I get asked often what kind of thing I write. It's the first question after the matter of my chosen craft comes up at parties, interviews, prolonged waits at the Post Office etc: people usually want to know what genre I live in, and they're usually disappointed with the answer.
I like to write what I want to read, and I want to read good stories. These can be found everywhere, as a quick glance rightwards toward my twenty year-old Argos chipboard shelves will confirm: crime, science fiction, graphic novels, thrillers, surrealism, high literature and low pulp are all represented. I still maintain that Alison Tyler's Venus Online is one of the most touching romantic stories I've ever read, despite it only ever being found in the lesbian erotica section at Waterstone's. The box you put it in doesn't determine the worth of a book, the story does.
I sometimes wonder if I'm alone in this, as publishers and marketers like their writers to stay in their damn box - Iain Banks had to adopt an M to write science fiction, the very notion of the same person writing about both love and spacecraft being so insanely difficult for the book market to grasp, allegedly. It's common for writers to adopt an entirely other name nowadays if they fancy a change of scenery (and let's face it, genre is mostly scenery), lest the poor befuddled reader, whose only desire is the-same-thing-they-read-last-time-but-still-somehow-entirely-new, become afraid and angry.
The reader is not an idiot, but marketing is. Brand is everything, colouring outside the lines verboten. Writers who write for more than one genre are hard to market unless their style is so unique that it can become a brand in itself: publishing is more brand-led than ever before as the money dries up and focus tightens along with belts.
To date I've written romantic comedy, psychological thriller, erotica, science fiction, nonfiction (that was weird, and I actually wrote that under a different name, thus perpetuating the weirdness, or at least outsourcing it to another facet of the Infinite Me) and, recently, poetry. Well, not exactly poetry, more verse novel. Well, verse noir. Well, Christian verse noir. Well...
Christian fiction isn't even a genre really: it's something akin to porn, or at least it is nowadays. Pornography (or its respectable cousin, the romance novel) is more of a delivery mechanism than a genre: it's designed to generate sexual arousal, and this has to be accomplished within a very specific structure. It can't be allowed to happen by accident (that would make it erotic, not pornographic. Stay in your box!). It has to do a job, and if you swap sexual arousal for spiritual you end up with the modern Christian fiction market.
Christian fiction publishers have rigid rules for what may pass their gates: some Googling will elicit better and more complete articles on this than I can muster, but the short version is that the good guys must win, the bad be punished, no sex is allowed (although it may occasionally be referred to within marriage, but only off-page), no swearing and no violence. Except violence is okay against the wicked, or against the protagonist if it meets with just retribution later.
In fairness, most ordinary thrillers will fall into this structure anyway. The no-sex-or-swearing thing though - that's downright bizarre, and highlights the real problem with modern Christian fiction, that it exists in a tiny escapist bubble that does not engage with the real world. Even high fantasy and hard scifi tell stories about the world we live in, and rarely disconnect from our lives so completely. Christian fiction is very, very keen on historical romance, and particularly on the Amish, the better to retreat from the real, sinful, imperfect world. Insiders call it Bonnet Fiction.
It's porn. It's a world where people just don't behave the way they do in real life, the better to serve the mechanism of arousal. And there's nothing wrong with that, to a point - the problem is that it's anti-story, and that there isn't an alternative.
Erotica is the alternative to pornography: stories told through sex, not sex hung on a scaffold. Erotica can touch the heart and inform the real life of the reader: it can break through, which is the whole point of stories, really. But Christian fiction seems to have got stuck, to have cut out every product except the spiritually pornographic: where's the modern Lord Of The Rings, or Narnia, or Out Of The Silent Planet? Why can't Christian fiction simply be fiction with Christianity in it? Stories told through Christianity, not Christianity parcelled and served? Is Christianity so insecure that it can't enjoy a novel unless it's advertising the faith?
The market as it exists now is perhaps best described by the Amazon subcategory title for Christian fiction: Religious & Inspirational. The Christian novel has to inspire, it's an inspiration gun or it's nothing. No other genre seems to exist in this peculiar state of total imbalance: even romance is not limited to Mills & Boon but can be found in literary fiction too - so why can't God?
Why does this bother me? Well, I can't find a Christian novel that I actually want to read, and that's depressing. I want to read stories, not merely have my Christianity gland stimulated. I want to see in fiction the same struggles and complexity that Christians deal with in real life, because that's where we bloody live.
I did say earlier that I write what I want to read: on this occasion it happened by accident. I was writing a new book - a noir thriller in verse, and yes it does rhyme, and yes I'll talk about that another day - but was missing a vital element, which turned out to be God. The story only started to work properly when faith became a part of it - it wouldn't work in any of my other stuff, and may not in the next book either, but for this particular story it turned out to be critical. So I find myself having written what appears to be a Christian novel, one with violence, bad language and no fucking bonnets.
I'm working on post-production stuff now - jackets, blurb and whatnot - but I have absolutely no idea how readers are going to take this. It started out as an experiment, but spending this last week editing the draft I've got the disquieting feeling that this may just be my masterpiece. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that I can't easily tell you what genre it's in. I'm not sure Christian Epic Verse Noir With Swearing And Car Chases has a section in Foyle's.
How the hell am I going to explain this one at parties?