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.