Monday, July 19, 2010

Boundaries in Christian Fiction

Yes! Another blog discussion on the boundaries of Christian/CBA fiction!

Seriously, this has been dragged around the virtual block more than a few times. If you're late to the party and want to catch up, I hinted about this subject, then talked some more about it, based off the new Robin Parrish novel Nightmare, and intertwined this subject with a review of a new, gritty police procedural Back on Murder by J. Mark Bertrand.

Nightmare is a book best categorized by the term "paranormal suspense," while Back on Murder is a very real-to-life crime novel. How do these two relate with each other and pushing the boundaries of Christian fiction?

The CBA market (fiction carried by Christian book stores for the uninitiated) is a growth market for the publishing industry. In the 1990's it was mostly historical fiction, romance, or historical romance, with the Left Behind series thrown in for good measure. Oh, and this guy Frank Peretti had some spiritual warfare novels that were a hit.

In the 2000's CBA has grown to hold pretty much any genre of fiction: suspense, science fiction, fantasy, chick-lit, horror, romance, contemporary, historical. For some reason Amish stories are a particular favorite, but we won't go there today. Still, there are questions about what gets published under the (nebulous) banner of CBA fiction. Nightmare got great reviews from a recent blog tour for its writing and suspense, but a few people questioned the subject of ghosts and how they were handled in the book (I'm currently reading Nightmare and will go in detail on it later).

How far will CBA fiction go? I think it will go where the market allows, being a business. I don't expect it to cross into subjects like erotica or new age topics that don't measure up with the Bible. Slowly publishers seem okay with the "grey areas", but this market still skews mostly to the Evangelical Christian reader.

Does Nightmare push the boundaries? Perhaps. Should it? Maybe. Maybe it should be published in the "secular" book market (the ABA is the umbrella term for publishers who don't produce books with mainly Christian book stores in mind. Basically most of the publishing world...). I think Robin's book could go either way. Maybe its place is in a larger field to play in. Then again, there is a much bigger market out there, and perhaps it would not find an audience with so many choices available (not for poor quality, but sheer numbers of other books).

How about Back on Murder as far as pushing boundaries? My friend Nicole didn't think it did. Maybe not in a controversial way. I feel like it does in the fact that I haven't read a book like it in CBA fiction (then again, straight crime/police procedural novels aren't my first choice). I think it could stand in ABA fiction as it is - especially compared to the garbage that James Patterson writes.

Some books are more or less written for the CBA market. There is a valid place for this market, but it has struggled with self-imposed rules and (mostly undeserved) image problems of being inferior quality. I see certain writers with their feet firmly planted in the CBA market. Others like Tosca Lee, Gina Holmes, Mark Bertrand, and Tim Downs have written stories that could crossover, in my opinion, quite easily to the ABA market, due to the quality and way that faith is handled. Why do we not see these more prominently in Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc?

CBA fiction is growing in a good way, and I'm happy to see it. I just wonder if some books still aren't better off in a different pond...

What say you?


  1. Jason, great site... I'm a Christian speculative writer and I've just about given up on the CBA market. I've worked with several CBA publishers to get my books in print. All have given my work glowing reviews, but all say pretty much the same thing: they can't take on any more speculative authors.

    And no wonder, they're fighting for their lives. I saw the other day that Multnomah was laying off people. They're having a hard time grappling with the new distribution model being built by Kindle and iPad on top of the tight credit markets. Tight cash flow means they can't take on risk and that doesn't leave much room for authors who like to color outside the lines a little.

    For myself I've opted to self-publish and see what I an make of it. Maybe the technological revolution that's hammering traditional publishers will make opportunities for authors like me and the ones you mentioned.

    Keep up the great site,
    Edward D. Casey

  2. Jason, the placement of CBA novels by authors such as you mentioned plus a few others like Robert Liparulo, Steven James, maybe Tom Morrisey, is through no fault of CBA houses. I know Karen Ball and other professionals who've been on panels with ABA pros in the industry suggesting CBA novels be intermingled with ABA novels at least in such genres as thrillers for example.

    Compared to Steven James' Patrick Bowers series, Back on Murder is tame, and I think Mark handles Christianity very well in his peripheral characters. Steven James chooses to use references to his protagonist's deceased wife's faith but his protagonist staunchly refuses to believe. I think Nightmare is pure speculative fiction, as you said paranormal suspense, but for me the premise doesn't work biblically, so it didn't even cause a "What if?" in my world. However, I have no complaint that a CBA house decided to publish it.

    Many of these books could be sold side by side with ABA books, but your point of whether or not they'll receive as much or equal attention there is a bit unpredictable. I think the thriller authors stand the best chance.

  3. Edward,

    I sympathize with your frustration. I've seen numerous friends get publishing contracts...except for the spec fic writers, who have a harder time of it. You're right that the market is changing and we're still seeing how it will play out.

    I would point you to my friend Becky Miller's blog "A Christian Worldview of Fiction" (on my sidebar) as she is like the guru of Christian spec fic. She has a good series of posts on how spec topics are so popular in regular culture, why not CBA.

    Also, check out Jeff Gerke and Marcher Lord Press. He specializes in Christian spec fiction!

    Thanks for coming and visiting! I'll check out your site when I have time.


  4. What is written by a Christian author is Christian fiction. If the author is not, the book is not Christian. We should be caring more about whether the book in question is of literary value. Then we can decide if we can take something of value from it or must reject it. Read widely and critically! Please visit my blog. Thanks :)

  5. Nicole - I understand that part about placement of CBA books, that it isn't always up to the publisher. I'm wondering if certain authors shouldn't publish in ABA vs. CBA to be in the bigger pond, making more impact. Dekker's the only one who really does this currently.

    David - Thanks for the comment. I agree that we need a high level of literary quality in Christian fiction. It used to be the highest (Tolkien, Lewis, Dostoevsky). Note that I was trying to distinguish between CBA fiction as a sub-genre. I would say other novels that are Christian, such as Gilead, aren't in the CBA realm. I guess I'm wondering if some CBA authors shouldn't make the jump into the bigger pond.

  6. Jason, this is far easier with certain authors and certain genres. There are some ABA publishers who welcome a faith element and others who don't. Francine Rivers and Robin Lee Hatcher left ABA because of their "graphic" demands. Sometimes we forget some of their publishing houses have stringent requirements too.

    Exposure and marketing remain a conundrum for CBA in my opinion.