Thursday, February 22, 2007
Dark Fiction—What Is It?
The original question and answer from my interview with Sue Brower:
Is there any room in CBA (or more specifically at Zondervan) for Christian writers whose tone is somewhat dark?
You know, this is very subjective. There are several very successful authors in CBA that write what I would call “dark” fiction. However, for a first time author, it is not likely that we will pick it up.
When I wrote Sue and asked for her definition of this term, she replied:
“Dark” fiction is anything that leaves the reader feeling disturbed by what he/she is reading or that creates a negative emotional response in the reader. Sometimes it is graphically violent content, sometimes it is themes of mental illness or abuse. This in no way is an indication of how poorly a novel is written. In fact it demonstrates that the book was so well written it affects the reader’s subconscious and lingers for days after. Dark fiction leaves the reader disturbed rather than entertained or enlightened.
My own take:
Sue’s definition is interesting. I’d pretty much agree, with two expansions. First, every novel that covers difficult material is not necessarily dark. It’s how that material is handled. Second, I think dark fiction can disturb and still enlighten. Not all dark fiction does, but it can—in fact, dark fiction in the Christian category should enlighten. Otherwise, what’s the point? Knowing that Zondervan purchases only fiction that fits with its mission statement to “glorify Jesus Christ and promotes biblical principles,” I think Sue would agree with this. Although she used the word enlightened, I’d be willing to bet she meant something more like the word lightened. In other words, these books don’t leave you all warm and fuzzy.
Remember a few years ago when American Beauty won the Oscar for best picture? That movie to me is an example of dark fiction. The story stuck for days. It haunted me. For the first twenty-four hours after seeing it, I merely hated the movie. How could such a thing be voted best picture? I hated that dark story. And I could hardly agree with the ending—which shows a dead character rather blissfully floating through clouds, as I remember. Certainly not a Christian message of truth about what happens after death. But then I began to realize something. The movie was brilliantly done. The pacing, the twists, the characterization. On multiple levels that movie defined the dysfunction of so many American families today. It had to be brilliantly done to disturb me that much—to stick with me for that long and speak to me so deepy.
Still—did I find it enlightening? Not really. It spoke of the human condition, true. But I already knew those things. And it left no hope, nor gave any solutions to the misery. To me, mere dark truth is not enlightening. It’s just depressing.
Now picture this—that same story, with the Christian message infused. Not overdone (!), not tacked on, but through some natural event in the story, the viewer would get the message that Christ introduced to these families would make a difference.
That to me is an intriguing thought. And that example is precisely why I believe dark fiction can play a wonderful, significant role in the Christian fiction world. Granted, it’s not for everybody. Many people won’t find it “safe.” Those who don’t, who are so disturbed by content that they can’t hear the message won’t like it at all. But there are others who will respond to this type of fiction.
The challenge is doing dark fiction well. That’s mighty hard because the writer faces all sorts of balances. How dark is too dark? What’s the message? How many difficult subjects and characters can be included before the story is just too weighted altogether, and that message is muddied? The worst thing to end up with is dark fiction done poorly.
Here’s the reality check. Remember Sue’s line: "…for a first time author, it’s not likely that we will pick [dark fiction] up.” That doesn’t mean Zondervan—and other houses in CBA—won’t publish such stories. It does mean they have to proceed carefully. As we’ve seen by definition, many times the darker the fiction, the narrower the target audience. Which means a smaller projection of sales. A brand new author also has a smaller projection of sales, because novels are sold on name recognition, and a new author has none. So when these two things are combined, you can get even smaller sales projections. There’s got to be something so stellar about the book that (1) the publisher believes they can edge up sales because it’s so well written and people will talk about it, and/or (2) the publisher wants to invest in this great new author, knowing that over time and with future books, his/her sales numbers will grow. Either way, it’s a gamble for the publisher. And a house can’t afford such a gamble without having other authors who are already proven and successfully selling to offset the cost.
Feedback, differing opinions?