I agreed to read a draft of a novel recently and was bemused to find, right after the table of contents, an "index of concepts" with the page numbers on which they were discussed: "Premillennialism," "Progress and productive work," "Postmillennialism," "Objective of the Christian life," and so on.
The novel's plot had potential, but whenever one of those concepts popped up the action stopped and a character began lecturing. The book fit into a genre that could be called "treatise novels," fiction driven not by plot or by characters but by the goal of adding a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
There's nothing wrong with treatise fiction in exceptionally capable hands. Pilgrim's Progress is treatise fiction, but John Bunyan's book is still eminently readable because his prose is spare rather than floridly oratorical and his human types are true to life. The Screwtape Letters is treatise fiction, but C.S. Lewis' humor is so apt and his man-bites-dog story such a reversal of the usual that the book remains after 65 years a delight to read.
The problem with treatise fiction is that when it doesn't hit the bull's eye it usually misses very badly. Novels in the mystery or action-adventure genre can have some clunky writing while still remaining page-turners: Take that, Tom Clancy. But a novel that turns its characters into walking billboards for particular brands of Christianity or electric signs flashing "evil atheism" is likely to be turgid, especially when it gives two scoops of sermons in every box.
A penchant for treatise novels has led to stereotypes of contemporary Christian fiction as the marriage of tract and melodrama, homilies decked out in purple prose. Some Christian authors, rebelling against that, have moved toward literary fiction, with some good results and more dull ones. But we still have a long way to go to develop popular fiction-action-adventure, mystery, romance-that isn't poorly written and sometimes downright embarrassing.
There is a better way. I haven't achieved it myself; after writing lots of nonfiction books I've only recently tried some fiction (and seen that I have a long way to go). But I've already learned that fiction takes a different mindset than nonfiction, since characters take on lives of their own. (I found myself, while writing a new scene, asking what a character I had created would do.)
And yet, there is some common ground in what, over the years, I've called biblical objectivity, the attempt to describe the world accurately by seeing it as the Bible sees it. That means, among other things, not shirking from describing human sinfulness; Flannery O'Connor did this exceedingly well, yet many novels from Christian publishers still offer sugar rather than salt.
Biblical objectivity in fiction also means a refusal to portray Christians as perfect and bad guys as utterly devoid of humanity, since we are all made in God's image (even when we deface Him and ourselves). It also means that not every story, or episode within a novel, needs to have an immediate moral point; parts of the Bible are descriptive rather than prescriptive, and Christian novelists can imitate God's inspired writers in this regard.
Around the world today we can see a spectrum of literary criticism. At one end aesthetes prize style and pay no attention to morality. At the other end Islamists, like Marxists, frown on fiction except as a teaching tool. Azar Nafisi's fascinating memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, 2003), shows how Iran's ayatollahs and mini-ayatollahs ban books for the same reasons Stalin and Mao did: Novels have no reason to live unless they advance the interests of dictators, whether Marxocrats or Quranocrats.
An aesthete will take a great novel like The Great Gatsby and look only at Fitzgerald's lapidary lines; a Marxist or Islamist will allow it to be read at universities only if it can be used as instruction in the inequities of capitalism or the perversities of Americans. But Christians should see how style and content work together both to entertain us and to teach us something about the human condition of wanting what we can't have, and trying to impose our own scheme upon God's providence.