Inspirational fiction is a sub-category within "inspirational literature," or "inspirational writing," defined in various ways in the United States and other nations. More and more bookstores (including online booksellers) and libraries consider inspirational fiction to be a separate genre, classifying and shelving books accordingly.
Organizations like LYRASIS, the nation’s largest regional membership organization serving libraries and information professionals, have begun holding classes for library workers to "explore the explosion in recent years in popularity of Inspirational Fiction and how it has blended in with all other genres to become appealing to more than its original target audience.
Libraries are increasingly recognizing and using the categories of inspirational writing and inspirational fiction. In the larger category of "inspirational writing," there are some books that easily and obviously fit, such as the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, clearly written for the purpose of providing anecdotes that provide inspiration to the readers. Finding a good definition for the subgenre of inspirational fiction is a little more difficult. However, while acknowledging that it is not a "rigorous category," many libraries do identify and list some works in such a category, using some working definitions to explain their choices.
For example, one library list of "inspirational fiction" books begins with the statement:
Any good book can be an inspiration, but many of these books highlight people overcoming adversity or reaching new levels of understanding. Whether they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps or have help from a higher power, these books will uplift and entertain you.
While it is true that many novels involve a positive change in the lives of some characters, this library definition might help limit the books that fit into this category to those whose main purpose, if not their entire purpose, seem to be using the example of the change in the life of a major character to inspire readers to think that such changes are possible in their lives, as well. Also, the fact that this definition includes those who learn on their own and those who have help from a "higher power" allows the category to embrace both religious and non-religious works of fiction.
While, as the above definition shows, "inspirational fiction" is a category and genre larger than religious writing, in the United States and Canada it is often used only to refer to "religious fiction," "faith-based fiction," or more narrowly (and perhaps most often), "Christian fiction". Some inspirational fiction is written to appeal to a general Christian audience, but more often in the United States "inspirational fiction" (and especially "inspirational romance") that can be classified as Christian is written for the Evangelical Protestant market. Although American literature has always been infused with religion, the popularity of Christian romance dates to the 1940s, as leaders of the Evangelical movement attempted to bring their faith into the mainstream both religiously and culturally. Some works of inspirational fiction have also been written to appeal to Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christian readers.
One definition of "Christian fiction" is literature that
"...celebrates God's presence in our life. It can be narrow and didactic or broad and literal. Character's relationship to God is the primary focus. Another definition is that these stories are about "the journey of the soul." Readers seek "wholesome, yet compelling" reading. There is considerable interest in characters "who are like the reader" in some important way. Although the label "Christian fiction" is used..to reflect the fact that God plays a significant role in the plot and the outcome. Christian novels focus on ordinary people who are challenged to live their lives in accordance with Christian principles."
Janette Oke's writings are an example of inspirational fiction that would often also fit into the Christian fiction genre, and she has often been referred to as one of the earliest and most prolific of writers in this category. Her books often focus on individuals, very often pioneers in the early West, who must draw upon a sense and awareness of faith to overcome adversity. Although most often identified with Christian writing, her books reach both religious and non-religious readers.
Many books written by non-religious writers in other genres (including literary fiction, children's fiction, young adult fiction, and even science fiction) have begun to be classified as inspirational fiction. In fact,The Readers Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, published by the American Library Association, lists "inspirational" as a subgenre in every type of fiction it discusses, from westerns to thrillers, to romances. Inspirational Fiction could be broken down into these subgenres as well: Inspirational Romance Fiction, Inspirational Western Fiction, etc.
Some American authors, like Mitch Albom, have built strong reputations on books like The Five People You Meet in Heaven and For One More Day, which are marketed as inspirational fiction; and others, like Tuesdays With Morrie and Have a Little Faith, which are marketed more in the category of inspirational non-fiction, or the larger category of inspirational literature, or inspirational writing.
Because it is often difficult to determine which books fit into the category of inspirational fiction according to a strict set of rules, libraries often include explanations (and sometimes, even disclaimers), such as the following:
Please note: The books listed here cover a wide variety of genres and types, from traditional inspirational fiction authors such as June Masters Bacher and Janette Oke, to thrillers such as those written by Paul Meier and fantasy and science fiction titles by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. In addition, many titles address issues of faith from unconventional viewpoints. Some readers may question the suitability of titles that do not fit their personal view of what constitutes inspirational fiction; we simply ask that you keep in mind that individual readers' tastes vary. If you have questions about particular titles, please let us know.
One library distinguishes between inspirational fiction and the smaller category of religious fiction by noting that "inspirational fiction is more broad based. Instead of dwelling on the religious aspects of faith, they emphasize morals, values and life lessons."
In the UK, "inspirational fiction" (or, more commonly, "inspirational lit" or "inspi-lit") is sometimes used as another term for "misery lit, a term "that describes a genre of biographical literature mostly concerned with the protagonist's triumph over personal trauma or abuse, often during childhood." While this genre is growing in popularity, it is also controversial. Some authors have said they write in order to come to terms with their traumatic memories, and to help readers do the same. Supporters of the genre also claim the genre's popularity indicates a growing cultural willingness to directly confront topics—specifically child sexual abuse—that once would have been ignored or swept under the rug. However, critics locate the genre's popular appeal in its combination of moral outrage and titillation.
Some writers, including psychotherapist and author, Michael Gurrian, are promoting the term, "visionary fiction," for some inspirational fiction. Gurian, who has written non-fiction works of psychology and parenting in addition to science-fiction, includes his own book, "The Miracle: A Visionary Novel," in this genre. Possibly a subgenre of "inspirational fiction," he adds to the definition of growth and the overcoming of obstacles the fact that this genre is "fiction in which the expansion of the human mind drives the plot."
Some well-known books, like Golf in the Kingdom, by Michael Murphy, "defied categorization" when it was first published in 1971, described as "an altogether unique confluence of fiction, philosophy, myth, mysticism, enchantment, and golf instruction." It is possible that this novel could now be included in the subgenre, "visionary fiction," and the larger genre, "inspirational fiction."
Another category that is sometimes associated with "inspirational fiction" is "gentle fiction." Although by no means can all inspirational fiction titles be considered in this category, the majority of "Christian inspirational fiction" or "faith-based inspirational fiction" might at one time have fit. However, as one library instructor puts it, "In the last two decades the genre has expanded beyond the gentle read to follow the reading interests of the general public," to include titles that might be called "edgy inspirational fiction."
This genre is often used to identify works categorized by a lack of profanity and portrayal of explicit sex. However, like other genres linked to "inspirational fiction," precise definitions of this category vary as well. One used bookstore list begins with the explanation:
By this category, we mean those lovely little books that tells stories of characters wrestling with life's ordinary problems, rather than global ones. Our customers like them because they don't aim to shock you, just to lull you into a good, thoughtful read.
Sometimes books in this category are referred to as "gentle reads," and again definitions vary, but often are close to this public library description:
With charm and humor, these novels explore the everyday joys, frustrations, and sorrows of lives quietly led. They typically revolve around the activities of a small community of people, such as a small town, a church, or a gathering of friends. The realities of sex, violence, and other passions are downplayed and are never presented in a graphic manner. Although the genre was once largely dominated by British authors, American authors in the vein of Jan Karon are now extremely popular.
It may be easier to classify a book as inspirational fiction based on the goal of the writer (and, of course, the plot of the book), rather than the effect on the reader, since personal choice, taste, and even personal beliefs are factors that affect the way a book can "inspire" a reader.
Interestingly, at least one study has revealed that gender may also be a factor in a reader's reaction to inspirational literature. In a 2006 study of inspirational literature that men considered to have affected their lives (following a similar study regarding women), Professor Lisa Jardine found that "a substantial number of men were immediately able to identify their most inspirational novel. Women, in general found it more difficult with many ultimately choosing a shortlist rather than one single book." "The men we interviewed had a tendency towards identifying themselves with angst-ridden books showing intellectual struggle, violence, personal vulnerability, catastrophe and the struggle to rise above circumstance." The books most frequently cited by men in this study included The Outsider by Albert Camus, The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and—the only book written by a female that made the list of "top twenty" inspirational books for men -- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird was also only one of four books to be included in the top twenty list for both men and women.
Some object to the category of inspirational fiction, based on the idea that a book that is "inspirational" to one reader may not be inspirational to another, and therefore the category is too subjective to be used in an appropriate way. On the other side of the question, it is argued that the category is useful even if it is not completely objective, and there are some authors whose works are written for the specific purposes that would be included in such a categorization.
- InspirationalFictionforTeens.pdf Inspirational Fiction for Teens.[permanent dead link] Appleton Public Library.
- Inspirational Fiction. City of London (Ontario) Public Library.
- LYRASIS Historical and Inspirational Fiction Readers Advisory[permanent dead link]
- Public Library of Charlette and Mecklenburg County Archived 2010-06-15 at the Wayback Machine.
- Adult Reading Roundtable - Genre meanings.[permanent dead link]
- Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. University of North Carolina Press, 2006. ISBN 0-8078-5670-3. Through Google Books.
- All About Romance: At The Back Fence - Inspirational Romance" Archived 2010-01-02 at the Wayback Machine. by Ellen Micheletti and Rachel Potter.
- Readers Advisory Work With Genre Fiction, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Archived 2010-02-01 at the Wayback Machine.
- Janette Oke website.[permanent dead link]
- Joyce C. Saricks, The Readers Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, American Library Association, June 1, 2001.
- Library Services, Irving Texas
- Provo City Library, Utah. Archived 2014-02-28 at the Wayback Machine.
- "Misery lit...read on". BBC News, April 17, 2007.
- Forsyth, Alex (2008-01-23). "Addicted to Misery". Nouse. Archived from the original on 2008-08-04. Retrieved 2008-03-06.
- Bury, Liz (2007-02-22). "Tugging at Heart Strings". The Bookseller magazine. Archived from the original on 2008-08-04. Retrieved 2008-03-06.
- Visionary Fiction.org.
- Definition of Visionary Fiction.
- Amazon.com editorial review.
- Books for the Soul: A Survey of Inspirational Fiction, Deborah Bryan, Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, Archived 2010-12-26 at the Wayback Machine.
- Sage Books, List of Gentle Fiction titles.
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- List of Inspirational Fiction, Library Services, Irving, Texas
- List of African-American Inspirational Fiction, Suffolk County Library, VA
- List of inspirational fiction by religious category -- Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, and others -- and non-religious, Provo City Library, Utah.
- List of "Gentle Fiction -- Not Religious", Public Library, Lansing, Michigan