In my time away, one writer in particular helped encourage me toward deeper understanding in some of my assumptions about Christian fiction. I asked her if she’d be willing to share some of that with you here and she agreed. So today, I hope you’ll join me in welcoming Brandilyn Collins, best-selling novelist writing “Seatbelt Suspense” for Karen Ball at Zondervan (who speaks very highly of her, by the way).
Mick: Okay, I’m just going to dive in here because I want to respect your time. Your novels are praised for helping to raise the profile of Christian genre fiction. And now having reached a certain level of–oh, let’s just say it–success, specifically in your genre of thriller/suspense, you have a good vantage point on who’s driving the CBA bus. What does the driver look like? Is he taking us where we want to go? I mean, why should we writers be on this bus instead of the bigger ABA one?
Brandilyn: Mick, first I want to thank you for interviewing me. I really respect your willingness to let me say some things that are on my mind. Hope you’re not sorry for asking me in our private discussions to “take it outside.” :)
Mick: Well, above all, we need to cultivate deeper understanding of the issues facing Christian fiction. And I know you care deeply about the subject.
Brandilyn: I do. As for your question about the bus driver. In the end it’s consumers.
I can’t speak for other authors as to whether they should want to be in CBA or not. Each should go where God calls him/her to go. I personally want to be here because God called me here. And there are wonderful opportunities in the Christian market. I know it’s easy to get upset sometimes by the weaknesses we may perceive, but believe me, the secular market has its weaknesses, too.
One of the best things about the Christian market for novelists is its loving, encouraging body. You won’t find this in the ABA. Last year my publisher sent me and three other novelists on a tour together. We had a grand time talking up our own and each others’ books. My agent (who does more work in the secular market than in the Christian) told me I wouldn’t see any such tour in the secular market. There’s far too much competition between novelists. Their egos just couldn’t stand a four-in-one gig.
Or take the difference between attending a secular writers’ conference and a Christian one. The entire atmosphere is different. This is no little thing. Most of the time we poor novelists are chained in our offices, not seeing the light of day. We need each others’ support. And in CBA, we get it. This is particularly important for the aspiring writer, who has much to learn about the business as well as the craft. In CBA, you’ve got published authors willing to teach you, to answer your questions. That’s worth a lot.
Okay, hit me with the hard one!
Mick: Alright. I’ve said Christian fiction is superficial on this blog before and you didn’t let me get away with it. Maybe it’s a question of our definitions, but do you disagree with that generalization because it’s generalizing, or what?
Brandilyn: Because it’s a blanket statement about all of Christian fiction, I find it unfair and wrong. We need to break this complaint down into specifics so we can fairly look at the issue. And by the way, all you blog readers, I hope you’ll picture me sitting across the table from you, merely having a discussion, not an argument. (Preferably with a mocha in hand.) Flat words on a screen can sometimes come off far more harshly than they’re meant.
When I’ve probed folks who make this kind of statement, I’ve found they typically fall into two camps: (1) Christian fiction is below par because it doesn’t have enough literary-type novels. (2). It’s below par because the books aren’t edgy and “real-worldly” enough. Sometimes folks straddle both of these camps.
Here are my responses to anyone out there with similar complaints.
(1) If you’re going to complain about the Christian fiction market, you need to know what you’re talking about. That means you need to read the novels. How can you possibly criticize books you haven’t read? Saying, “Well, everybody says so, including some agents and editors” is just falling back on those unfair generalities. No, everybody doesn’t say so. As for agents and editors, many times they’re stuck reading submissions that aren’t even publishable. And they often don’t have time to read what’s on the shelves from a wide range of houses. Dear ones, the Christian fiction market is changing so rapidly, you can’t even judge it by books published a year or two ago. You must judge it by what’s being published now. I challenge you to consistently read at least 25% of the latest releases. (To view marketing blurbs about the last two months’ releases, see my newsletter Sneak Pique.) Read this percentage of new books (maybe 4-5 novels) every two months consistently, choosing the genres that most appeal to you. If you do that, over time you will have enough overview about the market to talk intelligently about it. (Many of these books are available in libraries.)
Honestly, I have yet to challenge a “generalizing” complainer who really knows the market. I ask them, “How many CBA novels have you read in the last year?” The last one I challenged answered that he doesn’t read Christian fiction because it’s no good. How does he know it’s no good if he doesn’t read it? His answer–well, everybody’s saying so. I find that answer unacceptable and wrong.
Know of what you speak.
(2) An entire market can’t be judged according to your perception of its lack in one or two areas. A market is made up of many different kinds of books–to please many different kinds of readers (who may have far different tastes than you). Those of you who want more literary works–I say fine to that. We already have literary-minded works, and more such authors are coming. (Per point #1, I assume you’re reading them?) For those who want edgier stuff–believe me, that’s out there already, and getting edgier all the time. I don’t find Christian authors having trouble dealing with the real world these days. But an opined dearth of, say, literary works does not make all of Christian fiction superficial. You can’t judge a romance or suspense or historical against a literary work. They’re not even trying to achieve the same things. Each book must be judged according to the conventions of its own genre. Did the novel deliver what it promised? There is some wonderful genre fiction in CBA. Speaking just for my own genre of suspense, we’ve even got all kinds of subgenres now–legal thrillers, international thrillers, police procedural mysteries, supernatural suspense, and on and on. These must be judged according to what a suspense is supposed to be. Same for the other genres.
(3) Here’s the hard reality. We can talk all we want about this issue, but the market is driven by consumers. That means you have to buy the books. If you’re in the “want more literary novels” camp, first find those current novelists who write the more literary-minded stuff, then buy them. Even if you’re complaining that these books are not yet literary enough, they’re headed in the direction you want the market to go. You want the truth about the more literary books in CBA right now? Many of them don’t sell well. Which means publishers won’t want to keep publishing them. And those of you who want edgier books (whatever that means to you–that’s such a subjective term), find the grittier novels in genres you enjoy and buy them. Write the publishers and say you enjoyed the book. This, in the end, is the best way to effect changes in the market.
Bottom line for all of us who care about Christian fiction and want to change the market: We need to follow steps 1, 2, and 3. Know what we’re talking about before we complain. Judge each book according to its delivery promise. And buy the books we like. Together we can make a difference. Merely sitting around and complaining, and blanketing the entire market with derogatory statements gets us nowhere.
Finally, I want to add that I’m in touch with lots of published Christian novelists, and I don’t know a single one who’d say he/she doesn’t have room for improvement. We all want to learn more. We strive daily to improve in our craft. And new, aspiring writers are striving to improve as well. Nothing that I’ve said above negates our desire to become better writers.
As you can see, this is too good not to continue to another day. So come on back Thursday and we’ll tackle some more. Thanks to Brandilyn for her patience and willingness to chat.