Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I suspect. . .

We love it here at NovelMatters when a stimulating discussion -- such as the one about "Keepers"-- sparks the kind of comments that make people think.

Well, we -- Bonnie, Debbie, Katy, Patti, Sharon and I -- often discuss the discussions in a flurry of emails. And after the "Keeper" discussion, Sharon noted the high percentage of non-CBA novels in the overall list that you readers provided.

Why is that, Sharon wondered.

I spent several years as a book reviewer for the CBA market with my own column in a publication called Release, as well as freelancing for America Online, A Closer Look, and other publications. One point of pride was that I read, cover to cover, every book I reviewed (except for two Bible reference books.) I tried to find good fiction to review because I love mystery and suspense and literary fiction.

It was an uphill battle. The Christian novel, overall, was not a keeper. In fact, looking over my library now, 15 years later, I can say that most of them were tossers. There were notable exceptions -- the Buechners and Blackstocks and Paul Maier-- but most of them I gave away.

Fast forward to now. A new generation of excellence in Christian fiction is hitting its stride. But even we, the tuned-in and sympathetic who want Christian fiction to be known for that excellence, still see ABA fiction often in a class above.

I have some suspicions about why we see things that way. Here are some of those suspicions.

1) Both secular and Christian readers are sensitized to any story that even smells like it has religion tacked onto it without being an inherent element in the story.

2) We have been infected by the secular world's images of religious people (for instance, most evangelical-types are depicted as intolerant and often oppressive on network television.)

3) If the sales figures are accurate, we are not as comfortable with contemporary Christian fiction set in the present among "regular" people. That's why Amish novels are so hot right now. We can read about being a courageous Christian woman during the first century or World War I. Or in a rural setting or among an ethnic group of which we are not members.

4) Much Christian fiction isn't well-written? (Yes, the font size was intentional.)

Now, I may be WAY off base in what I'm thinking. Maybe it's all statistical -- there are a bazillion secular writers compared to published Christian writers.

What do you think? Are there other factors afoot?


Nicole said...

I think it's unfair to group Christian fiction in the "not as well-written" anymore because proportionately (to ABA) I'm willing to bet it isn't true, and it really depends on the genre.

I write contemporary fiction, mostly romance/women's fiction, and I've learned this is the genre in which it's easiest to write poorly. Sappy, predictable, religious--all those characteristics can appear in abundance in CBA romance.

One thing that seems to somehow "enhance" fiction is a sense of longing, of sadness, of hard issues, and in the ABA these things are often written about in depth but often without hope.

I think the writing in CBA which can transmit both that despair and the solution to it in the Lord can be some of the best writing of all. (Francine Rivers in Redeeming Love, The Atonement Child; Lisa Samson in The Passion of Mary-Margaret; Chris Fabry in Dogwood, June Bug to name a few)

In both the ABA and the CBA readers who want quality have to search for those books which fill their desires. I rarely choose to read the ABA anymore, making an effort to mine the gold in CBA.

Lisa Karon Richardson said...

Perhaps the disconnect comes from the sparsity of originality. Don't get me wrong, recently more books have come out that reach a broader range of interests.

But the publishers are in this to make money and the CBA market is tiny compared to others. It can also be hard-headed and close-minded about trying anything new. So we have restrictions that just don't apply in the ABA.

Can't publish a story set outside the US. I love historicals but I'm not a pioneer type girl. Left that behind after The Little House on the Prairie series. Bonnet-books and westerns are all the rage in CBA though, just as they have been for YEARS. It was as if there were no other options after Jeanette Oke.

I think things are changing, the emphasis is no longer just making things squeaky clean and not offending readers. Now the craft must be there as well as the spiritual element. Things are becoming more realistic without the deus ex machina miracle ending or the thinly veiled allegory. Real issues are being tackled. Difficult circumstances. Unanswerable questions.

The process of change is oh, so slow. But don't count us out yet. I think we're at the dawn of a golden age in Christian literature. Maybe those stats will shift in a few years.

Unknown said...

Great comments!! Nicole: I love how you are committed to reading CBA. Readers like you (I know you are a writer, too) are who turn the head of publishing. You influence the marketplace and therefore influence the decisions made in pub meetings. I think all of us in CBA should think about how our purchases speak to the industry.

Lisa: I love your hopeful prediction, and I agree - the CBA packs a host of amazing writers - and while the wheels of change turn slowly, they do change.
I'm not a fan of bonnet books either - but they sell very well. People like to read them, and I wouldn't want to see them ousted from CBA, even though I don't read them.
Diversity is the key, I think. We can embrace the old standards while at the same time branching out our reading into new genres and authors.
Avid readers embrace many genres - sure, we all have our favorites, but I read outside my comfy zone a great deal - and I'm a better reader and writer because of it.
Change inside the CBA needs to be supported by the marketplace.
Okay, I've just talked myself into a trip to my local Christian bookstore!

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Have mercy - I lay my head on the chopping block here.

A few things I've noticed since we launched She Reads last fall:

- The stigma of "Christian fiction is poorly written" is still believed by the vast majority of readers (both CBA and ABA). Whether fair or not, it's reality.

- While CBA readers often read novels in the ABA market, the reverse is not true. We're not impacting that market except on the very rare occasion.

- Most Christians don't read CBA fiction. Ouch. But, unfortunately, very true. We've lost track of the number of women who've contacted us and said, "I've been a Christian most of my life but I don't read Christian fiction." By offering the best that CBA has to give, we are changing their minds one novel at a time. It's about trust. And building it, as an author, or an organization, takes time.

- There are poorly written books on both sides of the aisle. Our goal at SR is to find the very best in the Christian market and expose it to as many readers as possible.

- By and large, people think of CBA as "Those people that publish all the Amish fiction." Because that is the best selling segment of CBA at the moment, the entire industry is subject to being typecast. Now, we know that's not true. And so do you. But when much of the attention, marketing, and promotion goes to one genre, it's easy to understand.

- The number of ABA readers vastly dwarfs the number of CBA readers. So just on a numbers scale, the chances of any CBA novel being as widely read are diminished. (Again, complicated because mainstream readers aren't crossing into CBA for the most part)

- Latayne is right. A Christian worldview is rarely looked at fondly. But why? Are we being winsome with our message? Are we falling into sterotypes? Are we tapping into the deep issues of the heart?

- When a CBA novel is done well, it is applauded in the general marketplace. For instance, both The Shape of Mercy and Fireflies in December got starred reviews in Publishers Weekly. ABA isn't trying to hold us under their thumb. They are trying to hold us accountable to a high standard of craft. Let's start surprising them.

- Even the well reviewed novels are tucked away in the back of the bookstore. The very label "Christian fiction" prevents most readers from ever getting their hands on the best CBA has to offer.

Thanks for letting me chatter on about this. I'm sure I'll have more thoughts later on.


Anonymous said...

Wow, what great comments. Ariel, you're so right in all your points. I can't tell you how encouraged I am that there's a venue such as She Reads to promote quality Christian fiction. It has definitely evolved over the years. When I read my first CBA novel back in the 80s, it was my last for a very long time. But when you move away from the basic genres, there are some amazing books being written. Not everything is bonnets and buggies. But Lisa's correct, to look at the "Contemporary" fiction page at you'd never know it.

Unknown said...

LOVE this interchange of ideas and insights.

I'm wondering just how many of us began writing Christian novels simply because we didn't like what was already out there?

In other words, we wanted to be part of the solution?

PatriciaW said...

Interesting discussion, as the stigmas associated with Christian fiction are also often associated with fiction by African-American authors (and other minorities, I suspect).

I read a lot of very well-written Christian fiction. Most recently, I've been impressed with novels by Christa Allan, Christa Parrish, your own Bonnie Grove, Rachel Hauck, Julie Lessman, Tosca Lee, Claudia Mair Burney...and the list goes on. The novels of these authors have been unique, gripping, and very well-written from a technical standpoint. A lot of folks just don't know what they're missing.

I'd love to see more Christian fiction with a wider diversity of characters. Often when there's a minority character, there's, well, one. But I don't choose books based on the diversity of the cast. I choose books based on the story primarily.

Unknown said...

Patricia, your comment brought to mind the novel Passing by Samaria, by Sharon Ewell Foster, which I listened to on audio recently.

I wrote the author and congratulated her on her fine book. It had much simple truth in it. And because it came from the lips of someone outside my ethnicity and outside my lifetime, I was willing to take it to heart. I wonder if I would have thought it was as great a book if it had been about the struggles of a white woman of the 21st century?

-- So in pointing at the skewed perceptions of readers, I'm pointing right at myself as well.

Kathleen Popa said...

Patricia, I recently read this in a Time Magazine interview with Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help:

Did you worry about the implications of being a young, white author writing in the thick dialect of African Americans?

I'm still worried about that. On the one hand I wonder, Was this really my story to tell? On the other hand, I just wanted the story to be told. But the truth is that I didn't think anybody was going to read it. Had I known it was going to be so widely disseminated I probably wouldn't have written it in the type of language that I did.

I completely understand what Kathryn is saying. When I think of writing an African-American character, I worry I'll get things wrong somehow. And yet I think The Help was an amazing story, wonderfully told.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Did you enjoy The Help? Do you think she did a good job with characterization and voice? What would you say to Kathryn's concerns, and mine?

Anonymous said...

Don't have time to read all the comments so maybe it's already addressed...but I've gotten to the point when I'm a bit scared to read secular fiction. I used to get Reader's Digest condensed books and then would go to the library and get other books by an author I liked...then I'd get smacked in the face with what was "condensed"! Way too often it was sex and language! When I read Christian fiction I know I won't have to deal with that!

Diane Marie Shaw said...

I'm with Lynn, secular books take me where I don't want to go. When I hear about a secular author I go to the library and flip through thier book, if I spot swearing or sex scenes it goes back on the shelf. It hurts my Spirit.

When I read Christian authors I know I can get a good story and not cringe in the reading of it.
Yes I admit some Christian writing could be better. We should be writing the most impactful, entertaining, life changing books because God is the one who inspires us.

PatriciaW said...

Latayne and Kathleen,

I love to read novels about cultures and people with which I'm unfamiliar, like Amulya Malladi's The Sound of Language, about an Afghan refugee and Danish beekeeper, or Nadine Dajani's Cutting Loose, about two Lebanese and one Latina female friends in the aftermath of one woman's separation from her husband.

Ethnicity in writing is such a funny thing. An author brings to the prose her experiences, beliefs, and prejudices, intentionally or not. A reader brings hers as well. We meet on the pages in hopes of acknowledging, connecting, and finding truth. Sometimes stories affirm, sometimes they open up a new window, educating us anew.

I read Passing by Samaria so long ago, I only vaguely recall it, Latayne. But I felt that way about her more recent work, Abraham's Well. That story about the Reconstruction era Buffalo soldiers would have been completely different told by a white author. Not necessarily wrong, just a different angle on the same point in time.

I haven't read The Help yet, Kathleen, but it's on my TBR list. I'm intrigued. I've seen white authors do tremendous justice to the African-American experience, but I've also seen them slight it.

I think the problem that white and African-Americans share is that we falsely believe we already know all there is to know about each other. Sometimes familiarity does breeds contempt, to paraphrase Apulieus and later Mark Twain. When we bring this assumption to our stories, either as readers or authors, we miss the opportunity to see and share the nuances that might take us to deeper understanding.

Kathleen Popa said...

Patricia, thank you for your wise and thoughtful answer. "...we falsely believe we already know all there is to know about each other." So much wisdom is demanded of a novelist, but I can't think of a better reason to write fiction.

And by the way, you have sold me two books today. Amazon should pay you.

C. S. Lakin said...

Maybe I can contribute my two cents. I only became a Christian as an adult. I've always been a huge literary reader, and so when I started writing novels, I wrote what I loved to read--not just literary fiction but what seemed to flow in the pulse of the mainstream market. Then, as I wrote to "break in" to CBA, I decided to read a lot of CBA best-selling novels, to get a feel for the market.

The readership drives the market, which drives the editors to acquire certian books, which perpetrates the market. I've heard many acq. editors sadly decry how they wish they could contract a different (read: better?)kind of book. Better written? Not necessarily. But I think it all boils down to the bottome line. Publishers, even CBA ones are in the business to make money--even if they have a desire to serve God with that ministry--they do know they need sales to stay viable. Producing the kind of books at a level ABA would consider "great" isn't going to happen and can't happen.

Some publishers are starting to stretch and reach out with edgier, more challenging types of storylines and characters and I agree, it's slow but it is happening. I'm quite shocked my book, Someone to Blame, is coming out in August (Zondervan) when it is a literary work with some really slimy characters--even my villain has been made sympathetic, although he seduces underage girls, smokes pot and cigarettes, gets drunk, and is beligerent and antisocial. I don't think that could have happened ten years ago in CBA.

With all that said, I can count on one hand the CBA books I felt were great and would read again. But on any given day, I can grab a handful of best-selling ABA books now on the shelves and find plenty of great keepers. And perhaps that's why I keep writing for ABA--because I can't see my future growth as a writer being restricted in a CBA box. Maybe I'll be surprised, but I have to honestly say ABA has a much higher bar. Books that win awards and acclaim in CBA (IMHO) would never even make the first cut on most NY editors' desks, from my experience. I apologize if my comments offend. I've been trying to get published in ABA for 22 years and have two top ABA agents (my 5 and 6th agents of my career) so I have been told and informed a lot about what editors at the top publishing houses want in terms of writing style and quality.

Unknown said...

C. S. -- you said, "Producing the kind of books at a level ABA would consider "great" isn't going to happen and can't happen."

Oh my, I hope that isn't true. If it were, it would discourage me out of my mind.