In the great debate over the merits of literary versus genre fiction, author Leif Enger finds it easy to weigh in on both sides--he's written both an award-winning literary novel and several genre mysteries (with his brother, Lin). But whether literary or genre, fiction that includes a faith element is tricky to write, he says, and not getting it right can tank an otherwise good book.
"There are too many ways to get it wrong, too many people you might offend," says Enger, author of the bestseller Peace Like a River (Grove/Atlantic, 2001), the 2002 Book Sense Book of the Year. He believes faith, which plays a dominant role in Peace Like a River, is better illustrated than explained.
"If the story and characters are compelling and the word craft serves them without getting in the way, I'll read through to the end regardless of label or category," he says. "Some literary novels by contrast are so involved with their wordplay or ironic sensibilities that they feel quite thin."
That was not the case with Minnie Lamberth's debut effort, Life with Strings Attached, which Enger selected as the 2004 Paraclete Fiction Prize winner. Releasing in April, the novel is set in 1972 in a small Alabama town, where one of its residents--Hannah, age seven--aspires to be the community's first female preacher.
"Hers was not the only entry with clean writing and well-drawn characters, but it was the only one with a sense of humor," says Enger. "It laughed with its characters, its prose, its situations. It reminded me of the truth so many novels forget: that we are small people on a very large stage, and the world will not end for our failures or disappointments."
A house with a liturgically oriented sensibility and a presence in both the general and Christian markets, Paraclete strives to avoid the preachiness that has long characterized many CBA houses. Another of its literary novels whose faith message is clear without being preachy, Suzanne Wolfe's Unveiling, releases in paperback in April.
General market houses seldom have to worry about authors slipping into preachiness, as subtlety is a given characteristic of literary novels. That subtlety is evident in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a story told through a letter from a dying preacher in his 70s to his young son. A finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Awards for 2004 releases, the Farrar, Straus & Giroux title incorporates several elements publisher Jonathan Galassi looks for in literary fiction: the voice and the way the author uses language.
"The voice is captivating and transparent from the very beginning," he said. "For us as a publisher, the faith element is incidental--it just happens that this book deals with spirituality in a very direct way. But faith is not incidental for the author. Readers are responding to the spiritual dimension in this book, and they're very moved by it."
One element that is not incidental is characterization, cited by editors and publishers alike as a factor that often sets literary works apart from plot-driven genre fiction. "Character development is key," says Renee Sedliar, who acquired Michele Claire Lucas's debut novel, A High and Hidden Place (Mar.), for Harper San Francisco (see In Profile in this issue). "That's what literary fiction entails--characters whose stories are engrossing, who are seeking and who take us along on the journey. With religious fiction, you have the bonus of this rich 'other' in their inner lives."
Lucas's book--which Sedliar discovered in the slush pile--is a fictionalized account of the true story of the village of Oradour, France, whose inhabitants were annihilated at the end of World War II. In the book, a young girl named Christine survived by hiding in the woods as German soldiers destroyed the town. Twenty years later, she is a journalist living in America and has blocked her memories of the brutality. A series of dreams leads her to come to terms with the past. Christine's character and the riveting plot created "the best of both worlds" for an acquisitions editor, Sedliar said.
"One trigger with regard to religious fiction is how religious life impacts the character," she said. "One doesn't have to be Catholic to get the universal message in this book. I consider spirituality to be as essential to the characters as their sexuality."
Religion's impact on characters is essential to CBA fiction, but those characters are often not fully developed, says Nick Harrison, a Harvest House senior editor. "Wonderfully drawn characters are the benchmark of literary novels. But I see the same stereotypical heroine in many manuscripts. She could be lifted out of one book and set down in another, and most readers wouldn't notice the difference," he said. "I'm looking for original characters. Anne Tyler characters."
That's a tall order for some evangelical authors, who write in what Harrison calls the "CBA voice"--a voice that is strikingly similar from one CBA book to another. "The market is competitive. Aspiring Christian authors must be excellent to be published at the best Christian publishing houses today. They can't write like they did 10 years ago and expect to find success. Some novels published in CBA only a few years ago might not be published if they were submitted today." Harrison cites Susan Meissner as one Harvest House author who is "inching toward quality literary fiction"; her upcoming The Remedy for Regret releases July 1. Another is Roxanne Henke, author of the Coming Home to Brewster series. "She'll be doing a stand-alone book for us in a year, and I'm anxious to see what she does with it," Harrison said.
Several of CBA's more literary authors are published by WestBow. Charles Martin's The Dead Don't Dance was optioned for movie and television rights by the Hallmark Hall of Fame within a month of its 2004 release, affirming publisher Allen Arnold's belief that a literary work must first and foremost be an unforgettable, well-written story. Martin's second WestBow book, Wrapped in Rain, releases this month.
Arnold believes the recent improvement in the quality of CBA novels is largely due to a shift away from what he calls the "Christian fiction" model of the past 30 years, in which the message was the priority. One-dimensional characters and predictable plots were tolerated, he says, as long as the message came through loud and clear.
"When an author is chained to a man-made list of dos and don'ts that came to define 'Christian fiction' in the past several decades, it's the equivalent of telling a great painter that every painting must have a Christian symbol in the center to be considered a work of Christian art," he said, adding that in past centuries most great literary novels were penned by authors writing from a Christian worldview. Today, he says, the industry is seeing "more and more storytellers writing high-quality novels with their Christian worldview intact."
Among those is W. Dale Cramer, whose Bad Ground (Bethany) was the only CBA novel to make PW's list of Best Books of 2004. Bethany House's fiction acquisitions editor, David Long, whose "Faith in Fiction" blog is one of the more active areas on Blogger.com, said Cramer's June release, Levi's Will, sustains the same level of quality writing.
"It's the blending of storytelling and craft that sets books like his apart," Long said, including in Bethany's stable of literary writers Lisa Sampson (Tiger Lillie, 2004), Jamie Langston Turner(No Dark Valley, 2004), Elizabeth Musser (The Dwelling Place, Apr.; see InProfile in this issue) and Athol Dickson, whose first Bethany book is due out in 2006.
"Lisa writes contemporary women's fiction, and what distinguishes her book as literary fiction rather than genre is her authorial voice and the craft she brings to her books."
Says Long: "Literary authors spend more time on character development than on plot. In our industry especially, the interior lives of characters take time to develop; we sense that they are genuinely three-dimensional people. Books that give time to that development are the ones people are responding to. The characters are a little richer, a little fuller."