Dear Christian novelists and publishers:
For several years CT has asked me to serve as the preliminary fiction judge for the annual book awards. This means that every August, all the titles nominated by your publishing houses land on my front porch—roughly 40 titles or more.
They include the usual suspects: historical and biblical fiction, romance, family drama, suspense, and, yes, Amish love stories. But they also include some unique innovations: futuristic and dystopian lit, detective fiction, even the occasional supernatural thriller. Over the course of several weeks I read, power-skim, or glance through every single one of them. I then select my top four, which are sent on to a quartet of final judges who determine the winner and runner-up.
Given the fact that I’ve “met” so many of you through your books, I thought it would be fair to introduce myself and explain exactly how and why I make the decisions I do. After all, it’s hard to pass a test you don’t know you’re taking. And since most of you—even the editors—will not have read or even browsed all these titles year after year (who has time for that?), I thought I’d share some insights on what I see as the state of Christian fiction and the trends I’m noticing, for better or worse.
By way of introduction, a confession: Despite the fact that (or because?) I have an English degree from a Christian college, I don’t personally read much that falls within the contemporary marketing category of “Christian fiction.” I’m one of those grumpy English majors who walks into a Christian bookstore and wants to know why Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe aren’t on the shelves. As authors of faith, we stand in a long literary tradition that did not start with Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and is not limited to the Christian Booksellers Association. It goes much further back and reaches much farther out. This is how the good news of the gospel works.
CT’s mission includes “culture making,” the quest to create and celebrate Christian endeavors that both shape and outlast the culture in which we live—for the glory of Jesus. So my quest, as a fiction judge, is to look for the kinds of novels that have the best shot at still being on the shelves in 100 years, yet which also uniquely point to God in Christ as the power that transforms lives. And in order for me to do that, I have to not only be familiar with literature that has stood the test of time, but I have to identify the criteria that gives it staying power—and judge contemporary Christian fiction accordingly.
So, what are those criteria? Here’s an attempt at spelling them out:
Excellent writing. Winning novelists must do what all great novelists have done: start with a compelling hook, construct realistic dialogue, pace between long and short sentences, weave the backstory through the narrative, avoid excessive adverbs and clichés, keep a consistent point of view, etc. But they must also have an innate instinct for their literary form, for the kinds of words and metaphors that evoke a tone—not merely communicate information—within a particular genre.
Great examples include the blunt, lightning prose of Billy Coffey’s supernatural thrillers (such as There Will Be Stars), so vivid they paint themselves; and Suzanne Wolfe’s elegant metaphors that fit the ancient mindset of her fourth-century characters in this year’s winner The Confessions of X. Wolfe’s narrator writes, “Long ago in Rome I saw a woman so ancient of flesh that she was kneaded and furrowed like God making the world.” Only a fourth-century character would call someone “ancient of flesh”; only those from an agrarian society would use verbs associated with hand-making bread or hoeing a field. Sustain this kind of attention to form and tone, without overdoing it, over several hundred pages, and you’ve got the makings of a winning novel.