f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3: An Interview with Lynn Waalkes of <em>CBA Marketplace</em>

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

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Day 3: An Interview with Lynn Waalkes of CBA Marketplace

Lynn Waalkes is the book editor at CBA Marketplace. She’s a compulsive reader and has the poor eyesight to prove it. She shares her home with one very teenage daughter, one cat, two kittens, and one beleaguered hamster.

FiF: If I say "Christian fiction," what is your gut response?
LW: It's pretty positive, actually. Over the past few years I've seen more quality fiction being published. More fiction is well-written than not, these days. We still have hastily thrown together series fiction that suffer from a lack of time given to plot and characterization. We still have vanity fiction "written" by Christian celebrities that typically promotes the writer's platform and suffers accordingly. We still have publishing houses that don't have a high standard for fiction. And we still have readers who can't tell good fiction from bad.
But that's true in the ABA, too.

FiF: How about "CBA Fiction"?
LW: How is that different from Christian fiction? Do you see it as a subset of Christian fiction? If so, I sure hope that's changing. We need to be ready to embrace good Christian fiction wherever we find it, whether it's published by a CBA or ABA company. If you consider "CBA fiction" a substandard form of Christian fiction, it's a pretty insulting term and seems unfair. At one time—not all that long ago—the industry didn't value fiction and didn't commit resources to finding or cultivating good writers. There were exceptions, but not many. There seemed to be a perception that Christian bookstore customers didn't read fiction.
But that has changed and "CBA fiction" is becoming stronger and more diverse. We have better entries in every genre of writing and many good writers. I think it's wrong to lump all fiction from CBA publishers together and consider it a substandard genre.

FiF: What is the one thing most lacking, in your opinion, in the CBA book/fiction industry? (This can be in the books, the publishers, the retailers, whatever)
LW: Just one thing? OK—I think readers are slow to discriminate between good and bad writing, and I think that's part of what allows so much bad stuff to linger in the industry. I think some Christian fiction is read by people who aren't readers. They don't recognize poor writing because they haven't read enough good literature—CBA or ABA—to recognize the difference between good and bad writing. But that's partly a cultural thing stemming from the variety of entertainment media available. People just don't read much anymore and when they do, they want their novels to parallel fast-paced, 30-minute TV shows. If customers are willing to read second-rate fiction, some authors and publishers won't feel the need to improve the quality of what they're selling.
This is a problem in the ABA market, too—there's as much poor writing there as in the CBA market. But ABA is much bigger than the CBA market, has a much larger pool of writers to draw from, and the really good books are outstanding.

Which leads me to a second "one thing most lacking," in the CBA industry: we need writers who can stretch to write more imaginatively, more expansively about the world at large. I'd like to see fiction as creative as Life of Pi. We have some quality contemporary fiction, especially by authors like Ann Tatlock, Lisa Samson, and Dale Cramer. But much of what I see is bland and dull. How many novels on marital infidelity and reconciliation do we really need?

FiF: What's the strongest thing about the CBA book industry?
LW: Our Christian faith is our greatest strength. When it’s authentically, creatively, well-portrayed in fiction, we have a wonderful means of sharing a transcendent hope and faith with readers. That can be done through good, entertaining genre fiction or literary fiction.

FiF: Must CBA publishers compromise on the religious content of their books to be taken seriously in the general market?
LW: Not at all. Good fiction doesn't need to be compromised. If publishers feel the need to tweak religious content in a novel, then maybe it wasn't written as well as it should have been in the first place. A preachy tone turns off readers in both markets.

FiF: Must CBA publishers break long-standing content "rules" about sex, swearing, and "sin" in general to be taken seriously in the general market?
LW: I think the primary thing CBA publishers need to do to be taken seriously in the general market is to publish quality fiction. I'm not dodging the issue—certainly our industry has played it too safe in tackling real-life issues realistically. But good books don't rely on using offensive language, sex, and violence to sell. To think it's a requirement to include these things in order to succeed in the general market is to sell that market short.

FiF: What would you expect retailer's response would be to any book/publisher that pushed those boundaries?
LW: Retailers feel responsible to their customers. Some may champion books that push boundaries if they feel they have an important message and are excellent reads. But most, if not all, will probably draw the line at books with swearing and explicit sex. As for sin in general, the need for redemption is the primary theme in Christian fiction. It shouldn’t concern readers or retailers that characters sin—or even that conversions may take time, more time than can be conveyed in one novel. But does it take swearing or explicit sex scenes to convey the reality of sin? I doubt it.

FiF: Do you think a publisher's obligation is to the loudest complaining customer, other customers who may like a provocative work, retailers caught in between, or the novel and its message?
LW: How about all of the above? The loud customer may speak for many, as may the customers who like provocative novels. Christian retailers juggle business with ministry—and take their responsibility to customers seriously. They're on the frontlines of customer approval or wrath and are sensitive to customer feedback. But a novel's integrity and message are important. I suppose you need the wisdom of Solomon to address the varying demands.

FiF: How has the market changed in your time working in Christian fiction?
LW: Peretti, LaHaye and Jenkins, Francine Rivers, Oprah, all helped to change the market. Oprah did a lot to educate readers to fiction that transcended genres. Peretti's titles elbowed aside the reigning romance fiction and opened the door to suspense and supernatural thrillers. LaHaye and Jenkins, of course, brought apocalyptic fiction to the attention of the general market and boosted readership in general. Rivers and other general-market writers crossed over to the Christian market and have helped elevate the quality of writing. Publishers are allocating far more money and resources to building their fiction lines than they ever did before.

FiF: What would you like to see from CBA fiction in the next three to five years?
LW: I'd like to see it grow in diversity and depth.

FiF: What's your favorite novel or two that tackles issues of faith? LW: Leif Enger's Peace Like a River portrays a loving father’s sacrifice to save his prodigal son, Elizabeth Goudge's Dean's Watch explores humility and marital fidelity that perseveres despite all odds, Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel eloquently shows man’s ineffectual striving to return to a pre-sin state, and C.S. Lewis' Perelandra chillingly depicts the horror of evil and shows the necessity of grappling with it. I could go on