accepting of other people in the church, including those who are different from us, those who are in pain, those of another race or socio-economic status, and those who are gay. She never comes out and holds up a sign that reads, “You need to embrace the poor or you’re a bigot.” Instead, she just tells a good story, with values, that reveals her worldview. Good values fiction does that without screaming or condemning or pointing to too-obvious references. It respects the reader to have enough brains to figure out what the values are inherent in the story.
So if you set out to write a novel that will help people understand some Important Life Message, you’re probably starting off on the wrong foot. Instead, tell a good story. Let your characters and story reveal what you believe to be true. Entertain people along the way. That’s how you influence lives anyway.