f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: The Problem of Describing a Book

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

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Problem of Describing a Book

“So, Dave, did you enjoy being in meetings for 6 hours and 45 minutes yesterday?”

“Why, no, disembodied voice. Now that you ask, it got a bit long.”


I thought we’d take a break today from the long running series on God talk to address an issue that’s come up from time to time before and now seems to be back at the forefront of my thoughts. It concerns the age old question:

“What is this book about?”

One of the best ways, I think, to see whether a book falls into that dreadful “literary” category is how you’d go about answering that question for any particular title.

In other words, if your answer describes the plot of the book, likely (not always) it’s either genre fiction or general fiction.

If your answer tries to convey the themes of a book, it’s likely you’re holding a literary novel. (And, yes, I feel like I’m doing some effete-Jeff Foxworthy rip-off. “If neither your book’s title OR cover make sense, you may be reading a literary novel.”)

I don’t feel that need for theme in telling you about Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer. And don’t ask me to describe the plot of Operation Wandering Soul by Richard Powers.

I love books on both sides of the fence. But I'd guess that many of my favorites are the books you could describe BOTH ways. And you want to describe them both ways.

It seems to me—and you can disagree with me if you’d like—that CBA has a difficult time with books that aren't summarized easily. Or for whom plot is secondary to character, theme, etc. I’m basing this on books we’ve released and books others in the industry have released.

Not that there aren’t deeply meaningful books out there…but it's the ones in the BOTH category that seem to have had the most success. Where the others may have found a more limited readership.

If I had to come up with one reason for this, I think it’s because of the buying habits of the Christian reader. ABA literary fiction is sold (I think) primarily through reviews. These are reviews that are able to digest and explore both the language and ideas in a book and excite potential readers. I’ve talked a number of times about the lack of such a forum in CBA (CT occasionally reviews fiction. Same with Books and Culture. Am I missing someone?)

This puts a tremendous burden on titles that aren’t tagline friendly. It’s an unfair burden, I think all of us agree, but for the moment it’s the reality of the situation.

I will never tell you what to write, but as an author who has written a book that fell heavily into the THEME field (and languished) it’s at the forefront of my thoughts.

Book three, for me, will be a BOTH book.