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I'm On the Lookout for the Next Great Christian Novel
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.
Complex, interesting, non-stock characters. Stock characters are tropes or archetypes that are instantly recognizable and can be shuffled from story to story: career businessman, hometown nice guy, dissatisfied housewife, discouraged clergy, single young woman burned by prior relationships, etc. Stock characters are easy shortcuts around the hard work of creating the kinds of uniquely flawed, uniquely gifted human beings that really inhabit this world.
In last year’s CT winner, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by Daniel Taylor, I found the main character (a bitter, unemployed academic asked to solve the murder of his mentor) uniquely flawed to the point of exasperation; but Judy, his mentally impaired sister (earnest, loving, hesitant yet honest), is one of the most delightful sidekicks in all of detective fiction. As soon as you read a line of dialogue you know that it’s her speaking. In one particular scene, after her brother has waxed philosophical for several pages about why he can’t get his personal life together, she says, “I just...just want to say, Jon, that Jesus...I should say, Jesus loves you...very much.” You could not transport Judy to another story. She is absolutely herself. Unforgettable characters make for unforgettable novels.
Unusual plot lines and reveals. On the whole, Christian writers (and, I’m guessing, readers) appear to have a particular affinity for the following:
- Stories from the heartland: historical fiction from pioneer days, or contemporary folks returning to rural America from urban or academic settings—not to mention anything Amish.
- Biblical fiction: the retelling of a biblical story from the perspective of real or imagined biblical-era characters.
- World War II: historical fiction set during the 1930s and 40s, on either side of the pond; or contemporary stories that reveal some family secret from that era.
- And something I call the corporate-versus-family drama: a non-Christian businessman or woman is saved from losing his or her marriage/family/soul by giving up corporate America.
On the one hand, these affinities betray an almost incurable nostalgia for a “simpler,” more heroic past (despite the fact that all human eras and locations are fraught with sin). But they also reveal a real, urgent longing for hurting people to return to the families that raised and loved them. It’s a worthy longing—and one that has biblical resonance with the Genesis story of Eden, that original home humans lost by rebellion against a loving Father. And yet we must never forget that it’s Jesus, not our hometown, that saves our loved ones. “See!” God says in Isaiah 43:19 to the brokenhearted exiles, “I am doing a new thing” (emphasis added). This does not sound like a God whose salvation comes to us by resurrecting the past.
What makes a book like Chris Fabry’s The Promise of Jesse Woods a runner-up this year is that it takes the hometown plotline and turns it on its head. The main character’s quest to go back home and “save” his childhood sweetheart is foiled—and rightly so. People are not saved by anyone other than Jesus. Women, in particular, do not need saving by men. (Note how, in the process of flipping the hometown narrative, Fabry takes what could be stock characters and turns them into real people.)
Addressing issues of ultimate meaning, with God in Christ acknowledged (or at least hinted at) as the center. Christian writers tend to either overdo this in a sentimental or woodenly scripted conversion scene, or implausibly attempt to live inside the mind of the seeker they have never been. More common over the past few years, however—and this baffles me—is to steer away from overt reference to God in Christ altogether. Rather, the overall message in novel after novel seems to be that we can save ourselves and others by simply doing the right thing. Really? That’s the heart of our Christian message?
In a related trend, Christian authors also seem to have a particular flair for painting darkness and sin vividly (Billy Coffey is the king of this); but what they can’t seem to pull off is the reverse: a depiction of light and righteousness so compelling that we want nothing more than to be drawn in. A heartening exception is Gerard Kelly’s The Boy Who Loved Rain, in which a desperate British mother flees with her suicidal teen son to a remote French coastal village to find healing with the help of their ex-nun friend. At one point the mother is praying alone in the village chapel, raging at the God who has let her down, when “Alone in the silence of this chapel, watching the flames she herself had lit in desperation, she had discovered God’s outrageous amnesia; his unaccountable and irresponsible disinterest in her sins. Here she found at last that it was as a person, not as an acolyte, that God was welcoming her.” Yes, her son’s mental illness is a darkness threatening to engulf her family. But God’s grace is bigger.
Theological depth and soundness. I’m looking for novels that have a robust orthodoxy—by which I mean a high view of Jesus, Scripture, and the church as informed by the ancient creeds. Instead, I often find what sociologist Christian Smith famously identified among American teens as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”—that is, belief in a vague god who helps you become a better person and feel good about yourself. This is not the gospel. But for many Christian novels, that’s the extent of the characters’ religious experience. Pray a little, ask for help sometimes, and you’ll have better self-esteem or do something good for a change.
A notable exception is Paul McCusker’s The Body Under the Bridge, in which a British detective-turned-Anglican priest (who can’t help but turn detective again) squares off against demonic powers that have taken up residence in, of all places, his very own church. And he doesn’t overcome those powers by physical violence or the use of weapons—this, too, seems to be an unblinking, unthinking norm in a lot of Christian fiction, despite the many Christian communities that have opposed violence, biblically and theologically, for centuries (those Amish again). Rather, through a haze of pain and paralysis, he begins to speak aloud his baptismal vows. He cannot summon words of his own, so he draws upon the ancient affirmations that Jesus is Lord, that as a baptized believer he belongs to God, that evil has no power over him. This is written so masterfully, and in such keeping with the character and his setting, that the reader is swept along to make those affirmations too.
A strong sense of the church and faith communities as a vital presence in the world. Related to the above concern, I see an alarming trend in the opposite direction: an almost total absence of faith communities playing any role whatsoever in a character’s transformation or ongoing spiritual growth. Often, if churches are mentioned at all, it’s only to demonize them. Yes, it’s true that churches can hurt people. But it’s also true that faith communities are agents of change and transformation—indeed, that Jesus shows up in unique ways within the worshiping, sacramental body that you can’t experience anywhere else.
In addition to Kelly and McCusker, I can think of a number of authors who, I’m thankful to note, push against this trend. Sharon Garlough Brown in her Sensible Shoes series, for example; Father James Martin’s novel The Abbey; Philip Gulley’s A Place Called Hope series; and Christa Parrish’s quiet gem Still Life—in which the main character escapes a religious cult but later makes baby steps toward healing with the help of a multiracial congregation. Their characters experience transformation because of Christian communities, not in spite of them.
Cultural awareness. When it comes to issues of race, Christian fiction sometimes exhibits a degree of obliviousness. If a person of color shows up at all, he or she is often either a substitute for what otherwise would be a white sidekick—but with no discernable uniqueness—or the sidekick is a walking stereotype of their race (otherwise known as a trope or token character). Often the person of color needs help, and the white hero saves the day. At worst, you see perpetuated the myth of the faithful employee/slave who loves his or her boss unwaveringly, keeps the boss’s secrets, and is unwilling to leave the boss even when let go.
In all of these cases, race becomes an accident of skin color rather than a long and painful history of certain people being relegated to the underside of power—and only given agency if they conform to the expectations of those on the upper side of power. Once again, the gospel offers a corrective, one of an active racial reconciliation (see Galatians 3:28), with the end goal that all of us would conform to the image of Jesus—who was, it bears mentioning, not a white American. Suffice it to say that if you feel it’s important to have a multiracial cast of characters, work first at having a multiracial cast of personal friends and colleagues whose feedback shows your blind spots. And then proceed with caution.
If your setting is predominantly white, be aware of the racialized history behind those communities. Let me give an example. In one contemporary novel, set in rural Indiana, three older farmers are described as “the sort of dying breed of men ... whose values hadn’t withered under the moral decline of subsequent generations.” Is the author unaware of or deliberately ignoring the fact that by the mid-1920s, nearly one third of men in Indiana were members of the Ku Klux Klan? Some of those men raised the farmers she writes about. As a white Midwesterner who grew up in small rural towns, I would caution us to not forget our own not-so-stellar history.
Making the Leap
By way of encouragement, let me wrap up with this. Many of you are writing compellingly from rural and small-town America, particularly the South and the Midwest/heartland. You’re capturing what these communities are really like, how folks speak, what they value; and you’re doing so compassionately. This is a strength that is wholly unusual in publishing overall. And I’d like to see you play to this strength without a kind of Pollyanna blindness to the systemic sins that bind all our communities, no matter our race or locale.
Likewise, many of you are really, really good writers. You’ve nailed my first three criteria by attending to your craft, painting vivid characters, and inventing interesting storylines. Your work is well-researched and thoughtful; your humble acquiescence to editorial support is to your credit. But I think you’re ready to push yourselves, to take your writing to the next level, not just fulfill the next set of publishing contracts. Who will be the next writer to flip the hometown narrative—or send a character to the city in order to experience transformation? (John’s vision of the Holy City in Revelation might provide an interesting reversal.) Who will invent a character I can’t forget? Whose sentences will stick in my head for years?
Finally—and most importantly—I rarely see in trade publishing what Christian publishing has the potential to do really well: paint light more compellingly than darkness, depict faith communities as a vital presence in the world, and point to Jesus as the source of transformation. If we as Christian authors and publishers can’t pull this off, who else will?
So I’m throwing out a challenge: Which of you can deliver the book I want to see? Because I believe it can be done. There is enough talent and savvy out there to hit on all my criteria in one book. Now get out there and write it.
Sarah Arthur is co-author, with Erin Wasinger, of The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (Brazos), which releases in January.