The bookseller is feeling prickly


Spot the dfference…    










Proudly Serving Heathens Since 2001

I’m always put off when (like today) a customer asks with a sneer, “You don’t have a Christian section, do you?” You’d be surprised how often people use the same tone for this question that they would use to say, “You don’t wear underwear, do you?”

I point out that we have a religion and philosophy section that’s chock full o’ Thomas Merton, Ann Lamott & C.S. Lewis, as well as plenty of bibles (NRSV, NKJV, NIV, TNIV and PDQ – that one’s abridged). Sometimes people ask specifically for “Christian Fiction,” and I feel the urge to let them know that our novels are heathens, every one. Since we got rid of the ice dam on the roof last winter the books remain happily unbaptised.  

While I find it ridiculous to segregate paperbacks based on the religion of their author or that of their protagonist, I do wonder what makes patrons take one look at me and become sure that the store where I work does not sport such a section. I mean, I’m pushing 40 and wear a bun. On an especially bad fashion day I could pass for Amish. What’s tipping them off?  Is it the A is for Agnosticism t-shirt I wear to Story Time? 

Sealed for Your Protection 

There’s lots of good Christian fiction out there. Faith is a big part of people’s lives; it ought to be reflected in our literature. By the same token, there’s an abundance of good Jewish and Islamic and Hindu and Shinto and Buddhist fiction out there. What I object to is the use of the word Christian to mean something else. In the case of “Christian Fiction,” I think people are using it to mean “safe.” And that is so very wrong. 

Pursuing any religion seriously is the most dangerous thing we can do. Deeply committing yourself to a spiritual path will cause you to examine and re-examine the values you were brought up with and deny you a comfortable life. Ha ha! No more complacency for you. You’ll wind up hanging out with the sorts of people who most need your help, and they are not safe at all. 

When I read a book where the main character is searching for nothing more than a big, handsome man and asks God to “guide” her on every other page, I want to slap someone. Any story in which attaining romantic love is the primary occupation of the main character is just wish-fulfillment. It’s an escape, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but to call it “Christian” because the girl meets the guy at bible study is like calling me Spanish because I’m wearing Manolo Blahniks. And people who turn to this sort of writing because they find it somehow more appropriate (i.e.: guaranteed not to have steamy, unmarried sex in it) should be told that as reassuring and cozy as these books may be, the only thing that separates them from a Penthouse Bedtime Story is that they are bland. And honey, bland did not lead the Israelites out of Egypt or teach peace to anybody. Bland is for sissies.  


Filed under about books

12 responses to “The bookseller is feeling prickly

  1. As a Christian writer/reader, I have to address this…and oh, I think you might be surprised…but I agree, wholeheartedly, with everything you said. In case the non-Christian community is unaware, not every Christian out there is into prairie romance. There are quite a few of us that write about real life –or fantasy or sci-fi, or even, yep, horror–from the perspective of someone with faith. And there are a lot of us that don’t want “clean”–we want “real.”

    As a matter of fact, there are a slew of us that resent the whole idea of a “Christian section”–especially because it tends to be seen as the ghetto of the secular bookstore. Shoved in the back corner like an afterthought, segregated from the rest of the “real books.” Some say it’s rightly so, because the writing is contrived–and as you say, bland. Unrealistic is the word I use, and I write fantasy :P. What I mean is that things tend to go just a little too smoothly in those books, the good characters are a little too good, and everything works out just too peachy in the end.

    Contrary to what you find in most “Christian fiction,” being a Christian doesn’t mean suddenly having a perfect life. We still have trials, and doubts, and anger, and we still screw up, quite royally sometimes. But a lot of Christian fiction has become nothing more than a platform through which writers try to show Christians being perfect–in other words, preach. To the choir, I might add.

    There was a time when a writer was a Christian, which meant his or her faith would most likely be woven into the story. But the key is, the story was what the writer was creating–pure and simple. The story. The faith part was an organic element, there naturally because it was ingrained in the author. There’s been a shift, though, and many authors write stories simply to use as a frame for their message.

    Anyway, I don’t understand the attitude you’re being given by these customers, and I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with that. If they want “safe” they can find that in the Christian bookstore–where the kinds of Christian novels I read tend to not be allowed.

  2. Thanks for that really thoughtful and insightful comment, Kat. I can’t wait to take a look at your blog! –Mary

  3. For the record, I’m with Kat. Being a Christian who writes fantasy and space opera that often doesn’t fit within the “safe” confines, I don’t particularly want my stuff set apart from the rest of the fiction. People miss too much good stuff (when it is written well) because it is a separate section of “Oh, we don’t read Christian literature.” So they don’t even bother to check out what’s there. I want real characters, Christian ones included, or whatever the faith of the characters.

    Good post.

    • Thanks, R.L. I’m so thrilled with the really smart, interesting comments I got on this post. Plus I’ve gotten to check out some really cool blogs as a result. Thanks for chiming in!

  4. Maggie Woychik

    Ha! I have to totally agree with your assessment here, Mary. Well said, well said. I run a new small press, we have several imprints which by necessity have taken on a Christian tone, but I’m having a heck of a time finding hardcore good writing by anyone who even remotely calls themselves a Christian. Wow. I’m all for family friendly, but am certainly not averse to R-rated material, if /well-written/. All that to say, you’re certainly not alone in your frustration; more than a few of us “of faith” are there in line w/you, ready to lend a slapping hand. 🙂

    And all of us have days when we dig down to find that “A” t-shirt we have stuffed in our dresser. I certainly do.

    ~Chila (Maggie) Woychik

    • Thanks for the support, Chila! As a bookseller, I’m curious to know what press your with (if it’s kosher to reveal that).

      The folks who responded to this post have been so much fun to hear from. I was kind of expecting a firestorm of disapproval… Anyway, it’s nice to know you’re out there. Makes the world a much friendlier place.

      • Hey, Mary. I’m publisher over at Port Yonder Press.

        Enjoyed this post. Would love more like it — balanced, from the heart, looking at both sides without sacrificing the thought process.


  5. Whoa… just read this, and I think I’m in love.

    Thank you.

  6. I’m a Christian, btw. And a writer.

    • Thanks for the comments. I’m so pleased people liked the post. I was sort of expecting… other sorts of comments 🙂

      Nice work on your blog, by the way. Wish you the best with the book!

      I’m actually going to be part of a panel this fall on what we booksellers are supposed to do with self-published authors. The are a lot of you, you know! Our biggest concern is that there’s really no organized way to sort through all the self-published books… no guarantee of any baselines when it comes to quality (spelling, punctuation, etc.), sometimes not even a clear plot synopsis from the author. We pretty much have to consider each self-published book individually, and that can take a whole lot of time. I do rely quite a bit on blogs – it’s a quick way to get a sense of somebody’s writing ability without having to wade half way into a novel. So for what it’s worth, keep up the good work. It will be useful to your local booksellers.

      • Been a while, but my book finally appeared on Amazon and I’d like to send you a copy gratis.
        Forward a mailing address if you’re interested and I’ll kick one out the door.


  7. Mary,
    Thanks and good luck with that self-pub panel. There’s a lot of sifting to do, but I think when the gems surface, it’s well worth the effort.

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