WOE IS US?
One: In a Christian Bookstore
A couple years after I became known as a mystery writer, when my novel The Angel Gang came out, Alan Russell and I set off on a book signing tour. Somewhere in Central California, when we happened upon a Family Christian Bookstore, I said to Alan, “Hey, this place ought to carry The Angel Gang. I mean it’s got a heroine who’s a Christian and hangs out with angels.”
Alan said, “Not a chance. Do you know what drek these Christian bookstores carry?”
“Nope,” I said.
Not only was I a newcomer to this mystery business, I had only recently become a churchgoer and was as yet nowhere near as acquainted with either mysteries or contemporary Christian books as I hoped to become.
So I suggested we check out the store.
In non-fiction, I found a few worthy authors: C.S. Lewis, Philip Yancey, Dallas Willard, but mostly self-help on topics such as lose weight with a Godly diet or save your marriage with these six scriptures, and a few biographies of Church founders and missionaries.
Alan gave a told-you-so nod and we moved along to the fiction section.
To my horror, I saw no Dostoyevski, or Flannery O’Connor, or Graham Greene, all of whom had guided me toward conversion. Wondering if they were excluded because two were Catholic and the other Eastern Orthodox or because they were not particularly easy reading, I browsed long enough to realize the majority of books were Christian romance. And hardly of the Jane Eyre sort, I suspected, since these were the kind with Fabio clones on the cover only different than the secular kind since he wore a shirt.
While I walked out of there grumbling, I noticed a decal on the door that clued me the store was a member of the Christian Bookseller’s Association.
“Who are those guys?” I asked Alan.
Two: Who Are Those Guys?
The Christian Bookseller’s Association was organized in 1950, and inspired by the concern of primarily fundamentalist and evangelical churches who believed their flock needed help and guidance if they were to find the kind of reading most instructive and/or least offensive to people of the Christian faith.
So CBA established guidelines for books sold by its member stores to prohibit offensive content including profanity, alcohol consumption, and references to luck. At least according to Wikipedia, when a significant minority of customers at CBA’s member stores take offense to a book, CBA pressures all member stores to stop selling books by that book’s publisher.
Much like the auto industry can be convinced to make cars in accord with California emissions standards because so many of us Californians drive, publishers who want to sell to CBA bookstores make books that meet the CBA’s standards.
For those who find a typical evangelical statement of faith informative, I’ll give the CBA’s, for brevity leaving out the scripture citations:
We believe that there is one God, eternally existing in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of Whom is fully and equally God
We believe the Bible to be the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.
We believe in the Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious death and atonement through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His future, personal and visible return in power and glory
We believe that man was created in the image of God, that he was tempted by Satan and fell and, because of the exceeding sinfulness of human nature, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is necessary for salvation which is provided by God’s grace and appropriated through the believer’s faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross .
We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by Whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life, and by Whom the Church is empowered to carry out Christ’s great commission
We believe that as a witness to the world, and in obedience to God, the Christian believer is called to conform to the values and principles set forth in the Bible.
We believe that the Christian’s life should adhere to God’s revealed design for sexuality, for one‐man‐one‐woman marriage, and for family life, and, as God is the author of life, to His authority over gender .
We believe in the bodily resurrection of both the saved and the lost, those who are saved to the resurrection of life and those who are lost to a second death through an eternal separation from God
So, I wonder, does that mean that in addition to the absence of alcohol, profanity and luck, authors who hope to find a CBA affiliated publisher would be wise to keep their characters and themes within the bounds of the CBA prescribed faith.
Maybe. or maybe not. I will opine about that in Part 3.
Three: What to Do?
As a young writer, I didn’t consider writing for the Christian market, even after my first published novel was all about Christian people and themes, because I wanted everybody to read my books. Especially, I wanted people who supposed all who believe in Christ are nitwits to wise up.
But over the years, I slowly began to wise myself up, and to accept that the world is the way it is whether I like it or not, and that publishers, to sell a book, need to find a target audience.
Still, I was at a loss about whom to target.
Meanwhile, the agent who represented me bought another agency, got doubly busy, and passed me along to an associate who subsequently bungled what might’ve been a game changing sale. When, at church, I told a couple of smart writer friends about this mishap, they suggested I send something to a fellow they considered tops in the Christian agent business.
I did so.
He replied, “I surely like the book, but I don’t think I can sell it.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Well, it’s got too much Christian content for the secular market and too much sex for the Christian market.”
I said. “Well, it’s not preachy but I can see why secular publishers might shy away. But too much sex? How can that be? There’s not any sex in it.”
“Right,” he said, “But Clifford thinks about sex.”
“Who doesn’t?” I asked.
“Pretty much nobody,” he said.
Now, I hadn’t written graphic sex, nor did I plumb Clifford’s mind specifically when he admired a woman or two. Maybe the part about him coming home from surfing and finding a pastor running out of his house pulling up his jeans would offend CBA readers. But as the last two churches I had attended suffered from such pastoral indiscretions, I felt the scene fairly not only realistic but one many churchgoers would find familiar.
A while thereafter, someone invited me to teach at a Christian writers’ conference and for several years, I taught at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference and the Florida Christian Writers conference. Those times were always enjoyable and rewarding, especially being in the company of kindred spirits, or at least people with whom I shared beliefs, passions, and ambitions.
But some of what I learned dispirited me.
An editor from Harvest House told a gathering of faculty that recently a bookstore had passed along a customer complaint about a Harvest House novel including somebody who drank wine. Regrettably, the editors decided henceforth not to allow such depravity.
In a class I attended, the editor/teacher asked our favorite Christian Writers. When I mentioned Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor, he responded with a scowl. Anyone who hasn’t yet read The Power and the Glory or “Revelation”, please do.
Mount Hermon offered what they called a Master Class, attendance limited to students who had published at least one book and to faculty. What I found was terrifying to a rather shy man. Not only was I the only male in the gathering of twenty-some writers, I was also the only one whose specialty wasn‘t romance novels.
Now, I have no particular prejudice against romance novels except rumor holds they require adherence to a mighty strict plot formula. For followers of Christ drawn to write romance, I suspect the CBA and secular romance formulas aren’t far apart. Which may explain why I found myself in such an extreme minority.
Anyway, I decided neither the CBA nor the romance genre were the best fit for a fellow who probably couldn’t follow a strict formula if he wanted to. And I also had reason to fear that neither was the “mainstream” of commercial publishing the right place for a guy who seems incapable of disregarding his faith while pursuing his craft.
Then where, I wondered, is my place. Some of you may likewise wonder.
Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey offers examples of believers in Christ who have forged successful writing careers while exposing their honest faith.
In Part 4, I’ll address how they managed to overcome.
Four: A Few Survivors
In Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey credits a dozen people as the foremost influences that allowed his survival as a Christian after a childhood witnessing the bigotry of his “Christian” family and church. Among these influences are several contemporary writers from whom we might gain some insight into overcoming the obstacles of cynical mainstream and narrowly focused Christian publishers.
Frederick Buechner was an accomplished and moderately successful writer before he turned serious about te Christian faith. Once he made the commitment he returned to college to study theology, and subsequently became both the creator of a Christian studies program at Phillips Exeter Academy and a preacher, and during a sabbatical created The Final Beast, in which he combined his dual callings as a minister and a novelist.
Biographer Marjorie McCoy wrote: “Buechner in his sermons had been attempting to reach out to the “cultured despisers of religion.” In his novels, he has attempted the same. Would that more of us could succeed in such an attempt.
Annie Dillard is most worthy of our study not only for the extraordinary precision and beauty of her prose but also for her brilliance of insight. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a nonfiction narrative about the natural world near her home, led a critic to call her “one of the foremost horror writers of the 20th Century.” Acclaimed author Eudora Welty commented: “admirable writing” that reveals “a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled… [an] intensity of experience that she seems to live in order to declare.”
Lessons we all can learn from Annie Dillard are to take our every word seriously, to follow our original light, and to believe that if we become good enough at our craft, people including publishers are apt to take notice.
Shusaku Endo used his own experience to inform his historical novel Silence, which has been called one of the 20th century’s finest novels. The story tells of a Jesuit missionary sent to 17th century Japan where he endures persecution in the time of “Hidden Christians”. Its theme of a silent God who accompanies a believer in adversity was greatly influenced by the author’s experience of religious discrimination in Japan, racism in France, and a debilitating bout with tuberculosis.
Those of us looking for a way to tell our story and find a vehicle for our theme might consider, as Endo did, finding a popular context or genre, such as historical fiction, in which to place it.
In Part Five, I’ll note some other inspiring successes from whom we can learn, and through learning, possibly become valuable to a whole mob of readers.
To study how other writers have succeeded in finding their audience is of course not only valuable to Christian writers, but it may be more critical and perhaps harder for us on account of current prevalent attitudes toward Christian thought and stories.
Graham Greene, especially in The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair, wrote about problematic people: a humble yet deeply flawed priest, and a woman trying to live out her faith during times of tragedy of both worldwide and personal tragedy. But he also wrote spy stories he considered entertainments as opposed to the novels he approached with profound care and gravity. The entertainments were meant to support him and build his readership. The novels, which ask to put aside simple answers, are serious literature.
Ron Hansen’s is a dedicated Catholic who has written fine novels in which Christian themes or characters don’t figure. But his Mariette In Ecstasy is decidedly Christian though it avoids being cast aside by secular readers by showing the story, an account of a young nun enduring a stigmata experience, in what appears to be objective detail. For those unacquainted with the term, stigmata is the mysterious manifestation of wounds on a person’s body that correspond with the crucifixion wounds suffered by Jesus. The experience may be viewed as form of hysteria or a miracle, and Ron Hansen leaves the answer to the reader.
Flannery O’Connor, an earnest Christian, was a boldly critical observer of Christian life and culture, often exposing the hypocrisy of churchgoers. Also, the characters she created are often larger than life, exaggerated almost to cartoonish proportions.
Anne Lamott, like Flannery O’Connor, is refreshingly original. Her brash, commonly profane, and self-revealing style and humor are probably what have made her work succeed remarkably with mainstream readers. Humor can win over most anybody.
John Irving is also a master humorist, and though he doesn’t profess to be a Christian, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a novel that takes Christian beliefs including the miraculous and prophetic quite seriously, and the book became and remains extraordinarily popular, perhaps because Irving has the gift of making the wild and outrageous stuff believable. I studied with him in Iowa and learned that he learned much about style and storytelling attitude from Charles Dickens
In Part Six I mean to share some insights about the creation of my favorite novel, Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov. In the meantime, if you haven’t read it, please stop everything and do so.
I trust you will pardon a digression on account of something I read this week in Philip Yancey’s Christians and Politics: Uneasy Partners: “A few decades ago an overwhelming majority of respondents with no faith commitment still viewed Christians favorably. According to George Barna researchers only 16 percent of young “outsiders” now have a favorable impression of Christianity and only 3 percent have a good impression of evangelicals.
As a writer lacking a retirement income that alone would allow me to subsidize Zoe’s college or travel much farther than say, Yuma, Arizona, I think about my writing income when considering what Mr. Yancey points out. Because the less favorable impression “outsiders” have, the less likely they are to buy my books. And since I don’t write primarily for the “insiders” who are more likely to read CBA books, which mine aren’t, I’m in somewhat of a fix.
The church I favor grew out of Calvary Chapel and is classed evangelical. So according to Mr. Yancey, most readers consider me homophobic, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, illogical, and convinced that whoever doesn’t agree with me will go to hell. Now why would anyone want to read an author about whom they think all that?
More to the point, how can I persuade them that’s not me.
Branding, that’s how. What I, and perhaps you, need is a brand that not only identifies me to readers as a Christian who is no more homophobic, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, or illogical than they are.
Here’s a fairly comprehensive look at what makes an author brand, which you ought to read when time allows. Meanwhile, though, so as not to lure you away from my compelling thoughts, here is an outline.
To Establish Your Brand:
First, identify your reader.
Then, develop your brand voice.
Also, figure out your unique selling point.
And set some expectations. Tell readers what they can expect from you.
And know what you’re branding. You are branding you, not your book
Be sure to choose a look, a color palette, maybe a smile, a sneer, a style of headgear, or a logo.
And once you’ve got the brand, apply it everywhere.
Now, since you know the basics of my brand (the guy who writes about crime and often about real life Christians and who is no more homophobic, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, or illogical than you are), either after or before you try out a book of mine, you had best start branding. And if any insights about branding yourself, branding me, or about anything worthy of contemplation come to mind, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org