Sporting body piercings and urban wear, a young woman named Chloe is forced to define her moral boundaries as she tours the country with a rock band. A high school girl hooks up with a guy who takes her to a "rainbow party," not knowing the name means the girls are expected to leave traces of their brightly colored lipstick on specific parts of the guys' bodies. A member of the band DeathStroke is charged with the murder of his personal psychic.
Those scenarios may not sound like any found in typical Christian fiction, but each figures into the plots of a crop of edgier novels intended not only to appeal to a younger audience but also to break the predictability of most evangelical fiction. "Readers are tired of novels driven by a dogmatic evangelical agenda in which flat characters interact in a sanitized world," said Dudley Delffs, an editor at WaterBrook. "They've discovered well-written general market novels that include realistic and compelling faith elements, so they would like to see the same in Christian bookstores."
Daring to Be Honest
Many of those "unsanitized" novels on Christian bookstore shelves were written by Melody Carlson, the most prolific—and arguably, the most daring—author of hard-hitting novels in the CBA. Her adult novels for WaterBrook, Finding Alice (2003) and Crystal Lies (2004), dealt with schizophrenia and addiction to crystal meth—not your typical CBA fare. "The answers are never easy with these stories, not the pat, conventional answers some CBA fiction has provided in the past, but instead they offer glimpses of hope and redemption alongside the hard stuff," said Delffs. Included in the same category is Lisa Samson's upcoming Club Sandwich (June), as well as her backlist titles The Living End (2003) and Tiger Lillie (2004).
So significant is Carlson to this category that two competing publishers have teamed up to promote two of her current series, both of which push the boundaries of what CBA has considered acceptable. Multnomah, which publishes her Diary of a Teenage Girl series, and NavPress's Th1nk imprint, publisher of the especially gritty True Colors series, have developed a joint marketing plan to bring Carlson's books to the forefront. Already True Colors has caught the attention of many in the CBA, with the books' focus on tough issues like cutting, teen suicide and rainbow parties.
"You can talk to your kids about all of these things, but they tune you out," said Multnomah editor Julee Schwarzburg. "Girls identify with the main characters and almost see them as their friends." Carlson connects with her Diary readers through a popular and active Web site, www.doatg.com; among the characters they see as their friend is Chloe, the touring rock musician.
The rock theme continues in Creston Mapes's debut effort, Dark Star: Confessions of a Rock Idol, which Schwarzburg snapped up for Multnomah when she found herself riveted by the story—a first-person account of a millionaire superstar facing a murder trial. "Our market is flooded with so many manuscripts, and this one was genuinely different."
Thomas Nelson's WestBow imprint is quickly gaining a reputation for publishing more innovative CBA fiction. Launched in late 2003, WestBow's intention from the start was to raise the bar. "Our primary goal isn't 'edgy' fiction but stories with a real, authentic voice that are entertaining, culturally relevant, and God-honoring," said publisher and industry veteran Allen Arnold. "When we find those voices, we don't shy away from the edgy elements—or sugarcoat them."
But other publishers continue to do so. Arnold says at least one major CBA publisher maintains a list of subjects that are taboo in its novels. "By asking authors to avoid so many—and often silly—things and asking readers to accept a world that isn't remotely close to reality, you quickly have fiction that is unbelievable and irrelevant," he said.
Still, WestBow and other more progressive CBA publishers maintain that their books are solidly grounded in a Christian worldview. "Are there certain lines we won't cross? Absolutely," Arnold emphasized. "If we feel a word or scene is gratuitous, then we have no interest in including it. But when you partner with the right authors, this is rarely an issue. The bottom line is, we want our stories to be known more for what they include than for what they delete."
WaterBrook's Delffs agrees. Christian fiction that takes risks and breaks out of conventional molds, he says, can still get the message of the gospel across. He points to Alison Strobel—daughter of bestselling CBA author Lee Strobel—as a writer whose passion is to reach Gen-X and younger people in a "fresh, honest, and vitally relevant way." Characters in her March release, Worlds Collide—about an author who helps a celebrity couple write their life story—are young, hip and up front about issues like drinking, sexuality and HIV. "But in the midst of their interactions, they experience a major conversion to Christianity that's not contrived or conventional, but authentic," Delffs says. "The language and situations will seem edgy to some CBA readers, but they can't miss the overtly evangelical story."
That realism also increases the potential for crossover appeal to general market readers. Delffs points to WaterBrook author Eric Wilson (see sidebar) as one with significant crossover potential, which Delffs attributes to Wilson's understanding of pop culture and the influence of multimedia, as well as his insight into human nature. "His characters are multigenerational and reflect some of the clashes among boomers, Xers and Millennials, all caught up in some of the creepiest, imaginative supernatural encounters this side of Dean Koontz," he says.
Despite the multiple channels now selling Christian books, CBA stores remain the bread and butter for most Christian publishers, including those testing the waters to determine what those stores will agree—or refuse—to stock.
"Occasionally we'll receive some negative feedback from a retailer or reader," Delffs said. "Some miss the context or bigger picture—the redemptive elements of the story—by focusing on the one word or scene that offended them. Overwhelmingly, though, the response has been more than favorable, in critical acclaim, reader response and sales numbers."
WestBow's Arnold reminds readers and retailers alike that horrifying stories about the realities of evil fill the pages of the one book every Christian store has on its shelves: the Bible.
The Bible deals frankly with a multitude of thorny subjects, Arnold says—subjects that many CBA publishers "strangely consider taboo." Far from glorifying or romanticizing evil, he says, authentic fiction reveals its ugliness. "The darker it is, the more repulsive it is—and the more powerful God is," he says.
"We don't exist in a Norman Rockwell painting or a Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood or a Precious Moments village," Arnold points out. "Jesus doesn't save us from real life. We follow Him through the nitty-gritty real world right where we are. When we create stories that don't shy away from reality, God's power is even more visible as the true light in our fallen world."