Thursday, March 08, 2012

Religion in Popular Fiction

Ever eager to acquire fodder for my still-kinda-new Kindle, I recently downloaded a free read titled Scream.  (You all probably know horror is my second fictional love.) The novel sounded promising. I didn't bother searching for reviews because, hell, it was free.

After downloading it, I did check its reviews. The book wasn't criticized for its premise or its bad craftsmanship. (From what little I read of Scream, the author's style was workmanlike and inoffensive, and the story's opening provided a solid hook.) Rather, the publisher was criticized -- for not informing readers upfront that this was CHRISTIAN fiction.

Whoopsie. But who would've guessed? It's classified as a horror novel, for crying out loud, and the cover clearly signals that.

When I saw one Goodreads commenter complain that the book "went born-again" halfway through, I decided to delete it from my Kindle. Evangelical testimony, regardless of the guise it's wearing, tends to trigger my gag reflex.

Still, this experience got me thinking.

First, I wondered if publishers should slap some sort of descriptive tag on "inspirational" fiction. (I hate that term, by the way. In my world, all good fiction is inspirational. And dogmatic fiction is rarely good.) Doing so makes sense. Many readers find such content objectionable, just as many readers find erotic or violent content objectionable. Granted, it's usually easy to steer clear of the inspie stuff -- either the blurb or the name of the house or imprint will alert you to it -- but, obviously, readers are sometimes fooled. Free or not, I would've been royally pissed if I'd invested any time in reading this book, only to discover it was a "Jesus Saves" tract.

What do you think? Would an alert be appropriate?

Then I started fretting a little over how my next release will be received. Religious faith is an integral part of A Hole in God's Pocket. What drove me to write the book (in addition to my lifelong fascination with human belief systems) was something I'd read online a while back, an opinion piece by a queer guy who lamented how the issue of spirituality was usually overlooked in queer fiction.

He was right. Authors don't hesitate to cast fundamentalist homophobes as villains, which is perfectly understandable and justified, but not many in the m/m romance genre want to tackle the importance of faith in the lives of gay men and the painful struggle that often results when orientation clashes with theology. None of the so-called Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in nearly all their various sectarian manifestations -- takes a kind view of non-heterosexuality.

So I considered the difference between Christian manifestos disguised as fiction (the Left Behind series, for example) and religious faith as a theme in fiction. Although I still haven't breathed a sigh of relief, the difference quickly became apparent. The aim of evangelical writers is, essentially, to proselytize. Spreading the Word is part and parcel of their raison d'etre. But the rest of us, whether it's Marie Sexton or Andrew Grey or Shelter Somerset or authors of "literary" GLBTQ stories, aren't ideologues. We're simply trying to examine a significant and often troubling issue that shouldn't be ignored.


Tam said...

I don't see saying something is "inspirational" or "religious fiction" as a warning, it's a fact, some people WANT to read those even if I don't. A warning makes it sound like something negative that people have to be afraid of, but it can be something that attracts people. I don't find it all that much different than saying something is "horror" or "GLBT" or "Mystery".

I buy a book because I want a particular type of story, I'd be quite annoyed to buy a book presuming it's horror, only to find out that it's actually a sweet romance. Sometimes blurbs do make it very clear "One man's examination of his spiritual beliefs in the face of a deranged serial killer". Then you don't need to tell me it's "religious", I get it. That's the point, the serial killer allows him to look at his life. Now if you say it's the blurb says "One man's battle to evade a serial killer", I would expect something very different and would appreciate the warning.

Having a book with religious characters or an examination of religious beliefs vs you listen to me tell you why religion is great.See how happy my main character is now? You need to do that too. I do tend to stay away from religious themes, I'm not a believer and to be honest I don't have that much interest in the concept. I just don't care, don't find it interesting and don't get it. So I don't seek it out and will, depending on the type, actively avoid it. That's just me.

K. Z. Snow said...

My bad, Tam. That's what I meant: a tag of some sort, just to inform readers of a story's content. (I'll have to tone down my wording!) Publishers routinely post "alerts" for other types of potentially offensive content, so why not this? 'Cause I'll ya, some of the other readers who downloaded this story where pretty irked that they hadn't been informed of its theme.

I'm not much of a believer, either, but I'm still intrigued by the nature of belief. And dismayed by how it can fuck with people who are made to feel marginalized because of it. But, you're right, a lot of folks simply quail from the whole matter.

Tam said...

I wonder if my total lack of interest (not necessarily my disgust because people like Rick Santorum definitely disgust me) is my Canadianness. It's just not an issue in my life. I have never once been asked my religion or where I attend church nor do people discuss such things in the work place or casual conversation amongst strangers which I understand happens often in the US.

whateverfor said...

I think it's important to remember that the fundamentalists within the Abrahamic faiths may indoctrinate homophobia, however, there are many of us who are faithful and simply believe in love, no matter the form it comes to us. I can't say I've had this discussion with a liberal Muslim, but I can say for certain that many liberal Jews and liberal Christians are decidedly not homophobic. Quite a few of us don't agree it's a sin to be homosexual (myself included).

There is a bridge between faith in God and open-mindedness about sexuality. The fundamentalists (who give humanity in general a bad name) haven't discovered their bridge yet. We're working on continuing to build it in the meantime.

P.S. I love your storytelling

Chris said...

I can just imagine the outcry if "Strong Christian content" was used as a potentially offensive content tag. I, of course, am mightily amused at the thought. But I would also appreciate SOME content warning, because strongly dogmatic stories are not my thing. And I see such stories as being very different than what I expect you'll write. I didn't find the Catholic content in The Prayer Waltz overwhelming or dogmatic, for example.

K. Z. Snow said...

Oh, absolutely, whateverfor. Judaism and Catholicism, in particular, have countless liberals among the faithful who don't toe the party line, as it were. I'd like to think the Golden Rule will ultimately win out, even among more conservative believers, but it's still too soon to tell.

(Thank you.)

K. Z. Snow said...

I think it's only fair, Chris, considering the other end of the fiction spectrum always gets slapped with content "warnings." I wonder why readers of anything other than the mildest milquetoast fiction aren't deemed worthy of that kind of regard?