Editor’s note: I’m no longer convinced that New Age Fiction is the appropriate genre title; Spiritual or Visionary Fiction seem to be more useful at this time. I will rewrite this article soon.
Remember Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably heard of it. Since its publication nearly 40 years ago, Robert Pirsig’s novel has sold over 5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into dozens of languages. What has made this book so popular for nearly 40 years is not his analysis of the convergence of Eastern and Western philosophy–many quibble with his assertions. Pirsig’s real triumph is that he combined a complex metaphysical theme with a compelling story. His goal was to both entertain and edify, and he succeeded on both counts.
Other novels have aspired to the same goals: The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield (over 20 million copies sold), Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Illusions by Richard Bach, The Monk who Sold his Ferrari by Robin Sharma, The Star Rover by Jack London, The Alchimest and other books by Paulo Coelho, Tuesdays with Morrie and other books by Mitch Albom, Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain, and many more. Some include several best-sellers such as The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown in that list.
These novels are hugely popular even among mainstream readers, many topping bestseller lists and spawning sequels and movies. What they all have in common is that the authors weave new age, agnostic spiritual, and metaphysical themes into strong story lines that keep readers turning the pages in spite of their sometimes pedantic or didactic tone.
So why isn’t there a recognized New Age Fiction genre? In the bookstore, the Spiritual Fiction section is about 80% religious fiction. If you ask if the store has a New Age section, likely you’ll be directed to a shelf of mostly nonfiction with everything from The Belly Button Book for preschoolers (seriously) to Deepok Chopra.
The problem is that few novels manage to combine a truly compelling story with spiritual principles. Many are fictionalized memoirs that fail to incorporate the fundamentals for a good novel: A great story and engaging characters. Others are instructional guides thinly draped in fictional trappings. Even if the spiritual message is strong, weak writing skills drive the reader, who first and foremost wishes to be entertained, to drop the book before any edification can take place. New Age Fiction must appeal to both the emotions and the intellect.
An explosion of nonfiction spiritual education and self-help books have overwhelmed bookstores since Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was released. In Amazon, a search for “new age” includes 122,000 books; “Mind body spirit,” 109,000; “Spirituality,” 133,000. Fiction searches are similar: “new age fiction,” 33,000. “Spiritual fiction” returns nearly 8,000 books, although there’s no way to tell if those novels are religious or agnostic. However, many of the books listed in the “fiction” searches are actually nonfiction. An amazon category called “Fiction–Visionary and Metaphysicial” lists more than 3,000 books. But what does that mean? Many in the list fall more clearly under Science Fiction or Fantasy.
So why establish a and promote a new genre called New Age Fiction? Because readers want to be entertained and edified. They want to settle down on the couch or park bench with an enthralling story that captivates their emotions and nourishes their spirit. They are keenly interested in all things spiritual but not necessarily religious, and they want to have fun learning about it instead of wading through yet another nonfiction volume explaining how to attain enlightenment in five easy steps or unlock your personal power through spiritual transformation. Worthy subjects all, but not a book I’d take to the beach.
Publishers and booksellers need to clearly define a genre that differentiates among Christian-themed novels such as “bonnet romances” (typically categorized as spiritual fiction), psychic thrillers (which get shelved next to Sylvia Brown), metaphysical fiction (which on Amazon includes Project June Bug, a beach read about a teacher coping with an ADHD student), and the like.
Writers need to produce high-quality novels that illuminate genuine spiritual values. Publishers need to recognize that a substantial market already exists for nontraditional spiritual fiction. Readers need an easy way to identify these books. And your local bookstore needs a brand-new shelf labeled New Age Fiction.