At the Christy Awards in 2004, the nominees in the First Novel category looked, at first glance, as different as they come. One, Welcome to Fred, was a smalltown coming-of-age story (Broadman & Holman); another, Flabbergasted, was a lad-lit take on the Christian dating scene (Revell); while a third, The Yada Yada Prayer Group, explored the freaky foibles of women's friendships across lines of age and race (Integrity Publishers). But the contenders did have one thing in common: they were all laugh-out-loud funny.
Keeping It Real
In a relatively short time, Christian writers have turned from the ponderous approaches of yesteryear to more lightheartedness. It's not that the novels' subject matter has become fluffy; in fact, Christian fiction has become more open than ever before to exploring dark themes such as divorce, aging, addiction and abuse (see "Faith on the Edge," p. S13). But the ironic parallel trend is that some writers are able to make readers laugh as well as cry. Zondervan's executive editor Karen Ball doesn't think this is coincidental: "Authors who are effective with humor are often those who have seen very dark times, and still hang on to that sense of irony and wit."
As Christian fiction has grown up, so has its ability to laugh—even at itself—and to recognize that it's acceptable to entertain sans agenda. Andy McGuire, fiction editor at Moody, says that readers and authors are becoming more comfortable with fiction that isn't "utilitarian" in nature. "A growing segment of the industry no longer feels the need to only produce books that either convert the unbeliever or teach lessons to the believer. This shift has led to a new openness to untapped genres and styles of writing, including humor."
Something for Everyone
Some of those genres include the hatchlings from the chick-lit movement of the past few years: as Steeple Hill executive editor Joan Marlow Golan points out, we now have romantic comedy, mom lit, lady lit and lad lit in addition to the original mother hen, chick lit. "There seems to be an explosion of chick-lit/mom-lit novels recently, although Steeple Hill Café is the only dedicated program of Christian 'hip lit' that I'm aware of," she says. Nearly every CBA house has at least one series that blends the situation comedy of chick lit with the inspirational tone that has long been a hallmark of Christian fiction: for example, Robin Jones Gunn's Sisterchicks novels (Multnomah), Penny Culliford's Theodora books (Zondervan) and Kristin Billerbeck's Ashley Stockingdale series (WestBow), among others. In June, Beth Pattillo's Heavens to Betsy will launch from WaterBrook ("imagine Bridget Jones as a minister in the South," enthuses fiction editor Dudley Delffs), while in July, Doubleday will release the youthful chick-lit story Emily Ever After, which editorial director Trace Murphy describes as "The Nanny Diaries meets The Devil Wears Prada. It's a sophisticated, funny novel with a moral center."
The phenomenal success of Jan Karon's Mitford series has also opened the door for another kind of novel that offers quirky characters in village settings. Moody's McGuire says that Annette Smith's new Coming Home to Ruby Prairie series, which launched last summer and followed with a second book in January, reminds readers of people they know personally. "That's really the point, isn't it?" he reflects. "Fiction writers want to create characters that people see as true to life, and humor is a major component of our lives." In July, Doubleday will publish Katherine Valentine's On a Wing and a Prayer, the third story in a series of Catholic-themed novels set in a Mitford-like New England town.
Working the Jokes
Editors agree that while many writers can do pathos, drama and heavy emotion, it often takes more skill to go for a lighter approach. Exceptional writers make comedy look easy, but it actually requires an enormous amount of work. "There's so much technique involved," says Dave Long, fiction acquisitions editor at Bethany House. "Think of great comics—they work incredibly hard on honing jokes. Novelists may not understand that changing one or two words dramatically affects how funny something is."
But here's the rub: great humor works hard, but not too hard. As Harvest House's director of acquisitions Terry Glaspey points out, "Most humor tries too hard and therefore falls flat with its exertion." And editors caution that funny isn't something that a writer can pick up in an MFA program. "Unlike the craft of writing, which can be cultivated with years of practice, the sense of comic timing and playfulness inherent in the writers I work with can't be taught," says Ami McConnell, acquisitions and development editor for WestBow Press. Comedy is also highly individual; one person's knee-slapper is another's awkward belly flop. Harvest House senior editor Nick Harrison tells of one writer "who injects what she thinks is humor into her novels, but often we have to tweak it or eliminate those parts because it doesn't come off as funny on the page as it apparently does in her head."
Editors look forward to seeing droll submissions increase as Christian fiction continues to evolve and mature. "I'm on the lookout for more farce, satire, and stories with clever and wry wit," says Jeanette Thomason, Revell acquisitions editor. "I'd love to see more books that outright poke fun at ourselves, too, like Ray Blackston's Flabbergasted, A Delirious Summer and Lost in Rooville [July]." Since sales of humorous novels are strong enough to have publishers laughing all the way to the bank, she's likely to get her wish.