Mixing oil with water: Christian Fiction and Contemporary Literature (Guest Post – Michel Sauret)


Note from RWR: I recently had an in-depth discussion with author Michel Sauret about a common issue many indie authors face.  Let’s call it genre confusion.  Michel has written a collection of short stories, Amidst Traffic, that has been lauded for its literary merit.  At the same time, his book has drawn attention for its Christian themes.  In other words, his book appeals to two different demographics.

On the surface, that may seem like a nice position to be in.  However, such diversity does pose a problem.  Where do you spend your marketing efforts?  The two demographics are normally at odds, a position that usually forces an indie author to make a business decision that goes against his or her artistic sensibilities.  Welcome to the sometimes frustrating world of indie publishing.

I know nothing about the Christian market.  I’ve been labeled evil by readers who love and hate my books, so it’s probably a good idea I stay away from the gentile-inclined readers.  But I gave Michel my opinion based on my knowledge of marketing.  I found the discussion so interesting that I asked him to write up something for my blog.  I know other indies stop by every once in awhile, and I thought they might find his perspective edifying.  Without further ado, I give you multi-award winning author, Michel Sauret.

Michel Sauret: Can oil and water mix? Can they become the same substance? Or, at the very least, can they be packaged into a single product?

Several years ago, when I was thinking of proposing to my (now) wife, Heather, I came across a passage in scripture that halted me:

Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14)

That same passage came to mind years later when I returned to writing fiction.

If you’re like me, when I first read that passage , I had no clue what a yoke was. I actually thought the Bible was talking about an egg at first. But a yoke is a harnass that allows multiple animals to plow or till a piece of land in unison. It joins the two bests in a common purpose, and for the animals to work efficiently, they must move in the same direction and at the same pace, otherwise the land might look like a sloppy mess.

When I published my collection of short stories, titled “Amidst Traffic,” I thought I could have the best of both worlds. I thought I could market to both the Christian and Literary readers together.

What I came to realize, however, is that there is a fundamental divide between the literary market of readers and the Christian one. The two don’t mix well.

oil_by_loumavis-d4xb2pr

Photo by LouMavis

Christian and literary fiction are not necessarily exclusive (the way, for example Christian and Erotica are), but a chasm has grown between the two genres over the last few decades.

Contemporary literature has a tendency to explore existential philosophies, life’s meaninglessness, sexual “freedom,” human individuality, personal lonesomeness, along with a myriad of other themes. The prose is usually rich and full of metaphor. The tone is often moody and its style can be gritty or even experimental.

Christian fiction (as of late), has a tendency to be more straight forward, filled with supernatural elements, less prosy, more spiritual and often even preachy. The tone appeals to a sense of hope and the writing style is more traditional and less risky.

Also, not to overstate the obvious, but the literary movement typically sides with the liberal camp on most political and philosophical topics, while the Christian movement is politically conservative.

For these reasons the Christian reader often guards himself against contemporary literary books and the literary reader rejects Christian fiction.

Though shallow and generalized, the expectations are simple: The literary reader thinks a Christian book will be preachy and trite (full of false hope), and the Christian reader often won’t appreciate the more experimental nature of contemporary lit. I’m not saying this is true all the time, but generally it is true. I’ve met enough readers in both realms who were willing to cross the border and judge a work based on its merit rather than its label, but typically readers remain in their “safe” zone.

My_Venn_diagram_by_failing_senses

There is a small overlap of readers who consider themselves BOTH Literary and Christian (Photo by Failing Senses)

Not to be overly dismissive, but I’ve actually noticed that the literary reader is more guarded against the “Christian” genre than the Christian reader is to the “Literary” one. I once had a book reviewer ask for a copy of my book, and as soon as she found out that “Amidst Traffic” held Christian themes, she refused to even read it. On the other hand, I’ve sent the same collection to Christian readers/reviewers who weren’t nearly as threatened by its gritty style and moody tones. In fact, they found those elements refreshing.

When I tried to market my work to both camps, I thought I was appealing to a larger audience, but really I was just attracting the narrow overlap from the Venn Diagram. Thanks to a conversation I had with author R.W. Ridley, I was able to identify the weakness in my marketing strategy. He said that I shouldn’t try to “serve two masters” (such an appropriate phrase, actually), but pick one camp and stick with it. Then, in the end, I’d have a better chance to break out. I consider this to be a wise choice so long as I didn’t have to change my writing style.

For that reason, I’ve decided to brand myself to the Christian camp (even though I personally find Christian fiction pretty weak when it comes to literary substance and prose quality). By identifying with a Christian market, I won’t have to compromise on personal conviction or message. Even though the Christian market isn’t currently molded to accept experimental and gritty fiction, I have a better chance of finding readers in this market than the literary one. It is by staying true to my Christian faith that I can write fiction I love to write and inject literary prose into it.

I don’t think the opposite would be true if I tried to market myself as a literary author.

2012-10-06-Michel%20Headshots-008%20SMALLAbout Michel Sauret: Michel Sauret was born in Rome, Italy, and is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s English Writing department. He published his first novel, “Breathing God,” at the age of 19, and has been serving as a public affairs specialist and journalist for the U.S. Army since 2004.

His work has won several journalism awards, including the Keith L. Ware, giving him the title of Army Journalist of the Year in 2008.  His short story, “Lost in the Night” appeared in the anthology, “Best New Writing, 2008″ and his work has appeared in literary publications in the U.S., Britain and Australia.

Closing message from RWR: If you’re a reviewer, writer or reader, and you have an idea for a post that you’d like to write or see on the blog, contact me and give me your best pitch.

3 Comments

  1. As a reader, writer and reviewer who happens to be a Christian…thanks Ridley!! for this post. Very interesting, and I’m happy to have downloaded Mr Sauret’s short stories; I look forward to reading them! I, for one, read an equal portion of both Christian and Literary works. I love both. A good story is a good story. Genre is a deal breaker for many people…and many stories can fit into more than one genre. I don’t read romance or mysteries…but I can find both on my bookcase and in my Kindle that weren’t marketed as romance or mystery, and I liked them enough to finish them! A suggestion, though…I’ve seen a couple authors (Ted Dekker comes to mind) who are Christian Writer’s who market one or two of their books in the literary genre with the majority of them being in the Christian genre. It’s just like with music. Casting Crowns, a Christian band got their song “I Can Only Imagine” on the secular hit list and it played on many non-Christian radio stations (as well as all the Christian radio stations).

  2. As a christian author of fantasy novels, I’ve found that Michel’s point about literary readers being more guarded against Christianity in stories is absolutely true. some of my novels have received bad reviews that were clearly, blatantly aimed at the Christian themes within…the reader felt somehow duped or betrayed because I had characters praying in my story. They liked the story, but hated the Christian worldview.
    On the other hand, I have also had the experience of readers who are not christian loving the story despite the worldview of my characters. Admittedly, I believe it to be more rare, but it is possible. I make it very clear that I’m a christian, and pastor in my amazon author page. Also, I tend to give away the first book in a series for free, and this softens the negative feedback….you don’t have to be angry because it cost you nothing to read my book, or attempt to read only to find my faith present in what I write (naturally).

    So, perhaps part of this negative feedback comes from the feeling of being cheated out of cash to read something you were never going to like… I can relate.

    Also I thought the point about christian fiction being weak is well put… I almost never read christian fiction (as a christian) because it comes off to me as being usually boring! There are exceptions, but most of it is terribly boring. One of the things I have tried to do with my own novels is to write an exciting story first and allow the characters to be who they are more naturally. It doesn’t take away from my worldview, and it does tend to be more gritty and dark than the usual christian fiction (which can seem lame). I write evil as being very evil, and heroes are not always one-sided pillars of virtue. I haven’t met one of those in real life, so it’s okay to say that Christians aren’t perfect in the way we live and react to situations.

    Maybe that’s part of what’s missing in Christianity that isn’t in literary stuff…the characters are multidimensional and complex, whereas they may not be in christian novels?

    interesting article, RWR


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