Why a Mormon Writer is Smarter Than Most Christian Writers

No, not Stephanie Meyer. You can relax.

I’m talking about Brandon Sanderson. Author of the Mistborn novels, The Stormlight Archive, the guy who finished Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time after his death, and lots more.

Dozens of factors play into success, but there’s one fact that should not be overlooked: Sanderson is good. Freaking good.

Now, let’s look at Christian writing in general. Most of it is unpopular, and while there are, again, many factors, the common denominator is that most Christian fiction is bad. Freaking bad.

So what does Sanderson know that Christians don’t?

Sanderson Isn’t Preachy (And doesn’t have to be)

I admit I have only read seven Sanderson books (Mistborn trilogy, Reckoners trilogy, and Warbreaker), but when you read seven works by one author, you have a pretty good sense of their style.

And I never once guessed he was a Mormon. I found out by accident! Not once have I felt the author looking at me and saying, “See? This is a metaphor for my beliefs! Won’t you join me in what I think?”

On the other hand, mainstream Christian fiction is almost strong-armed into preaching. If you don’t have an overtly Jesus-centric message, are you really a Christian writer? Some say yes, but others want little to do with your books.

The result…

Sanderson Isn’t Annoying

There’s a big reason I don’t enjoy much Christian fiction: I am a Christian. I know the story. If your novel is nothing more than a come-to-Jesus tract, then I have no use for it.

And most people aren’t Christians. They don’t want a come-to-Jesus tract either. So Christian novels easily become bothersome to Christians and non-Christians alike. These types of Christian stories only cater to those who want to pat themselves on the back.

Sanderson, on the other hand, makes cool characters, interesting worlds, and exciting plots.

Hmm…a good book, or a message I don’t really want to hear? Hmm…

Sanderson Doesn’t Limit His Audience

Like I said, I hardly knew Sanderson was Mormon because he never screams it. Thus, he appeals to non-Mormon audiences.

Revolutionary Idea: When more people can read your book, more people can buy your book. *Gasp!*

Much of the Christian market, the part that isn’t evangelical, is self-contained. They write stories by Christians for Christians. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But yet again, some circles have this air of judgment, that your work should be approved by Christian norms, thus creating a Christian-only audience by default.

Christians who shirk this trend can draw more non-Christians in. Such as Brent Weeks, another phenomenal fantasy author who’s seen incredible success because he doesn’t limit his audience. He just writes good stories.

Sanderson Doesn’t Limit His Content

Perhaps the funniest thing I’ve read in a while is where Siri in Warbreaker bounced on the bed, moaning, pretending to have sex to fool some high priests. This is after she’s been naked several times, expecting to be forced into bed against her will.

You just don’t see that in Christian fiction. Not that you need to, but the problem is you can’t. Sex is still a radically taboo subject in Christian fiction, and only the most daring touch it.

You know, like Brent Weeks, that other NYT Bestselling Author. Though Christian in faith, he’s not afraid to have sexually-active characters because, hey, that’s what some people are. Many, in fact.

In Christian circles, there’s still this stigma about sex, swearing, and un-Christian ideas like homosexuality. We’re told to write G-rated, conservative fiction or we’re shunned by writers, readers, and publishers en masse.

Sanderson’s example is PG-13 at best, but most Christian novels can’t even go there. Because Christianity is expected to be family-friendly at all times. If you aren’t, you’re pushed outside and discredited.

Which is strange because Jesus said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25 NIV) And what do we see? Christian writing is struggling to survive.

Sanderson, on the other hand, remains popular not just because of inertia, but because he keeps writing good stuff. Because…

Sanderson is Committed to Art

I’ve been hard on Christian fiction, so let me offer the olive branch. There is nothing wrong with G-rated Christian books, nothing wrong with writing for Christians, and nothing wrong with trying to evangelize your non-Christian audience.

The problem is when these things become idols. When there’s only one type of Christian writer allowed and all the others are heretics and pretenders.

When that happens, we limit not only ourselves, not only our audience, but art itself. We are fiction writers, creators of art. How can we cut off one corner of a blanket and expect to cover ourselves with it?

Sanderson has no such squabbles. Some of his books are middle-grade, some adult. Some of his books have one god, others many, others none. Sanderson seems to have only one rule: write books that are good.

Maintstream Christian fiction cuts what is good if it is not also in line with mainstream, orthodox, conservative Christian idealism. Quality remains secondary to agenda, money, and fear, three things Christians are told not to emphasize.

What We Can Learn

If Christian fiction is to grow and thrive, it needs to be flexible. It needs to be comfortable with Christians writing books that have no salvation story in them. It needs to let some books be R-rated to deal with a topic properly. It needs to reexamine what it calls bad and why.

Most importantly, it needs to understand what art is.

Thankfully, I’m already seeing these changes. I’ve mentioned Brent Weeks, but smaller-time authors like Ben Wolf and Mike Duran are throwing the rules out the window and seeing success with them. And even old-school overtly-Christian writer Frank Peretti changed tactics by writing non-Christian books Monster and Illusion, and both were awesome because Peretti’s strength came not from his messages, but from his writing.

The world doesn’t want sermons in the fiction section. If you’re going to preach, by all means preach. But if you’re going to write fiction, take lessons from Sanderson: write well.

 

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9 thoughts on “Why a Mormon Writer is Smarter Than Most Christian Writers

  1. It really depends upon the purpose of one’s writing. Or, alternatively, how do you define Christian fiction?

    Sure, Christians can write good novels. Many Christians are multi-talented and can do several things well.

    But, if the purpose is solely to write entertaining, non-preachy fiction that sells – then what difference does it make who writes it? What distinguishes Christian fiction from non-Christian fiction? The themes of the stories? Be careful, a Christian theme may turn off non-Christian readers.

    I think you have 2 separate issues that you have not clearly addressed as being separate. 1. Christian authors who can write good (general) fictional stories. 2. Christian authors who write Christian fiction (with Christian themes) and who come across as too preachy to general audiences.

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    1. Good point. My intention was to speak to the side of Christian fiction that says there is only one way, while showing an “outsider” has it better than we do. Still. that’s not quite the audience I’ve cut out for my blog, so whoopsie. Thanks for commenting.

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  2. Most Christian fiction disgusts me, though I’m a devout believer. What disgusts me is its Pollyanna naivete (often seeming forced.) While I came to Jesus at age 6, my life has been more like a Steven King novel than one of those prairie or Amish romances. Everyone who knows my story agrees I got the short end of the stick in this world.

    A lot of those Christian romances come across like a slap in the face. “If you were a good Christian woman like Matilda Clay in Once Upon a Spring you would find blessings like her and the rest of us.” Ironically, I find these simplistic narratives more depressing than truly tragic stores such as Ethan Frome or Portrait of a Lady or The Metamorphosis by Kafka.

    And most “Christian romances” are less realistic than The Wizard of Oz or The Hobbit. Because they pretend to be realistic when they are not.

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    1. You make a good point about those who have lived hard lives being told their life is hard because they aren’t good Christians. I’ve read Ethan Frome (oh yeah, that was a happy ending…), but not the others. I’ll add them to my list. Are “Portrait” and “Metatoomanysyllables” any good?

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      1. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James was much longer but a bit less depressing than Ethan Frome. The Metamorphosis is maybe 15,000 words long. It’s sad but darkly funny. You know you’re reading a surrealist work after the first sentence where Gregor Sampsa–a hapless young traveling salesman– finds he has mysteriously turned into a giant cockroach overnight. Unless your German is better than mine, I recommend the translation by Edwin Muir.

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    1. I kind of hope that happens to me. That someone reads my books, loves them, then says, “Wait, that dude’s a Christian?” And that it starts a conversation from there. That’s my big dream, but it’s going to depend on God.

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  3. Thanks for tackling this issue! SOOOOO much of the Christian fiction I’ve read is stilted, and I think you hit the nail on the head- people are afraid to step outside of the accepted norms and let their characters breathe. I’m TRYING to find the balance in my own fiction- it’s nice to hear that other people feel the same way 🙂

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    1. Thanks for reading. It’s difficult, I know, and I can only hope I succeed in doing better. Still, it’s good to see more and more Christian readers harping about their craft rather than just their message. The two go together.

      Liked by 1 person

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