It’s true. The vast majority of fiction sold through the Christian market is bought by women, and I have long suspected that many of these women actively avoid novels written by men. This particular observation seeped into my steel-trap mind after reading hundreds, maybe even dozens, of reader reviews that began with the disclaimer, “I normally never pick up a book written by a man…” However, since the name Dale is androgynous, it’s possible a fair number of them may have discovered my books entirely by accident, such as those who plainly state that they wouldn’t have read me in the first place if they’d known I was a man.* Sometimes these women come right out and tell us why they don’t read men, and not surprisingly it’s usually some variant of, “I don’t care to read another novel about a steely-eyed, broad-shouldered, swashbuckling James Bond type who mows down bad guys like a hay scythe and rescues damsels in distress.” This is perfectly understandable. Those books can be trite and predictable.
If sales are any indicator, what the average reader of Christian fiction really wants is something more intellectually stimulating and unpredictable. Like romance. This is not surprising either, when you think about it. Christian fiction (fiction published by evangelical Christian publishing houses) has only been around for thirty-five years or so. For many years they published only nonfiction: Bibles, Bible studies, inspirational true stories, biographies, memoirs, etc. In the beginning there was darkness on the face of Christian publishing, until one day Bethany House said, “Let there be prairie romance.”
And then there was fiction. It sold very well, and they saw that it was good, so other publishers sought out romance writers and their lines became more diversified. Christian fiction broadened its horizons and began to appear in vastly different forms, like historical romance, contemporary romance, Amish romance, and chick-lit romance. Their readership grew, and they saw that it was good.
Then one day Crossway said, “It is not good that romance should be alone.” So they gambled a rib and published Frank Peretti. Suddenly there was a man writing Christian fiction, and millions of romance readers rushed to see this strange new thing. It sold well, and the publishers saw that it was good, so they sought out other male writers, some of whom made a name for themselves. But, being men, they wrote stories with car chases and explosions (and very little romance), and before long the traditional readers of Christian fiction grew hungry for petulant heroines in hoop skirts. After the briefest infatuation the vast hordes of female readers quietly returned to their pastel tomes with curlicue lavender-chrome titles. They wanted stories written by women. About women. For women. They wanted romance.
One by one, the male writers went away sorrowful. Only the ones with day jobs remained.
In the twilight of the millennium Tyndale published the Left Behind series and the whole world clamored for it out of curiosity— the heathen hordes longing to know more about this rapture thing, just in case. Millions of these people were ordinarily readers of general market fiction, and several of them were men. When they were finished with the Left Behind series a few of these men went looking for something else to read in the Christian fiction section. Inevitably, the testosterone fog parted for a moment and they suddenly found themselves in a sea of pastel books with big-head women on the covers, some of them wearing bonnets. The men slunk away hiding their faces, as if they’d accidentally wandered into the middle of the lingerie department.
It’s a circular problem. A publisher will tell you they don’t publish fiction for men because men don’t buy books. A man will tell you he doesn’t read Christian fiction because it’s all too pastel.
Even I don’t know what to do about it.
*A common mistake. After all these years I’m convinced my own wife didn’t know I was a man when she married me. It’s the only possible explanation.
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