Different Fiction

I’m reading a work of fiction this week that defies categorization. The debut book by Matt Mikalatos, entitled Imaginary Jesus (Tyndale), includes the caveat “A not-quite-true story” on the cover. So it’s not pretending to be non-fiction, which usually leaves us with Novel. But this book isn’t quite a novel either.

There have been a few books like this before. C. S. Lewis wrote a couple—The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. In essence the “story” has some autobiographical element—even if nothing more than the writer’s supposed discovery of letters, explained in a prologue—and has less to do with “what happens” than with what the characters think and believe and choose.

Another more recent book in this style comes to mind, though written from a different worldview. I’m referring to The Shack. In a similar way to Mikalatos’s work, the “story” is primarily a vehicle to discuss theology, though Imaginary Jesus does so by employing humor and The Shack by utilizing pathos.

So what genre are these kinds of books? They aren’t “true” in the way we generally think of biography or memoir, yet they aren’t fictitious in the way we are accustomed to think of novels.

They exercise a great deal of latitude when it comes to the reality of the events.

Lewis wrote about two demons corresponding and a dead man destined for hell experiencing a taste of heaven. Paul Young, author of The Shack, wrote about a man’s encounter with the three persons of the Godhead, in physical form. And Mikalatos employs time travel to visit the first century, a talking donkey, and an appearance of the Apostle Peter in the twenty-first century.

Yet the content—the what’s-it-about—of all these works deals with spiritual reality, though not in the straightforward way a book on theology does. The uncommon manner of delivering the subject matter makes it more easily understood because, in essence, the books use the ultimate fiction technique—showing more than telling.

So I wonder, will more such books be on the horizon? In which case, we may need to create a new category, a new way of labeling this kind of different fiction.


Filed under Writing Style

6 responses to “Different Fiction

  1. My editors and I debated this very question for some time. I eventually championed the thought of it being something like “gonzo fiction” after the tradition of gonzo journalism, and I think that’s pretty close. But of course that’s actually assuming that it’s funny or at least out-sized, which would apply to Imaginary Jesus but probably not the other books you mention.

    I also wasn’t sure I agreed with “A not-quite-true story” as I think it’s all true in it’s way, it’s just that it’s not all factual. If that makes sense….

    thanks for this post, Becky! Looking forward to seeing what else the gang comes up with this week!


  2. Pingback: CSFF Blog Tour – Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos, Day 1 « A Christian Worldview of Fiction

  3. In order to avoid writing an undefinable piece of “different fiction,” I have to admit I have not read ‘Imaginary Jesus’ nor ‘The Great Divorce’. I have read ‘The Shack’ and ‘The Screwtape Letters’.

    That being said, I’m not sure why ‘Imaginary Jesus’ needs to be redefined as some other type of fiction or literature. Granted, it doesn’t fit into our “box” of literary genera, but perhaps our box is too small.

    “Once-upon-a-time” only “tragedy” and “comedy” fit into a literary boxes. Now we watch situation “comedy” which isn’t classic Comedy at all; and both tragedy and comedy are heaped up into one classification: drama. And drama is considered “not comedy.”

    Historically our making of genera doesn’t work. If a “new kind of fiction” is needed, perhaps it should be called, as suggested “different fiction”. Would that really be so bad?

  4. Wayne, I don’t think it needs to be redefined, but people don’t always know what to do with it. For example, when Jeff Gerke was making a list of speculative fiction over at WhereTheMapEnds, I was shocked that he left off the Lewis works. Of course they’re fiction, I thought. They need to be added. But they aren’t novels, and all the others on the list were. So do they belong? Or not?

    I do think we could come up with something more inventive than “different.” I didn’t realize you and your publishers worked on just that, Matt. Maybe Memoir-ized fiction. 😉


  5. Of course when you start really getting into genre theory, you can really put any book in a genre with another if you can find some similarity between them. One of the common metaphors is the biological one, that we choose certain traits and then make those the defining ones… so something like the platypus is put into the mammal category despite the fact that it lays eggs, or dolphins are categorized as mammals rather than some sort of fish.

    I think Imaginary Jesus is a platypus. It has some weird bits that make it possible to put it in multiple genres.

    Anyway, fun discussion. Here’s an odd aside: this is the first fiction book that Barna Books has published, but all of the editorial and acquisitions and so on was done through Tyndale’s non-fiction book group. Pretty funny.

  6. OK, I love the analogy, Matt. And the conclusion. So you write platypus fiction. Perfect! 😀

    And the oddity you mentioned? Remember, this is the business that lets buyers (stores) return product as they wish, so nothing surprises me really.

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