Smarter people than me have debated this, and for a much longer time and my intention in this post is not to necessarily open the debate; merely to explain why I chose to write the kind of fiction I write, as a Christian person.
My definition of Christian fiction has been that the work includes an overt Christian message and usually some kind of commitment or recommitment by one of the characters. It also steers clear of any content that’s offensive, sexual or rude. Using this definition, I decided, when I sat down to work out what I was going to do with this ‘I want to write a novel’ urge that kept sticking its annoying head up into my life, that I would not be writing Christian fiction.
I couldn’t do it without being cheesy, I thought to myself. I’d definitely feel like I was being contrived*. Not to mention the fact that my audience for a book like that would be a lot smaller. And small was never what I wanted to do.
So I made a decision. I would write fiction for the broad market of the age group I had chosen (girls, aged 11-14). I would include big themes (suicide, bullying and anxiety feature in Invisible; fashion, popularity and the ‘it group’ feature in Love and Muddy Puddles) but I would steer clear of offensive language and tackle things in what I considered to be an age-appropriate way for the culture I see my junior high school daughter living in.
My characters don’t swear, a kiss is as far as anything ever goes and there’s always a helpful older female mentor, guiding my girls through their lives. There’s also always a ‘hint’ of the possibility of God or a Christian influence on the situation.
My theory was this; far from hiding my Christian faith, I’d aim for the widest possible audience by writing a ‘secular’ book. If a reader liked what they read, they’d go and find out about me on my website, where I am not backward in explaining that I’m a Christian and pointing them to links that will give them more information. I also always answer letters from readers and I’ve had the amazing opportunity already to encourage a few teenagers from different countries to read verses from the bible and to encourage them to find faith.
The age group is tricky though. Lots of girls this age are reading Twilight and its equivalents. (I’ve even talked to 15-year-olds who’ve read 50 Shades of Grey.) For them, my books are completely innocent and non-offensive.
Other girls are in much more sheltered situations and I’ve had three (Christian) mothers tell me that they wouldn’t give my books to their eleven-year-olds. The first was because her daughter’s dad had suffered from similar bipolar problems as the character’s father in Invisible, and it was all ‘a bit too close to home’ for her. The second mother objected to what she saw as the viciousness of the bullying in the school and said that her home-schooled ten-year-old would be horrified if she read it. Another mother was a bit put off by the fact that my fashionista Coco in Love and Muddy Puddles was a makeup addict and wore mascara and eye shadow at the age of thirteen and she didn’t want to encourage her daughter to do the same thing.
I understand all the criticism, but I also understand that life out there in early high school can be vicious and scary and grownup. Many, many kids go through what my Coco and Jazmine go through and I want to give them hope.
In the end, to avoid the definition debates, I’ve made up my own definition of what I write. I call my books ‘warmhearted fiction for girls’, written by a Christian.
*Please do not see this blog post as in any way criticising Christian fiction, or saying that it by definition is cheesy or contrived. I’m simply saying I couldn’t do it without a fair helping of mozzarella. Nor is it bad to have a smaller audience. Nor do I criticise mothers for homeschooling their children or guiding their daughters’ choice of fiction. I’ve done both myself. I perfectly understand that we all have lines we draw at various places for our own reasons.
Cecily Paterson is the author of the award-winning memoir Love Tears & Autism and now writes fiction for teenage girls.