In the Christian fiction category, where readers devour romance, suspense and Amish-themed titles, some publishers are adding a new focus on contemporary realist fiction that deals with tough issues, such as abuse, gender identity and family conflicts.
Shannon Marchese, senior editor at WaterBrook, says readers are willing to confront today’s difficult problems and writers have the ability to “go there” in writing about them, thanks to cultural shifts that have put a premium on authenticity and honesty. With an eye on conversations on and offline centered around the #metoo and #churchtoo movements, she expects to see those themes in fiction as time goes on.
“I believe the writers are feeling called to tell (these) stories, and we’re interested in publishing them,” she said. “We want to show what it means to show mercy and open hearts and minds to other people in the context of contemporary realism.”
One such author Marchese has brought out is Katie Ganshert. In previous books, Ganshert chronicled the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Life After (2017), and in The Art of Losing Yourself (2015), she focused on a marriage plagued by infertility and doubt. Now, she has tackled racism, white privilege and societal inequality in her newest book, No One Ever Asked, coming out in April. Ganshert said those hot-button themes have been weighing heavily on her heart after reading general trade books such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson and Every Last One by Anna Quindlen.
While she has worried about alienating readers with topics that some may deem political, Ganshert also recognizes that her books may start important conversations. “It could be the beginning of wrestling through complex issues that maybe you haven't thought about before, or you have and you just kind of avoided it,” she said.
“I think there is a whole map of people, especially among the millennial generation, who are longing to put feet to faith, to say our faith is practical. Our faith can make things better in the here and now.”
Realism is not entirely new in Christian fiction: Bestselling author Karen Kingsbury (Howard Books) often grounds her romance novels with weightier topics, such as the loss of parents and violence in schools. Other writers, mostly known for their romance plots, do too, such as Meg Moseley (Zondervan), who wrote When Sparrows Fall, where a family feels endangered by a controlling pastor; Julie Cantrell (Thomas Nelson), who wrote Perennials, in which estranged sisters find reconciliation; and Rachel Lindon (Thomas Nelson), who wrote Ascension of Larks, where the heroine is caught between career and family in a time of tragedy. The work of author Lori Benton of WaterBrook also explores hard topics but in historical contexts.
Marchese said she sees contemporary realism gathering speed in the Christian market with more Christian publishers aiming to expand in this category. “There’s definitely been a new age of this come forward. We’re looking to see how it grows and what it turns into."
Marchese hopes to capture readers— Christian or not — who enjoy the work of general bestselling authors such as Liane Moriarty, Jodi Picoult, Jojo Moyes and Ann Patchett. As more books in the Christian market take on real-life situations, it’s to be seen if publishers can leverage this crossover appeal to reach wider audiences—but certainly the potential is there, she said.
Of Ganshert’s No One Ever Asked, Marchese said, “The faith content is there, but it’s part of the story, part of the characters. I don’t think anyone who came to it who's not a believing person would be overwhelmed or feel preached to in anyway.” On the other hand, believing members of her all-female book club often “want to see characters that have a spiritual life that informs how they approach these topics.”