I spent this weekend in Villanova, PA, at Realm Makers 2016, and had a total blast! So much to process. And as I arrived home less than 24 hours (and multiple time zones) ago, I doubt that my thoughts here will have the needed distance to be able to accurately address the subject I’m about to. But here I go.
I began blogging in 2005, which is about the time I “officially” began pursuing writing. Signed with a CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) literary agent in 2007. Completed my first novel about then, it was shopped but couldn’t find any takers in the CBA and, being that my then-agent had few general market connections, we agreed to part ways. That same book was contracted in 2010, I signed with another agent, and subsequently published two novels in the Christian market. But the longer I ran in Christian circles, the more I felt my work was on a different trajectory, and have since indie published five books, all aimed mostly at the general market.
Anyway, I’ve been writing about the tenuous relationship between the Christian fiction industry and Speculative Fiction writers for a long time. Back in 2008 I actually sounded hopeful, asking Is “Christian Horror” Becoming a Trend? (which it wasn’t). In fact, spec fic was woefully under-represented in Christian bookstores. So I assembled a Christian Speculative Fiction Panel (2008) and queried about the potential future of speculative fiction in the Christian market. The answers were few. The subsequent years only saw Amish Fiction and Historical Romance continue to dominate the CBA landscape. Christian publishers scaled back, fiction lines dried up, and speculative fiction found its scant section of turf shrinking.
But life always finds a way.
In The Changing “Voice” of Christian Fiction (2014) I wrote about the inception of Realm Makers. At the time, it could have appeared more as a disgruntled break from the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers), a reaction to the genre’s under-representation, than a genuine standalone movement. But now after four years of continued growth — last year the conference doubled, this year they pushed 200 attendees — and the landing of one of the biggest crossover celebrities in the Christian hemisphere, Ted Dekker, for next year’s conference (which also happens to be held in a four-star hotel in Reno), it appears that The Little Conference That Could, can.
So this weekend, I led a brief elective on “The Christian Crossover Novelist” and a four-hour workshop entitled “A Theology of Speculative Fiction.” I was nervous about the continuing session. Really nervous. Not because I didn’t have enough material, but because 1.) The subject is so huge, 2.) I’m no expert on a.) Theology, b.) Spec-fic, or c.) the Industry, and 3.) I’d never taught a class that long before. Well, I covered perhaps one-third of my prepared notes and received lots of enthusiastic reports from attendees. The class was very well-attended and, dare I say, seemed timely.
I was so totally impressed by the level of discussions we had.
- We talked about apologetics.
- We got into the muck and wrestled with the theological boundaries of speculation.
- We asked why a Mormon university has a popular Mormon spec-fic author (Brandon Sanderson) teaching courses on writing speculative fiction… while Christian universities barely have any courses on A Theology of Aesthetics, much less fiction!
- We talked about the Church’s need to take up the torch of the Arts again; that we believers must once again be culture makers and cultural influencers.
It was so much fun, I almost wanted to squee.
The question I found myself asking of people, over and over, was “What does this mean?” What does it mean that the CBA has under-represented spec authors for so long, and now a conference aimed at Christian speculative fans has grown steadily? What does it mean that speculative fiction lines — first Marcher Lord Press, then Enclave (Jeff Gerke, we all owe you a tremendous debt) — have continued to carry a torch and refused to die? What does it mean that Realm Makers has shown continued evidence of growth?
In the simplest sense, it’s a testament to its leadership. I doubt this conference would have come this far if Scott and Becky Minor hadn’t demonstrated their commitment to quality and exhibited the courage to take huge risks. They and their team have aimed high, haven’t settled for mediocrity, and deserve lots of credit. But I think there’s something else.
The promo video for Realm Makers 2017 (below) uses the phrase, “This is not your grandmother’s writers conference.” You know one reason why? Because these are not your grandmother’s Christian writers. They don’t want the Amish. They’re not big on Romance. They don’t even care so much about “safe,” “family friendly” fare. They’re junkies. Speculative junkies. They want their dimensional portals, blimps, zombies, elves, and ghosts. They prefer large portions, piping hot. All-you-can-eat.
The exact stuff that Christian publishers have been ignoring.
One of my big takeaways from the conference is that there’s genuine momentum here. Sure, I could be over-stating this, running on fumes from a long, sleep-deprived weekend. But I don’t think so. It’s not just that a bunch of geeks have another place to congregate. It’s not just that Christian nerds now have a conference where mentioning vampires won’t provoke a nervous side-eye. It’s something… bigger.
Many of the writers I spoke to had three things in common:
- They were dead serious about their faith
- They wanted to broaden their reach and get outside the Christian market
- And they LOVE speculative stuff!
Seems like I always have to qualify this. I had to do it a dozen times this weekend. You see, I am not in any way opposed to Christian fiction. Nor necessarily its conservative strictures. But my feeling is that Christian art has existed in a cul-de-sac for too long. It’s time we explore the whole neighborhood.
And maybe it’s us Christian spec authors who can spear-head a much-needed return to the mainstream marketplace.
Whatever the case, I am digging this iteration of Christian artist. This weekend, I flitted from conversations about postmodern apologetics to nerf guns, from discussions about the theological parameters for writing about space aliens to fairy genders. It was great fun!
So how much bigger can Realm Makers get? I don’t know. What I DO know is that there’s a lot more Christians who love the speculative genre than the CBA has ever accurately reflected. It’s one reason why Realm Makers has taken off. Perhaps it’s a reach, but after this weekend, I think we’ve turned a corner. Or maybe we’re turning it. Whatever the case, v. 1.0 of Christian speculative fiction is looking ever more obsolete.