Trouble in a Writer’s World

All of my favorite novels tell fascinating stories that explore and express fundamental truths in ways which, ironically, transcend spoken or written language. Because that’s what I love to read, it’s also a pretty fair definition of what I try to write.

Not all novelists view their work this way, of course. While I seek to focus on important questions and issues, others seek to provide a few much-needed hours of diversion from the unattractive or uncomfortable parts of life. This is an honorable goal. A novelist can quite legitimately view her work purely as entertainment, just as a painter or sculptor might see her role simply in terms of producing beauty, without giving much thought to what beauty means.

I sometimes envy writers who choose not to think about their work on thematic levels. I suspect they may have fewer troubles.

For example, when a major New York house offered to publish my first novel, they cited the spiritual subthemes as one of its most intriguing elements, but their offer was contingent on my willingness to explore those ideas in a “more generic, less Christian” way. An author interested mainly in entertainment probably would have agreed, but to me it was like asking a painter not to use the colors red and blue in sunsets. I couldn’t do it, and had to walk away. It was a very troubling choice, to say the least.

By the grace of God that novel was published later with a “Christian” publishing house. Every other novel I have written since has been published by a so-called “Christian” publisher. This was not a choice I made for Christian reasons. I did it for artistic reasons, because until fairly recently Christians were the only publishers who would let me write the way I need to write. This was not true of novelists or poets who dealt with themes from perspectives that were Buddhist (Herman Hesse) or Jewish (Chaim Potok) or Muslim (Jelaluddin Rumi) but it was true for me. So I learned an important lesson:

Novelists who explore faith from an openly Christian perspective can expect discrimination, solely on the basis of their faith.

Still, at least I was working and learning and growing, and even selling enough to keep on doing it, which is all any artist really needs. Then, while exploring the relationship between humanity and evil in another novel, I encountered another kind of trouble. The publisher objected to the violence in some of the scenes, on the basis that a “Christian” novel should not portray evil in a way that readers might find unpleasant.

A writer interested only in entertainment would have agreed with the publisher’s concerns, of course. Unpleasant things are rarely entertaining. And I have always stood against gratuitous portrayals of evil, (for more on the subject see this and this ), but as an author interested in artistic expression and exploration, I disagree with the idea that novels should never make readers uncomfortable. Space precludes including all of my arguments here, but one of the most powerful is the fact that inauthentic art is bad art, and art, like everything else a Christian does, ought to be done well.

Although my editor was sympathetic, my arguments fell on deaf ears at sales and marketing. They believed the book would not be well received by Christian readers. So I faced an ultimatum again, this time from fellow Christians, and again for the sake of art I had to move on. I had learned another lesson, or perhaps it was the same lesson from the opposite point of view:

Novelists who explore faith in a deeply authentic way can expect to cause offense in those who cannot or will not face unpleasant truths.

That novel went on to be published by a different Christian house, and to my delight it became a finalist for Christian publishing’s most prestigious fiction award. But it did sell poorly in spite of that honor, just as the sales and marketing people had predicted.

I assumed the mediocre sales were the result of the new publisher failing to take advantage of the prestige of being a finalist for the award. Then my next novel actually won that same award plus another one in the general fiction universe. The novel after that also won awards, and the next one was a finalist, and the one after that won still another award. Meanwhile, my work also garnered many excellent reviews from sources Christian and secular alike. Clearly, some people appreciated my commitment to fiction as a thematic art form. But as the years went by, in spite of all the accolades, sales of my novels never rose above average.

Meanwhile, other authors I knew who focused on entertainment had seen their careers blossom. They might never have received a starred review or won a major award, but their novels sold much better than mine. Watching this phenomenon through the years I learned a third lesson, which is a corollary of the first two:

Most novelists who succeed in exploring Christian faith artistically can expect a limited readership.

Sometimes I feel guilty for having spent all these years pursuing deeper themes in fiction instead of writing mainly to entertain. Have I been a prima donna, interested only in my own agenda? Should I have prioritized commercial success above artistic integrity in order to be a better provider for my family?

These three-in-the-morning, tossing-in-bed kinds of doubts can be difficult to shake. But then I think about the Christian life. Just as novelists who explore faith from an openly Christian perspective can expect discrimination, so Jesus said “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” Just as novelists who explore faith in a deeply authentic way can expect to cause offense, so it was said, “The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.” And just as novelists who succeed in exploring faith authentically can expect a limited readership, so it was said, “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

There’s nothing at all wrong with writing solely to entertain readers. Like a painter who is solely trying to produce a thing of beauty, entertainment can be a great blessing, as beautiful and beneficial in its way as any other part of creation. And while those who write to entertain may have fewer troubles in the writing world, if they live a Christian life they will have other opportunities to make sacrifices because “in this world you will have trouble.” But Christian novelists who lead their readers beyond mere diversion and amusement can expect the unique kinds of troubles I’ve described. So if you are that kind of writer, and if you are good at your work, then you should take heart in those troubles. They mean your work is exactly what it ought to be: the natural expression of a Christian choosing to live life authentically.

Athol Dickson’s novels have been favorably compared to the work of Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner. All five of his most recent novels have been finalists for the Christy Award and three have won, including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.