Friday, September 01, 2006

The Delicate Dance for Novelists

You would have to be living in a complete bubble of isolation not to understand the quality of fiction from Christians has improved in leaps and bounds over the last ten years.  The annual Christy Awards celebrate this growth of storytelling ability among the writers.

Some publishers provide a strict list of guidelines about what can and can’t appear in your novels for their house. Other publishers show their standard not in guidelines but through what they actually publish. It’s commonly understood the taboo for cursing and sexually explicit language in these novels. There is an old saying among writers that you can kill as many characters as you want but the characters can’t have sex.

Last night I read with interest Jana Reiss’ editorial piece in the August 28th issue of Publisher’s Weekly.  Riess is the Religion book review editor for PW (follow this link to learn more of her background). She raises an interesting question about How Far Is Too Far? then restates it another way: Where is that elusive line between necessary plot-enhancing violence and gratuitous gore? While the entire piece is online and I recommend it, here’s one interesting paragraph: “Finally, there's a real irony to the almost bipolar selectivity with which Christian fiction is pushing the boundaries of “acceptable” content. You’d think that if the standards for violence were becoming increasingly porous, the bans on profanity and sexuality might be loosening up, too. But the general idea among publishers seems to be that readers who would not bat an eyelash at seeing victims disemboweled in excruciating detail might roar in collective indignation at a naughty word like “damn.” Anecdotally, the numbers bear this out; of the buyers and storeowners I’ve talked to, all had stories of customers who protested the presence of even barely questionable language or hotter-than-usual romance. When I asked how many complaints they’ve received about violence in CBA fiction, the answer was precisely none.” She wrote the article to evoke discussion and I believe it will certainly stir the waters among Christian writers.

Comes A HorsemanIt’s ironic to me the book which Riess used as her opening and concluding paragraph. It’s not explicit but the book is definitely Comes A Horseman by Robert Liparulo. This book marked Liparulo’s first novel and the book is definitely a thriller. Liparulo is an active member of the International Thriller Writers and spoke at the recent ThrillerFest in Phoenix. I enjoyed this book and you can see my few words of review about it here (scroll down) I dropped him a line last night wondering if his ears were burning—and sent him the link to the piece (just in case he had not seen it). Here’s the irony to me: while West Bow Press published this novel, it was not positioned into the marketplace as Christian fiction.  Yes, a Christian novelist wrote this book but does that make the book “Christian fiction?”

This experience shows me several things. First, Christian writers have to continue on their quest for excellent storytelling.  There is no excuse for shying away from learning the craft of writing. Also I see that even when a book isn’t categorically Christian fiction, some people will push the novel into this category. Finally, you can’t please every reader. I believe a little controversy is healthy for book sales. If you are getting some concerned comments, maybe that’s a good thing. At least your readers are thinking and taking action to respond to you. However you look at it, the dance is a delicate one for novelists.

4 Comment:

At 8:09 PM, Blogger Crystal Left a note...

Wow, this is a topic that the CBA fiction editors, agents and writers are talking about--but sometimes in hushed whispers or amongst themselves. Since I often have been one of those who has to say, "No, no. Can't put that in this book because the CBA bookstores will send it back," I agonize over these issues in judging what goes and what stays in a story.

Great post. Thanks for pointing these issues out and the articles. Thought-provoking!

At 6:06 AM, Blogger Susan Left a note...

In a similar vein, I worked for a short while at a library in a Christian secondary school (Australian). I couldn't believe that Christian parents were so particular about not letting their children read novels that used bad language or had sexual references yet would let them watch TV shows which contained these things. When I pointed out this discrepancy I was told it was worse when it was written down because it was more permanent! I personally found this logic quite bizarre.

At 6:40 AM, Blogger Ed J. Horton Left a note...

Hi Terry!

I came across your blog a few weeks ago and have since been enjoying your posts. Thank you for sharing fresh, insightful information.

I agree with the reference made by both you and Jana Reiss regarding Christian fiction being about "excellent storytelling." I don't need the "realism" of bad language, explicit sex, or extreme violence to enjoy a well-written story. If I want those elements, there are plenty of books available to me which aren't labeled as Christian. Personally, I look for uplifting Christian fiction with an underlying message of hope.

At 8:31 PM, Blogger Bonnie Calhoun Left a note...

Thanks Terry for the great insight! Several women writers, led by Lisa Samson have created a blog for just this particular subject!

We at the CFBA, reviewed Comes a Horseman. That was a great read, but I never realized WestBow didn't position it as christian fiction. Actually I didn't realize that they had the ability to do that!


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