Should Reading Fiction Be Hard?

Last week Athol Dickson started a discussion on this blog that touched on what typical Christian readers want from novels. Mike Duran followed up with the suggestion that reading too much message-driven fiction might dumb readers down. If all we eat is baby food, will our teeth fall out, leaving us with no way to chew meat when it’s served to us?

This is worth pondering.

First, is it true that the typical Christian fiction reader wants all her questions answered and she wants the answers to include a moral message? Is it true that the readers who want a clear message are usually the ones who don’t like thinking much about a novel?

It is true that Christian publishers are now putting out novels in which some reviewers say they can’t find any spiritual message. I remember an Amazon review I saw a while back on The Charlatan’s Boy, by Jonathan Rogers. The reviewer gave the book a one-star rating. I’m sorry, but Rogers couldn’t produce a one-star book even if he were in a coma. He’d have to be all the way dead to write a one-star book. So what did the reviewer dislike so much? The title of the review was “No spiritual content” and the reviewer told us that:

“Grady is searching for truth, but doesn’t ever make any kind of choice to stop deception, just finds what satisfies him and then the story ends.”

I’m reading the review and thinking…searching for the truth…finds what satisfies him. Isn’t that a picture of spiritual struggle and salvation?

I read Grady’s story, empathizing with the little orphan boy. He was being raised by a liar who told him his parents had given him up because he was too ugly to love. This is exactly what Satan told me for a long time: Your sin makes you so ugly that your Father can’t love you. Happily, I learned that this is only half the story. The Father is seeking his children and he goes to great lengths to find them and bring them home. So I read Grady’s story, hoping his parents would find him. I think others did as well.

That one-star review was buried under a page full of four and five-star reviews, many of which mention the spiritual elements in the book. (One reviewer says this book gives “possibly the most accurate representation of the character of God of any since C. S. Lewis.” Whew!) Still, Rogers probably isn’t selling as many books as some authors who are giving readers novels with messages writ large.

So does that prove that typical Christian fiction readers want gospel flooding over them like mighty oceans and doctrine slapping them as waves slap the shore–noisily and at regular intervals?

I like to believe I’m typical. I look like the women who buy Christian novels–I’m a white, middle-classed, (past) middle-aged, evangelical woman. I’m also a reader who likes answers more than questions, and I love to find the gospel tucked away in books. OK I’ll admit it: I even enjoy finding the gospel strutting right out in the open, especially if it’s got shiny new shoes on its feet.

What is it that bothers me in a book, then? The lack of answers? The lack of four spiritual laws and an altar call? Am I turned off by novels that make me think? Do I just want to be entertained?

I like to think. I listen to sermons, I read nonfiction books, and I read blogs, all because I like to think and interact with the ideas of others. I bet the same is true for you. I bet that’s why you are reading this blog post, in fact. I like to think when I read fiction, too, but with fiction I like to feel more than think. To put it simplistically, I think and feel when I read both fiction and nonfiction, but nonfiction more often engages my brain while fiction engages my heart.

When I read a novel, I want to love the main character. The best characters become dear friends. I empathize with them. My favorite characters often make me laugh and they are almost always generous in nature and given to honesty.

Because my emotions are so involved in fiction, when a character I love acts in a way I can’t tolerate it makes me dislike the book. We all choose friends we can get along with. If a character I love becomes increasingly selfish or falls away from the faith or is in any way worse off morally at the end of the book than at the beginning, I’m going feel that the friendship was a waste of my time. If the protagonist I’ve loved and rooted for has struggled through the hardships in the book only to lose ground morally, I feel cheated. I’ve slogged along with him and I want to get some gain for my pain. I’m probably not going to buy more books by that author, because it cost me emotionally to love her character and then lose the friendship.

So I’m not looking for a big bowl of message handed to me not only skinned and roasted, but also all blended up into baby food. I’m looking for characters I can live with and grow with. I want characters who will grow in virtues I find attractive in people. I like them to learn to be honest and self-sacrificing and humble.

Am I that far from typical? What about you? Are you looking for message? What turns you off to a novel? Are bestselling Christian novels knee-deep with messages?

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When Sally Apokedak was eight, she fell in love with reading. The books she loved best had messages buried at different depths, but she never read novels intent upon improving her mind. She read for the joy of meeting new friends who often lived in fascinating worlds and did dangerous things.

Sally writes novels set in worlds she wants to visit and filled with characters she likes to hang out with. Her short works have been published in various magazines, including Highlights for Children, and her YA novel The Button Girl is currently being reviewed by publishers. She is represented by Reclaim Management. She blogs about young adult novels at sally-apokedak.com.