Thursday, March 10, 2016

Teen Takeover: Speculating on the Future of Christian Speculative Fiction


I have said for years that I'm just waiting for the teenagers of today to grow up and take over publishing, and I'll have my day as a successful author. That someday, the hard-nosed Christian publishers who refuse to give science fiction and fantasy a chance, the ones who say there is no market for it, will be displaced as a new breed moves in--the now-grown teens who have all along been the audience, albeit out of sight of the CBA.

Walk into any brick and mortar bookstore or head to Go to the teen book section. What do you find? Speculative fiction galore. Gobs and gobs of stories about dystopian societies, paranormal creatures, wizards, faeries, robots, and cyborgs. I know this because I spend a lot of time in that section. I read almost exclusively teen books, almost exclusively speculative, and I promise I am in no danger of running out of reading material. Know what else you find in that teen section? Christian teenagers.

Now, head to a Christian bookstore. Find the teen section...

Oh, wait. Never mind. There isn't one. Nope, you will find hardly any teen books (or teenagers) in your typical Christian bookstore, and of the few that are there, you'll find only a tiny fraction that are speculative. (And if you say, "What about Lewis! What about Tolkien!" you have no place in this discussion. If you cannot name a single speculative fiction book by a Christian author that was written in the last fifty years, you are part of the problem.)

This is not a new issue. And it is the same issue the secular fiction world faced only a few decades ago. In his essay "Dusk in the Robot Museum: The Rebirth of Imagination," written in 1980, Ray Bradbury says:

"How come the United States, the country of Ideas on the March, for so long neglected fantasy and science fiction?"

Later he states:

"..back in the twenties and thirties, there were no science fiction books in the curricula of schools anywhere. There were few in the libraries. Only once or twice a year did a responsible publisher dare to publish one or two books which could be designated as speculative fiction."

Wow. Replace "curricula of schools" with "Christian market" and you've got exactly what we see today.

Why was this true back then? Bradbury gives a very clear reason:

"Among librarians and teachers there was then, and there still somewhat dimly persists, an idea, a notion, a concept that only Fact should be eaten with your Wheaties. Fantasy? That's for the Fire Birds. Fantasy, even when it takes science-fictional forms, which it often does, is dangerous. It is escapist. It is daydreaming. It has nothing to do with the world and the world's problems."

Again, replace "librarians and teachers" with "Christian publishers and agents" and this is the description of today's situation.

And I love the next line best of all:

"So said the snobs who did not know themselves as snobs."

Am I calling Christian publishers and agents snobs? Well, sometimes. If you'd seen the reactions I've gotten from some of them, you'd understand my feelings there.

The few agents and editors who actually do like spec-fic admit that the publishing houses simply don't know what to do with such books.

That's okay, though. See, the next generation WILL know. Just as things have changed for spec-fic authors in the secular market, so they will eventually in the Christian market. As Bradbury said in his essay:

"Who is responsible for the change? ...The answer is: the students. The young people. The children."

Yes, sir. The children. The teenagers who today are devouring spec-fic novels, one after another, series after series. They will grow up. They will someday take the places of the current gatekeepers--if there are even gatekeepers by then with the way indie publishing is going--and they will be the one buying books. They will be the ones making the demands and the decisions.

It's the youth that really see what's going on. Speculative fiction isn't "escapism" or "daydreaming." Bradbury calls science fiction "an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way." He knows this because spec-fic digs deeps. It tackles hard issues, and it -- sorry, I have to say it -- dares to go where no man has gone before. It does the opposite of takes on new challenges, faces the future head-on, and looks at the world from different angles.

Teens and kids know that, and these days, more than ever, what they want is to be able to explore the questions they have. And this is the real crux of things--they want to be understood. This is really why the Christian market has failed with our youth. They get Sunday school lessons at, well, Sunday school, What they want from books is life lessons, life experience, life exploration.

Speculative fiction is the perfect forum for that. Without sermons or sappiness, spec-fic puts the world in focus, showing how light shines in the darkness of space or the deep shadows of forbidden forests. Good triumphs, evil falls, battles are won, and dragons slain....and publishing markets are changed.


Kessie said...

As an ex-teen, I mournfully searched for Christian spec fix in our Christian bookstore. I read the disappointing Gilbert Morris, and waited longingly for Lee Roddy to write about wizards. I marked time reading Mandy and Elizabeth Gail. Frank Peretti only produced one book per decade. Eventually I turned to the library, because the bookstore didn't have what I wanted.

If the Wingfeather saga had existed back then, I would have been the biggest screaming fan girl on the face of the earth. :-)

Kat Heckenbach said...

When I was a teen, I wasn't aware of Christian bookstores at all, to be honest. I got my books from the library, where the few teen books that existed were mixed in with juvenile. Sci-fi and fantasy were in the adult book section, and there was (and still is) no Christian fiction section. It wasn't until well into adulthood that I took note of Christian bookstores and Christian sections in regular bookstores--and even then, I assumed it was all Bibles and Bible study stuff. It didn't even occur to me to look for fiction of any kind there until I started writing less than ten years ago!

Kessie said...

Yeah, that was when I discovered that Heinlein and Bradbury had written juvie fiction. I read everything I could find in the library system--Have Spacesuit, Will Travel still holds a place in my heart--and it was delightful.

Kat Heckenbach said...

I need to go back and look up those books. I was never aware of them. I basically went straight from Madeleine L'Engle to adult sci-fi/fantasy.

Anonymous said...

"They want to be understood...." So true! Thank you for being an author who inspires our next generation!
Rick Christensen

Kat Heckenbach said...

Thanks, Rick!

Cheryl Johnston said...

When I taught high school English, I loved introducing the students to Bradbury with Fahrenheit 451 and to Ayn Rand with The Anthem. These books opened the door to some great "life lesson" discussions. And I'm still amazed that Bradbury wrote to TV walls in homes and "seashell" earbuds that controlled the main character's wife's thoughts, numbing her to reality and to her husband. Now you've made me want to read Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing (don't know how I missed this one). I believe you're right--that things are and will change even more when today's teen readers become the publishers. Keep encouraging them, Kat, and keep writing for them. Your books just may be the classics one day.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Bradbury was so ahead of his time, and the stuff in Fahrenheit 451 is eerily prophetic.

Thanks, Cheryl!