Industry dialogue and honesty forge the future of Christian fiction.

An author, a publisher, a retailer, and a book reviewer walk into a room …

No, that’s not the start to an overdone joke—it’s a hypothetical meeting at which we would sit around a table and exchange honest and sometimes-differing opinions, ideas, and dreams about the direction of Christian fiction. At our heart is one ultimate goal: to bring the grace of God to the brokenness of this world in ways that are relevant to those in need of hope.

Perhaps author Sarah Monzon (All of You) would speak up first: “For Christian fiction to be effective, real-life authenticity of brokenness needs to be addressed along with the good news message of hope in the name of Jesus.”

Maybe Shannon Marchese, senior editor for WaterBrook Multnomah, would add, “Readers still want some kind of [happily ever after], even in our messiest books—and that can create a credibility problem … Sometimes people don’t seek and find hope in the Lord; they choose not to.”

Heather Trost, owner of The Greatest Gift & Scripture Supply in Pueblo, Colorado, might feel “the interesting part of fiction is getting to see people living regular life through a Christian lens. Not every story has to have a Gospel message. Not every story has to have a happy ending, but something can be learned from it.”

Rounding out the discussion, reviewer Melissa Parcel would concur, “As a reader, I’m looking for real-life situations that can help me see that I’m not alone, and that show the power of God in those messy situations”

We can all agree that brokenness is alive and well in the world today. Author Jennifer Rodewald (Red Rose Bouquet) observes, “People are hungry for grace, thirsty for truth, whether they know it or not.”

As Christians, we have the source of grace and truth; we have the Gospel of the good news of Jesus. But are we getting our books into the hands of people who are searching for answers, people who would never read a Christian Living title or willingly listen to a sermon?

Julie Lessman (A Passion Most Pure) wonders if we’re missing the opportunity to reach people who, for instance, “would never think to pick up a Christian romance because they’re looking for more passion than is currently offered in most CBA selections.”

Author Kristi Ann Hunter (“Hawthorne House” series) elaborates: “I’m amazed at the number of times I encounter readers who had no idea what I write existed, that didn’t know Christian fiction was anything beyond Amish and the ‘Left Behind’ series.”

FICTION’S ‘REAL LIFE’ RELEVANCE

All of which begs another question: Is Christian fiction “edgy” enough to be relevant? Well, it depends on whom you ask.

“The strength of Christian fiction is that it unashamedly recognizes our lives are broken. The Gospel’s message is that God can heal broken lives,” says Amanda Bostic, associate publisher of fiction at HarperCollins Christian Publishing.

Yet many authors and readers feel publishers are still shying away from Christian fiction that realistically addresses the messier sides of life. Additionally, they say publishers aren’t producing fiction that non-Christians would want to read, thereby eliminating a large chunk of our missional goal.

Why such different perspectives? Perhaps it’s a breakdown in perception and/or communication. “Most ‘edgy’ Christian fiction that comes to pub board doesn’t get shot down because we’re afraid of the content; it gets shot down because it’s not compelling,” says Amy Green, fiction publicist for Bethany House Publishing. “Many of the proposals that get to pub board have prioritized edginess over good storytelling, and it shows.”

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of redefining what “edgy” means. Author Pepper Basham believes edgy translates into “authentic.”

“Pain that’s authentic. Romance that’s authentic, but most importantly a faith that’s authentic,” she says. “Not tacked on at the end or crammed down readers’ throats, but realistically portrayed in an organic way. Like we live.”

Author Ruth Logan Herne (Back in the Saddle) thinks it can be done gently, without preaching, “by using the simple but most difficult things we pray for daily … the power of forgiveness, health, sharing, strength of womanhood, and cookies.”

Chris Jager, fiction buyer for Baker Book House, agrees. “Some of the best books in the Christian market that I’ve read included a Christian character that just lived alongside someone and tried to answer their questions to the best of their ability. No preaching, just real life.”

Hunter offers an important word of caution. “When a character changes in a way that only God can do—and we don’t credit a relationship with Jesus in that change—readers will think they should be able to make a similar change on their own or expect it of other people.”

FICTION THAT SELLS

Perhaps the key to this disparity isn’t what readers are asking for, but rather what they’re actually buying. And therein lies the rub.

“There are more CBA consumers buying lighter books than heavier ones, if you crunch sales numbers,” says Green.

So what do we do with the perceptions and the realities of edgier, more authentic Christian fiction? Well, for starters, we continue to sit down around the hypothetical table and talk—not as “us vs. them” but together wrestling with these issues with prayer and grace. Novelist Catherine West (The Memory of You) put it this way: “We have the great opportunity to link hands with others across the table who in years past might not have even been willing to sit at the table. And now they’re here. And they’re starting to listen.”

Hunter adds, “We have to be honest about who people think we are, honest about who we actually are, and willing to put both of those in front of readers without spin or shame.”

Let’s keep the conversation going.

—Carrie Schmidt


 Read parts 2 and 3 of the conversation in the September and October issue of Christian MARKET, respectively, or at cbaonline.org/living-edge-part-2/ and cbaonline.org/living-edge-part-3/.

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