f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Five Days of Others' Opinions (Yaaayyy!): Starting with Dale Cramer

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

Monday, February 02, 2004

Five Days of Others' Opinions (Yaaayyy!): Starting with Dale Cramer

For the next five days, while I’m out of the office (which will explain the lack of return emails should you contact me), I’m going to running interviews conducted with five folks linked, in a variety of ways, to the Christian publishing industry. These are smart, talented folks with important things to say, so I encourage you to stop by for them all.




An Interview With Author Dale Cramer

Dale Cramer is a husband, father, electrician, and author of the acclaimed Sutter’s Cross as well as several published works of short fiction. He and his wife and two sons make their home in northern Georgia.

I had the great privilege of seeing Dale’s first novel in proposal stage a few years ago and couldn’t make myself heard loud enough that this was an author we need to get in-house. Others felt likewise and he’s now about to release his second novel, Bad Ground with us. It’s already scored a starred review with Booklist.


FiF: I say Christian fiction, you say…?
DC: I like to think of Christian fiction as that which is written from a Christian worldview as opposed to humanist, or materialist, or whatever. Christian worldview. Just that, and no other rules. This admittedly broad definition might include, for example: Tolstoy, Dickens, Kipling, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Morgan, Wendell Berry and many others— and might even, with a good long stretch, include some individual works from authors not known for any religious orthodoxy, like East of Eden.

FiF: How about CBA Fiction?
DC: CBA fiction, as I understand it, is a subset of Christian fiction, a narrow genre with its own crop of readers, writers and publishers sprouted from evangelical soil in the last twenty-five years or so. The rules are strict (no sex, no foul language, no gore, etc.) because the market for these books, up to now, has been almost exclusively evangelical church-goers who would like to have a fiction shelf in the bookstore that they can consider “safe”. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. There should be such a place. In this age of rating and labeling everything from movies to tuna, there’s no reason evangelical Christians shouldn’t have a bookshelf of their own. They should be able to pick up a book and hand it to their twelve year old with impunity, secure in the knowledge that it contains nothing they would consider offensive. Even if they haven’t read it themselves. That’s a good thing.

The problem is that, in the broader market, CBA fiction has become stigmatized. Let’s face it: reviewers, serious writers and discriminating readers roll their eyes at the mere mention.

Why?

Is it because the literary elite are all hell-bound hedonists drooling for a ripping good romp in the explicit hay? Because any dialogue without profanity is inauthentic?

I don’t think so. Read reviews of CBA fiction and you start to see a pattern. Nobody ever complains about the lack of sex and profanity; they complain that every book has a main-character conversion scene, characters are cardboard mouthpieces for evangelical messages, and plots/situations are trite, predictable, unimaginative and humorless. Apart from the conversion scene, these are issues of craft, not content. If the CBA is going to improve its image, Christian writers are going to have to get serious, or serious writers are going to have to be recruited.

There are people out there who are both committed Christians and excellent writers, but offered the chance to write in the CBA, they politely decline— and then roll their eyes. So, if the CBA can’t attract serious Christian writers because of the stigma, but we can’t erase the stigma without serious writers, the problem becomes circular.

FiF: Is there a solution?
DC: I think so.

Several years ago I read an interview where a reporter asked a Jewish author why Jewish novels, as a rule, are taken seriously and Christian novels are not. The author answered flatly and immediately, “Because Jews don’t proselytize.”

I believe he’s onto something. What if we took the preaching and the conversion scenes out of the novel and put them back in the church building where they belong? (And before I’m accused of trashing the Great Commission, I would hasten to point out that CBA preaching is only being read by evangelical church-goers anyway. They like it, but they don’t “need” it. The people who “need” it don’t like it, and won’t read it. Furthermore, a cursory glance at 1st Corinthians reveals that preaching is not the only way to proselytize— may not even be the best way. Mother Teresa, if she were here, would second me on this.) What if we wrote stories where good guys and bad guys were not as sharply delineated as Dudley and Snidely? What if nobody had an abortion, or got killed by a drunk driver?

Stories can have profound impact if we let them. Jesus himself told stories all the time, and he always respected the intelligence of his audience: He let the truth stand on its own. If you want to deliver a message, go to seminary and become a preacher. If you want to tackle issues, write non-fiction. If you want to make big bucks, write praise and worship songs...

FiF: So where does fiction fit into this?
DC: The purpose of a novel is to tell a story, to create a microcosm into which a reader can escape, sometimes purely for entertainment, sometimes for intellectual stimulation, and sometimes in search of a vision of truth or beauty that transcends the “real” world. A novel can do those things, but it can’t do them effectively if it doesn’t remember its place. When a novel puts unbelievable words in the mouth of God, or depends on unrealistic characters to say indefensible things in support of a narrow religious tradition, or worse, a political position, it voluntarily abdicates all the intrinsic ideals that gave it value in the first place. It ceases to be a novel and becomes propaganda.

FiF: What’s your challenge to the industry?
DC: I believe if publishers expand their vision and encourage quality work that doesn’t succumb to the propagandistic temptations of the genre they will see an influx of new talent to meet their needs. And as we raise the bar, I believe we’ll see a steady influx of readers relieved and happy to find serious fiction grounded in truth.