Keeping it clean

Over the past week, there's been some dust kicked up over in the world of Romance Novels (don't worry, I'm not shifting the focus of this blog from fantasy to romance...just using the current debate as a jumping-off point!)

Anyway, agent Chip MacGregor and author Ted Dekker seem to be at loggerheads concerning an imprint of Harlequin called Love Inspired, which takes submissions for very "clean" Christian Romance. Love Inspired, on their site, has a very detailed list of what words they will not allow to appear in manuscripts they publish.

If you want to browse the list, look at this

Now, Mr. Dekker went a little nuts about the "narrowness" of this list, and Mr. MacGregor came back with a scathing rebuttal, but without getting into their arguments, how does this apply to Christian Fantasy?

I think the ideology is something we all have to consider when we talk about books of any genre that bear the prefix "Christian." Just how pristine should the text be? Does an author sacrifice believability for the sake of keeping certain, possibly offensive words from their text?

With specific reference to fantasy, one place I have wrestled with the idea of "purity of prose" is in the fact that my book does portray a few people in desperate socio-economic situations, and the questionable behavior that births. Granted, this behavior isn't the action of my protagonist, just something she observes on her journey through parts of the world she's never before seen. I use the brief, darker images in order to paint a sense of danger to the protagonist, and I think my book would suffer if a publisher told me, "No, you can't have those prostitutes on the corner in that scene." I also use the word "harlot" in book two, but I would like to hope the lesson Praesidio teaches by using it would give the word a pass, even in the world of Christian publishing.

Another difficult spot in fantasy is the propensity for it to contain sword fights and the like. Just how far do you go in the portrayal of violence? One of my biggest pet peeves in fantasy reading is when the embattled protagonist spend the entire fight graphically decapitating, disemboweling and otherwise devastating the anatomy of his opponents, while he quips and chortles his way through the endeavor. No matter how "easy" the fight, I would think there's a degree to which the battle gets those "fight or flight" chemicals going. And if you want the protagonist to be sympathetic to a Christian audience, do you really want to paint him as so desensitized to gory killing? Even if you're slaying the denizens of hell itself, it seems inappropriate to me that you would be flip about it.

That particular rant aside, there still remains the issue of how detailed a battle should be. Should Christian fantasy contain detailed accounts of how much blood, which organs, every sword stroke? For The Sword of the Patron, I decided not. I pray that they way I wrote the battles are still exciting and full of tension, despite the fact that I neglected to inform my reader of just how each villain who dies meets his end.

For the final consideration I'll toss out for consideration, I offer the conundrum of the protagonist who begins the story unfamiliar, or even antagonistic to the things of God. Do you write that protagonist "clean" anyway? Is there a way to depict this lost character that is believably "of the world" without offending the majority of your readership, or worse yet, casting an ill light on Christianity by what you, the author, has decided gets a pass?

All in all, while I find the list on Love Inspired's guidelines page pretty confining, the spirit in which the list was created is something I think all of us, as authors and readers, need to consider. To simply write to the opposite end of the spectrum, under the banner of being "real" doesn't hit the mark for me either. While I want my story to resonate with my readers because it contains believable conflict, I would not want to write that conflict in a way that grieves my Heavenly Father. After all, even if no mortal ever reads what I write, He will know what I have poured onto the page, and first and foremost, I want him to be proud of every word I have chosen, and the reasoning by which I have chosen them.


  1. One thing that has struck me while re-reading some of C. S. Lewis is how difficult he would find it to be published in the CBA market today. There is certainly a moderate level of violence in many of his books. There is a fair amount of swearing too, even in Narnia. Jill, the hero of "Silver Chair," swears at the beginning of the story, although I think she decreases the frequency somewhat as the story continues.

  2. Very true, newmaldon. It is amazing how trends in fiction change as years and generations pass. Even more than the content issues in the Chronicles of Narnia (by current CBA standards, as I understand them) the tone and pace of Lewis' work might not make it past an editor's desk right now.

    Thanks for dropping in and adding your comment to the discussion.

  3. I really, really agree with what you're saying here, Becky! Personally, it can be tricky to walk the fine line between "clean" writing and "true" writing. Though in some respects I think LoveInspired takes it too far, on the other hand I love it that I can pick up a Christian novel any time and not worry about content.

    I think violence is something that is becoming more acceptable, especially when it is presented thoughtfully (the characters learn something from it) instead of being the chop-slash-chop you described. :)

    Anyway, long comment to an excellent blog post!

  4. You touched on an important point, in my mind, Nina...that being the idea that voilence (or insert whatever other uncomfortable issue you want in its place) have a plot driven reason. I might go further even and say there are times the author should give it serious consequences.

    The example I site a lot is Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The characters in that play make some violent decisions, but it doesn't become glorified violence, because each of them faces the resulting circumstances of having "blood on their hands."

    But that's a slight digression, since the protagonists there are the perpetrators of assassination. Definitely not CBA material. ;)


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