f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4: Talking with Donna Kehoe of the Christy Awards

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

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Day 4: Talking with Donna Kehoe of the Christy Awards

Donna Kehoe has been the administrator of the Christy Awards since their inception in 2000, and in that role she's met many great fiction editors and marketers, authors, and readers plus worked with an exceptional advisory board. She has a M.A. plus doctoral hours in literature, has taught college-level courses for several years, and presently does marketing communications writing and consulting for a variety of clients.

FiF: What sparked the initial conversation that led to the creation of the Christy Awards?
DK: The Christy Awards grew out of an in-house conversation within Bethany House led by VP of Editorial-Fiction, Carol Johnson. The aim was to honor and bring attention to wonderful novels that perhaps weren’t in the spotlight of bestselling sales. Editors at all the major Christian publishing houses met at CBA International in 1999 to discuss the idea further and the name Christy was selected in honor of Catherine Marshall’s fictional heroine, the forerunner to today’s modern Christian fiction.

FiF: Why the decision to honor books in numerous genres (Romance, Mystery, Sci-Fi, etc.) rather than simply name the “best” book of the year?
As this year’s National Book Awards brouhaha revealed, genre fiction (or sub-genre fiction, if it is first written within the genre of “Christian fiction”) is a viable novel form. Genre fiction is written within specific conventions or constraints, but good genre fiction demands attention to and mastery of the craftsmanship of novel writing.

To answer your question: the Christys honor books in genre to highlight the breadth of fiction choices available to the reader of Christian fiction.

Historical fiction and romance fiction (or historical romance fiction!) used to be the only choices available to the reader of Christian fiction; that’s no longer true. In fact, other categories (contemporary and suspense) regularly have more submissions than historical or romance have.

FiF: Does this choice limit the ability to use the awards as a barometer of the quality of fiction available?
DK: Each novel submitted for the Christys is placed in one of seven possible genre categories or the “first novel” category, and each category is judged by a panel of seven readers who rate the novel on a scale of 1-10 against an 8-point criteria: characterization, plot, theme, setting and atmosphere, mechanics, point-of-view, writing quality, passion and understanding. In order to win a Christy (and ensure that this award is thus an indicator of quality), a novel must score above 80%.

FiF: One area Christian publishing is FAR behind in is honest criticism by outside sources. We don’t have a Sunday Book Review, Atlantic Monthly or Christian Science Monitor. Why is there such a lack of critique in this market?
DK: On the great timeline of novel writing, CBA fiction is young. One of the signature novels, Catherine Marshall’s Christy, was first published in 1967 for a general audience, and its crossover appeal to CBA shelves alongside Grace Livingston Hill and a few others opened the way for other authors to write novels that would be acceptable in CBA stores.

In addition to CBA fiction’s relative youth, the numbers of CBA novels published annually are small—somewhere between 200-250. At this point, there’s just not the critical mass necessary for critique vehicles devoted to this fiction.

Several other issues complicate meaningful critique. One is the mindset among some Christians that any work done by a Christian is outside the bounds of critique as long as the writer’s motive was to honor God. The second is that evangelicals as a whole don’t have an articulated theology of the arts against which a work can be critiqued. The third has been the general disregard among some Christians for the quality of fiction available in CBA markets—this we hope to influence with the Christys.

On the positive side, several novels published by CBA publishers have received critical short reviews in Christianity Today’s “Bookmarks” over the past couple of years, and Publisher’s Weekly, a trade journal for booksellers, reviews CBA fiction alongside general market fiction in their “Fiction Reviews.”

FiF: Must CBA publishers break long-standing content “rules” about sex, swearing, and “sin” in general to be taken seriously in the general market?
DK: I haven’t been in the industry long—only five years—but I’ve seen enough exceptions to avoid making any predictive statements! Plus, it seems that the general market, just like the CBA market, takes sales seriously, and sales in either market are not necessarily indicative of literary quality (reference the recent success of The DaVinci Code).

I’ve seen several longstanding rules start to bend a little, such as those against violence (read some of the Christian “thrillers”) and drinking (more and more glasses of wine are showing up in CBA pages).

FiF: Must CBA publishers compromise on the religious content of their books to be taken seriously in the general market?
DK: I’ve read many books published by ABA publishers that have had as much Christian world underpinning (if not more, in some instances) than those published by CBA publishers. Go figure.

FiF: How has the market changed in your time working in Christian fiction?
DK: As I mentioned, there’s a strong trend away from a reliance on historical and romance novels to a focus on contemporary and suspense/thrillers. Part of this is due, I suspect, to a publishing strategy to attract younger readers, and part is due to a trend to explore contemporary issues in fiction, such as medical ethics, domestic abuse, response to terrorism, etc.

Another interesting trend corresponding to the first has been the increasing number of male authors writing CBA fiction. In the 2004 Christys, 42% of all novels entered are written by men (59 out of 138).

FiF: What’s your favorite novel or two that tackles issues of faith
DK: I have a couple of favorite CBA novels, but in the interest of remaining a neutral administrator, I’ll not identify those!

My two recent ABA favorites are both short nun novels: Mariette in Ecstasy (which you just discussed) and Lying Awake.