f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 2: An Interview with Jana Riess of <em>Publishers Weekly</em>

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Day 2: An Interview with Jana Riess of Publishers Weekly

Jana Riess majored in religion at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, then earned a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. She received a Ph.D. in American religious history from Columbia University, where she focused on the history of nineteenth-century sectarian movements such as Mormonism, Shakerism, and Christian Science. She is the author of What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide and The Spiritual Traveler: Boston and New England, and also edited a volume of Mary Baker Eddy’s autobiographies.

Since 1999, she has been the Religion Book Review Editor for Publishers Weekly magazine, and is frequently interviewed by the media on trends in religion and publishing. She has been a Christy Award judge since 2002.

FiF: If I say “Christian fiction,” what is your gut response?
JR: Well, at the moment, I still have all of the Christy nominees to read, so my first response is guilt when I see them on the shelves. Guilt, guilt, guilt. But on a normal day, my gut response would be fairly positive overall.

Some Christians find that the term “Christian fiction” is too broad for the genre as it is currently defined. They’d like to see the moniker be more specific, like “evangelical Christian fiction” or “CBA fiction.” I think that “CBA” is a term for people within the industry; ordinary readers aren’t necessarily going to know what that means. But “evangelical Christian fiction” seems a very fair term for novels that seek to proclaim the gospel, or evangelion.

FiF: If you could change one thing about the CBA Fiction books you read or come across, what would it be?
JR: I would like the novels to be more character-driven and less preachy. The worst are the novels that exist only to spew forth propaganda – about evolution, about abortion, about embattled evangelicals, whatever. No one who doesn’t already agree with the author wants to be bashed over the head with his or her tiresome agenda. It’s not just religious conservatives who do this. I hate it when liberals do it too—don’t even get me started about The Da Vinci Code! Whenever it happens, it interrupts the story as surely as if there had been a commercial break. And me without my Tivo.

Novels cannot be hijacked by the author’s agenda. As Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn once said, “If you have a story, see me. If you have a message, go to Western Union.” Amen.

Having said that, though, there is definitely a place for a novel to have a POV; otherwise why write one? The problem with some Christian novels is that the authors are simply not skilled enough to allow the gospel message to be seen through the characters and the themes. They tell us, and don’t show us, the message. Ultimately, this is insulting for us as readers, because it means that the author doesn’t trust our intelligence (and the author’s own writing ability) enough to allow the story to simply stand on its own.

FiF: One complaint at our publishing house is that when we have a book we think can stand with any fiction out there, it’s still reviewed as CBA Fiction. Is that ever likely to change?
JR:Yes—the proof is in the pudding. Once reviewers and critics begin to see that there are Jamie Langston Turners out there, and Vinita Hampton Wrights, they will eventually pay attention. It’s only in the last few years that the CBA has offered writers of that caliber, so it will take a while before the “secular” world (if there is such a thing) takes notice. There is literary fiction in the CBA, and some of it is quite good.

At PW, we review all fiction together in the same section, religious and secular.

FiF: One area Christian publishing is FAR behind in is honest criticism by outside sources. How important is the environment of review and critique (in Sunday Book Review, Atlantic Monthly, Christian Science Monitor and many others) in general market publishing both for promoting titles and improving the books?
JR:You’re right—and please remember the importance of honest outside criticism if one of your books ever gets a negative review in PW. ;-) Some of the publications that review Christian books are not very rigorous in their evaluation, and that’s a shame. Honest outside criticism has the potential to be a constructive force in the improvement of the whole genre.

One of the problems nowadays is that many newspapers and magazines are cutting or contracting their Sunday book review sections. There are fewer spaces for review, yet more books are being published than ever before. It’s a terrible squeeze.

Reviews are as important as ever. PW’s reviews are now posted directly on various websites like Amazon and bn.com, so our reviews now go straight to the book consumer.

FiF: Must CBA publishers break long-standing content “rules” about sex, swearing, and “sin” in general to be taken seriously in the general market?
JR: No, there’s no need. A great story transcends all of those formulaic concerns. In the mid-1990s, one of the surprise film hits with audiences and critics alike was the movie Babe. It was imaginative, unique, and based in a great story. And the only nudity was the farm animals.

Working within certain boundaries is actually helpful to some writers. It can inspire their creativity.

On the other hand, writers should be careful about trying to sugarcoat the pain of life. Many, but not all, great stories arise from painful circumstances. And of course, in the world of Christian publishing it’s ironic that novelists can preach about the transforming grace of Jesus but have to be incredibly circumspect about honestly describing what Jesus is saving people from. It’s a recipe for creating the kind of “let-me-tell-you-and-not-show-you” stories that are so plodding and forgettable.

FiF: Must CBA publishers compromise on the religious content of their books to be taken seriously in the general market?
JR: Why should they? Chaim Potok doesn’t. He just explores religion is such a way that it fuels the power of his words and characters. When you read My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev, you see that those stories reveal biblical archetypes. But Potok never says, “Hey! Did you get it that Asher Lev is Abraham and the son he has to sacrifice to the rebbe is Isaac? That’s from Genesis, you know!” He trusts his readers. This trust in turn allows them to engage with the story in deeper ways—it’s BYO Subtext. The religious and moral content are so strong that those books make me weep. But it’s also true that every time I read them I learn something new, and engage them on a different level because of where I am in my life. That’s what great literature is supposed to do.

FiF: Have you seen any noticeable shift and change in the quality of the books coming from CBA publishers over the last five years?
JR: Yes, the quality of CBA fiction has clearly improved. In terms of breadth, we have more genres and subgenres than ever before, so readers can find romantic suspense, mystery, chick lit, sci fi . . . whatever suits their tastes. We’re also starting to see some authors experiment with a little more depth. Last year I was impressed with Athol Dickson’s thriller They Shall See God. That novel is evidence that even “genre fiction” can have an original plot, memorable characters and interesting ruminations on faith. It’s by no means a perfect book, but it’s a very good thriller. I don’t think that would have been published in the CBA ten years ago.

FiF: What’s your favorite novel or two that tackles issues of religious faith?
JR: I’ve already mentioned Chaim Potok. I’d add Madeleine L’Engle and Frederick Buechner to my short list of religious writers who speak to me. When I read novels, of course I am sometimes looking for escapist entertainment. But when I want spiritual meat and not milk, there are few novelists who make me think as much as those three.