f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 07/01/2005 - 08/01/2005

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

Friday, July 29, 2005

Safe Fiction

Mark Bertrand uses a bit of Narnian logic to explore whether "safety" in fiction is an ideal end.

A nice snippet: "A good book is not safe because it threatens false assumptions and complacency and the little fantasies we construct to conceal the reality all around us. A good book, like a good God, is a dangerous thing to those who have reason to fear."

This is your required reading for the day.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Day 4 of “Why Bother?” – What Links the Books Readers Read?

Many in yesterday’s comments touched on today’s topic, so it might be worth a visit to check in with what others have said. I may echo or steal bits of what’s been spoken...thanks in advance.

The inference many have drawn from the illustration of the social isolate is that it isn’t just enough for people to want to be talking about imaginary world. They need to be imaginary worlds worth talking about. I believe the word used is “substantive.”

So the next question is: what is a substantive work of fiction?

According to Heath (and this is based on interviews with hundreds of readers) : the most defining characteristic of such a work is “unpredictability.” What’s interesting is that this characteristic actually models the readers’ lives. Most of the serious readers she interviewed had to deal with, in one form or another, personal unpredictability.

For that’s a surprise. It seems people with unpredictable lives would actually lean toward safer, more predictable books. Heath’s research points elsewhere. Two common comments were:

1. “…reading serious literature impinges on the embedded circumstances in people’s lives in such a way that they have to deal with them. And, in so dealing, they come to see themselves as deeper and more capable of handling their inability to have a totally predictable life.”

2. Substantive works of fiction are “the only places where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical, and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically….Strong works of fiction are what refuse to give easy answers to the conflict, to paint things as black and white, good guys versus bad guys.”

The next immediate bit of interplay in the novel is fascinating to me. It seems highly indicative of a lot of things.

“And religions themselves are substantive works of fiction,” I [Franzen] said.

She nodded. “This is precisely what readers are saying: that reading good fiction is like reading a particularly rich section of a religious text. What religion and good fiction have in common is that the answers aren’t there, there isn’t closure. The language of literary works gives forth something different with each reading. But unpredictability doesn’t mean total relativism. Instead it highlights the persistence with which writers keep coming back to fundamental problems.”

This persistence, Heath concludes, is the link that binds readers—the sense of “having company in this great human enterprise.”

Writing and reading, in the end, for Heath and Franzen are about two things. They are about “not being alone.” And they’re also about “not hearing that there’s no way out—no point to existence. The point is in the continuity, in the persistence of the great conflicts.”

It is physically impossible to shake my head “Yes” and “No” at the same time but that’s what this portion of Franzen’s essay evokes from me. I think it makes a strong pointing finger to the heart of wheel-spinning postmodern thinking. But at the same time, there’s a humility there that resonates (with me at least)—a sense that all the answers may not be knowable and that sometimes asking the question is the best we’ve got.

So: to boil it down.

What is Christian fiction’s role?

To ask questions? (Following, Heath and Franzen’s model for “substantive” fiction.)

Or to provide answers? (Because merely self-identifying as Christian implies that we have some.)

The Danger of Used Books?

The NYTimes runs a short article looking at some research that says the used book market online may not be quite as damaging to new books and authors' royalties as many worry.

This is an interesting thought that makes sense on the surface: "When used books are substituted for new ones, the seller faces competition from the secondhand market, reducing the price it can set for new books. But there's another effect: the presence of a market for used books makes consumers more willing to buy new books, because they can easily dispose of them later."

Nickleback Should Be Worried

NY Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (who has a bit of bulldog personality) is going after the music industry.

If I could get the music industry to stop playing one song it'd be that John Mayer "Daughters" thing. Any other suggestions?

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Day 3 of “Why Bother?” - The Social Isolate

From Shirley Brice Heath:
“There’s the social isolate—the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. This is very, very difficult to uncover in an interview. People don’t like to admit that they were social isolates as children. What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with the people around you—because it’s imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren’t present, they become your community.”

These children are more likely to become writers when they grow up because writing has become vital, intrinsic, and integral to their sense of connectedness. Franzen is struck by this description, hit hard, and it provided a kind of epiphany is his search for a reason to keep writing.

“Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”

You can’t write intending to change the world.

You can’t write intending to become a bestseller.

You can’t write assuming your words will capture the essence of our time and culture.

You can write, however, out of a deep need to be understood. To try and communicate.

This raises some interesting questions for the Christian writer. Aren’t we already “fully known” by the one Being in the universe who matters? Wouldn’t writing for such a reason be the plea of those of little faith?

After all, in talking with numerous aspiring writers, very few mention this. Most talk about wanting to reveal something about God to others. That ministry/mission aspect which is so prevalent.

I don’t know. Does what Heath sets out resonate with any of you?

Personally it does and it doesn’t. I have no doubt that there is a strong element of seeking connection so that I’m “understood” in the writing I do. (I’ve said multiple times that writing has a distinct narcissistic bent to it. And that’s speaking as one who writes these little koans every stinking day.) And I’m sure the fact that relating to an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient God is, well, complicated has something to do with that.

But for me, it’s that invisible, omnipotent, omniscient God who triggers most of my writing. He is the “mystery” in O’Connor’s “mystery and manners.” The “manners” is how we’re supposed to live our lives in His light.

I’m supposing those questions drive much of CBA fiction, much of Christian fiction in general. And how we answer them will make a fine topic for tomorrow’s discussion.
::
Go to Day 4 of our discussion of "Why Bother?"

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Day 2 of “Why Bother?” – Who Is Reading Anyway?

Yesterday we concluded that TV and film had rendered the “social” novel impotent while technology and consumerism fine-tuned modern culture’s self-absorption, thereby neutering the novel of manners and mystery. Literary dysfunction and fictional sterility abound.

The main question of the essay becomes relevant. If the above is true, then why bother?

The answer must be that the above is not true in total. There are, after all, still readers out there. Yes, their tastes have identifiably changed. But perhaps not so much as we like to believe. This site of a century of bestsellers is interesting. Zane Grey, for instance popping up multiple times in the 1920s. Or how few books from the first 40 years have lasted the ages. Or Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman appearing on 1905’s list—a book that helped popularize the KKK. “Popular” fiction has always been en vogue.

What’s condemning to most folks is in looking at the progression from the 1950s to the 1990s and how popular fiction simply comes to absolutely dominate the later lists. Gone are the Steinbecks and Hemingways and Updikes. It’s King and Grisham and Sheldon and Steele and Clancy with the occasional Toni Morrison or Charles Frazier in for spice.

But these numbers, while they certainly reflect public consciousness, don’t tell the whole story. It’s the economics of book publishing that have truly shifted. As Franzen writes, “The number-one bestseller in 1955, Marjorie Morningstar, sold 195,000 copies in bookstores.”

Gilead has sold more than that without ever making a bestseller’s list. Middlesex, a book about a hermaphrodite, sold more than 1,000,000 when it went to trade paperback.

The literary novel, the “social” novel—these things aren’t dead. In their own way they are thriving. They’re just not of first-most importance to us anymore as Americans. And we can gnash our teeth as much as we want about that, but it’s unlikely to change. Instead, Franzen points out that it’s time to refocus on the people who matter. Those who are actually still reading and still responding to these books.

Here Franzen leaves the literary world for the world of the social science and the research of a woman named Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist from Stanford who studies readers. Her findings about readers of literary fiction were fairly straightforward.

“For a person to sustain an interest in literature...two things have to be in place. First the habit of reading works of substance must have been ‘heavily modeled…’” (She noted a distinction in the geographical reasons for this. On the East Coast, reading such book linked more with class and entitlement. In the Midwest, literature was linked with strong work ethic and the value of such a book for your mind.)

The second factor that needs to be in place is that “young readers must also find a person with whom they can share their interest.”

So these are your readers. And they continue to thrive.

Franzen immediately noted that he wasn’t one of these. His parents never modeled reading such books.

Which brought Heath to her second kind of reader: the social isolate. And we’ll deal with her tomorrow. Because the social isolate interests us not for what she tells us about readers…but because she’s the one whom books are most likely to turn into a writer.
::
Continue to Day 2 of our discussion of "Why Bother?"

Monday, July 25, 2005

Day 1 of “Why Bother?” - Times Have Changed

“Why Bother?”, also known somewhat colloquially as “The Harper’s Essay”, is not a rant. It’s closer in tone to a lament, though that doesn’t quite capture it either. Yet another way to look at it is as a transcript of Jonathan Franzen’s “dark night of the soul” from a few years back. And if the thought of listening to a handsome, hip, intelligent, talented writer’s self-doubts sounds gag-inducing, you are unlikely to feel much mercy or sympathy for Mr. Franzen and his book-chic eyeglasses.

A few things to remember though.

1. This was written before The Corrections so Franzen was, at that point, a generally ignored mid-list author trying to figure out his place in the world. And the novel's place too, particularly the thoughtful "social" novel. The essay is made mildly ironic by all that followed, but that context is important. If he was writing it AFTER The Corrections, it would be insufferable.

2. Ultimately, the essay's title gets resolution. It's not "Why Bother?" as in its time to throw in the towel, but a determined effort to place his desire to write within some definable social context that would make sense. After all, he turned from this essay to write perhaps the most acclaimed novel of 2001.

3. Jonathan Franzen is so mortally invested in notions of literary fiction, popular, popular literary fiction, etc. that he ended up ticking off Oprah...at her most powerful. And got himself uninvited from her show. These are not idle concepts to him.

::

I'm going to cherry-pick points from the essay. It's worth reading if you can find a copy, but going through it fully seems unhelpful.

First, we need to be aware that Franzen's concern is about not "literary" fiction but the "social novel." The two are often equated, but the social novels primary goal is cultural engagement--a novel that would challenge, instruct, inform, and, hopefully, energize readers to action or protest. Think Dickens' Hard Times. Or Heller's Catch-22.

Whether we like it or not, the days of the novel being culture's primary tool for social activism are long gone. TV, film, and now the Internet have superseded it. Novelists are like elephants, however--long in memory and short on ability to make sharp turns. We don't like to cede territory, especially to "low" arts like film and TV.

Franzen's point is that's it not a matter of whether one form is better than the other. It's a matter of simple technology and the speed at which our culture works now. Unless he's a prophet, the novelist has no chance to stand on equal ground as a filmmaker, whose images are instantly ready for dispersal. Or even a TV show who employs not just a single writer but teams and scads of researchers We are outdated on topical issues.

Which means the "social" novel must turn to its other operating realm. For this Franzen points to Flannery O'Connor and her suggestion that the novel is intended to "embody mystery through manners." It is, in other words, a dissection of "life and how we try to live it." Even here, however, Franzen sees our modern world stealing ground from novelists. "Mystery," those great unknowns in our life, are filled in by consumerism that suggests every need can be filled. And "manners," our interaction with each other, is increasingly diminished as we retreat further away from each other into our own private Idahos.

The novels that tend to sell spectacularly offer mostly entertainment...or if they do tackle a particular issue, address it from only one POV (ie The DaVinci Code correlative). Answers are given. No mysteries are raised.

And the handsome, talented, intelligent, hip writer is left alone is his SoHo loft, pondering what to do next. A single tear, perhaps, staining the lens of his $750 glasses.

Tomorrow we'll start looking at how Franzen stopped moping about and wrote that most elusive of beasts: a literary bestseller.
::
Go to Day 2 of our discussion of "Why Bother?"

If I Were Lord Voldemort...

...I'd switch up my plans and try attacking Harry Potter the first week of school! Because after six straight years of waiting until May and the end of school, he totally wouldn't be expecting it.

This is one of the subtle tyrannys of a chronological series. If each book takes a year and the climax is always at the end of the book, then the climax is always going to take place at the same time each year.

I actually faced this a bit with my first novel. The novel is told in eight parts, each taking a week. And since it's got some suspenseful overtones, I found myself consistently building to a cliffhanger on Saturdays. That seemed contrived so I ended up loosening the structure a little to allow the story to adhere more to "reality."

Friday, July 22, 2005

Amazon

...is doing some interesting things in celebrating 10 years of existence. One is turning celebrities and artists into delivery people. (At the same time getting gobs of advertising dollars from UPS. Aren't those delivery people all so handsome and kind?)

So, what would you buy in hopes of meeting a person connected with the object?*

And can you imagine if you ordered something to give as a gift, something you didn't like very much, and ended up with, say, Howie Mandel or (God forbid), a NASCAR driver delivering it to you?

*My purchase would be Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man. Charles Barkley could probably entertain me more in the two minutes it took to drop the book off than almost anyone out there.

Don't Panic!: Thoughts of a Summer Intern

In taking a cue from Dave's latest deep thoughts, I thought I would tangent out on that. Debating (with myself) the key elements of a good book/story has been occupying too much brain energy these past few days. And it piggy-backs on "Mr. Difficult".

You see, to me an amazing story will have dynamic characters, a gripping plot, and a distinct voice. Which of these is the most important? Which of these can carry an otherwise painful read? But here's the question: These days does it really matter?

The reason I bring this up is that I have begun to notice how many books are being published that lack ALL of the above. I can think of a slew of examples, but I won't name names. Authors have interesting and even great ideas, yet these stories are all falling on their proverbial faces. Maybe it's just that I am an English writing major and read too critically—but I think not.

So are we as a human race mentally degenerating? Or are authors catering to the lowest common denominator? I think both.

I have begun to lose faith in my fellow man. He (or she) wouldn't know the difference between amazing and atrocious if it poked him (or her) in the eye. We have, as a people, become so dull-minded that anything harder than "See spot run" becomes too much to grasp, causing massive headaches cured only by hours of mindless TV.

Okay, that was a little over-the-top, but you get my point. So if this means that people won't challenge themselves, books that challenge them are out of the question. And here we are as writers, caught in the paradox of our time: Do we do our job with integrity and starve, or do we sell out and not care all the way to the bank?

Is there a happy medium to be found? Will humanity understand a book that is challenging? Can a book be challenging, well-written and still hit the NY Times' best-seller list?

Hmmmm....thoughts?

The Church of England Thinks About Christian Fiction

Yes, there is a large world out there. And they occasionally think about Christian fiction, too.

British author Adrian Plass gets in this: "People over here find the unremitting optimism of US Christian fiction tedious. People just don’t live like that, and want to respond as they respond, and not as they are told to."

(That's actually one of the tamer quotes. If you're frustrated by criticism of CBA fiction, don't read this.)

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Next Week

We're going to take a look at Jonathan Franzen's long essay, "Why Bother?" It's from the same collection--How to Be Alone--and is worth checking out if you have the opportunity. "Why Bother?" first appeared in Harper's.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Mr. Difficult

Kids these days. Who knows what they'll teach you.

The Intern passed along a book last week with the suggestion that I take a look at one of the essays. We'll get to that next week. Today I'm more interested in another of the essays in the collection: a piece called "Mr. Difficult" that deals precisely with this topic of reader comprehension. The book is called How to Be Alone. The author is Jonathan Franzen--National Book Award winner for The Corrections.

The piece starts wonderfully with a letter from a reader accusing Franzen, because of some showy language in his novel, of being one of those "socially privileged readers and writers who turn up their noses at the natural pleasure of a 'good read' in favor of the invidious, artificial pleasure of feeling superior to other people." Or in the writer's common parlance, a "pompous snob and a real a**-****."

Franzen's response is of two minds. One part wants to respond with asterisk-worthy words of his own. The other (supposedly) thinks of what his mother would say: Had he really needed to use the word "diurnality" or was he just showing off?

Dwelling for a moment on what he truly believes, Franzen admits to being caught between two divergent models of how fiction relates to its readers.

Status: Great novels are works of art. Those who create them, geniuses who deserve any and all credit due to them. Value exists separately from whether people enjoy a book or not.

Contract: The first purpose of writing is to connect. A novel deserves attention only as long as the author sustain's a readers interest.

Here's Franzen:
"According to the Contract model, difficulty is a sign of trouble. In the most grievous cases, it may convict an author of violating the contract with his own community: of placing his self-expressive imperatives or his personal vanity... ahead of the audience's legitimate desire for connection--of being, in other words, an a******. Taken to its free-market extreme, Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you, the fault must be the product's."


And again:
"From a Status perspective, difficulty tends to signal excellence; it suggests that the novel's author has disained cheap compromise and stayed true to an artistic vision. Easy fiction has little value, the argument goes. Pleasure that demands hard work, the slow penetration of mystery, the outlasting of lesser readers, is the pleasure most worth having; and if, like (his nasty reader) you can't hack it, then to hell with you."


The essay at that point becomes an analysis of the works of William Gaddis, which may or may not interest you. (Though Franzen's POV might, given that this is a National Book Award winner. I think further exploration of what constitutes "difficult" needs to be addressed.)

What say you to these definitions in the meanwhile? Anyone want to plant a flag for either camp?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Questions Nobody Likes to Ask

I hope when all is said and done and I retire this blog that I will look back on it and say, “Well, at least I didn’t leave any stones unturned.” I know this space irritates some folks and I’m not happy that happens. In the end I don’t see it as a terribly bad thing though. Stasis and comfort aren’t usually helpful states of being.

So, just as we looked at the uncomfortable question of “other-ness” in CBA fiction and the problems of race and class and a number of other issues within our industry, I’d like to bring up another difficult topic.

Where does reader comprehension fit into this grand scheme of books and publishing and audience?

What I wonder is what distinguishes books in terms of their being easily comprehended? The difference between a Dick and Jane book and Nietzsche is easy to distinguish. As books become more alike that difference is more difficult to distinguish.

Is there some threshold that can be crossed in terms of complexity of language and narrative that makes a book less appealing to readers? Why do some “literary” books bore the pants off of readers and some “commercial” fiction so deeply aggravate others?

These are questions that could lead to some rather unpleasant arguments (“I like John Updike. You only like John Irving!”). I’d like to ignore those and instead ask a question of readership. Can we deny a book its proven readership?

Can we expect the readers of Judith Krantz to suddenly like Lorrie Moore?

Should Buechner fans suddenly be asked to read, and enjoy, Clive Cussler?

Are we hard-wired at some point to simply not get certain books?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Buy the Hype?

One of the "hottest" books of the summer (besides HP) is Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. It's been reviewed hither and yon. Word that Little, Brown anted up 2 million for it has become somewhat common knowledge. It's number 2 on the NYTimes list and has been there for four weeks. It has, in other words, "buzz." (Or at least as much buzz as a book can generate these days.)

"Buzz" and a nickel won't get you very far in terms of whether the story is actually any good. Rather it tells you that the book has a strong hook (in this case, "Dracula lives!") and strong potential, (in this case, "Anne Rice + DaVinci Code = sales") to justify the advance and subsequent advertising/promotional dollars for a first time author.

Publishing philosophies and strategies are wildly divergent from house to house. There are some houses that believe in establishing an author with a great book, hoping that some reasonable audience will find it and support it. More books will follow and the audience will grow. That's called "building an author." One of my favs, Richard Russo, is a perfect example. Granted, his early books weren't ignored, but he wrote four before Empire Falls hit the big time and won both the Pulitzer and likely his largest sales.

"Launching an author" is an entirely different strategy. Big budgets, guerilla marketing, wide-ranging author tours, etc. These all the hallmarks of the author launch. The idea is that bestsellers aren't born, they're made. And that may be true. But it's also a high-risk proposition. A launch that goes down in flames is costly--most often in the amount of money paid up-front to obtain the project. One that pays off, however, covers a multitude of sins.

Publishing houses tend to lean on one of these strategies more than the other. To me a house that balance both seems the most likely to succeed. Knowing which books to launch--saving credibility and "hype" for those books that truly work. But it's a tough business and there are no 100% guarantees.

Which brings us back to The Historian. What will be the final reckoning for it?

Personally, I was disappointed. Standing the book next to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (another book of faux histori-biography to which it compares rather nicely) is an unfair proposition. JSMN blows it away. Sustaining pace is always going to be a problem in such a large tome, and The Historian seizes up right as it should start catapulting forward. It's langorous tour of Europe's off-the-beaten-path tourist destinations may make Rick Steve's twitch in excitement, but you can only stand so many sweeping settings before you become numb. And Kostova seems to have misjudged her pov's, burying for hundreds of pages a key character who I cared for deeply.

JSMN weathered it's hype. Rose above it even. The Historian crumbled beneath it. To me at least. We'll see how much longer it stays on the lists, how many more people fall prey to the "buzz."

Friday, July 15, 2005

Understatedly Wrong

The most perplexing thing I saw at CBA this year was a gardening booth. There were seed packages featuring licensed Veggie Tales characters.

So, umm, you plant, grow, harvest, knife, and finally eat Bob, Larry and the gang?

A second on the lips, a decade in psychotherapy for traumatized kids: "She made me eat Junior Asparagus!"

Whence the Intern?

Carra the Intern hasn't written for a couple of weeks and that's mainly because she's spending the majority of her time here learning to be a skilled editor rather than an opinionated blow-hard. Sad, too, because she could study with a master.

Hopefully we'll find time for her to check back in later in the summer. Or better yet, interview her about the experience so she can be coerced into saying what a great boss I am.

No Offense to the Folks at Zondervan...

...but one of your sister companies, Fox Sports, they're now in the business of lying to us.

It's one thing to have blatant product-placement clogging up the airwaves. We're used to that. But now we've moved on to pure and outright deception. Classy.

Butchering the English Language

In yesterday's post I wrote: "We're all implicit in this, in other words, (all of us), and Crouch offered a humble example of a time his own actions kept him isolated from the very "real" face staring at him through the window."

Yeah, um, "implicit" is the wrong word there. I meant either "complicit" or "implicated" and managed to merge them. Just so you don't think I'm a total idiot.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Of Andy Crouch, Christy Awards, and Christian Fiction

You know what's fun? Calling home from a time zone away and getting your mother-in-law on the phone because your wife's at the emergency room with your weeping eldest daughter. Good times. It turned out to be a broken wrist. Accursed monkey bars.

So in the meanwhile, I guess a variety of you folks have been talking about Andy Crouch's speech at the Christy Awards at places like this and this and this and this. It's perhaps the latest go-around on the argument that will never end but it's the only thing going right now so I'll offer a few peripheral takes on it that I haven't seen mentioned yet.

1. What I think has been roundly ignored in critique of Crouch's critique of literature is his larger point that we're constantly faced with the issue of choosing in life (not books) to lead a virtual life. We're all implicit in this, in other words, (all of us), and Crouch offered a humble example of a time his own actions kept him isolated from the very "real" face staring at him through the window. For Andy this isn't at heart an issue of good fiction/bad fiction. It's the central facet, central struggle of the Christian life (and one he admits to failing)--following Jesus' example of seeing the real world, and just maybe touching it with some divine grace. It just happened to have application to fiction.

2. The Christy Awards are an odd duck. Awards are given across a variety of genres--romance, suspense, visionary, general, etc.--and for one night we act as though talking across these genres even makes sense. Frankly, to me it's like comparing apples, pears, oranges, bananas, etc. Yes, they're fruit, but after that they've not got a whole bunch in common.

Instead, what we seem to be celebrating, for one evening, is some grand hypothetical, some pinnacle of what literature, and Christian fiction can be at its best. I took the speech to be Andy's attempt to point his finger in that general direction. Not necessarily because he thinks we should all write that way but because that's what the night was for.

Here's a loaded question: Does a CBA romance author aspire to the pinnacle of Christian literature? Should she? How about a historical novelist or a fantasy writer? Is there even a "real" pinnacle to aspire to? If not, perhaps Andy's message was mis-timed or mis-aimed.

To me, the advice given--"Write to rescue me, rescue all of us, rescue even us Christian writers, from our addiction to our safe, sheltered, virtual stories."--is not merely a vague insinuation that we should all try to write a book like Gilead but practical advice that all writers can apply within their own particular genres and aspirations. If you write romance, therefore, write "real" romance. It is not the form of the book that matters...just the focus.

3. Finally, in arguing with my own quick post on Monday, I really DON'T think that this has anything to do with happy endings. Happy endings become an issue because we do very little else in CBA than happy endings, but they're peripheral to this discussion. "Reality" is happy endings. It's sad endings. Most often, it's endings with a good amount of both. Gilead for instance. Or Peace Like a River. The hard work is to tell a story that earns whatever ending you give it. The hard work is to tell a story that dares to find its own shape--the shape of the world it's reflecting--rather than be crammed into a mold determined solely by reader tastes.

CT review of Levi's Will

It's a mixed review and annoyed some folks in-house here. The fact that CT chooses to devote an entire article to Dale speaks volumes though. And it highlights, as always, the nearly impossible job of writing about ineffable and mysterious. At some point we'll need to devote ourselves to examining the language we use when we talk about the transcendent.

Interesting Article

Thanks to Lisa Samson for first offering this link. Douglas Kennedy takes on CBA fiction in the Guardian Unlimited. (And calls Lisa a chick-lit author, which I found amusing. Sorry, Lisa.)

Monday, July 11, 2005

CBA Day 1 - A Report

CBA isn't CBA anymore. It's got a longer complicated acronym that I can't remember and thus will call it CBA. We're in Denver this year.

The highlight of these kinds of things is getting together with colleagues and authors who you never see and that's what's been great so far here, too. BHP had an excellent night at the Christy Awards, winning three and the booth has been busy.

The single highlight so far has been Andy Crouch's speech at the award ceremony. Hopefully we can convince him to post the text of the speech at his site online so you can read it for yourself. It was an eloquent and pointed call for Christian fiction to give up being satisfied with the "virtual reality" of happy endings and easy answers for the hard truths and complicated problems of this grace-infused reality we all live in. My poor summary doesn't do it justice.

The rest is the same. Candy with scripture on it. Bibles of all colors and flavors. A skate-boarding park in one corner. And me standing at a tiny kiosk with a keyboard that's giving me carpal tunnel. Ah CBA. Once a year is plenty.

Christy Award Winners

The 2005 Christy Awards were announced on Saturday. BHP was honored with three awards.

Bad Ground by Dale Cramer (General) BHP
King's Ransom by Jan Beazely and Thom Lemmons (History) Waterbrook
Secrets by Kristen Heitzmann (Romance) BHP
Tiger in the Shadow by Debbie Wilson (Suspense) Kregel
The Shadow Within by Karen Hancock (Visionary) BHP
The Mending String by Cliff Coon (First Novel) Moody

Thursday, July 07, 2005

An Interview with Deeanne Gist

I know you get a kick out of me and your husband and other “manly men” enjoying your book, but in your mind, who is A Bride Most Begrudging's audience?

Christian women like me. Who are romantic at heart. Who love the Lord. But who don’t necessarily need to read a novel with an evangelical message or a conversion scene in it. Women who want a good novel with flawed, realistic characters who sometimes step out of God’s will. And enjoy seeing what happens to those characters who have part of themselves committed to doing His will and a part of them that just does as they please.

Of course, I think any man would benefit from reading romance. Might even pick up a tip or two. ;-)


The romance genre is going through some interesting transitions. Talk us through what you see as Bride’s place in that transition.


The romance industry as a whole has long (and for the most part, unearned) reputation for producing “fluff” or “trash” or “dime store quality” fiction. And though many of my colleagues resent that reputation, we all find it amusing that we also have a long reputation for holding the lion’s share of the market. In other words, if you combine all the other mass market genres--fantasy, adventure, horror, western, general, literary, etc--and clump them all together, they still sell less than romance alone (who for years accounted for over 50% of mass market sales and was a $1.5 billion industry). In other words, the authors who “got no respect” were laughing all the way to the bank.

In the last couple of years, though, we have seen a slow decline in sales. 2003 marked the first time in years that general market romance sales dropped below the 50th percentile (to 48.8%). (For more statistics, got to www.rwanational.org/media/media.htm and click on “Romance Statistics”) Anyhoo, in a desperate attempt to hang onto their huge piece of the pie, the romance industry started “experimenting” to see what might rejuvenate the genre. The result, so far, has been an introduction of “romantica” (the cross between romance and erotica).

It has been wildly successful. As has, interestingly enough, the inspirational romance sales. They’ve skyrocketed. They are both the fastest growing sub-genres of the last couple of years.

So ... where does Bride fit in? I think that women like me, who have read general market romance for decades, are a bit unsure, now, about their purchases. Many of the romantica are packaged just like the traditional romance. So, we can’t tell the difference between traditional romance and romantica until we have spent our hard earned dollars.

As a result, I think we are seeing a surge of readers wander over to the Inspirational fiction aisle to see what it has to offer. And I think it is imperative that we offer these women something other than evangelical fiction. (Understand, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with evangelical fiction. I’m simply suggesting--strongly--that we widen our choices.)

And that is where Bride fits in. There is no evangelical message; there is no conversion scene. It is, instead, a “part two” of sorts. The conversion has already happened before the novel ever starts. Now, we have a novel about two Christians struggling to overcome adversity.


How do you know where your “line” is in terms of explicitness of content?

When you say “no.” If I had it my way, my line would be beyond what I’ve been permitted to do, so far. I find, though, that the Spirit will convict me if I am including something in my manuscript simply for the mere purpose of titillating. If my character is going to do something, or say something, that “pushes the envelope,” then I have to feel at peace about it. So, I pray. I pray that the Lord will give me discernment and you discernment and all the influencers at Bethany House discernment. Because I am imperfect, it helps to have someone else pray over it, too. The main thing is, ultimately, I want to be sure that what I have done glorifies God. And if He is okay with it, then I am okay with it.


What happens when your “line” offends somebody?

I go before the Lord and ask Him to convict me immediately when I write something out of His will. That is all done well before the book ever hits the shelves. So, if my published work offends someone, the Lord has already told me, repeatedly, that I am not to worry about pleasing man. I have an audience of One to please. And if He is okay with it, then I am to be okay with it.

Still, I always go before Him when something like that happens and I pray for that person and for myself. I ask Him to refine me, so that my walk with Him will--Lord willing--get rid of the “me” and leave, instead, silver or gold. It’s an ongoing process, though, that keeps me on my knees an awful lot. Meanwhile, it has never, ever been my intent to offend someone. I really do want to glorify God. Really.


What kind of writer are you? Do you see your strengths as story? Character?

Dialogue. I’m a dialogue gal. If all I had to do is write dialog, I’d be one happy writer. Prose and anything poetic is SUCH a struggle for me. Takes me eons.


Tell us briefly about your research into Colonial Virginia, because, to me, it was evident the hard work that you put in. That was one of the things that stuck out to me as I read it.

I checked out lots of books from the library, purchased others and read, read, read. But the most valuable part of my research, so far, has been visiting the setting my story takes place in. Going to Virginia and experiencing first hand their weather, and their richness in history and interviewing experts in the time period changed everything from ordinary to extra-ordinary. It allowed me to add those “significant details” that give a story depth and texture.


Most surprising thing about the publishing process so far?

The amount of team work involved and the fantastic treatment I have received from Bethany House. You know how God gives you tenfold what you give to Him? Well, that’s what this experience has been like for me. I gave God my novel and this publishing process with Bethany House has been ten times as fantastic as even my wildest dreams.

Say something nice about my colleagues here at BHP who don’t get enough love at this site.

The long and the short of it is I LOVE working for Bethany House. I have heard soooo many horror stories from colleagues in the publishing business. Just a few months ago, I was at a writer’s seminar and the speaker would say, “Used to, publishers would do this, this and this. They don’t do that anymore.”

And I’d think to myself, “Mine does.”

Over and over and over I had that thought. Really.

That’s on a general level. On a specific level, let me give you a window into my buddies at BHP.

There is Dave, of course. I can always tell when I annoy him because he gets real professional sounding and his voice drops an octave. So I say, “Am I off base here?” And he’ll say, “Not really. It’s just that ...” Makes me smile.

Enough about Dave. Let’s talk about Julie. She is my editorial editor. She does the edits on my manuscript. She has this WONDERFUL sense of humor. I connected with her right away. She is soooo easy to work with. And she does an excellent job of handling me when I become, um, resistant.

After she asks me to change something I really don’t want to change, she’ll say something like, “Now, Dee, I don’t want you to do anything to destroy the integrity of the book. Don’t do that. Just give it a try. That’s all I’m asking.” And it really is all she’s asking. And so I try and then she looks at it again and we figure out something we can both live with. I am the luckiest writer alive to have her.

There is Dave’s boss and Dave’s boss’s boss who are two of the nicest people. His boss has a wonderful laugh. I love to hear it. Makes me smile just thinking about it. His boss’s boss is what we down in the south refer to as a “real lady.” She moves with grace, speaks with a soft voice, and has a gentle spirit. Her eye holds a twinkle and she teases with such finesse, I find myself drawn to her.

At Bethany House headquarters, the editorial department is on one side of the building, the marketing/sales are on the other. Night and day, these two sides. The editorial is quiet, somewhat serious and always busy. (Although Dave has a boom box in his office that he listens to when he reads. Must be a kick-back from when he was on “the other side.”)

The other side of the building is where the partiers are. They have noise makers and cool posters and funky sculptures. They holler at each other across the entire breadth of the area and they laugh with abandon.

Paul is in charge of Art and the book covers. He is a tremendous guy and so funny. He is good at what he does. He and his group delivered to me an AWESOME cover.

Steve is in charge of sales and marketing. He has a really loud noisemaker. Made me jump. Wasn’t what I was expecting. He’s funny, too. And he is passionate about what he does. He and his group are in charge of drumming up sales. They are exceptional at what they do.

Tim does advertising. Brett is in charge of publicity. Linda does broadcasting. Dan does online promotion. LaVonne does production. And on it goes. So many names I couldn’t possibly include them all.

When I say it is a team effort. I really mean it. A lot of folks are involved in the publication of a book. And Bethany House has a winning team.

Another Interview with Dee

Want more? You can also read a longer interview with Dee at ChristianBook.com.

London

A day after the joy of getting the Olympics, this. Prayers to all.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Shared Values

I think the best way to talk about where Deeanne Gist and her Bride Most Begrudging intersects with faith*in*fiction is to send you to this site and ask you to read the two reviews.

I don’t mean to pick on Kimberly from Virginia but her wording couldn’t be more perfect for where Dee intended to place this book.

“…this is supposed to be a Christian book, including the devotions the author made to the Lord at the start, and I thought she went overboard with some of the comments made. Clean for a regular novel, but I think a Christian novel could cut out a lot of the little unnecessary remarks that ruin it as a truly clean novel.”

Let your mind wander on that a little, let it slip into the gutter a bit. What particular comments and phrases would need to appear for you to post such a comment? (You don't want to know mine. None of what appears in Bride would even make the top 100 list.) And obviously whatever startled Kimberly didn’t faze Lauren from Arkansas at all. She didn't even make a mention. So who is right? Which do we listen to? Is Kim a Puritan? Is Lauren a hedonist?

It’s an endless debate. We talk about it all the time on these content issues. I’m not intending to revive it. What I want to point out however is that this wasn’t done as an oversight. It didn’t slip through. This was intentional on our part and Dee’s (which might make it worse to some), it was done with prayer and discussion, clean consciences, and because it’s the territory Dee wants to occupy. (Also, read the rest of Kimberly's review. She loved the rest of the book.)

I sent Dee some interview questions that I’ll post tomorrow where she talks a little more about that territory. So I won’t ruin it for you. She can tell you in her own words.

The gist of it (inexcusable pun intended) is that Dee has some shared values with CBA, namely the deep love of Jesus and the abiding desire to follow His will. But not every value is shared. The books she writes therefore are going to tweak those values (mostly content areas) that are in conflict. That’s basically the heart of this site talking and debating about our values—which are shared, which are is dissonance—and trying to point out that our TRUE shared passion should override all other concerns.

That we stop saying because you wrote this word (which wasn’t a blaspheme against the Spirit) I question whether your book is Christian. That’s the land of “us” and “the other.” And so despite all odds, I recognized more of my vision that early draft of Bride than I ever expected. And have been honored to help steer it toward that territory Dee hopes to occupy. We’ll see what kind of “friendly fire” we encounter on the way.

Of Punk Stars and Writers

Joe Faust offers a humorous little 4th of July slice-of-life in his latest post.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Fruit of faith*in*fiction

In November of 2003, I started this blog as an acquisitions tool to reach out to writers who might not otherwise have heard of me or Bethany House. Part of my charge as an AE here has been to look a bit outside the normal CBA mainstream for ideas and authors.

(Aside: lest anyone think otherwise, this is only a single [and slender] prong of Bethany’s approach. We’re continuing to publish, very successfully, beloved CBA fiction in a variety of genres from a variety of bestselling authors. This blog has never deigned to be the death-knell of that. It’s a new door to a different path.)

Anyway, I was soon invited by Lynn Waalkes to take place in a conversation about “edgy” Christian fiction that was published in CBA Marketplace in April 2004, I believe.

The day I saw the article I received an email from an author who’d read it and liked what I had to say about the potential for fiction to challenge current CBA boundaries. She’d wanted to submit something. She’d like to submit a romance.

I believe my audible reply was “Ummmmmm” and I sent a polite reply suggesting that she spend some time at faith*in*fiction where I went into more detail of what I was looking for. There was a lot of “read between the lines” implied.

A few days later she wrote back, said she’d enjoyed the site, said “Yep, her book fit that vision” and could she submit it? The romance. The historical romance. Tobacco Brides, it was called.

“Well, I’ve got to see this,” I said, again probably audibly because I’ve got a little problem that way.

She wasn’t kidding. It was a romance. It was a historical romance. It had tobacco brides. It also had a sharp voice, a honed but natural sense of comedic timing, a fairly significant understanding of romance, two well-drawn lead characters who grow throughout the book, a solid faith message, and wonderfully authentic historical details. In other words, it was good. Delightful even.

Left up to me, I’d have predicted by first acquisitions would have been something like Gilead-lite. Instead, I’m incredibly proud to say that my first acquisition is Deeanne Gist’s A Bride Most Begrudging.

Tomorrow we’ll talk a little about the intersection of Dee’s vision and my vision and how she wasn’t wrong when she looked at faith*in*fiction and saw room for her book. (You can learn more about the author and the book at Dee's own site.)

For My Birthday...

Wondering what to get that special acquisitions editor in your life? I wouldn't say no to this. I'm sure I could clear room on the shelves for it.

Friday, July 01, 2005

On Hiatus: Thoughts of a Publishing Intern

Ah, a week of pretentious moralizing. What blog would be complete without it? For those who’ve been rolling their eyes or bored stiff, I promise that it’s over (for now) and next week we’ll get back to the business of faith and fiction and publishing and editing.

In fact, next week will be a celebration of sorts. You see, the first book acquired through this blog has recently published! I find that pretty exciting, my company is happy because that’s, like, my actual job (making real books, not filling this blog), and the author is excited because it’s her debut novel.

Also, just so you know, Carra the Intern won’t be appearing today. We’ve worked her past the point of exhaustion and coherent thought, burying her under the slush pile and never-ending demands for coffee and dry-cleaning runs. Really, this summer internship thing was a lovely idea. I may soon ask for applications for folks who want to help out around my house.

I wish you a 4th of July filled with stuffed sausage casings, a can of something cold and carbonated, and skies filled with non-injurious colored explosions. I also hope you find a quiet moment to remember that Philadelphia day when Tom, George, Ben, John, John, and the rest of the boys found time between their group Bible study, accountability groups, worship services, and street evangelism to scrawl out the Declaration of Independence.