Remember when chick lit was new and exciting? When everyone was reading Bridget Jones, even throwing Bridget Jones birthday parties?
It didn't take long for evangelical Christian publishers to get on board, churning out so-called Christian chick lit, in which the protagonists have beau woes and love to shop, but go to church and refrain from sex.
Now publishers, suspecting that the market is saturated, have grown wary of positioning novels as chick lit. While there's still plenty of it available, readers are notoriously fickle, and publishers are busy thinking about the next trends in women's fiction.
Let's Get Together
Many of the elements that make chick lit so lively—chatty first-person narration, discussions of sexuality and romantic longing, and the assumption that work is a motivating force in women's lives—are being absorbed into other kinds of novels, from romantic suspense to more serious family dramas, like Denise Hildreth's Flies on the Butter (Thomas Nelson). Though Hildreth's protagonist is married, and neither shopping nor dieting figures centrally in her struggles, the novel takes for granted some aspects of chick lit: the heroine's career takes up a lot of space in her head, and she is dealing with some tricky sexual issues (in this case, infidelity).
Ensemble fiction—which hit big in the Christian market with Neta Jackson's The Yada Yada Prayer Group (Integrity)—is here to stay. Quilting circles and other craft groups lend themselves to ensemble fiction [see sidebar]. But editors are also looking for more innovative excuses to get a gang of female characters together. Anne Goldsmith, editor at FaithWords, says, "I'm kind of tired of it—the three-book series about the blonde, redhead and brunette. Those groups make an easy way to make a series, but they've been done so much that they don't feel fresh. I'm looking for different ways to get people connected." Goldsmith says she'd like to see a series in which the characters were connected not by a book group or knitting club, but by "a town or profession or some element in the past."
Readers are drawn to the sense of community ensemble novels offer. Shannon Hill, editor at WaterBrook Press, thinks that "women really want to read about friendship. Romance is one thing, but when we get down to it, the relationships between women friends and sisters are more important." Part of what readers seem to love about Jackson's Yada Yada gang is its ethnic diversity. Ami McConnell, acquisitions and development editor for fiction at Thomas Nelson, which just brought out the sixth novel in the series (The Yada Yada Prayer Group Gets Rolling), says that "readers are willing to be more daring in fiction than they are in real life. We want to have that kind of diverse community in our real life, but we don't know how. Reading is a safe way for me to embark on that kind of community, and then take the next step of seeking out a diverse community in real life."
It's not just ethnically diverse groups gracing the pages of women's novels these days—there's also a bit more religious eclecticism. McConnell says that this year's novels show "a diversity of ways of living out your Christian faith." In particular, authors whose core readership is evangelical are creating sympathetic Catholic characters. At the beginning of Lisa Samson's Quaker Summer (Thomas Nelson), a nun heroically interrupts a mugging. In Carolyne Aarsen's All in One Place (FaithWords), an elderly Catholic priest has a charming cameo—he's a regular at the local coffee shop, and his words about confession make a lasting, positive impact on the narrator, a woman fumbling her way toward faith.
In fact, although Christian novels are still decidedly Christian, contemporary authors approach faith with a lighter touch than did CBA novelists a decade ago. A Christian novel no longer needs to include a sermon, and it's okay if you get to page 200 and no one's prayed yet. Religious themes, says Karen Watson, fiction editor at Tyndale House, need to be "integrated into the life of the characters. We are publishing for a new generation, and as the CBA tries to attract and serve someone beyond baby boomers, the message has to be authentic." Anne Goldsmith is looking to acquire novels that "explore more of the themes that people are exploring in their own real lives—divorce, remarriage, abuse." The bottom line, says Goldsmith, is that she wants to publish novels that deal with "the current issues that people are facing in language that is relevant today. We don't have to use 'Christian-ese' or church-speak to address those issues."
If the content and tone of Christian women's novels are changing, so is the author's job. As in the general market, Christian novelists are now expected to do the same kind of marketing and self-promotion that the industry has long required of nonfiction writers. As Karen Ball, senior acquisitions editor of fiction at B&H Publishing Group, puts it, "Authors need to be 'consumer evangelists' for their titles—no one can pitch their passion like they can. And novelists need to understand that fiction is about relationships. It's not just your readers' relationship with your character, but you readers' relationship with you."
In marketing Christian fiction, the standard-bearer is Karen Kingsbury. An aggressive marketer, Kingsbury uses her Web site to run contests and to connect with readers. Sue Brower, senior acquisitions editor at Zondervan (which will be Kingsbury's exclusive publisher beginning in 2008), says, "Karen Kingsbury is always thinking about her reader. What are they interested in? What would help extend the experience that someone has when they read her books? She sincerely appreciates them and is very good at building relationships—even if it's from a distance. Karen allows people to get close to her and allows them to see inside the life of not only an author, but a mother, wife, sister and friend."
Editors acknowledge that it may be difficult for novelists to market their own books because they don't necessarily have the platform of, say, a famous pastor who tries his hand at nonfiction. But editors look for authors who have built a Web presence and who have the energy to hawk their wares. Nick Harrison, editor at Harvest House, points to novelist Roxanne Henke (The Secret of Us) as a model. She lives in "a very small town in the middle of nowhere. And yet she faithfully drives hours to talk to library groups, church groups, women's groups" on topics including cancer, depression, aging and communication in marriage. "Although she is an excellent writer, I don't think her sales would be near what they are without her ability to promote her fiction," says Harrison.
Novelists, then, will increasingly need to spend more time talking to readers about their books. And readers who listen will be hearing about books that take an ever more subtle, quirky and fresh approach to the timeless themes of faith, friendship and family.