Christian authors and publishers are increasingly willing to face gritty topics these days, releasing more novels that address issues such as mental illness, sexual harassment and abuse, trafficking, racial inequity, domestic abuse, and more.

Many of the tacit “rules” of the genre remain in place; no overt on-page sex - especially between unmarried partners - no bad language, unmentionable body parts, or gratuitous violence. And some publishers say the shift to rougher realism in subjects is more reflective of a growing trend than of a revolution.

“A comprehensive look at the genre would indicate that there have always been gritty topics addressed,” said Karen Watson, publisher for Tyndale Fiction. However, she adds, “Certainly, those standards have evolved and expanded as Christian publishing has matured and as inspirational fiction has become a more integrated part of the broad publishing landscape.”

Watson points to Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love, first published in 1997 with Multnomah (see sidebar) as a prime example of gritty fiction and one of the best-selling inspirational titles of all time with more than one million copies sold. “Rivers has been a standard-bearer for honesty in dealing with [such] issues,” she says. Tyndale has published Rivers’ fiction following Redeeming Love including Bridge to Haven (2015) and The Masterpiece (2019)

Watson calls attention to Tyndale’s upcoming release Under the Magnolias (May) by T.I. Lowe, about a young woman’s struggle to cope with her father’s mental illness, as well as Patricia Raybon’s All That is Secret (Oct.). Raybon is a Black author who has written often at the intersection of race and faith. She has created an amateur sleuth tale of a Black woman who goes to KKK-controlled Denver in the 1920s to solve her father’s murder. “Issues around race will play an obvious and natural part of the story,” Watson says.

'More Than an Ax to Grind'

Tyndale Fiction doesn’t look for manuscripts based on hot issues, but instead “we look for a great premise, engaging characters and a story arc that takes the characters into a broad scope of the dramas that life entails,” says Watson. “I’ve turned down many anti-abortion novels because they weren’t primarily a novel; they were a treatise in a stage play. A novel must be more than an ax to grind.”

Amanda Bostic, v-p and publisher of TNZ Fiction (Thomas Nelson and Zondervan), echoes the goal of prioritizing appealing stories. “Our goal is to publish great stories for a wide variety of readers, and that means addressing topics that are real and relevant to them. We never want to be gratuitous, but we believe stories are a wonderful way to help people process events and conversations that are happening in their day-to-day lives,” she says.

Bostic highlights Charles Martin’s Murphy Shepherd series (starting with The Water Keeper, Feb., and The Letter Keeper, Jun.) that addresses sex trafficking, and Angela Jackson Brown’s When Stars Rain Down (Apr.), which explores coming of age amidst racial tension in the 1930s South. “We try to be clear about each story’s content and tone so that readers can find the stories that best resonate with their own tastes,” Bostic says.

Andrea Doering, executive editor at Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, says, “readers have shown interest in themes that are more nuanced and complex” and that the house “has made the decision to address more sensitive issues in some of our books.” Audience demographics are hard to categorize. Doering says, “Although younger audiences are passionate about social issues, we have found that our mature readers are also open to these topics as long as they are handled sensitively.”

She points to Erin Bartels’ We Hope for Better Things (2019) touching on racial tensions, Patricia Bradley addressing sex trafficking in Justice Delivered (2019), and Cynthia Ruchti’s new release Facing the Dawn (Mar.), which tackles depression and grief. Doering says that Revell fiction titles will never be without hope, but “there are, and will be, endings that satisfy the readers and still acknowledge that a character’s journey is far from complete.” In Shawn Smucker’s new book The Weight of Memory (Jul.), for example, the main protagonist receives a terminal diagnosis in a story that honestly addresses questions about life, death, and sacrifice.

For Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing, its authors are “approaching tougher issues in their stories in ways the flow organically out of the types of plots and characters in which they’ve already established themselves,” according to Raela Schoenherr, senior acquisitions editor.

No Ignoring Pain and Danger

Established Bethany House authors such as romance writer Becky Wade address issues with prescription drug use in Stay with Me (2020); Christina Suzann Nelson, a foster and adoptive mom, writes about addictions that lead to parents and children being separated in The Way it Should Be (out now); and Carmen Schober’s debut After She Falls (Nov.) focuses on abusive and dangerous relationships.

Smaller Christian publishing houses are also taking on tough issues. Guiding Light, a division of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas/Iron Stream Media, decided in 2018 to become a general market publisher though “the stories don’t contradict or break biblical principles,” says editor Karin Beery. Beery is just now moving Guiding Light into publishing four books a year, saying, “I want to address these issues (domestic violence, mental health, trafficking, etc.) because they’re the things women deal with, and we want to publish books women relate to. We can’t pretend these things don’t happen or that people aren’t struggling to either overcome or understand them.”

Beery says smaller houses are able to “give a voice to these stories that are ready to touch hearts but don’t yet have the commercial recognition of better-known authors or publishers.”

Harambee Press, another division of LPC/Iron Stream, publishes BIPOC authors, with managing editor Edwina Perkins eager to acquire titles related to racial equity, mental health, and more. Perkins says, “Our readers need to know there is a representation of their culture and ethnicity. When marginalized communities aren’t given an opportunity to address issues using their own voices, the words of someone outside of their culture may lack the authenticity needed for the reader to listen.”

Small houses, Perkins says, can offer more opportunities for BIPOC authors, and she also believes “fiction books can address real issues and get the needed message across in a very poignant way.”

Spirituality is not a Quick Fix

Larger Christian publishing houses that don’t always publish fiction are introducing one-off series where characters face difficult challenges. Focus on the Family, in alliance with Tyndale House, released two books this spring in a four-part young adult fiction series titled Riverbend Friends that “aims to thoughtfully engage with real-life issues teenage girls face today, such as anxiety, loneliness, cyberbullying and sexual harassment, comparison and insecurity associated with social media, and challenges related to divorce and blended families,” according to the publisher. Real, Not Perfect by Stephanie Coleman and Searching for Normal by C.J. Darlington came out in April, with The Me You See and Chasing the Spotlight releasing in August.

InterVarsity Press, which focuses almost solely on nonfiction, publishes fiction by Sharon Garlough Brown, whose Sensible Shoes series has sold over 100,000 copies. Brown’s Shades of Light (2019) has main character Wren struggling with depression and hospitalized at the beginning of the story. The sequel, Feathers of Hope (spring 2022) follows Wren’s continued journey through depression, as well as addressing other aspects of mental health and the topics of race and white privilege. Brown’s novella Remember Me (2020) features the role of art in spiritual formation and healing mental illness.

“We’ve heard from many folks who are grateful for a Christian book that explores these issues. Many people have said they don’t see these issues being addressed well in the church,” says Cindy Bunch, associate editor and director of editorial at IVP. “Shades of Light shows how mental health issues can be effectively addressed through drug therapy, pastoral care, professional counseling, spiritual practices, art therapy, and the loving care of family and friends. Too often Christians have focused only on spiritual means of intervention,” Bunch says.