Take Hal Zina Bennett, author of more than thirty books, including: Write from the Heart, Writing Spiritual Books, Follow Your Bliss, and Spirit Circle, his own contribution to visionary fiction.
When I asked Hal to define visionary fiction, he said, “I think I have some understanding of spiritual non-fiction, and have written one moderately successful ‘visionary fiction’ novel, but sometimes I’m not sure I really ‘get’ visionary fiction at all. I find powerful spiritual work in books that don’t at all announce themselves that way, for example, in mysteries such as Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery, about the murder of a priest in a remote Canadian monastery. Most mainstream publishers I know are prejudiced against reading anything that calls itself visionary fiction, just certain it’s going to be ‘religious’ and that the author is going to sermonize. Most editors won’t even get to the first page. Whenever I present a new project to an agent or an author, I avoid such labels. My advice to writers of spiritual fiction is just call it fiction. Ten years ago, it looked like the category “spiritual fiction” was gaining traction and was going to be adopted by the publishing industry, thanks mainly to the efforts of Hampton Roads Publishing, but I would not claim that today.”
Okay, I understand that Hal Zina Bennett is primarily an author of spiritual non-fiction, but I won’t let him off the hook that easily. In 2002, he wrote an excellent article about visionary fiction, titled “Visionary Fiction: Rediscovering Ancient Paths to Truth” (Spiritual Writing; From Inspiration to Publication). His definition of the genre so closely matched my own writing that I believed my novels had finally found a home.
Unfortunately, the only traditional publisher to consider visionary fiction a viable book category was, and apparently still is, Hampton Roads Publishing (with its own visionary fiction program).
The Kiss of Death?
Calling one’s work “visionary fiction” is considered by some as the “kiss of death.”
Hal Zina Bennett touches on a basic truth about all spiritual writing. We know it in our gut, but it’s hard to put into words.
It’s almost as if visionary fiction is as elusive as the subjects it encompasses. It tries to capture the un-capturable, share the un-sharable, and show the un-showable.
Can one blame agents and publishers for being wary?
Hal Zina Bennett cautions:
“What happens in most visionary fiction that I’ve read over the years is that it gets burdened down by the author’s desire to get readers to believe what he or she believes. Characters disappear in the author’s message, which is another way of saying that they are two-dimensional, thinly disguised vehicles that simply recite the author’s beliefs. An engaging story is simply lacking and the writing never quite brings readers into that place of wonder, fear, discovery, which might transcend simple belief systems. We try to reproduce our own spiritual experiences on the page rather than giving readers what they need to have that experience for themselves.
“Some readers claim to have transcendent experiences with Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist, which I confess leaves me only mildly entertained, spiritually untouched and almost, at times, embarrassed for the author’s clumsiness. It’s really an allegory, not a novel, of course, and I like allegory, have even ghostwritten a couple successful ones for other authors. But keep this in mind: Coelho is what many publishers see with the label ‘visionary fiction.’ Am I being too commercial here? Remember, books are by their nature mass media. Partly what that means is that they are expensive to produce. When you submit a book to a mainstream publisher, you are asking them, in effect, to loan you at least $35,000, just to cover their office and printing costs. Ok. I’m being too commercial. But wait. My point is that we writers need to be very clear about what our chosen medium requires, not just from our own hearts and minds (and wrist tendons) but from other people whose involvement we require …agents, editors, publishers, ad agencies, reviewers (hopefully), warehouse workers, truck drivers, book store workers (God bless them!), readers.
William P. Young’s The Shack, while rather hackneyed, had a compelling spiritual story, and even those theological dialogues with God had a surprising irony that kept me interested. The protagonist was more anti-hero than hero, who I identified with through his grief, his pettiness and the often purposefully naïve questions he asked God and His cohorts. Okay, so God got a little preachy at times! He’s forgiven.
The Shack is a very flawed book, I admit, with a formula borrowed from pulp fiction; however, it was successful in holding readers’ interest (at least this reader and 1.5 million others), getting some readers to at least stick a toe into the Mystery. Young made enough readers willing to suspend their disbelief long enough to momentarily experience a presence greater than themselves.
“In nearly every book I read, fiction or non-fiction, I delight when I’m taken beyond intellectual understanding by the author, where I reach some part of myself that I didn’t even suspect was there. That’s asking a lot, I supposed. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve accomplished it in my own books.
“If the focus is to be ideas/beliefs,” Hal says, “then the best medium isn’t fiction but non-fiction or narrative non-fiction, even memoir if you can tell your story well.”
This may well be true. But when a writer tells a well-crafted story including spiritual truths, without getting heavy-handed with his or her own ideas and beliefs, quality visionary fiction becomes a reality, a reality I see happening at Visionary Fiction Alliance.
TUNE IN FOR PART TWO, IN WHICH BENNETT COMPARES VF TO A HINDU ROPE TRICK.
In addition to being a prolific author, Hal has helped over 200 authors develop their own work, several of them bestsellers. Look on the acknowledgment pages of your favorite books and you just might find him prominently mentioned there. His seminars on writing and spirituality are legendary.